Author: Martin Trust Center

Entrepreneurship Lab (15.399) aka “E-Lab” with Trish Cotter

Course description:

Project-based subject, in which teams of students from MIT, Wellesley, and Harvard work with startups on problems of strategic importance to the venture. Popular sectors include software, hardware, robotics, clean technology, and life sciences.

Offered in Spring 2021 on Tuesdays from 8:00 – 11:00 am (2-9-1)

Q: What level is this course, and what types of students take it?

Trish Cotter: Entrepreneurship Lab is an entry-level class; it really covers a lot of the basics of entrepreneurship, but in a lab setting where the students are helping real startup companies solve real problems.

The teams are a mixture of graduate and undergraduate students from MIT, Wellesley, and Harvard. We try to accommodate everyone who is interested and work to provide diverse teams in terms of gender, academics, and work experience. It’s a great mix of students who can learn from each other as well as from the startup companies.

This course gives students a unique opportunity to work with startup companies. Can you explain that a little bit more?

We look for small startups that can identify a project that will have an impact in the company. The projects must be meaningful and must be completed within the term. Students work closely with the company’s leadership team and they meet once a week. This lets students see how the founder interacts with the organization and how decisions are made.

What are some of the types of projects student groups have worked on?

A few examples include:

  • pricing a new product
  • evaluating new markets for various technologies
  • creating marketing campaigns
  • establishing analytics to evaluate customer satisfaction
  • evaluating follow-on markets, and
  • reviewing customer margins across product lines.

How do you select the companies that will work with this class, and how do you match students to projects?

Many of the companies are started by MIT alumni who want to stay connected to the school, but there are other startups as well.

We review a variety of projects and then narrow them down based upon whether the project is achievable in a one-semester class. We then present several options in the first class; the students select the top three projects they are interested in working on and we match them from there.

Can you give examples of past startups and the problems solved by E-Lab students?

One example is V1 Engineering, founded by Melinda (Hale) Sims. It is a company that makes industrial water jets. She is trying to find new markets for the company, and the student team researched new markets that could be a possible fit.

Other examples include:

  • looking for viable options for markets for a new material that was developed by the company,
  • discovering how current technologies could be repurposed for solutions to customer problems,
  • developing marketing campaigns for customer products, and
  • creating customer councils with new configuration of customers.


How much interaction does the student team have with the startup company?

The startup commits to meeting weekly with the students. The project leader within the company is either a founder or someone on the executive team.

How many students can be on a team?

We typically have four or five people on a team, and about seven teams in the class.

Can you talk about how the mix of students in the teams work together?

It’s an excellent opportunity for the students to share knowledge. This is an opportunity for the graduate students to bring their business experience into the classroom, and for undergraduates to challenge the assumptions. The undergrads may not have experience, but they bring other skills to the table such as creativity or collaboration skills

How is the class taught? Does it align with the Disciplined Entrepreneurship framework?

The class is an introduction to entrepreneurship and the students apply the lessons they learn to the startup’s project. The class is held [in the Spring 2021 semester] on Tuesdays from 8:00 – 11:00 am with a different topic each week from Disciplined Entrepreneurship. It covers the fundamental themes of “Who is your customer?” and “What can you do for your customer?”, which are often the subject of many projects.

We also have guest lecturers followed by panel discussions on Founding Teams and Entrepreneurial Strategies.

The group work is done outside of class time.

Who are your guest lecturers?

We’ve traditionally had Kit Hickey, who teaches “Entrepreneurial Founding Teams,” come in and discuss this topic, and it is followed by a panel of current entrepreneurs. In addition, Erin Scott, who teaches “Entrepreneurial Strategy,” discusses this topic and it is followed by a workshop/panel with entrepreneurs that have used the strategies. This is an excellent way for students to get a preview of what these classes will cover.

How intense is this class compared to other entrepreneurship classes?

This is a 12-credit class, so it is expected that there are at least 9 hours or so of out-of-class work each week.

Which topics within the E-Lab class do you enjoy teaching the most?

We have the students create their own business in one class. This is my favorite because you really get to see how they pull all the concepts together.

Which topics within the E-Lab class do you think your students get the most benefit from?

The students get a lot of value out of learning from the entrepreneurs on the panels and the entrepreneurs that teach the class.

What is some of the best feedback you’ve received as a professor?

Keep student learning front and center.

What do you like the most about teaching this class?

The students are curious, and this is a great opportunity for them to figure out if entrepreneurship is for them. There’s more than just entrepreneurship going on here. By working together in a group with various levels of experience, these future entrepreneurs are learning about working together, hiring, training, assessing talent, and networking. There’s a lot going on in this class.

Any last helpful info or tips for students considering this class?

If you are curious and want to work on a project that is impactful, then this is the class for you.

I’d also like to point out that this class is taught from a practical standpoint. True to the MIT motto of “mens et manus,” the mind and hand, we teach you a concept and then we put it to work.