Creating Technology for Social Change

Guest Post: Mass Challenge at the Center for Civic Media

This great guest post has been written by my Media Lab colleague, the entrepreneur and engineer Travis Rich (twitter) (linkedIn). Mass Challenge visited the Center for Civic Media for lunch today; both Travis and I took notes. My companion post, which includes further detail is here: “Mass Challenge: A Startup Renaissance?“.

The MassChallenge competition is two-years into the process of “catalyzing the startup renaissance”. As many entrepreneur accelerator programs do, MassChallenge offers a global competition designed to attract, strengthen, filter, and and enable funding for promising startups to launch immediately. To achieve this, they’ve built their own space in Boston’s seaport that houses selected applicant companies for an intensive 3-month summer program. Unlike Y-combinator and other similar programs, Mass Challenge takes no equity, is fully non-profit, and behaves purely for the benefit of the startup ecosystem – a nobel endeavor indeed.

The community MassChallenge seeks to foster through their intensive summer program, and year-round with their alumni and mentor networks, is one that lowers the barriers for all entrepreneurs. True to their promise, MassChallenge offers hundreds of events each year, open to the public, as a means to grow the entrepreneurial ecosystem that they believe has the ability to solve the world’s most fundamental challenges. The community, supported partly by Massachusetts state government bodies, acts as a common forum for entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, angel investors, government liaisons, and corporate partners. The value to the ecosystem is validated through feedback coming from non-entrepreneur members who claim that interaction with the energetic startup founders provides as much value to them as they feel they’ve given in return.

It is of course a competition which implies a prize; a large one. One million dollars in cash prizes split amongst the winning teams. While Andy Lippman famously shuns the idea of prizes, arguing that they reward those who win, rather than broadly rewarding those who try, the MassChallenge competition is unique in that the mentorship, experience, and network opportunities granted are often as valuable, if not more so, than the cash prize. Furthermore, beyond funding and mentorship, all participants are awarded office space at their seaport center and access (along with the public) to the countless startup-focused events. Of course, these opportunities and resources are nothing new. What is new — and of extreme value — is the community they’re creating that makes these resources accessible.

Matching the Media Lab’s anti-disciplinary mentality, the competition acknowledges the error in bucketing innovation into categories. There are no pre-set requirements for bio companies versus tech companies versus IT companies. Companies are accepted on the basis that their idea has revolutionary potential, regardless of the domain. This creates the happy dynamic, as seen at the Media Lab, where people of far ranging backgrounds share a common space, cross pollinating ideas and fostering truly meaningful innovations.

The logistics of the competition are of interest as well. To support the enormous ecosystem of entrepreneurs, the greater-community is heavily relied upon for judging and curation needs. Beyond logistical efficiency, this grants value to the MassChallenge in that personal biases in company picks are all but washed out. A meritocracy is created rather than a system driven by nepotism. Such a system has proven extremely appealing for startup founders. In the two years the program has run, there has been a 65% increase in the number of applications and enormous growth and participation in the mentor and alumni networks.

Of course, communicating with such a large community is a challenge. Acknowledging this, and the tech-loving background of many associated with the program, MassChallenge has leveraged many tools. One such effort is, that globally distributes public videos ranging from personal entrepreneur interviews to tech tutorials. Such a system allows a richer level of global engagement than standard mediums, such as Twitter and Facebook, allow. By looking at the MassChallenge program, with their 125 enthusiastic startup companies and enormous mentor network, as a hub for video content, a great service can be provided to the entrepreneurial ecosystem as a whole. In addition to digital outreach, an analog effort is made through the MassChallenge ambassador program. The program takes volunteers to serve as promotional ambassadors for the program — spreading the vision and goals of the competition through face-to-face networking opportunities.

Of course, the real challenge for the program is to confirm that their community is a positive force in the entrepreneurial world, as Ethan Zuckerman insightfully stated. Are entrepreneurs better off in the MassChallenge community, are they happier? Is innovation happening faster and more efficiently? Of course, measuring these answers with any quantitative assertion is a difficult task, but one the MassChallenge folks acknowledge. Gut reactions, of course, suggest a beneficial influence, but regardless of quantitative answers, the competition serves as one more indicator that entrepreneurship is changing in a massively influential, massively exciting way.