SafeStart, a sobriety testing system that uses infrared sensors to check blood alcohol levels, helps prevent drunk drivers from getting on the road. Bulkr, an online platform, allows customers to buy high-quality organic food in bulk directly from local farms with little to no markup. Dropwise, which provides tools to monitor water usage, helps customers save thousands of gallons of water per year and hundreds of dollars on their annual bills.
These are just a few of the companies created by high school students—yes, high school students—through MIT Launch, which offers two month-long summer entrepreneurship programs that became part of the MIT entrepreneurial ecosystem two years ago. Since its debut in 2012—the program, formerly known as Launch, officially joined the MIT entrepreneurial ecosystem last year—MIT Launch has helped hundreds of teens from all over the world to start and grow a total of 70 companies. MIT Launch pitch their business ideas Friday, August 5, 2016 from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. at the Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
“Our goal is to cultivate the next generation of entrepreneurs by giving high school students both robust entrepreneurship training and a real opportunity to try their hands at starting a business,” says Laurie Stach, the founder and director of MIT Launch.
A confluence of factors—the pace of technological change, the ever-lowering barriers to entry of starting a company, and the natural curiosity and boundary-pushing mindset inherent to teenagers—mean that today’s high school students have the potential to create world-changing businesses, according to Stach. “Based on the successful companies that our program has already helped launch, it’s clear that teenagers represent an underutilized resource in the entrepreneurial workforce.”
The program, which runs two sessions during the summer months, is housed within the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. Over the course of four weeks, students form teams and develop their business ideas. The teams must determine the right customer base and strategy, prototype a beta version of their offerings, and create a comprehensive business plan that includes how they will make money and how the company will scale.
Competition to get into the program is stiff: only about 15% of applicants were admitted this year. More than one quarter of the students in the Launch Class of 2016 hail from a country outside the U.S. This year, students represent 23 countries including Cyprus, Kenya, Malaysia, Romania, Taiwan, Pakistan, and Uruguay. “We look for students who have taken initiative, shown resiliency and perseverance, and have the collaboration and communication skills to be a great teammate,” says Stach.
MIT Sloan faculty members, including Bill Aulet, managing director of the Trust Center, serve as MIT Launch instructors. The Trust Center’s staff and entrepreneurs-in-residence provide additional mentorship and support.
Over half the companies created at MIT Launch continue to grow one year after the program ends. These include, among others: Purchasemate, an app that allows smartphone users to scan a product’s barcode to see details of the corporation that produces it—including the company’s donations to political organizations and its UN Human Rights rating; The Bridge Initiative, a nonprofit that links people with disabilities to long-term employment opportunities; and Bites, a marketplace for chefs to sell gourmet meals to local college students.
MIT Launch alumni have achieved other milestones too. Owen Xu, co-founder of MicroH20, which designs water purification systems, recently saw his company hit the 1M RMB revenue mark in China. Meanwhile, Mihir Trivedi last year won second place at the TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon, and Michael Matias, now 18, recently delivered a TEDx Talk on the value of being a teen entrepreneur and the effect of experimental learning on teenagers.
Indeed, it was Stach’s frustration of not having the training and guidance to develop her business ideas during her teen years that inspired her to create Launch. Stach, who holds an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from MIT and an MBA from Harvard, was hired full time by the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship last spring to bring her program fully into MIT’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Stach adds that entrepreneurship training is valuable even for those who ultimately decide against startup life. “Starting a company—experiencing the time demands, changing market pressures, team dynamics, and inevitable ups and downs—is the single best thing young people can do to set themselves up for future success,” she says.