Building something from nothing

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June 6, 2016 | Audrey Resutek, MIT EECS

Electrical engineering alum Jamie Goldstein reflects on starting companies, the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and giving back to MIT.

Jamie Goldstein

Jamie Goldstein lectures at the 2015 Start6 program. The class, held each IAP, has since been opened to a broader range of students and renamed StartMIT. Photo by Gretchen Ertl.


For Jamie Goldstein ’89, building things runs in the family. The Course 6-1 (electrical engineering) alum remembers that while he was growing up the conversation around the dinner table would invariably turn to talk of inventing.

“It was all about math and science and invention. We would always ask, ‘why isn’t there a product that does X’ where X could be a problem big or small.” says Goldstein, the founder of Pillar Companies and former Partner at North Bridge Venture Partners. “My dad even got a patent on something he prototyped with my Legos. So I knew I wanted to be involved with entrepreneurship and innovation right from the start.”

Goldstein’s job gives him what he describes as a front-row seat to cutting-edge shifts in technology. The entrepreneur-turned-venture-capitalist founded PureSpeech, Inc., in 1994 after getting his MBA from Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration. The company was acquired by Dallas-based Voice Control Systems Inc. in 1998 and subsequently acquired by Nuance.

Goldstein views himself as equal parts entrepreneur and investor. In addition to providing the financial backing for budding companies, Goldstein and his colleagues often help to craft and fine-tune ideas, help entrepreneurs think about what markets to pursue, and develop their value propositions.

“What I love about my job is that I get to help build something from nothing, but for a few companies at the same time. It’s a great way to experience different technical areas in parallel,” he says. “That is one of the things I got from MIT—a broad exposure to many domains in enough depth to understand companies whether it’s a semiconductor company, or a software company, or a robotics company, which makes it really interesting.”

Entrepreneurship in the air

The norms of founding a company have changed somewhat since his father, Arthur L. Goldstein, founded Ionics, Inc., in 1948, Goldstein admits. The prevailing wisdom at the time was that young engineers should try to gain deep experience in their field at an established firm before launching their own ventures.

Now, many entrepreneurs start their first company as soon as they graduate, or even as students. Goldstein reflects that technology entrepreneurship is a much more visible part of culture now—it’s not uncommon for stories about technology startups to make front-page news. Furthermore, it is easier to assemble a team and find help than ever before.

“I think the ecosystem has evolved now where if you’re an expert in one area it’s much easier to find the other pieces to surround yourself. Whereas in the past it might have been a very lonely and unlikely path to success, now it’s much more established,” he says.

The trend is evident in the results of a 2014 survey of EECS alumni, which found that grads are founding their first companies at increasingly younger ages. Among those who graduated in the 1980s, only 8 percent of founders started their first companies before the age of 25. For those who graduated in the 2000s, however, 33 percent of founders started first companies before 25.

StartMIT

While starting a company is more common now, Goldstein observed that many first-time founders still have difficulty navigating the nuts-and-bolts of entrepreneurship, like developing an elevator pitch, understanding the nuances of equity, or how to market their product.

In 2014, Goldstein approached the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science about creating entrepreneurship opportunities for students. The idea has developed into StartMIT, a class held during MIT’s Independent Activities Period (IAP).

“Dave Husak, founder of Plexxi, (Course 6-1 ‘84) and I were talking about how we wanted to give students better visibility to the real world while they’re students, so that they can be smarter about the process. So, I called Anantha [Chandrakasan, EECS Department Head] and I remember I was in California and Anantha said, ‘Where can I call you right now?’”

Chandrakasan had just been charged by the EECS Visiting Committee with a clear mandate to give EECS students more exposure to entrepreneurship. Working together with Goldstein and Peter Levine of Andreessen Horowitz, the department set about developing a program that put aspiring entrepreneurs in contact with successful founders.

The class, formerly titled Start6, has helped students develop over 100 projects, Including Smarking (2014), now a successful company that uses big data analytics to help parking-garage managers maximize pricing and availability; GelSight (2014), which is commercializing sensors that can make 3-D maps of surfaces and could be used for more sensitive robotics fingertips; and Belleds Q (2015), which is developing a consumer product that uses streaming music to control wireless smart LED bulbs in homes.

Goldstein continues to be involved with StartMIT and the department. A member of the EECS Visiting Committee, Goldstein kicked-off the 2016 StartMIT agenda with a talk titled “Startup 101.”

Each year since the launch of the program he has served as a mentor to several student teams—meeting with them over the course of two-and-a-half weeks to develop their ideas and implementation strategies. He observes that, as the program has grown, students from a broader range of backgrounds have taken an interest in the course, with experience levels running the gamut this year from MIT freshmen to entrepreneurs with 15 years of experience. “It’s great to see how students with diverse backgrounds can match up and work together,” he says. “Because very often this is where you you find the most interesting ideas—at the intersection of these domains.”

Next steps

Goldstein founded Pillar Companies in early 2016 to innovate on the venture capital model itself. “In meetings with many of the successful CEOs around the Boston community, many of whom have close ties to MIT, we saw an opportunity to approach the business in a different way — one that better aligned founders of young companies with capital and the resources they need to succeed.”