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Tech interns seek start-up vibe

Interns Brynn Leggett (left) and Paul Heslinga (right) examined a robot with CEO Ted Acworth at Artaic, a South Boston company.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Interns Brynn Leggett (left) and Paul Heslinga (right) examined a robot with CEO Ted Acworth at Artaic, a South Boston company.

As she began looking for an internship this summer, Boston University graduate student Brynn Leggett knew one thing: She didn’t want to work at a big, prestigious company that would look good on the resume if it meant performing the menial tasks often assigned to interns.

Instead, Leggett scored a paid internship at a small Hub start-up called Artaic, which makes custom mosaic tile displays using robotics and has a grand total of just nine employees. There, she is filling a critical void as the company’s principal grant writer.

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“I’ve always gravitated toward smaller organizations because I like the opportunity to be creative and be involved in stuff that you know is going to matter,” Leggett said. “I’m not a go-for-coffee kind of girl.”

With start-up fever gripping the tech sector in Massachusetts, Leggett is among the many college students shunning internships at larger, established businesses and opting for the rush of newly formed, fast-growing companies, where they often are much more involved in developing the businesses.

But for all their excitement, such small companies usually lack the structure or finances to find and host interns. So several industry groups have developed programs to match interns with entrepreneurs.

Leggett’s internship, for example, was partly funded by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, which has an initiative that reimburses small businesses for up to half the cost of an intern.

“This program is manna from heaven,” said Artaic’s chief executive, Ted Acworth. “We can’t really afford to compete with bigger companies to get the best talent for internships. We’re usually not able to offer any compensation, and that makes it much harder to get talent.”

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Thanks to the MassTech subsidies, Acworth this summer took on Leggett and a second paid intern, Paul Heslinga.

A grad student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Heslinga last summer had an internship in the IT department of a major Boston law firm that mostly involved mundane daily tasks and answering to four or five bosses. Not surprisingly, he generally felt lost in the shuffle and was loath to repeat the experience this summer.

At Artaic, he is building on the skills he learns in the classroom like never before.

“At WPI, most of my work is research on new robotics, ideas and concepts,” said Heslinga, who is studying robotics engineering. “This has sort of grounded me toward improving the industry and facilitating robotics in production.”

The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, a quasi-state agency, has run an internship program since 2009, and student participation has quadrupled since the first year.

The center matches young graduates and college students with start-ups that can use the help but often can’t afford the interns. It pays $15 an hour for as many as 12 weeks and even covers payroll taxes.

“We like to say we’re creating internship opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t exist,” said Ryan H. Mudawar, the center’s manager of academic and workforce programs.

Brynn Leggett and Paul Heslinga intern at Artaic in South Boston.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Brynn Leggett and Paul Heslinga intern at Artaic in South Boston.

The state government has a keen interest in providing such placements, said Susan Windham-Bannister, president of the life sciences center, because it increases the likelihood that young tech talent will stay on in Massachusetts. The center said that about one-third of its interns land jobs at the companies where they worked.

Meanwhile, colleges with interns in the center’s program are able to improve their curriculums, based on the feedback from companies. And students and grads improve their job or fund-raising prospects by experiencing the start-up world first-hand.

After graduating from Western New England University last year, Brian Dutra spent the summer interning at FloDesign Sonics, an aerospace technology start-up in Wilbraham that could not have taken him on without the subsidy from the life sciences center.

After a few months, Dutra proved so valuable to the fledgling company that it kept him on as a mechanical engineer and is picking up the tab for graduate school.

“So right now I’m finishing up my graduate degree and haven’t paid for a dime of it,” Dutra said. “It’s a pretty good deal.”

The start-up vibe is so appealing that some of the big guys, including Microsoft Corp., are trying to replicate it. Last year, the software titan piloted an internship program called The Foundry at its New England Research & Development Center in Cambridge. Working in small groups, the students build their own apps, as if they were launching businesses at one of the co-working spaces that are so popular on Boston’s innovation scene.

The Foundry, said Sara Spalding, the Microsoft center’s senior director, is a “way to give students an opportunity to experience Microsoft who might say, ‘I want to work in a smaller team. Instead of being a smaller part of a bigger project, I want to be a bigger part of a smaller project.’ ”

It’s now so popular that the Foundry program has doubled in size to 40 students this year.

“It definitely feels like working at a start-up,” said Annie Tang, a senior at MIT studying computational architecture and a member of this year’s Foundry class. “We have a lot of ownership over what we do. On the other hand, we have all these resources — Microsoft employees, a lot of smart people who have been in the industry for a long time.”

And some programs are taking it one step further and helping promising college grads and students start their own companies, such as the one at Highland Capital Partners, where Jon McKay and three friends from Olin College of Engineering are trying to launch a business to make microboards.

McKay had previously served in one of the tech industry’s top-flight internships: a three-month gig at Microsoft, working on the Internet Explorer Web browser.

“They give you all these perks, excellent pay,” he said.

That was the problem — life at a large corporation was too easy.

“Working at a start-up is a lot more exciting,” McKay said. “It’s also kind of terrifying.”

Highland Capital said that 85 percent of the companies started in its program, now in its sixth year, are still running or have been acquired. The start-ups, about 20 altogether, have collectively raised more than $100 million — including a few investments from Highland.

Though the career path may seem risky to many students, Highland partner Sean Dalton said he would not have a second thought about where to steer his own children.

“I would advise my kids coming out of school to find an entrepreneurial, early-stage company and start building a career there,” Dalton said.

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