Author: Martin Trust Center

Author Q&A: Jean-Jacques Degroof

MIT Press has just released a new book that explores and explains how a bottom-up problem-solving ethos, multidisciplinary approach, and experimental mindset have nurtured entrepreneurship at MIT. The review from Trust Center managing director Bill Aulet (who for transparency’s sake is featured in the book) is simple and extremely positive:

“The book is awesome. I love it and have recommended it widely.”

Last week we ran an excerpt from “From the Basement to the Dome: How MIT’s Unique Culture Created a Thriving Entrepreneurial Community”. This week we are featuring a short Q&A with the book’s author, Jean-Jacques Degroof, who has worked in academia, financial services, and venture investment, working with technology startups in both the United States and Europe. He holds an MS and PhD from MIT Sloan and is a long-time supporter of the Trust Center.

The book is a must-read for anyone looking to learn why entrepreneurship is such a strong part of the DNA of MIT and goes deep into how the school has become such a hotbed of entrepreneurship. MIT alumni have founded at least 30,000 active companies, employing an estimated 4.6 million people, with revenues of approximately $1.9 trillion. In the 2010s, twenty to thirty ventures were spun off each year to commercialize technologies developed in MIT labs (with intellectual property licensed by MIT to these companies); in the same decade, MIT graduates started an estimated 100 firms per year.

What triggered your curiosity to write this book?

Having studied and worked at MIT for several years, I witnessed firsthand the steady growth of entrepreneurial activity—a growth that seemed to be rather organic, and driven in the absence of formal policies related to entrepreneurship, at least until recently.

Starting in the 1960s, many activities to support entrepreneurship emerged spontaneously from various quarters of MIT, especially in the form of extracurricular activities, as a result of initiatives from alumni, students, and individual faculty and staff members. Up until recently, it was even difficult to track all those activities. Examples include:

  • the early seminars organized by alumni in the 1960s and 1970s that led to the creation of the MIT Enterprise Forum;
  • the students in the 1980s who founded the Entrepreneurship Club and the $10K Business Plan Competition;
  • Professor Edward Roberts’ foundation of the Entrepreneurship Center;
  • and many more in the subsequent years.

Some of those early experiments turned into formal classes, programs, and entities, when the Institute and its schools perceived their value. I became increasingly intrigued about how this bottom-up process was happening, and started to suspect that MIT’s unique culture played a large role. That led me to investigate the cultural dimension of this phenomenon, an investigation which ultimately became this book.

What kind of research did you conduct? What was your process?

My research required intense participative observation. I interviewed all the stakeholders in the entrepreneurial ecosystem that I could. I must stress that people were very willing to share their thoughts, their time, and archives, and I am extremely grateful to them. Without their collaboration this book could not have been written.

I went to all the events related to entrepreneurship that I could attend. I also poured through thousands of archival documents and secondary sources. I began to collect data in 2014 and started writing chapters in 2017. The chapters went through a number of iterations, and were informed by the reviews from experts that were very helpful. It sometimes felt like chasing a moving target, because the ecosystem was evolving as I was studying it and it has continued to evolve since then.

At one point I had to stop collecting data, which I did at the end of 2019. As a result, the most recent entities supporting entrepreneurship, such as the MIT InnovationHQ and some of its initiatives, are not mentioned in the book, which is testimony of how lively MIT’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is. In a few years, there could be potential for another book, but I will leave this task to someone else!

What did your research reveal? What are the elements of MIT’s culture that created such a fertile ground for entrepreneurship?

The idea that interest in entrepreneurship builds on MIT’s culture has been argued before me. However, just saying that this culture played a huge role without exploring the elements of that culture and how those elements contributed to such a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem did not help people understand the MIT phenomenon any better.  I wanted to explore the issue more deeply: What is it in the culture that is favorable to the emergence of the entrepreneurial spirit—and to its rather spontaneous emergence?

What I discovered was that several key elements of MIT’s culture were in a perfect fit with key characteristics of entrepreneurship. Specifically, both share a search for excellence. Entrepreneurship also requires extremely high standards illustrated by the high proportion of startup failures. An education at MIT, which has been famously compared to taking a drink from a fire hose, prepares one well for an entrepreneurial endeavor.

