Recap from the 15th Annual MIT Venture Capital Conference

Tuesday Dec 11, 2012 by Dennis Keohane - Contributor, VentureFizz

The 15th Annual MIT Venture Capital Conference kicked off Friday evening with a call to action by MassChallenge’s John Harthorne and concluded Saturday afternoon with teacher grading app Gradeable winning the conference’s Startup Showdown.

Harthorne addressed a small reception that took place Friday at Turner Fisheries of Boston for the members of the MIT Venture Capitalist and Private Equity Club and many of the conference’s panelists. The MassChallenge founder, an alumnus of Sloan Business School, took the opportunity to implore the crowd to take a different approach to venture funding and creation.  As opposed to beginning a venture with the goal of amassing personal wealth, Harthorne believes that, “You have to do something worthwhile; that is the source of wealth.” He continued, “If you create a solution that the world needs, you’re probably going to do okay, and, you’re going to be doing something valuable for the world, and you’re going to love your job, you’re going to love what you do, and you’re going to die happy.”

The conference kicked off Saturday morning with two impressive keynote speakers. Douglas Leone of Sequoia Capital and Tom Stemberg of Staples fame and more recently, Highland Capital, both enraptured the audience with lessons learned from their myriad experiences and extolled the importance of risk-taking in order to create value in business ventures and investments. While Stemberg concluded by reminding the audience to “Dream the Dream,” Leone poignantly explained the nature of risk in his life with a metaphor about sleeping on a razor sharp knife as opposed to a soft pillow.

Panels focusing on artificial intelligence in enterprise, the future of commerce in mobile, as well as intellectual property and the digitalization of education, were bookended by the conference’s “Startup Showdown,” a pitch and demo contest between ten startup companies. The startups had one minute to pitch their ideas to the conference followed by a morning-long showcase of their products as conference attendees researched the wide array of companies and voted on their favorite startups. 

By Saturday afternoon, the ten startups, which included music discovery app Timbre, interactive radio gamification company BRIGHTdriver, and Common Sensing, an advancement in tracking the use of medicine by diabetics, were whittled down to three finalists: Delightfully, Gradeable, and Sodium Energy. 

Each finalist gave a five-minute pitch and a demo for the panel of judges made up of fashion maven and entrepreneur Marc Eckō, Golden Seeds investor Jennifer Jordan, Santo Politi of Spark Capital, and MIT Venture Mentor Michael Fox. Delightfully, the gift-giving platform aiming to “Give an Experience”, earned third place, while the sodium ion battery company Sodium Energy received runner-up honors.

The big winner of the event, Gradeable, aims to make it easier for teachers to grade, analyze, and track the progress of a student’s work, and, following the advice of John Harthorne, aspires to make an important impact in the world of education. As founder Parul Singh put it, Gradeable is trying to “make data more accessible to teachers.” The judges were obviously impressed with the startup, particularly Marc Eckō, who responded to the product demo by saying, “A lot of what is happening in the technology/innovation education market suffers from an atmosphere of trying to comply within the classroom...but the promise of the [Gradeable] platform is trying to make [a teacher’s] day easier that doesn’t need to comply with the current environment.” For Eckō, Gradeable is a simple, credible idea that can make teaching more efficient and productive while also filling the economic needs that come with the environmental “greening” of educational institutions. 

The judges were also impressed with the possibilities for Gradeable to make an impact in education internationally, not only domestically. The idea that this locally-created, easy to use product could enhance the education climate in America, Asia, and the developing world resonated with the attendees as the MIT Venture Capital Conference came to a close, and left many students, entrepreneurs, and investors buzzing as the event concluded.

Dennis Keohane is a teacher, journalist and contributor to VentureFizz.  You can follow Dennis on Twitter (@DBKeohane) by clicking here.

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