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SCOTT KIRNSER | INNOVATION ECONOMY

The big Engine that very well might

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Venture capitalist Katie Rae next month starts her job as head of MIT’s “The Engine,” whch will fund entrepreneurs’ big ideas.

By Globe Correspondent 

When MIT uses the term “world-changing,” you have to take it seriously.

The 155-year-old university has helped pioneer water treatment, the radar systems key to the Allies’ victory in World War II, cybersecurity, speech recognition, navigation systems that helped Apollo astronauts reach the moon, genomics, the Scratch programming language for kids, and robots for the home and factory.

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Last October, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology unveiled a new initiative to provide money, mentorship, and workspace to entrepreneurs developing world-changing ideas that might have difficulty attracting backing from investors focused on a near-term payback.

Dubbed The Engine, it’s one of the highest-profile efforts nationally by a university seeking to support professors and alumni as they start new off-campus ventures. (No, The Engine won’t encourage students to follow in the footsteps of Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg and drop out to work on their companies.) MIT is ponying up $25 million, which will be part of a $150 million pool of capital, the bulk of it from other investors, to get The Engine started.

Last week, MIT said it had hired Katie Rae, a cofounder of the Boston venture capital firm Project 11 Ventures and the former managing director of the TechStars Boston accelerator program, to lead The Engine.

It’s a big gig that has the potential to spawn new business clusters in Boston, building on the region’s strength in life sciences, hardware and software for corporate use, and robotics.

But it could also be one of the more political posts in Boston, with the need to serve lots of different constituencies, from MIT president Rafael Reif and treasurer Israel Ruiz, to the outside investors who put money into The Engine’s new fund, to a board of directors, advisory committee, and numerous other committees formed to have a voice into how The Engine operates. Some committees are made up of professors; others include businesspeople like Robert and Jonathan Kraft of The Kraft Group, Google executive Jeremy Wertheimer, GE Ventures chief executive Sue Siegel, and Linda Pizzuti Henry, managing director of Boston Globe Media Partners.

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There will also be questions about how much of The Engine’s resources should go to ideas that might have huge potential for societal effect, but not much for bringing in billions of dollars in revenue. At a university forum in December, Ruiz said he could imagine The Engine investing in “low-cost diagnostic technologies for developing countries that don’t generate much profit,” as one example. How will community good weigh against the potential financial return as companies are selected to be part of The Engine?

Rae is clear about the kind of companies that are outside her scope: “No dating apps,” she declares, over coffee at a Brookline deli. “There are areas like that that current venture capital funds cover very well.” She also believes fledgling biotech companies already have access to plenty of resources in Boston. But there are lots of other ideas, Rae says, that might require a few years of nurturing outside an academic lab before they come up with anything close to a marketable product. As examples, she mentions Transatomic Power, a Cambridge company designing a safer type of nuclear reactor, and Accion Systems of Charlestown, which is working on a lighter and more efficient propulsion system for satellites. Both were founded by MIT alumni.

Rae says The Engine won’t be limited to investing in companies with MIT ties. “We’ll also invest in other people in the region, if they want their companies to be in Boston,” she says.

Rae says she wasn’t looking for a job late last year but was instead trying to raise a new cache of capital for Project 11, the investment firm she cofounded in 2010. But when she spoke with David Fialkow, a Cambridge venture capitalist who was assisting MIT with the search and now chairs The Engine’s investment advisory committee, he pitched her on the chief executive role as “a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Rae says. “The idea was, wouldn’t it be great to have 10 more companies like Akamai or Analog Devices here — dominant companies that contribute to the local economy.”

As she interviewed for the role, she says, her main concern was making sure The Engine would have sufficient independence — for instance, that the investment advisory committee wouldn’t have to approve every prospective investment — and that if it was successful, that she’d be able to raise additional funding to keep it going. Rae plans to hire two other partners to help manage the operation.

The Engine could stamp fledgling businesses with a “this could be big” seal of approval, says Jonathan Seelig, a cofounder of Akamai Technologies, a Cambridge digital content delivery company born at MIT that today employs more than 6,000 people. That could attract other investors to provide them with larger amounts of funding as their prototypes turn into actual products, Seelig says.

Helping to launch companies based on bleeding-edge technologies can have a squishy timetable, too: Something that seems to require only two or three years of incubation before it will be usable in the “real world” can easily turn into eight or 10 years. “It’s hatching dinosaur eggs,” says Todd Dagres, a partner at Spark Capital, a Boston venture capital firm. “They take a long time, but they can produce big results.”

Maxim Lobovsky, an MIT alum who cofounded Formlabs, a Somerville 3-D printing company, says The Engine would have been helpful to him as he was leaving the university. But he cautions that it will need “a huge level of autonomy,” rather than trying to serve an array ofuniversity interests. “If this can’t be driven by its own success, it won’t work.”

The big challenge for The Engine, Bill Warner predicts, won’t be navigating MIT politics or bureaucracy. Instead, he says, “It will be finding the right people to invest in, and supporting them with more than just money. But Katie is very good at that.” Warner is an MIT alum who founded Avid Technology, a publicly held digital media software company in Burlington.

Russ Wilcox is an entrepreneur who took an MIT technology called electronic ink and turned it into a new kind of low-power display that was used in Amazon’s Kindle and many other “e-readers.” He believes that The Engine “can fill a gap by helping to launch technologies that are more than three to five years away from revenue. Most VCs will not touch that kind of deal.” By Wilcox’s math, if The Engine invests $150 million in carefully selected ventures, “We could see $1 billion to $3 billion of economic growth and 10,000 jobs added to the economy in the next decade.”

Rae, he adds, “seems to have been training all her life to run this.” While she didn’t attend MIT, as a business school student at Yale, she participated in the school’s annual business plan competition, and more recently she has co-taught a course at MIT with Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web.

Rae calls The Engine “a very hopeful project in my mind — investing in important ideas over the long term.” But she acknowledges that it will be a balancing act between independence and collaboration with many different parties.

She doesn’t start the new job until March 15, and The Engine’s workspace in Central Square won’t open until May. Then, it will be time to start delivering on all those expectations about finding and supporting entrepreneurs with the potential to change the world.


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com
Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.