More inter-campus collaboration: It’s the entrepreneural thing to do

PillPack cofounders TJ Parker (left) and Elliot Cohen. The Somerville company is an example of cross-campus activities fueling innovation.
PillPack cofounders TJ Parker (left) and Elliot Cohen. The Somerville company is an example of cross-campus activities fueling innovation. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File 2015/Globe Staff

It’s unorthodox, but I’m doling out grades at the start of the semester, rather than the end.

■  Creativity: B+.

■  Collaboration: D-.

Over the past few years, schools in Boston have been pretty creative when it comes to adding entrepreneurial offerings. Colleges offer student-run clubs, “office hours” with well-known founders and investors, makerspaces for building a first prototype, and hackathons where students form teams and work together to develop a concept that might eventually grow into a company.

That’s the B+.

But all of that buzzy entrepreneurship activity tends to be hermetically sealed on each campus, designed primarily for the students of that school. Which means that every school tends to develop redundant workshops, recruit the same guest speakers, and often, chase the same sponsors and donors. “There is very, very little in terms of programmed collaboration,” admits Jack Derby, director of the Tufts Entrepreneurship Center.


That lack of coordination and collaboration is the D-.

There are some obvious reasons for that grade. Everyone is working with limited time, resources, and staff, Derby says.

And, explains Monique Fuchs, associate vice president of innovation and entrepreneurship at Wentworth Institute of Technology, “Universities are focused on closed loops.” That means the priority is “alumni engagement, benefiting their own students, their own faculty, their own bottom line,” she says.

When we do figure out ways to get cross-campus activities happening, good stuff can result. One recent example: PillPack, an online prescription service in Somerville that was acquired by Amazon last year for $753 million.

Six years before that deal, PillPack’s chief executive, TJ Parker, was studying to be a pharmacist at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. In part because the school shared a cafeteria with the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, he realized he could take design courses there — so he did.


He also traveled across the river to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to help organize the $100K Entrepreneurship Competition. That’s where he met his cofounder, Elliot Cohen, who was earning an MBA at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Together, they began developing the notion of a next-generation Web-and-mail based pharmacy. By the time the company was snapped up by Amazon, in 2018, it had grown to about 700 employees.

Bill Aulet, who runs the entrepreneurship center at MIT, says the school already has a fairly open culture. When startup teams are forming for various programs and competitions, students from other schools can join them; as evidence, he cites teams participating in this summer’s Delta V entrepreneurial accelerator program that include students from Wentworth and Harvard Law School.

But those kinds of students — and Parker was one — get off their own campus “and leave their comfort zone,” Aulet says. “They come over to MIT, and maybe all of that means you’re predisposed to being an entrepreneur.”

Parker is an example of someone who “was so interested that he overcame barriers,” Aulet adds, cautioning, “You don’t want to make it too easy.”

I agree with Aulet’s point — great entrepreneurs always find a way — but we could work to make it a bit easier to access the entrepreneurial resources and activities that are isolated in little bubbles, from Babson to Bentley to Boston College to Berklee. Students are here for only four years. Why not increase the odds they’ll get off campus to connect with other entrepreneurially minded students, and perhaps work on the kind of idea that would spring only from the minds of an accounting major or an art major?


Here are five concrete ideas — including one that is already underway:

■  Unless space is an issue, open at least some campus events to students at any local school. And be clear about it in the promotions: “This event is open to any currently enrolled student.”

■  Use a standard hashtag on social media when promoting events and competitions that are open. I propose “BOS-U.” That makes it possible to keep tabs on everything posted with that hashtag.

■  Create a shared public calendar for collegiate entrepreneurship activities, “where all the schools could post their open events and students could easily search on them,” suggests Jodi Gernon, director of the Rock Center for Entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School.

■  Build a list on Twitter so that, with one click, you could subscribe to all of the major accounts related to collegiate entrepreneurship in the Boston area. (That was so difficult and time-intensive that I did it in 10 minutes.)

■  Design an event that would bring together startup teams from a wide array of schools to pitch their ideas, and potentially get advice, prizes, or in-kind services.

Jere Doyle, director of Boston College’s Shea Center for Entrepreneurship, agrees: “A city-wide venture competition that included many of the undergraduate programs would be fun and exciting, and a great ‘coming together’ of all of our programs.”


Actually, something just like that already exists. The MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge has been running the Beantown Throwdown since 2013. (I’ve been an occasional volunteer moderator and judge.) This year’s edition happens on Nov. 19. But the program could benefit from bigger prizes and a higher profile; it has the potential to be the Sweet Sixteen of student entrepreneurship.

Finally, if you’re a student at a Boston school, know that you can take an entrepreneurial leap and participate in events on other campuses. If anyone asks why you’re there, tell them you’re a proponent of cross-pollination.

And if that doesn’t work, tell them I said it was OK.

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