The opportunities -- and shortcomings -- of a virtual accelerator
by Chris Keshian MBA ’22, MIT delta v Program Manager
In this pandemic summer of 2020, the Trust Center adapted and is offering a fully virtual delta v accelerator for MIT students. While the experience differs from previous years, the virtual nature of the program is offering some unique advantages.
MIT delta v is the flagship accelerator at the school. Its name is derived from the physics formula for acceleration, i.e. the change in velocity over a change in time, represented as “a = Δv/Δt”.
Normally, students work out of the Martin Trust Center or the NYC Startup Studio for the three-month summer program. Mentors, speakers, and “mock” board members coach the teams as they progress through the three phases of the program:
- Month 1 – Customer
- Month 2 – Product
- Month 3 – Business
This summer we have been able to offer a comparable experience to previous years … with some modifications. We tried out a number of virtual work tools before the program began in June, and found the most effective tools were those students already used:
- Zoom – for virtual classes, webinars, speaker events, board meetings, Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) meetings, small group meetings, and general video chats
- Slack – for daily communication, spontaneous interaction, real time discussions, general banter, and serendipitous cohort building
- Calendly – For managing booking processes for mentor sessions and EIR office hours
- Pipefy – the only “non-traditional” tool, which was leveraged for the application review process, and not directly for engaging with our students and teams.
Virtual Program Pledge
After accepting their spot in delta v, we asked all student entrepreneurs to sign a written contract committing them to the behavioral norms and expectations of a virtual accelerator. This contract included the following elements:
- Commitment to work full time on their delta v venture
- Commitment to remote participation (attendance, focus, refrain from multi-tasking, etc.)
- Commitment to installing sufficient internet bandwidth in their place of work
The remote and distanced nature of this year’s program has provided a number of unique opportunities:
- Allowed us to train entrepreneurs for the increasingly common, and rapidly evolving, virtual global workplace.
- Permitted asynchronous communication, which let students opt in and out of conversations on their own time, ultimately increasing engagement and increasing visibility of conversation threads in our Slack channels.
- Provided an opportunity to easily record content to create a more robust, searchable database. We have also been leveraging this content to offer DIY delta v, a program that allowed any MIT student not in the accelerator to progress through the phases of the delta v accelerator at their own pace and watch the speakers and workshop content associated with each phase of the program.
- Let us pull in speakers from around the world to give virtual presentations, as guests did not have to physically travel to MIT or New York City to engage the cohort.
The virtual nature of the program also posed certain challenges:
- It has been more difficult to create community and engage the group outside of our formal programming events. Most teams have found they prefer avoiding another hour on Zoom to do trivia, a scavenger hunt, a cooking class, a happy hour, or other team-building activities, since they have already spent most of the day on their computer screens.
- It has definitely decreased the number of serendipitous interactions between cohort members. This has made getting to know fellow members of the cohort more challenging and decreased the bonding across the cohort.
While the experience has differed substantially from previous years, we have still been able to deliver both a sound experience for students and develop numerous practices that will be useful for future in-person and virtual summer programs.