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Change Generation

MIT's New Accelerator Will Support Entrepreneurs Building Social Impact Tech

The Engine wants to fund important ideas that might not appeal to traditional VCs.

MIT's New Accelerator Will Support Entrepreneurs Building Social Impact Tech
[Photo: Meg Nielson]

Starting a tech company is fairly easy now, if "tech" means yet another app. But the kind of technology needed to solve the world's biggest problems—whether it's low-cost water purification, nanoscale robots that can perform safer surgeries, or meltdown-proof nuclear reactors—tends to require more resources than an entrepreneur would have in the garage.

A new Boston-area accelerator called The Engine, launched by MIT, aims to solve this problem, supporting entrepreneurs working on the most complicated new technology.

It's designed to help fill a gap in the current venture capital system, which is optimized for software and IT startups that need relatively little capital and can start generating revenue, potentially, in a few years.

"That's sort of the sweet spot for the existing venture capital industry," says Martin Schmidt, provost at MIT. "But there's a lot of other great ideas on the campus, and from others, where the translation might take longer, might be more capital-intensive, and might just need different types of resources."

An MIT researcher who designed transparent solar cells—and then launched a separate business—is one example. "That solar cell is enabled by some fairly sophisticated nanotechnology that's developed in the laboratories here at MIT," Schmidt says. "These laboratories are extraordinarily expensive to create and maintain."

Through the new accelerator, entrepreneurs (including those who had no MIT affiliation in the past) will be able to access a marketplace for renting specialized equipment on campus. The marketplace will also give access to space at other universities and organizations in the area. Inside the accelerator's own 26,000-square-foot headquarters, entrepreneurs will have access to legal, business, and tech licensing expertise.

A venture fund will provide long-term capital support, while taking less equity than a typical investor. Ideas that may take a decade to build—longer than a VC firm would want to wait—will be able to find funding through the new accelerator. Rather than prioritizing early profit, The Engine will choose companies that can have the most social impact in the world.

The accelerator plans to begin working with its first group of startups in the spring of 2017.

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