In a process that has been happening at MIT for more than 60 years, this week a group of students gathered to practice entrepreneurship at a rapid pace designed to mimic the steep learning curve required to start a business.
MIT Course 15,390 (New Enterprises) has been held annually since 1961—a time when entrepreneurship education was little more than an obscure idea. In fact, many people believe that New Enterprises is the oldest entrepreneurship course in the country, and its footprint has been profound both at the institute and in the greater Boston area.
Over the course of a semester, project-based instruction challenges students to form teams, track business plans, and respond to feedback provided in mockboard meetings.
“The goal of the course is to prepare students for one of two things: maybe they want to pursue a startup and now have a plan they can put into practice, or maybe they will take that process and use it in another organization whether it’s as a researcher, an employee at a large corporation, or a nonprofit organization,” says Paul Cheek, an associate professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, who began teaching New Enterprises in 2020. “Whatever they do, they will go with the entrepreneurial mindset and skills.”
The format was designed to create entrepreneurs, not companies. Still, an amazing number of class projects have grown into successful ventures over the years. These companies have later launched impactful products, become pillars in the local technology ecosystem, and pioneered new industries.
Bill Aulet, who has led the course for the past 12 years as executive director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, believes New Enterprises exemplifies MIT’s culture of ensuring that classroom work makes an impact on the world.
“When MIT started, it was a home for immigrants and immigrant children who were manning the industrial revolution, so we’re always doing things differently,” says Aulet, who is also a professor of practice at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “We have a deep culture of entrepreneurship. It’s been embedded here for a long time, and when people say, “You’re doing a great job,” you have to say, “It was here before I came and it will be here long after I’m gone.”
A rich history
MIT looked very different in 1961 than it does today. But a trend towards the commercialization of scientific research was unmistakable after a world war in which physicists had played a crucial role and a number of companies had been successfully spun off from MIT’s vast laboratories.
Richard Morse ’33, a professor at what was then the MIT School of Industrial Management, was one of those walking across MIT’s busy campus in 1961 with a new idea. Morse had formed the National Research Corporation (NRC), best known for inventing frozen orange juice, and spun off the Minute Maid Corporation. He wanted to formalize the process of commercializing new technology to students. New Enterprises was born.
Morse taught the class, which was limited to 15 students, with the help of outside professionals and entrepreneurs rather than faculty. Over the years, the course has evolved to respond to changing conditions and growing demand in much the same way a business would.
After Morse, it was taught by Russell Olive ’52 and then by Barbara Bund, who introduced entrepreneurial marketing to the students. Professors Eric von Hippel ’68 and Ed Roberts taught for a transitional period to accommodate the growing number of students applying. In later decades, 20 percent of the class’s seats were reserved for engineering students, reflecting MIT’s highly interdisciplinary approach to entrepreneurship.
As students put what they learned into practice, New Enterprises began to play a defining role in the industries MIT and Cambridge are known for today. Among the early students of the course was Robert Swanson, who later founded Genentech, which developed synthetic insulin. The company is also widely credited with founding the biotechnology industry.
In the 1980s, Jon Hirschtick, who pioneered computer-aided design (CAD) by founding companies such as SoldWorks and OnShape, designed the business plan for his first company in New Enterprises. Other successful entrepreneurs, including Aulet, who took the course as an undergraduate in 1993, credit New Enterprises with teaching them the basics of entrepreneurship.
More recently, the launch of several pillar companies in the Boston area can be traced to New Enterprises.
“I’ve basically taken New Enterprises twice,” says Brian Halligan MBA ’05, who co-founded Cambridge-based marketing software giant Hubspot with Darmesh Shah SM ’06. “The first time I worked on a different idea. The next semester, Dharmesh took it and we marched through the course with Hubspot. I think it was the best course I’ve ever done.”
Today, the course begins by asking students to come up with business ideas. The trainers then hold sessions around team building, client discovery and interviews, and business plan development. Students have two mock board meetings during the semester where experts provide feedback on their plan and try to identify gaps they need to fill in their organization.
The class is a melting pot of undergraduate, graduate, graduate and mid-career Sloan Fellows, as well as students from Harvard University and Wellesley College.
“It’s a fun, enjoyable course,” says Cheek, who notes that students are graded on how rigorously they apply the entrepreneurial concepts taught and how they adapt to feedback. “You look around the room and people laugh and enjoy the process. It’s not just about “getting the job done and going to class.” They also embrace the spirit of entrepreneurship.”
Carrying on a legacy
New Enterprises aims to be the beginning of the entrepreneurial journey for students. After the semester, faculty often refer students to other entrepreneurial support offerings on campus, such as For example, industry-specific courses for entrepreneurs at Sloan or programs such as the MIT Sandbox Fund, the Legatum Center and the Venture Mentoring Service.
No one has a complete list of all the companies that have emerged from New Enterprises, but Aulet says he’s often contacted by alumni who cite the course as a starting point for their business. In the past few weeks, this also included the founding teams of clarity and light matterwho together have just raised an additional $98 million in capital to fund their continued growth.
“It’s incredibly rewarding to hear from these entrepreneurs about their successes in making a positive impact on the world,” says Aulet.
According to Cheek, the fact that the course is now more than 60 years old underscores the connection between MIT’s founding ethos and entrepreneurship.
“It’s so closely related to the MIT motto ‘Mens et Manus’. [“mind and hand” in Latin]’ says Wang. “Entrepreneurship is not just about understanding, it is about going through and practicing a process. This process has evolved over time. This course has been repeated so many times to enhance and increase the value of entrepreneurship education and that is something that definitely doesn’t stop there.”