Then there is the premium that MIT places on good ideas and the ability to explore them, even without formal push or support from the administration. This feature allowed members of the community to express their interest in entrepreneurship and to experiment with activities like seminars, some of which were so successful that they turned into formal classes and/or programs. The self-help groups and contests that have become part of the fabric of the Institute, such as the MIT Enterprise Forum or the $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, also grew out of this freedom to explore.

Third, from its founding, MIT has fostered a strong problem-solving tradition involving lab work, maker spaces, and strong ties with industry. Entrepreneurship is only a variation on this strong problem-solving tradition. The first step of an entrepreneurial project is to identify a problem—an “opportunity,” in entrepreneurial lingo—that can be solved through a commercial solution.

Then there is the fact that MIT understands that experimentation lies at the core of all scientific endeavors, AND that valuing experimentation implies a tolerance of failure. These too are values that are critical to an entrepreneurial endeavor characterized by trial and error, failing, and trying over again. For instance, legendary professor Eugene (“Doc”) Edgerton (’26) told his students that you have to try your ideas for yourself, and expect that you will never get it right the first time.

Fifth, for a long time, MIT was seen as an outsider by its peers in academia and looked upon as a mere vocational school. Since then, it has been recognized as one of the best universities in the world, but this identity of being an outsider has survived, and combined with a sense of pride in being disruptors, upstarts, and even a bit geeky. Having an identity outside the establishment fits entrepreneurs as well, many of whom choose not to join corporate settings. They have to create an organization with scarce resources to challenge incumbents.

MIT has a long tradition of multi-disciplinarity. Former MIT president Karl Compton recognized in the early 1930s the potential of the convergence of physics and engineering. During WWII, it helped interdisciplinary collaborations that lead to technologies such as radar, jet propulsion, nuclear power, and digital computing.

We are currently experiencing a similarly important revolutionary convergence between biology and engineering that is very much alive at MIT. The Koch Center for Integrative Cancer Research—only one example of a multi-disciplinary research center—mixes biologists with electrical, chemical, mechanical, materials science, and biological engineers. For members of the MIT community working on entrepreneurial projects,  thinking outside the box combining various disciplines to reach the desired solution or product is thus second nature.

Underlying all of these features of MIT’s culture and entrepreneurship is the desire to make an impact in the real world. This desire is, of course, illustrative of the Institute’s Mens et Manus motto. Member of MIT’s community like to embrace the search for solutions to big problems, be they technical, societal, or both.

An example of this is Professor of Material Chemistry Donald Sadoway and David Bradwell (’06) tackling the challenge of building new batteries for large scale energy storage. Such batteries are now critical to the adoption of clean wind and solar energy. Another is Todd Zion (’04), who invented the first glucose-regulated insulin for treating diabetes with his firm Smartcells. And Lindsay Stradley (’11), Ani Vallabhanen (’11), and David Auerbach (’11) chose to tackle the huge problem of poor sanitation in the developing world with Sanergy.

In your opinion, what is the most striking manifestation of this culture?

It is the fact that entrepreneurial projects emerge even outside formal structures devoted to supporting entrepreneurship, such as the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. This is the stronger manifestation of the relationship between MIT’s culture and its thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem. What I call in the book the power of serendipity – often of serendipitous encounters.

A good illustration of this is Akamai whose project was born fortuitously with an encounter that then-PhD student Danny Lewin (’98) had in 1997 with an apartment house neighbor, a Sloan student named Preetish Nijhawan (’98). Similarly, the idea of a robotic kitchen came to Luke Schlueter (’16), a graduate student in mechanical engineering, when he ran out of time to cook for himself every night and found other options too expensive. He pitched it to Michael Farid (’14), Braden Knight (’16), and Kale Rogers, (’16), fellow members of Delta Upsilon fraternity, which led to Spyce Kitchen, the world’s first restaurant featuring a robotic kitchen.