VF Profiles: Christina Chase, EIR @ The Martin Center for MIT Entrepreneurship

Wednesday Aug 28, 2013 by Dennis Keohane - Writer, VentureFizz

Christina Chase is a badass; quite possibly, the most quiet, unassuming badass ever to walk through the doors of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship.

She’s not the Samuel L. Jackson, my-wallet-tells-you-everything-you-need-to-know type of badass, but a badass nonetheless.

More than anyone I’ve met, Chase exudes a ‘What can I do to help you?’ interest in others and a passion for building great products/companies/dreams with peers, students, and visionaries. What is amazing is that MIT’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence is so matter-of-fact in her approach that it almost seems as if, on first meeting her, she knows who you are, what you are up to, and has plotted a clear path for your own success. She is a badass because she is humble, unselfish, helpful, and, smart as hell.

The best way to describe Christina Chase is that she is a “Passion Project Badass.”

Trying to Help the World and Shaping an Entrepreneur

Christina Chase started her first company at age eighteen.

Since third grade, Chase wanted to be a marine biologist. So she went to Colorado State, which was one of the best veterinary schools around, with the plan to eventually transfer to marine biology powerhouse UC Santa Barbara and then go to the Scripps Research Institute. However, almost all the mentors she encountered warned her of the lack of actual jobs in the marine biology field. (It is still a love of Chase’s as she continues to be an avid scuba diver.)

Chase’s interest in marine biology was, at the time, the outward expression of an underlying, preternatural urge to impact positive environmental change. She had been working on a line of environmentally-friendly beauty products since high school and dropped out of Colorado State to focus on building a business around what had grown into a larger project.

Talking about her first foray into entrepreneurship, Chase admits, “I had no idea what I was doing.” The beauty products never took off, and Chase returned to school a few months later. However, the insightful experience of trying to start a company would inform many of the projects Chase would undertake down the road.

She returned to Colorado State to pursue a different path in International Relations. This path eventually led Chase to a stint at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Technology Division. As she said of the gig, “It was an incredible experience to engage with those shaping the policy of the country. While I didn't want to stay in politics, I learned the value of compromise while keeping an eye on your top priorities so to not compromise those.”

Chase also worked for a spell at New York PR firm, Hill & Knowlton, but quickly realized she wanted to be involved in building solutions rather than being at the end of the sales/product cycle.

Around the same period of time, Chase was active in the intense world of competitive cycling. Some of what lies behind Chase’s focus and drive can be gleaned from the fact that she doesn’t cycle much these days. As she told me, “I was training to win. Unless I was training seriously, I wasn’t out for a fun ride.”

However, like most entrepreneurs with athletic backgrounds, Chase believes that her time cycling informs her personality tendencies to live the ideals of “no-pain-no-gain, persistence, and knowing that you are going to have good days and bad days, but its not about focusing on the small incidents.”

Love of Hardware

One of Chase’s favorite parts of her role as MIT’s EIR is that she gets to be at the forefront of pushing some of the most innovative hardware entrepreneurs into the limelight.

After stints in politics and public relations, Chase eventually got an internship at Hewlett Packard in what she refers to as “the ‘back-end’ of marketing in their data storage division.” She was immediately entranced by what the R&D engineers were building and set out to try and understand the hardware behind the computers and networks that our internet culture is built on today. Believe it or not, Chase is pretty much a self-taught engineer.

Her time at HP is where Chase said she, “Found I had an affinity for “translating” the technology. I was learning into how it was going to solve customer pain points, and something “front-end” marketing and sales could use.” She added, “I came to realize the opportunity of Minimum Viable Product, as sometimes the smallest enhancement could make the biggest impact, even if it wasn’t seen as the “coolest” part of the technology.”

Most importantly, Chase realized that working in hardware could have the greatest impact on people, business, and the world at-large, albeit, behind the scenes, which she didn’t mind at all.

It is her passion for hardware that also led Chase to form Hack Boston with@HackerChick, Abby Fichtner.

The goal of Hack Boston is to be a central meetup for everyone working in the hardware space. As Chase said, “I look at things from a hardware perspective, looking at best practices for usability, trying to organize various teams for more hands-on, technical, small workshops.”

Hack Boston is Chase’s chance to create greater opportunities for the local hardware community. As she explained, the goal is to be an organization that can “support our hardware teams in the same way we support our software teams.”

At the Crossroads of Education and Entrepreneurship

Eventually, Chase would get an opportunity that she couldn't pass up. Dartmouth was looking to build in incubator, Chase wanted to get more involved in the startup community, and when they offered her a role at the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network she jumped at the chance.

At Dartmouth, Chase helped teams commercialize academic Intellectual Property. She also had many side projects that she "would start and eventually kill, at different stages." One was photonics/calibration/light measurement/etc. company Labsphere. In a few different roles, Chase helped to turnaround and, eventually, get Labsphere acquired.

All the while, Chase was envisioning a project that could have a greater impact on education as a whole. Those visions eventually became edtech startup Firehoze.

As she said, "For years, I wanted to accomplish two things: ensure every child, regardless of geographic location or financial means, had access to the best education possible; and give those working to make a difference in STEM fields, through graduate degrees, the opportunity to off-set educational expenses, as well as share their deep knowledge and passion outside their geographical locale."

Firehoze, which Chase founded, started by offering advanced subject matter video tutorials in math and science.

During this period, she said that she learned a great deal. "Education was, and still is, a very difficult market. There's a huge disconnect between the infrastructure we enjoy at home and that in the schools." Chase added, "There's also a gap between existing curriculum and the integration of technology."

"After seeing iPads bought and ending up in cabinets and SmartBoards being used as common whiteboards, I found myself consulting schools about the mindful integration of technology, rather than just assuming if tech was bought, that would solve the problem."

The Firehoze project, which is still running strong, may be Chase's most important "passion project" to date. As she explained, "We're still in the early stages of what online education will be. What we see now is not what it will be in twenty years. It's exciting to see more people dive in to tackle this challenge and I give a lot of credit to those who are continuing on the path to find ways bridge this gap."

MIT's Guiding Influence

Her current role at MIT allows all of her passions to come together in one place.

Hardware, education, and the need to help others have not only made her one of the most important influencers and mentors on campus, but in the entire Boston tech/innovation ecosystem as a whole.

As MIT's Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Chase has basically put the responsibility upon herself to help others achieve their entrepreneurial dreams.

As Angela Zhang, an MIT computer science major said of Chase, “Half of the entrepreneurial teams that have come out of MIT wouldn’t be here without her."

Call her what you want; visionary, educator, technologist, mentor, entrepreneur, advocate, etc...

When it comes down to it, Christina Chase is one thing: a truly innovative badass.

Dennis Keohane is a staff writer for VentureFizz. You can follow Dennis on Twitter (@DBKeohane) by clicking here. (Ben Mirin, @benmirin of Slate.com, also contributed on this piece.)

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