Do tech stars need a degree? MIT’s Ito says yes, puts sponsor money where his mouth is


Joi Ito is a busy guy.  The director of the prestigious MIT Media Lab writes and speaks on myriad subjects from emerging democracy to internet freedom. He invested early in lots of interesting startups — including Flickr,, Kickstarter and Twitter.

MIT Media LabAnd now he’s backing a new project that would let corporate Media Lab sponsors fund students’ startups after they graduate, according to this Scott Kirsner story in The Boston Globe.  That means big name companies including Samsung, Panasonic, AOL etc. could pony up to fund a stipend for MIT graduates to build the company or technology of their dreams.

This is still early stage. Asked to comment on the report, an MIT spokeswoman said “the program has not yet been approved or funded, so the story was a bit premature.”

Industry-funded academic research projects are problematic. Critics say that private companies use universities, which often are publicly funded,  as petri dishes for their own R&D purposes. Company-funded college research can also lead to squabbles over  who owns intellectual property rights of work done at the school but partially or wholly underwritten by private industry.

Here’s the crux of the issue from Kirsner:

“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 idea of encouraging college researchers to stick around for their diplomas is actually of note. Obviously MIT has a vested interest in its students completing their coursework, but some in tech say this is a waste of time and resources. These skeptics include early Facebook investor Peter Thiel who has funded two classes of Thiel Fellows. These young technologists get money to leave school and pursue their work. His argument is that it’s better for promising talent  just to get to it rather than put in their time at college, running up huge student loan debt.

That’s a premise that Upstart, founded by Google veteran David Girouard, for example, finds troubling. Upstart invests in promising graduates of specified schools in return for a percentage of their future earnings. Again, you have to graduate to get that Upstart money.

Whatever happens with Ito’s new project, it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.


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