Revolutionary Ventures

[Class Content]   

MIT Course Numbers: 9.455 ~ 15.128 ~ 20.454 ~ MAS.883
Instructors: J. Bonsen ~ E. Boyden ~ D. Dudley ~ R. Ellis-Behnke ~ J. Jacobson ~ A. Marblestone
Units: 2-0-7 Units
Time: Thursdays, 2-4pm
Place: E15-341


Seminar on envisioning and building ideas and organizations to accelerate engineering revolutions. Focuses on emerging technology domains, such as neurotechnology, imaging, cryotechnology, gerontechnology, and bio-and-nano fabrication. Draws on historical examples as well as live case studies of existing or emerging organizations, including labs, institutes, startups, and companies. Goals range from accelerating basic science to developing transformative products or therapeutics. Each class is devoted to a specific area, often with invited speakers, exploring issues from the deeply technical through the strategic. Individually or in small groups, students prototype new ventures aimed at inventing and deploying revolutionary technologies.

Limited Enrollment

Limited enrollment subject to permission of instructors. All interested candidate students must send a three-paragraph application email ASAP to in order to be considered. The three paragraphs should explain (1) your trajectory in education and/or career to the present day, emphasizing any special skills or unique experiences, (2) your inventive, scientific, and/or entrepreneurial aspirations over the coming decade, (3) your biggest ambition about how the human condition could be transformed for the better within our lifetimes. First round of permissions announced before registration day and a class admission waiting list will be maintained on a first-applied, first-admitted basis.


9/10, Overview.
Introduction of instructors.
Examples of revolutions from the last century, and what we can learn from them.
End on brief personal introductions: who are you, what are you doing now, and what are you interested in?

Homework: 'Know thyself:' write (e.g., a page or two) about your possible paths going forward for the next 5-10 years -- both the stretch goals and the fallback goals, visualizing the time ahead in detail, and delineating what skills or resources you would need to acquire along the way to make them a reality.
Pick the goal you are most passionate about exploring in the class, and prepare a 1-minute oral pitch (no slides) for the next class.

9/17, Begin with 1-minute pitches about what you are passionate about exploring in the class. Not a bad time to see who has similar interests, and to decide whether you want to form a team or not.
Lecture: how to think up your revolution. Strategies for creating ideas in order to solve big problems: tiling trees, thinking backwards vs. forwards, engineering serendipity, ideas hiding in plain sight, risk reduction, abandoning failure, finding the right home for your idea (e.g., academia vs. startup vs. …).
End on in-class exercises: in teams of 2 or 3, go through these thinking strategies for various problems, followed by brief all-class discussion.

Homework: Look at a past scientific, engineering, or industrial revolution which you admire and/or is relevant in some way to what you aspire towards, and derive the lessons-learned.
Going forward: from each guest lecturer we have in class, articulate a few lessons-learned (bullet points or brief sentences fine).

9/24, Lecture: architecting. How to build teams, reboot stuck fields, incentivize collaboration, match problem and solution, build trust, educate, talk about confidential information, and connect the dots across disciplines.
In-class exercises: in teams of 2 or 3, go through these exercises and try to learn about each others’ motivations, and see if you can project your goals into their frame of reference, followed by brief all-class discussion.
Lecture on logistics: technology transfer, conflicts of interest, patents, raising funding.

Homework: Interview 3-6 scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, or others, active in the general domains you are interested in. (Consider having some of your interviews be with people from wildly different fields, but who you think might be able to help you tackle your problem from a radically different or even unprecedented point of view.) Summarize each interview, focusing on the top 3-6 most interesting insights, lessons or realizations from each.

10/1, Guest lecture. Mark Murcko, Principal, Disruptive Biomedical; Science Advisory Board member, numerous startups; CTO and chair of the Science Advisory Board for Vertex Pharmaceuticals, 1990-2011.
Discussion of upcoming homework assignments, which aim at helping hone in on key ideas.

Homework: Applying the "how to think" strategies of the second class --such as the tiling trees -- generate all possible ideas for solving the goal you are most passionate about.
For the top three candidate strategies, design the lowest-risk, highest serendipity, path for testing or realizing the strategy.
Pick the best idea/strategy for addressing your goal, and prepare a 1-minute oral pitch (no slides) for the next class.

10/8, Guest lecture. Bryan Johnson, Founder, Braintree; Founder, OS Fund.
Guest lecture. Holden Karnofsky, Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director, GiveWell; Project Lead, Open Philanthropy Project.
End on 1-minute oral pitches about your best idea/strategy for addressing your goal. Not a bad time to see who has similar interests, and to decide whether you want to form a team or not.

Homework: Take a step back from your “best” idea for a moment. Thinking about what motivates you personally, broadly ideate and visualize the possibility-space of ventures you would consider leading or participating in. Note well: those could be for-profit startups or investment funds or non-profit NGOs or educational institutions (labs, centers, institutes, or entire universities) or the creation of a new discipline or development of new enabling tools, etc.

10/15, Lecture: the game theory of innovation (tentative).
Discussion of the format for the ~6 minute midterm pitches (slides allowed!).

Homework: Finalize your ~6 minute midterm pitches about your best goal/idea, to be delivered next class. You can, and probably should, start working on these earlier, of course. These should be with a bit more detail than the 1-minute pitches. Think about the need, the team, the funding required, the strategy for execution and deployment, the biggest unknowns.

10/22, Midterm, 5-6 minute long pitches (slides allowed) by each person/team.

Homework: Peer review. For each pitch you heard during the midterm presentations, write a few sentences: what was most persuasive, important, or compelling about the pitch? What could be improved, clarified, or deepened? What did you learn, or otherwise gain personally, from hearing the pitch? Any other reactions?

10/29, Guest lecture. Alexis Borisy, Partner, Third Rock Ventures; Co-Founder, multiple biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies.

Homework: Think through the execution of your plan. Consider the various bottlenecks, challenges, pinch-points, uncertainties and anything that could slow down, distract, or stop your progress. In turn, be thinking of how to end-run, avoid, pivot, twist around, clarify, or otherwise mitigate and deal with each of these challenges. Such things may be finding money and resources, or they may be needs for new ideas (perhaps in the form of experimental results or field tests or enabling tools), or they may be requirements for additional talent (either partners or advisors). Write about these things, but then go do them as well (to the extent possible), e.g. go talk to new advisors or recruit new partners.

11/5, Guest lecture. Daphne Zohar, Founder and CEO, Puretech.

Homework: Self-reflection. What have you learned about yourself, through the exercises of thinking through and planning out the revolution you are envisioning?

11/12, Guest lecture. Miyoung Chun, Executive Vice President of Science Programs at The Kavli Foundation.
Discussion: strategies for reflection, self-evaluation, and well-being.

Homework: Focus on the home stretch towards the final class presentation and writeup.

11/19, Guest lecture. Russ Wilcox and Leslie Dewan, Founders, Transatomic.

Homework: Focus on the home stretch towards the final class presentation and writeup.

12/3, Guest lecture, Susan Solomon, Founder and CEO, New York Stem Cell Foundation.
Guest lecture. Darlene Solomon, Chief Technology Officer, Agilent.

Homework: Focus on the home stretch towards the final class presentation and writeup.

12/10, Final presentations (slides allowed) by each person/team. Turn in some combination of written prose and presentation which you'll not only be able to give us, but that ideally you can use beyond our class for real-world purposes. For instance, the prose might be the basis for a grant proposal, or entering a venture competition, or an accelerator application. The presentation may help you raise money or sell prospective partners or employees/employers on your idea.