Taking The Engine for a Test Drive

A group of MIT students gets a look under the hood.

By Meg Murphy

Innovators, investors, and entrepreneurs worldwide are waiting on news of the first companies chosen to be part of The Engine. Founded by MIT, The Engine is a combination of long-term investment, resources, and services for founders working on “tough tech” that prioritizes high-impact solutions to big problems over early profits. This summer a group of MIT students got a taste of what it’s like to be inside The Engine’s space in Central Square, near the MIT campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They may not be members of The Engine’s first cohort of startups, but they still had a chance to warm up the space, so to speak, for those chosen.

The students came from MIT Sandbox, an innovation program for students, to take up residence at The Engine for the summer. Daily, the space at 501 Massachusetts Avenue is abuzz with ideas. As the startup Tactile, Charlene Xia and five other recent graduates in mechanical engineering aim to revolutionize Braille technology. As Rigrade, aeronautics and astronautics graduate student Andrew Kennedy and his colleagues aim to develop a robotic system for scaffold construction. As Lightmatter, postdoc Yinchen Shen and his team hope to accelerate artificial intelligence innovation with light-based processing.

“It is exciting to be here. It promotes this productivity in yourself,” says Xia on a weekday morning at The Engine headquarters, which spans three floors and includes conference rooms, makerspaces, high-tech machinery, and labs. “It feels like a community,” agrees Kennedy. Shen adds: “Venture capitalists like to meet with us here. Everyone is curious about The Engine.”

Shaking Down the Systems

“We decided it would be a shame to have an empty building in Central Square as we’re ramping up,” says Reed Sturtevant, a general partner at The Engine and previously an early-stage investor at Boston-based Project 11. “We thought: How can we contribute to the community? Plus, the building is just refinished so they are helping us shake down the systems, if you will.”

While set in motion by MIT, The Engine is an independent, for-profit public benefit corporation. Equipped with a $150 million investment fund, which includes $25 million from MIT, The Engine is currently “digging in to find teams we can help have a real impact in the world,” says Sturtevant. The Engine’s first round of investments, which will typically range from $250,000 to $1 million at the outset, will be announced in the fall.

“We want to make it easier and faster to take tough tech ideas and bring them to market,” says Sturtevant. The Engine has aligned investors, board, and investment advisory committee members, including business leaders, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and MIT, around that mission.  “We will absolutely invest in companies that come from a range of places: universities, industry, or even out of someone's garage. We’re definitely happy to talk to folks,” Sturtevant says.

Making It Real

As people speculate on the identity of the companies that will attract The Engine investment, the Sandbox teams in residence offer limited clues. They do not necessarily reflect the mission of The Engine, Sturtevant says, although many do. “We didn’t pick and choose the Sandbox teams. We’re not treating this as, ‘Hey, we might invest in these companies.’ It’s more of a mentorship relationship. We like the energy the teams bring.”

On a recent afternoon, Carlos Araque, technical director at The Engine, was reviewing the ways to program a computerized lathe, a high-end piece of machinery in one of the makerspaces. Listening intently, Xia memorized the various directions. She will soon use the machine to prototype Tactile, the first portable real-time text-to-Braille converter.

“First, we’ll use the 3-D printer,” said Xia, waving a hand toward that machine. “When we get the look right, we’ll use the lathe to make it.” Her team works downstairs in the co-working space, generates ideas, and comes upstairs to try them out, she said. “All the stuff we’ve been talking about making can actually get prototyped now!”

Araque listens with a smile. He joined The Engine to maintain its internal prototyping and lab capabilities, and provide startups with guidance around technology transfer and product development. “We’ve created a place for teams to try out their ideas,” he said.

The Sandbox teams get his attention for the summer. Within the next year, however, Araque expects to be working closely with the first 15 to 30 companies selected by The Engine. “We’d like to think The Engine is really about companies that are being born. The companies we want to be disruptive and big and influential in the future will be born right here. So we have to push them from all sides, and provide the resources they need from all sides.”

Like MIT, The Engine seeks to advance knowledge and empower innovators, according to Kennedy, a graduate student in the MIT Space Systems Labs. “The Engine wants to help you grow,” he said. “It's not like it's off limits because you have something that involves a lot of hardware and manual work and will take some time. It’s a welcoming space where you’ll find a lot of ideas flowing.”



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