In 2003, Todd Zion was a PhD student at MIT with a great idea for a new way to calculate insulin dosage in diabetic patients. By 2011 he had started a company called SmartCells, secured funding and sold the company to Merck (NYSE:MRK) for $500 million.
SmartCells raised about $9 million along the way to fund development of its insulin formulation. But for Zion, the most important ingredient in SmartCells’ success wasn’t funding, product development or even the business plan.
"It was about having a safe place to go with a good idea," Zion told MassDevice.com.
That safe place was MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service, which provides networking, legal advice, and business coaching services to any MIT affiliate with an idea for a product.
The business landscape for innovation looks a lot different than it did 20 years ago. Government grants are down, research & development budgets are being slashed and the venture capital industry has become timid about backing medical and technology startups. That makes it difficult for good ideas to be nurtured long enough to develop into finished products.
But at MIT’s VMS and other incubators, a new innovation model is emerging to combat this tough environment.
Venture capitalist Henry McCance terms this emerging model the "Venture Research Model," which relies on the ingenuity of the scientist or technologist trying to move their idea from the lab to the shelves.
The problem is that scientists are not trained entrepreneurs. That’s where the Venture Mentoring Service comes in. Founded in 2000, it was the 1st of now 26 similar mentoring services based at academic institutions. Although they don’t provide funding or formal business accreditation, they do provide a structured environment for inventors to develop companies under the guidance of several professional mentors. It’s free and never lays claim to any intellectual property developed under its wing. At MIT, anyone can use the service; the only 2 requirements are membership in the wider MIT community and an idea that doesn’t violate the laws of physics.
Director Sherwin Greenblatt, likens the world of startups to a full-contact sport, saying his job is to provide good coaching.
"You don’t become an entrepreneur if you study it. The way you learn to become an entrepreneur is you actually make a commitment and you play the game, and you learn by doing," he told us. "A good coach, or mentor, can help you learn faster and help you develop whatever potential you have."
Danielle Zurovcik, a PhD student, developed a wound-treatment device that applies pressure via mechanical rather than electrical power. She was excited about the potential for this device in rural areas lacking access to electricity.
"When I first started working with VMS, I didn’t even know what my goal was," Zurovcik said. "With their help, we formed a team and that team really helped me understand the financials and even came to investor meetings with me."
Zurovcik’s company, WiCare, has now successfully deployed the product in Haiti and Rwanda, as part of the relief efforts there.
MIT alumni Richard Whalley and James White founded a company, Common Sensing, that’s developing a diabetes self-management tool to allow patients to track trends and patterns in their glucose levels. They’ve used MIT’s mentoring service for networking and legal consultation.
"The biggest unexpected challenge is how hard it can be to get in touch with people, especially doctors, and that’s one of the big ways VMS has helped our company," White said. "That’s a big advantage the MIT community has."
Over the years, Greenblatt and the mentoring service team have seen technology ranging from high-end lingerie to nuclear reactors. The headquarters are tucked away in a small, cramped office among the classrooms in the central MIT building on Massachusetts Ave. It’s run by 3 full-time employees and relies on grants and donations. In 2006, after receiving a grant from the Kauffman Foundation, Greenblatt and his team started a program to expand their venture mentoring service to other universities.
"Today we have a very vigorous outreach program that helps others start their own venturing mentoring activity," Greenblatt said, noting that the MIT model is now in place at 26 other academic institutions.
Jim Collins, 1 of the founders of the field of synthetic biology and also a professor at Boston University, said innovation and product development in science and healthcare is in a "period of stasis." What’s needed, Collins believes, is a hybrid model involving universities working with investors and inventors to carry inventions and discoveries into the marketplace.
MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service was one of the first university-based programs designed to address this need and has helped 100s of companies get off the ground. But it relies heavily on its mentors, asking them to donate time and money to keep the program going.
SmartCells’ Zion feels that the program will be successful in the future because those who benefit from the mentoring will return to the program as mentors, as he did.
"Mentorship in general is an unbelievably valuable resource," Zion told us. "When it comes to entrepreneurship, it can often mean the difference between a company getting off the ground and never seeing the light of day. The right kind of mentorship can really make that difference."