In mid-May, when second-year Sloan student Philip Cohen visited the nearly 5000 square feet of space on the fifth floor of E52 that would later host 40 start-up companies, the only furniture over there was a 1970s style leather massage arm chair. By June 4, 14 offices and a common area with five large tables had emerged to host the teams until Aug. 31.
This transformation into the Beehive Cooperative — MIT’s largest start up incubator — represented a dire need at MIT. Earlier this year, the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship received over 100 applications for their Founders’ Skills Accelerator (FSA) Contest which provided 10 MIT-affiliated start-up companies with $20,000 to pursue their projects.
Bill Aulet, managing director of the Trust Center, tapped Cohen on the shoulder one day while walking out of his “New Enterprises” class, telling him about the space.
“From Day One, he was extremely supportive saying take this and run with it,” says Cohen. From here, the Beehive Cooperative was formulated. An application was put up on the Trust Center website with a May 23 deadline and sent to “virtually every outlet at MIT.”
Of the approximately 55 companies which applied, Cohen chose about 40 using two criteria — each team needed to have a high level of seriousness with regard to their project and at least one current MIT student on its founding team.
An English major, a former military officer who oversaw 250 people right out of college, and an avid musician who released an indie-rock album last fall, Cohen wanted a diverse set of companies and to ensure the Beehive was “not just a Sloan thing.”
He got what he wanted. From Delightfully, which provides digital giftwrapping services, to Jamela, an organic make-up company, Cohen sat down informally with each team to better understand their unique goals.
With a kick-off pizza lunch on June 4, the bees got to work. On one chalkboard there, the phrase “Feed Honey” was quickly modified to “Need Money.”
Of the 40 teams, approximately 10 split their time with MassChallenge, the world’s largest global start-up competition. About 15 teams, of two to three people each, are in the office at a given time.
Since each team is so busy, GeckoCAP’s Steven Chiu says, “There’s a lot of great teams…but it’s a little hard to socialize.” Still, “it’s inspiring to know there are others as crazy as us,” says Rallyt’s George Elfond.
Wednesday night happy hours and biweekly brainstorming “IdeaStorm” sessions on Fridays bring the groups together. A guest lecture series featuring investors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs helped teams refine their products.
Early stage investors helped Chiu and GeckoCAP gauge excitement for the product. Additionally, Cohen mentions that teams were able to “offload a lot of questions and concerns” on a member of MIT start-up Locu.
In addition, each week, one team is appointed as the “Ambassador of Fun” and is responsible for hosting at least one morale-boosting event, says Cohen.
Additionally, a lot of the advice is given informally.
When Super PAC App’s Dan Siegel MBA ’12 wanted to open a company bank account, “everyone made time” in the Beehive office to weigh the pros and cons of each option and by the end of the afternoon, he “knew for sure” which one to choose. In another example, since “neither of us knew where coders hung,” other teams gave Chiu and the GeckoCAP team advice about how to contact programmers.
Cohen hopes that his initial class of companies will share a “sort of fraternity that will last.” Throughout the summer, he witnessed new levels of collaboration.
As an entrepreneur, you feel your “idea so unique that if you articulate your idea, you’re afraid it will be stolen… and hold ideas fairly close to the chest,” Cohen says.
Yet, in order to progress, companies must reconcile this paradigm in the early stage of a venture. The Beehive companies became more comfortable with sharing their ideas through the summer.
As for next summer’s companies, a new Beehive location is needed as the Sloan space is redirected. Though the Beehive is already viewed as a success in the eyes of the Trust Center, Cohen says “everything has its start… and my successor will undoubtedly take the hive to that next level.” He thinks the Beehive will continue to evolve to best fit the needs of the Trust Center and greater MIT community.
Cohen will give advice to the next Beehive managing director as he pursues his own start-up next summer. Audiocommon will allow musicians to access tools typically available only in the recording studio, saving time in the recording pipeline.
“As people, our need to create is very inherent,” says Cohen who views entrepreneurship as an “academic major agnostic lifestyle.”
Whether you’re a chemical engineer, Course 6 or an English major, entrepreneurship is about finding problems and fixing those problems, he says.
Super PAC App
Over $300 million has been raised and spent by super PACs already in 2012, leaving voters with a dizzying array of media messages and intentions.
Enter Siegel, Jennifer Hollett and their new Super PAC App expected to be available Aug. 20. Users of the free app can simply hold up their iPhone to a television screen to instantly learn the political leanings and total expenditures of the super PAC, organization, or official campaign funding the advertisement. The app also allows users to check a commercial’s claims by linking to related third party sources like opensecrets.com which reveals political spending. Users can then rate the overall commercial and view their friends’ ratings via Facebook and Twitter.
The app evolved from a final project for a Media Lab class focusing on situations involving multiple media screens (television, computer etc.) with related content in which Siegel and Hollett, a Harvard Kennedy School graduate were enrolled. Excitement from the Media Lab and the Trust Center and a grant from the Knight Foundation, which funds innovation in journalism, allowed them to “take the app from a concept and class project to a company building a real application” says Siegel. He also describes their summer stint at the Beehive as “another example of MIT letting us stand on its shoulders.”
