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MIT retools to aid students with startups

Rodney Brooks, founder of Rethink Robotics, spoke with students at MIT earlier this month as part of MIT’s first boot camp for students who hope to launch businesses.

LANE TURNER/GLOBE STAFF

Rodney Brooks, founder of Rethink Robotics, spoke with students at MIT earlier this month as part of MIT’s first boot camp for students who hope to launch businesses.

Is it possible MIT is feeling inadequate — insecure even?

That seems hard to imagine for the school that helped invent the transistor radio, radar, Technicolor, modern robotics, and essentially the field of biotechnology, and whose famous graduates include a Treasury secretary, Israeli prime minister, an astronaut who walked on the moon, and dozens of Nobel Prize winners.

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But the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is facing increasing competition from around the corner and across the country.

Its neighbor, Harvard University, is building an innovation campus and business park in Allston to rival MIT’s backyard in Kendall Square. And in Silicon Valley, Stanford University has emerged as the center of gravity for this exciting new era, in which seemingly every other bright young student is starting a new company, and more than a few of them are becoming overnight millionaires.

“The facts are that until quite recently MIT didn’t do anything explicit to promote innovation other than the research and education part,” said MIT alumnus Ray Stata, the cofounder of the computer chip manufacturer Analog Devices Inc. and a major donor.

“The graduates who have been in the entrepreneurial world think MIT can do an even better job by being deliberate about entrepreneurship and not being derivative,” Stata added.

Now, based on input from Stata and other prominent alumni and faculty, MIT’s new president Rafael Reif has launched a campuswide effort to make the school the unquestioned leader of technological innovation and entrepreneurship in the 21st century.

In a rousing letter to the campus in October, Reif ordered a massive overhaul of MIT’s approach to teaching and discovery, so that literally every classroom and lab session is an opportunity to innovate — to be better, faster, more efficient.

“The Initiative will actively celebrate, support and intensify MIT’s culture of making, our faith in the creative power of mind and hand,” Reif said. “To society’s boldest makers, we say: ‘If you want to change the world, make yourself at home at MIT.’ ”

Reif has appointed two faculty heavyweights, Fiona Murray from the Sloan School of Management and Vladimir Bulovic from the electrical engineering and computer science department, to lead the effort. Their committee is scheduled to report by Friday its recommendations on fulfilling Reif’s vision.

Already under Reif, MIT has taken a modest first step. It now gives engineering students academic credits for participating in a boot camp that teaches them how to turn fledgling ideas into real businesses — essentially putting commerce on par with learning.

The first such boot camp, a 2½-week program called Start6, brought together more than 50 students with about 20 tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to discuss such topics as negotiating contracts with investors to refining a successful product.

“You will see more of these types of programs because students want it,” said Anantha Chandrakasan, who conceived of Start6 and heads MIT’s biggest department, electrical engineering and computer science. “We want to prepare them for an entrepreneurial experience.”

Other measures under consideration include creating an undergraduate minor in innovation and entrepreneurship, a postdoctoral program for innovation leaders, and funding student-run startups.

Reif is also considering constructing a building solely dedicated to innovation, as well as making available smaller spaces all over campus for students and faculty to noodle over their big ideas.

“We want to make spaces for making,” Reif said in his letter, “extraordinary spaces in which students, faculty and alumni can gather to play with new ideas, develop their innovations and turn their inspirations into reality.”

The mere idea of MIT being left behind in the zeitgeist sweeping the technology world seems farfetched. But the aggressive approach that its president is pushing also speaks to the speed at which change is happening in its core subjects.

It continues to attract some of the world’s brightest students and its professors are often the recognized leaders in their fields, such as Robert Langer, who runs a lab that is in essence a biotech incubator that has spawned hundreds of patents and 26 companies. The UK edition of the technology magazine “Wired” devoted an entire issue in 2012 to the breakthroughs coming out of the MIT Media Lab.

Alumni from the school have founded about 26,000 companies that employ more than 3 million people, according to a study by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a nonprofit that researches entrepreneurship.

And yet that still might not be enough to woo the most promising students and even donors who increasingly look to universities to be a catalyst for industry, said Dane Stangler, Kauffman’s vice president of research and policy.

“Even a place like MIT feels like they’ve got to do more to keep up,” he said.

Stangler said universities large and small, in the United States and around the world, are responding to a new frothiness around startups with innovation centers of their own, new courses in coding and business-plan writing, and access to venture capitalists for students who want to start companies.

“It’s definitely the hot new thing,” said Stangler. “Twenty-five years ago only a few hundred colleges or universities had any entrepreneurial offerings. Today, it’s like almost every single one has something.”

Another MIT alumnus who has advised Reif is Drew Houston, cofounder of the popular online storage service Dropbox. When he was a student a decade ago, Houston noted, there were fewer opportunities for budding entrepreneurs to turn their ideas into reality.

Even now, Houston said, the reputation of the MIT graduate is that they are formidable engineers but not as savvy on the business front as their peers at Stanford. So this new initiative by Reif, Houston said, is intended to make MIT grads as good at business as they are at science.

“MIT students and grads have a lot more potential to start amazing companies than they might think,” Houston said.

And that, said Stata, the Analog founder, should bode well for the local economy.

“More students from MIT will become entrepreneurs,” he said. “For our country, and society, that will be good. And a lot of those will hang around Boston like I did and help the economy.”

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