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MIT entrepreneurs program to include six foreign teams

Accelerator aims to hone students’ ideas for start-ups

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is expanding a program for student entrepreneurs to include six teams from overseas that will come to the United States this summer to hone ideas for start-ups alongside collegians from the Cambridge school.

Student groups hailing from Russia, Turkey, Canada, Germany, Scotland, and China will join eight local teams that will each have at least one current MIT student or recent grad. Each team is eligible for $20,000 and will receive mentoring and tutelage from successful entrepreneurs and MIT professors.

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The global initiative — the first of its kind in an academic setting — comes as so-called accelerator programs such as TechStars in Cambridge or Y Combinator in Silicon Valley are cropping up around the country and becoming magnets for the brightest graduates — and occasional dropouts — from MIT and other prestigious schools who are trying to launch start-ups.

Now, with the Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator, MIT is tapping its vast resources and far-reaching connections to build a program for students so they do not leave campus to find resources for starting businesses, while at the same time expanding its ties to international students and entrepreneurs.

“We don’t want them to leave MIT because they didn’t feel like they had enough support here to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams,” said Bill Aulet, the managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship who will oversee the accelerator.

When Aulet started the accelerator program last year, it was reserved for teams connected to MIT. Among the projects by the 10 teams were medical device initiatives and recycling projects in Africa. That soon attracted the attention of international schools such as Sabanci University in Turkey and the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) in Russia, with which MIT has a formal relationship.

Aulet opened it up to international participants to create what he’s calling the “Rhodes Scholars of entrepreneurship.”

‘There really is a way we do this [in the United States] that is more intense and aggressive than in a lot of other countries. . . . They are really going to have their eyes opened.’

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While the international teams may lead to connections abroad for the newest local start-ups, this will also give budding entrepreneurs in China and Russia a closer look at how businesses are built in the United States, said Edward Crawley, president of Skoltech and an MIT professor on leave.

“There really is a way we do this [in the United States] that is more intense and aggressive than in a lot of other countries,” said Crawley, who started four companies before becoming president of Skoltech. “They are really going to have their eyes opened.”

The hope, he said, is that the participants in the MIT initiative will take those ideas back to burgeoning start-up communities abroad. “Working in an environment where the system is running well will give them a sense of how to go back to where they’re from and help the system run better.”

The teams that will be coming to MIT this summer have been selected through competitions at their respective institutions. The MIT teams will be chosen from about 100 applicants, such as those developing technologies to determine gluten-free foods and app developers making educational games.

While MIT graduates have a long history of starting successful companies, such as Texas Instruments or more recently Dropbox, these days it seems like every undergraduate or graduate student has an idea for a start-up, said Aulet.

“It’s cool to be an entrepreneur,” he said. Students are less interested in becoming “a corporate soldier — these young people really want to make a difference.”

That trend convinced the school that it needed to do more to meet students’ growing interest in pursuing start-ups, he said, and ensure they don’t leave school too soon to join an outside program.

Unlike many similar programs that are often run by venture capitalists or investors, MIT will not, as a matter of practice, take an ownership stake in any team. The program is purely educational, said Aulet, and intended to teach theses founders the skills needed to create a company, hire a team, and develop a product that is good enough to bring to market.

That said, MIT does stand to benefit if the program kick-starts the next big Internet company.

“Seeding these ideas, and helping launch these ventures, could lead to to financial success stories,” said Donald Sadoway, a professor of materials chemistry at MIT whose lab developed liquid metal battery technology. He will serve as a mentor for teams involved in the program. “Maybe down the road there’s a financial benefit that will come back to MIT.”

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.
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