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Media Lab director Joi Ito planning new fund that would put money into student startups

Posted by Scott Kirsner  March 7, 2013 08:30 AM

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Update: In October, MIT announced the creation of the E14 Fund, which provides a $2,400/month stipend to selected startups over the course of six months. Twenty percent of the fund's eventual returns will go to MIT as a gift.

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Perhaps it's not surprising that if you recruit a noted angel investor to run one of MIT's highest-profile research groups, the Media Lab, one of the things he'll do is try to create new mechanisms to invest in student startups...

That's what's happening at the Media Lab, where Joi Ito — an early investor in Twitter, Kickstarter, and Flickr — is now into his second academic year of running the place. An as-yet-unnamed fund would collect money from Media Lab sponsors and use it to support students who want to start companies based on their research at the Lab. Ito has been getting advice from Media Lab alums who have trod that path already, like Joe Chung, the co-founder of Art Technology Group, an e-commerce software company that went public and was later acquired by Oracle.

One key purpose of the new fund, Ito explained to me recently, will be to encourage students to finish their degrees before they start companies. "We want students to stay focused while they're here," he said. But once they're done, the fund will provide a six-month stipend to lay the groundwork for their company, and help make sure that the new venture has clear rights to the intellectual property they developed while at the Lab. (In the past, there has been a somewhat vague non-exclusive right granted to students to commercialize technologies that they worked on while at the Lab, Ito said.)

The Media Lab's corporate sponsors would put money into the fund. (The current sponsor list includes companies like Google, Intel, IDEO, Sony and Hasbro.) In addition to providing the aforementioned stipend, the fund would also invest alongside venture capitalists or qualified angel investors who decided to fund any of the startups, matching the money they put in up to 15 percent. That means that Media Lab sponsors could enjoy a nice return if companies do well. "It's a way for sponsors to keep track of the startups that come out of the Lab, and share in their success," says Ito. "Some of them could also be first customers for these new companies." MIT would also get a percentage of any investment gains, though Ito is careful to say he wants the fund to operate "at arm's length" from the university.

The fund hasn't yet gotten the final seal of approval from MIT's administration, but if it's OK'ed, Ito would chair the committee that chooses which recent grads will get initial stipends. The rest of the committee would be made up of Media Lab alums who have been successful entrepreneurs. Ito says his goal is to "increase the quality and thoughtfulness of startups" that the Lab is spawning. It sounds like the new fund won't get involved with companies started by faculty, like Bluefin Labs, which was acquired by Twitter earlier this year, or the recently-formed Jibo Inc. More details will likely be announced later this month.

One local investor who had some knowledge of Ito's plans, but asked for anonymity because she was not up-to-date on them, told me that the biggest issue will be how the new fund will alter Ito's role. Essentially, if part of his objective is to help launch successful startups, how will that influence who he recruits (and supports) as faculty and students, and what sorts of new research initiatives get green-lit?

In January of last year, I covered a wide-ranging talk that Ito gave in Kendall Square.

One recent student startup out of the Lab, Supermechanical, raised a few hundred grand on Kickstarter to build a new kind of Internet-connected sensor; others, like digi-toy maker Sifteo, have been successful in raising venture capital.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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