MIT, Linked Data Ventures and Locu

My earliest memories of MIT are from my freshman year of college when I remember visiting Boston around Thanksgiving with my roommate, Bren. During my first year at Harvard, I barely made it out to MIT, even though I had some good friends studying there. Only three days ago did I finally make it to MIT properly – first for an event for T=0 Innovation nights, then for a class called Regional Entrepreneurial Acceleration Lab, and finally today for Linked Data Ventures taught by Tim Burners-Lee, the founder of, wait for it, the World Wide Web (more on these classes later).

MIT is considered by many as the best university in the world. Arguably, its the most revered research university in the world as well, with technology and innovation at its core. Of course, in a recent HBS class on Technology and Strategy, I heard that MIT’s Technology Licensing Office is also one of the most sophisticated and commercially savvy licensing offices of any university.

Fiona Murray who teaches the REAL class, and others, have highlighted the contribution MIT has made to entrepreneurship. In fact, a study pits Stanford against MIT on a key metric – the economic impact both universities have had. A study that surveyed 140,000 Stanford alumni  from the 1930s to 2010 — showed that they founded and created almost 40,000 companies that produced nearly 5.4 million jobs. Annually, these companies founded by Stanford alumni pump out revenues of $2.7 trillion.

The same professor, Chuck Eesley, did a similar study for MIT and found the numbers to almost equally staggering. He found that the 105,000 MIT alumni he surveyed created almost 26,000 companies, that generated 3.3 million jobs over time and $2 trillion in annual revenue!

This nugget will pale in comparison, but as I took the train back from MIT to Harvard earlier today, I was reading that MIT’s operating revenues were $3.2billion (!), about $28 million more than operating expenses in the same period ending June 30, 2013. Of the $3.2 billion of income, almost half came from research grants and contracts. $3 billion in operating expenses. Unfathomable.

Anyway, back to my impressions of MIT. I think MIT has this amazing mix of folks who are so into groundbreaking research (you can call them nerds if you wish!) and folks who are really into commercialization of this research, innovation and inventions. And not just commercialization, but also obsessed with the application of this research for the benefit of the society at large. To me, this makes a lethal combination, which probably explains both MIT’s status as the top research university in the world, and also the $2 trillion in annual revenue from its alumni’s companies.

(By the way, The Independent has something similar to say about why MIT is so good at what it does.)

Coming back to the classes at MIT. I have found it interesting (intriguing almost) that a lot of classes at MIT are called Labs (even the non-tech/science ones). There’s J-PAL, the G-Lab, The Media Lab, the E-Lab, and now the REA-Lab! So I asked my friends about it, and then I saw it in action myself – there really is this emphasis on learning by doing – a “living lab” as the Independent calls it.

(Side note: Just the other day, I was sitting in a Design Thinking Class at the I-Lab (yes, Harvard has also started this practice of X-Labs!), chatting with a girl from Harvard’s Ed School, and we were talking about different pedagogical styles we’ve observed at Harvard and elsewhere. We both agreed that learning by doing was the style that let students absorb the learnings most effectively).

So now I’m taking these two courses, Linked Data Ventures and REAL (regional entrepreneurial acceleration lab), at MIT. REAL is a Lab, but not in the typical sense of the word at MIT. Its largely looking at the frameworks we can use to figure out how to seed and then really grow a regional entrepreneurial ecosystem. (“Frameworks” is the most abused word at universities, probably parelleled only by its use at consulting firms such as my previous employer, McKinsey & Co.) The key insight I’ve gotten so far from that course is that government spending (in this case towards military research) really played a big role in seeding what we today know as Silicon Valley – the origins of which go back to radio technology in the pre-World War I era. Of course, Fiona Murray was happy to point out that Stanford didn’t play quite the prominent role that it claims to have played in the sprouting of Silicon Valley near its campus. The debate continues =)

Linked Data Ventures is a much more of a typical MIT class. Taught by Lee, the founder of WWW, it started being taught in 2010. The course was envisioned as a “direct launching pad for commercial efforts around linked data, a technology that World Wide Web inventor and course instructor Tim Berners-Lee is hoping will transform the way we glean meaning from the Web.” Today, the class had a guest speaker, Rene, the founder of Locu, a startup in the local space that just, a month ago, got acquired by GoDaddy for roughly $70mn. Locu, it seems, built a technology that basically managed to create sense of data that lay in an unstructured form on the web (in this case, menus and other information about restaurants, spas, etc.) by giving it structure, and then providing that data to those who might need it most (folks like OpenTable, Yelp, etc.). Locu, by virtue of having done what the course claims the world will need more and more of in the future, promises to be the poster child of this class for sometime (at least until the next lined data venture makes it big!).

A fascinating few days of engaging with MIT, and I must say I’m looking forward to the semester I’m fortunate enough to spend here in Cambridge.

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