“The purpose of a business should be to solve real problems for real customers,” says MIT Professor Hari Balakrishnan, cofounder of Cambridge Mobile Telematics.
Technology encourages the growth of startups, but starting and running a business requires skills beyond what a student might learn in the classroom. Enter StartMIT, an annual Independent Activities Period course that focuses on entrepreneurship and aims to make students aware of the process of turning ideas into companies.
StartMIT began in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) as Start6 in 2014, and it has since gone Institute-wide. This year, the program ran Jan. 7-23 and featured 60 guest speakers representing a wide spectrum of innovation leadership, from Jinane Abounadi, executive director of the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund; to Hari Balakrishnan, a professor in EECS and cofounder of Cambridge Mobile Telematics; to Megan Smith ’86, SM ’88, cofounder and CEO of Shift7 and former chief technology officer of the United States.
Balakrishnan was part of a panel called “From a MIT research project to a startup,” moderated by EECS Professor Saman Amarsinghe. Joining Balakrishnan were two faculty colleagues, Michael Stonebraker and Silvio Micali, both winners of the A.M. Turing Award — which is considered by many to be the “Nobel Prize of computing.” Along with being members of the EECS faculty, all three have another shared interest, Balakrishnan says: “All of our companies came out of research done at MIT.”
During the panel, Balakrishnan’s message to students was that a company’s main priority is to solve problems for customers. “Engineers and researchers believe it’s all about technology, and then you go to a company and the business people tell you it’s all about the product. But what it really is all about is solutions for customers, and the purpose of a business should be to solve real problems for real customers,” he says.
Balakrishnan cofounded Cambridge Mobile Telematics in 2010 along with Sam Madden (another EECS entrepreneur) and Bill Powers. The company’s goal is to make the world’s roads safer, which is done through sensors on smartphones and other devices that the company designs.