The summer has been busy. The team recruited start-up guru and iPhone app developer Bob Caslin. They are also assembling the MP3 audio file database which is required so that the app can uniquely identify every campaign ad using TuneSat audio fingerprinting technology. About 90 percent of these files can be obtained from Youtube channels or websites by webcrawlers. For those not yet put up online, the team must rely on a network of journalists and other sources.
Siegel wants to ensure the app is something “people will care to use,” especially in the swing states. The team will be attending both the Democratic and Republican National Convention. Additionally, about 10 people each in many of the swing states have been generating awareness about and responses to the app. For example, previous feedback led to a “parting of the clouds moment” that changed the way some of the buttons were placed on the app, explains Siegel.
Post-election, SuperPAC App also plans to analyze the 2012 election data as one of the relatively few companies in this sphere. A University of Pennsylvania International Relations graduate and Toronto native respectively, Siegel and Hollett are exploring ways to expand the app for different countries and elections. The app could also be extended to check claims on any product based commercial. As for 2016, Siegel leaves plans open.
“2016? We could be flying in cars by then.”
Asthma is the number one chronic children’s disease and primary cause for child hospitalizations and for missing school. Yet, don’t fear.
Operating under the motto “Simple Asthma Management,” the GeckoCap team aims to reduce preventable asthma attacks and hospitalizations. Founded Michael Chiu PhD ’97 and Israeli doctor Yechiel Engelhard MBA ’12, GeckoCap will encourage better adherence to recommended dosages and better monitoring of asthma symptoms — two small ways to make a huge difference.
The green cap fits over a child’s current everyday maintenance inhaler and glows when a child needs to take their medication so that they will not forget even if symptoms aren’t flaring up. The GeckoCap also fits over a child’s rescue inhaler. The small device can notify parents via a mobile device if the child has not taken their medicine.
“That way, I’m more aware and can respond in a timely manner,” says Chiu, the parent of a nine-year-old with asthma.
Additionally, all the inhaler usage data is uploaded to a cloud and can be sent to the child’s physician who previously only relied on self-reported accounts. Such data, both in individual and in aggregate, can provide better diagnoses and tracking.
The idea sprung out of the Media Lab’s New Media Medicine Hackathon where GeckoCap took first place. They both became enamored with the asthma project. They developed a prototype and were semifinalists in the MIT 100K competition. They also recently placed first in the Boston Beta competition for health and biotech start-ups. Both former students of Bill Aulet, the managing director of the Trust Center, the pair is now pursuing the project full time in their river-view Beehive office this summer.
With the help of Course 6 undergraduates Louis Sobel ’14 and Tal Tchwella ’14, Yechiel says this summer the team has been working on building a robust back end and a mobile app. With plans to get a product on the market sometime next year, the team is also contacting different psychologists and hospitals for product feedback and developing their fundraising pitch.
The basic premise of Rallyt is that organizing has not made the technological leap that other industries, such as retail or travel have. “Amazon started as nothing but Barnes and Noble on a website,” says Eugene Feldman, one of the three founders of Rallyt.
“However, Facebook and Groupon could have never existed offline,” he continues. By leveraging the transformational power of the Internet, Rallyt hopes to help individuals organize through a web platform by providing unique tools to achieve social change.
Many traditional organizers have embraced social networking tools, such as Facebook and Twitter. Yet, they quickly realized that these tools were great for sharing but not for coordinating actions like protesting or contacting journalists.
“We heard from many organizers over and over that Facebook groups [work] mostly to invite people to events — they are not effective for anything else organizers do,” says founder Mykhaylo Kostandov.
“In addition, most of our Facebook friends are not really our friends — they are our colleagues, classmates and random acquaintances. It’s hard to post political causes if you’re working for Chevron in Texas and you’re voting for Barack Obama or at Google in Silicon Valley and plan to support Mitt Romney for that matter,” says Feldman.
Co-founder Elfond describes the range of purposes Rallyt could help coordinate, from completing actions ranging from sending a petition to town hall when a tree falls on a neighborhood sidewalk all the way to helping overthrow oppressive dictators.
The founders were partly influenced by the lack of attention given to police brutality against the oil worker protests in Kazakhstan in November of last year. Elfond believes a site like Rallyt would make “the potential oppressors be concerned about the world opinion and thus not feel like they can brutally crack down on their people.”
Based in Cambridge, the team has benefited from access to a range of academic advisors at MIT and Harvard. All three co-founders have met more than 10 years ago and have worked together on a range of projects.
“[Without the Beehive], we could have been in a garage in Los Angeles,” says Feldman.
Yet now the team is putting finishing touches on their interface for a private beta in October with several organizations that will be early adopters. There is a lot of interest in a better organizing infrastructure for non profits, but the October private beta release will only be open to 3 – 5 diverse organizations.
“Only the companies that are embracing an important social purpose and are willing to adopt new technologies for that will be selected,” concludes Elfond.