by Dylan Walsh
Dipul Patel recited a standard exchange: “As an entrepreneur, when you bring up some new idea to people the first thing they do is tell you how great it is and the second thing they tell you is why it won’t work,” he said. “The beauty of MIT is that when you offer a crazy idea we all say, ‘okay, how can we get started? How do we make a little bit of progress today?’”
For eight years, Patel worked as an engineer at Lockheed Martin, but ideas for new businesses frequently rose into mind. He listed them in a notebook, gave them consideration when he could, but never fully committed to any single one; his career came first. When he had the idea for Ecovent though—a highly customizable climate control system managed by smartphone—he couldn’t shake it, so he left Lockheed Martin in August of 2012 and headed to MIT Sloan.
Despite his technical expertise, Patel had no experience founding and running a business. After the first semester of required courses, he was free to build the curriculum he wanted. He enrolled in Bill Aulet’s “New Enterprises,” where he persuaded other students to join him at Ecovent. He took pricing, sales, and communication. And though classes like these are not unique to Sloan, “the professors here understand entrepreneurship more than professors at other schools,” he said. “When we wanted to talk with them about Ecovent, they could instantly get into the universe of being an entrepreneur as opposed to giving advice about getting a job at Google.”
Outside of class, Patel “pestered anyone who would listen” at the Martin Trust Center. Pestering evolved into working relationships, and these proved invaluable. “The Center was a phenomenal resource—this amazing team of mentors that wanted nothing more than to do right by you.” Through countless discussions and late-night work sessions he learned how to triage and handle the challenges inherent in a new venture—firing employees, navigating horrible conversations with cofounders, finding solid ground when the money runs out, and so on. “These are the elements of chaos you can’t learn about any other way than by doing, and the Trust Center provides a safe environment that forces people to do.”
But Patel was quick to clarify ‘safe’ is not synonymous with doting: faculty and Entrepreneurs in Residence at the Center do not tell you what you want to hear, but what you need to know. Aulet routinely confronted Patel about the aspects of Ecovent that were poorly considered. Patel remembers more than once being on his way to meet with potential funders when an EIR pulled him aside and told him that he wasn’t ready for the meeting and that he needed to cancel. It was great advice that was hard to swallow. “The folks at the Trust Center have no attraction to your ideas,” he said. “All they’re thinking about his how to make you a better entrepreneur.”
In January of 2014, Ecovent was accepted into Boston Techstars, through which they raised about $600,000. With this they expanded the team and established a functional system. By the end of Techstars that April, Ecovent had sold its first 25 units. In June of the following year the company raised $7 million to commercialize the product, but efforts to extend funding in 2016 fell through. Patel sold in late December of 2016.
He and the new investors had divergent visions for the company. As this tension mounted, Patel began to feel adrift. For years, he had merged himself with his work at Ecovent—“my baby”—and now it was no longer his. Patel called Aulet and asked him what to do. Aulet said that he sounded unhappy. He needed to forget the time and sweat he had poured into the company. He needed to leave. In June of 2017, Patel did.
Though he felt it was the right decision, that didn’t make it easy. He found himself mildly depressed. He wondered if he should go back to the comforts of a place like Lockheed Martin. But then Aulet asked him to join the Trust Center as an Entrepreneur in Residence. “He said. ‘Make sure you don’t run away from entrepreneurship for the wrong reasons and go back to some job that you know you’re not going to like, earning money to mask unhappiness.’” Here was one more piece of advice from the Trust Center, the place that had helped Patel redefine his professional life. As he had done so often before, he listened. “And that’s what allowed me to get the courage to be startup guy again—that and my wife.”