In August I was invited to the first New England Patriots game to test out the coaching headphones that Bose had created for NFL sidelines. It was an incredible experience, and I was able to watch the game from a Bose suite after the demonstration. It was during the game that I met Sherwin Greenblatt, a first employee and former president of Bose. I was lucky enough to get a chance to speak with Sherwin about his current role as Director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Venture Mentoring Service (VMS).
“Around a place like MIT and other universities, there are lots of people with ideas, and some of them get really passionate about their ideas and want to move their ideas forward,” says Greenblatt. “The problem is that in a place like MIT, it’s a technical university, and people don’t have a clue about the business world.”
The Genesis of VMS
In 2000, MIT professor David Staelin and alumnus Alex Dingee developed the Venture Mentoring Service as a way to help guide these emerging entrepreneurial ventures. The idea was to pair entrepreneurs that had already achieved a level of success where they could devote time and give valuable advice with budding entrepreneurs connected with the university. In 2002, Dingee approached Greenblatt with an offer to volunteer as a mentor, with the prospect of assuming leadership. Greenblatt was named director of VMS a year later.
“The idea is that you advise, guide, steer and coach – help people to learn about the world of business,” says Greenblatt. “They’re smart people, they know how to learn, but they don’t have any help. If you have a good coach you can learn better and faster than you would on your own, and you can develop your innate abilities to their limits, whatever you can do in entrepreneurship.”
When the program began there was nothing else like it in the country. Volunteers worked one-on-one with prospective entrepreneurs to help develop their ideas and make the first steps toward creating a successful venture, and as the program continued to grow VMS graduated to a model of pairing individual mentees with a team of mentors that could help them develop the different aspects of their ventures.
Mentees could be anyone associated with the university – students, alumni, faculty or staff. Volunteers had to have certain qualifications as well; they needed to be at a point in their career where they were stable enough to devote free time to the program (a full day of volunteering total each month), and they needed to be looking for something more than business success. VMS wanted mentors that were looking to guide mentees without any ulterior motives. Today, VMS has over 190 ventures in varying stages of development, and over 160 volunteers helping to guide them.
Todd Zion has been on both sides of the relationship. He created his company, SmartCells, as a mentee with VMS and currently assists as a volunteer.
“It kind of started during my PhD at MIT in chemical engineering,” says Zion. “During that time I was very much interested in the idea of smart drug delivery – delivering pharmaceuticals in a way that was responsive to the body’s needs rather than constantly supplying it or supplying it in timed bursts, but really doing it when the body called for it.” Zion focused on the delivery of insulin in response to blood sugar changes and focused his research in that area.
Zion embarked on a path to design materials that would do such a thing, and after many ups and downs, trails and errors, Zion created a model system that worked well and began testing on animals. During this time Zion became interested in exploring ways to take his research out of the lab and into the industry. In 2003 Zion’s team won the MIT Entrepreneurship Competition, and at the event met Greenblatt and learned about VMS. After winning the competition Zion realized that he needed a lot more real world help. Other than summer job experience selling tickets for his uncle, he had little understanding of the business world. VMS helped to fill in the gaps.
“They were certainly a huge help along the way,” says Zion. “There are the legal aspects of it like incorporating a venture, bringing in an asset like the license from MIT for my technology. There is advice along the way that they provide about how one goes about doing that.
“VMS has that ability to, after they get to know you and your capabilities, go to bat for you with their experienced mentors, and that really means a lot in the early days.”
-Todd Zion, Creator of SmartCells
“As the business plan started to unfold and the pitch for investment was getting more refined, certain individuals from VMS felt comfortable enough introducing me to the angel investment community. That allowed me to go out and meet potential investors, learn what their concerns were, what their investment philosophy was, whether it was compatible with the business plan, and we worked together to come up with a real financeable opportunity.”
It wasn’t a simple process by any means. Throughout, Zion’s company faced founders issues based around people that weren’t happy about being displaced from the company. Members of VMS were able to vouch for him and get him the legal help he needed to deal with such problems.
“That’s another aspect of VMS that I think is great for the aspiring entrepreneur,” says Zion. “One of the biggest risks perceived by the investment community is, ‘Is this a good bet for me? Is this person a good bet? They’ve never done this before,'” says Zion. “VMS has that ability to, after they get to know you and your capabilities, go to bat for you with their experienced mentors, and that really means a lot in the early days.”
Once the venture reached launch, a period that varies from venture to venture, VMS and the venture begin to engage less often. For SmartCells, it came when Zion raised a significant chunk of money, left the MIT environment and had an operations somewhere else, recruited team members, and created a body that was invested in the outcome of the venture (i.e. a board of directors or board of management). That isn’t to say VMS loses touch entirely, but at a certain point the venture is more worried about its own processes than what the next move of the company needs to be, and at that point the venture can leave the nest, so to speak.
Zion’s is one of a number of success stories. He went on to sell SmartCells to a large pharmaceutical company and, having gained more time to pursue other interests, became a volunteer mentor at VMS. His example shows the goal of VMS – to help businesses that might never have succeeded, because the product or service is created by someone that doesn’t yet have the wherewithal to create a business to distribute it, the resources and advice to flourish.
Qualifications of an Entrepreneur
“The thing that we discovered, and I think this is important, is that most mentoring programs focus on making an idea successful,” says Greenblatt. “What we’ve realized, though, is that what makes an idea successful is a good leader. What we focus on is developing the entrepreneurial abilities of the people that we work with. Developing the individual. We don’t really care about the idea, we care about the person. What we’re looking for is someone that has an idea, is passionate about the idea, and is willing to put in the time and effort to make it succeed.”
The VMS model has received serious praise, and recently has been adopted by universities and public services around the country. The Kauffman Foundation approached VMS several years ago because the foundation was interested in making the connection between industry and academia stronger. As business constraints have increased, research labs that once licensed and developed academic research have disappeared. Businesses are less able to develop, and look for products they can quickly begin to sell, creating a gap between great research and available products. It’s become up to entrepreneurs to create companies, develop the research, and then sell or license out the finished product.
VMS worked with the foundation to develop educational material to teach others how to succeed in the VMS model. Through workshops, success stories in other institutions, and word of mouth, the model has grown to reach economic development associations for members of cities and educational institutions. There are now over 40 VMS-modeled services around the world.
To learn more about MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service, you can visit the VMS website.