Nitin Rao

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Supports a Development Through Enterprise Ecosystem

MIT logoAt, we follow the various universities leading innovation in base of the pyramid strategy and research.? It gets better when this research leads to actionable, practical solutions for development.?

The?Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)?is becoming a center of excellence for market-based approaches to poverty alleviation throughout its entire ecosystem. I was excited to learn about a number of initiatives at the university driving development through enterprise. Even as I was writing this post, the MIT?Global Poverty Initiative?was running?Poverty Week?at MIT, featuring?dozens of events?and spotlighting the biggest problems facing humanity.

Base of the Pyramid Curricula:
MIT faculty and lecturers (including,?for example,?Amy Smith,?Iqbal Quadir,?Rick Locke,?Ken Morse,?Diane Davis,?Alex “Sandy” Pentland and?Anjali Sastry) have been leading various BoP-focused curricular innovations that bring together students from different disciplines and combine academic discussions with field work. Not surprisingly, these courses are popular enough to have a waitlist of interested students. Here are just a few examples:

  • The?D-Lab?family of classes (development, design, dissemination) encourages students to develop affordable, low-tech inventions that have high impact on citizens below the poverty line in developing countries;
  • Students in the?NextLab?course (part of?The NextBillion Network?initiative) research, develop and deploy mobile technologies for the next billion mobile users in developing countries such as?Ecuador,?India,?Mexico?and?Zambia;
  • The Global Entrepreneurship Lab, MIT’s flagship international internship course is being extended to include practical challenges in?Global Health Delivery?for resource-poor settings in?Africa. Graduate student teams apply professional management skills, tools and approaches to pressing real-world problems that their hosts define, drawing on their classroom learning to work on the ground to create effective improvements that provide patients with the healthcare they need;
  • The?X-Prize Institute?is a unique program currently running a course that challenges students to think of the types of breakthroughs that might?generate revolutionary breakthroughs in the energy sector. Last spring, the Institute ran a course around designing incentives for health innovations in the developing world;
  • The?S-Lab (Sustainability Lab)?is unique in engaging students and faculty in developing an integrated framework for sustainability (including social equity, economic development and environmental regeneration). The course culminates in a three-month consulting project in which teams of students work to solve the real-world sustainability problems of one of the program’s partner companies.?Course coordinator Sarah Slaughter says that S-Lab provide students with a strong perspective of the challenges and opportunities in sustainability. Projects must be core to the operations of the host company, and should move forward the broader sustainability movement.?(See two related?interesting?articles?in?the MIT?Sloan alumni magazine). S-Lab is also helping other universities in introducing sustainability in their curriculum;
  • The?International Development Group?is an example of how this interest in development has extended beyond business and engineering into design. IDG investigates?the urban, regional, and national socioeconomic impacts of major public and/or private investments, and addresses problems of squatter housing, municipal finance, metropolitan sprawl, and social disparities at a variety of scales;

True to the M.I.T. credo,?mens et manus, (“Mind and Hand” in Latin) each of these courses/initiatives involve hands-on experience tying theory and practice.?Material?from some of these courses is?available?online?for?download?as part of the Institute’s Open Course Ware initiative.

Centers of Excellence:

The?Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship,?created through a $50 million gift from Legatum, is led by GrameenPhone founder?Iqbal Quadir?and supports aspiring entrepreneurs in the developing world through seed grants and a competitive?fellowship. Managing Director?Michael Maltese?says,

“The?Legatum?Center?aims to convert innovative ideas into viable business plans. By the time they complete the fellowship they will be at that stage that they could make a very good pitch to investors and hopefully get start-up money to launch their business,” adding that?U.S.?investors have shown interest in Legatum, which plans to link them with graduating fellows.?

The?Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL)?serves as a focal point for development and poverty research based on randomized trials. In February, the?New York Times?characterized it as the world’s leading program “using economics to make the world a better place.”?Work by?Abhijit Banerjee?and?Esther Duflo?has turned some of the more commonly held development assumptions upside down.

The MIT International Development Initiative is an umbrella of programs that work to link MIT departments with communities in the developing world.? The various programs “provide opportunities for MIT students to travel to developing countries, work with partner organizations to identify needs and design challenges, and develop technologies that address these issues.”


In addition, the community participates in related clubs (MIT International Development Network,?MIT Sloan NetImpact,?Sloan Entrepreneurs for International Development,?Sustainability at MIT), research (Innovations: Technology, Governance, Globalization,?MIT International Review) or in entrepreneurship competitions such as the?MIT $100K’s development track?and the?M.I.T. IDEAS Competition. This year,?The Yunus Challenge?calls for innovative small-scale energy storage solutions that address the needs of people living on less than $2 per day.

These initiatives build on M.I.T.’s strengths in technology and in fostering?Entrepreneurship & Innovation.

According to Jhonatan Rotberg, one of the instructors in the Next Billion lab,?”technology is only a means, and it should be subordinated to social, people issues.?Success is also a function of perseverance, not of any kind of genius. Innovation centric education from MIT makes people think outside the box, and to think big.? Thinking beyond the norm, experimenting, failing and trying again is the MIT trademark, and that’s what’s needed in development.” ?

Another MIT professor lecturer, Joost Bonsen, told me that “Here, we use all the classic tools of business plan competitions, new ventures classes, extracurricular clubs, and so forth to educate, inspire, and incent development ventures much more widely throughout the Institute.”

For MIT graduates interested in entrepreneurship, you can be plugged into the ecosystem through the?MIT Enterprise Forum, which convenes events and connects entrepreneurial alumni with opportunities around the world.

The only long-term measure of success for MIT’s focus on development entrepreneurship can be the achievements of its alumni. In addition to?past?spinout companies, a few promising startups include:

  • Diagnostics-For-All: Winner of both the MIT $100K and the Harvard Business School Social Enterprise Business Plan Contest, DFA is a not-for-profit diagnostic device company launched to develop a low-cost, paper-based “lab-on-a-chip.”? These simple and flexible diagnostic devices will be used in resource-poor areas of the globe to improve public health.
  • ClickDiagnostics?is a health services business enabling remote telemedicine via mobiles in the South Asian and African markets.
  • SaafWater is a utility service supplying affordable clean water solutions to the South Asian urban market, starting in?Pakistan.
  • Assured Labor?seeks to improve the lives of workers in developing countries by using mobile phones to match dependable workers with honest employers.

(Full Disclosure: I have a deferred admission to the MBA program at the?M.I.T.?Sloan?School?of Management, and look forward to joining this entrepreneurial community)