The Engine was MIT’s response to a challenge MIT leaders had heard from many brilliant faculty members and alumni entrepreneurs: that finding the sustained support to develop complex “tough-tech” ideas was nearly impossible. MIT President L. Rafael Reif articulated the problem in May 2015 in an op-ed in the Washington Post. While the current US innovation system is highly optimized to support the success of digital technologies that can typically reach market success in three to five years, it is “simply not structured to support complex, slower-growing concepts that could end up being hugely significant — the kind that might lead to disruptive solutions to existential challenges in sustainable energy, water and food security, and health.”
The op-ed defined the need for a new kind of organization—an “innovation orchard”—specially designed to help such “tough-tech” startups achieve sustained success.
From this first sketch of an idea, President Reif challenged MIT’s leadership to understand what more MIT could do to catalyze innovation and spur regional development by creating an environment that empowered the brightest innovators to develop breakthrough innovations and deliver them to the world. To explore how MIT might realize this vision, MIT Executive Vice President and Treasurer Israel Ruiz embarked on a year-long exploration of conversations with founders, entrepreneurs and companies both large and small. What he learned only reinforced the need for patient capital, access to specialized instrumentation and expertise. Gradually, the idea took shape for a new kind of program.
Informed by these experiences and connections, The Engine emerged as the first practical demonstration of what an innovation orchard might be. Headquartered just blocks from Kendall Square – famously, “the most innovative square mile on the planet” – The Engine’s defining principle is to support startups that seek to create material positive impact on society. By prioritizing breakthrough ideas over early profit, The Engine seeks to catalyze new fields and push the boundaries of innovation.