Engineering students from Heriot-Watt and Edinburgh University were given the opportunity of a lifetime this summer when they were invited to join the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Global Founders’ Skill Accelerator (MIT GFSA) course.
As one of the very first groups from outside MIT to benefit from the event, the students were flagged for this opportunity thanks to their work as ‘Project SWAP’ (Scan, Waste and Print), a business idea based around using 3D printing and scanning capabilities to provide aid to communities in developing countries.
The students had been working closely with the Scottish Institute for Enterprise (SIE) on their business concept. SIE champions enterprise education in Scotland and had been meeting with staff at MIT to discuss entrepreneurship education and best practice.
“Through our relationship with MIT, we were invited by them to find a Scottish team to attend the business accelerator,” says Tom McGuire, SIE Regional Business Advisor. “We were working with the group and suggested that they apply for this opportunity. We were also able to enable the funding which allowed them to attend the programme and live in Boston for the duration,” he adds.
MIT’s Global Founders’ Skill Accelerator course
The MIT GFSA is a milestone-based accelerator programme in which teams from around the world work on their business ideas, guided by experienced entrepreneurs. It allows students to focus on their start-up projects and give them the tools to support their success.
The students, Anthony Wainman, Chris and Gavin Balmer and Rowan Border, flew over to Boston during the summer break, and it wasn’t very long into the course before it became obvious to them that the scope of the market they targeted was very wide. After further investigation it was decided that a more suitable target was to be found within the snow sports industry. It was then that a new company, ALPrint, was born.
“This alternative market was selected based upon our knowledge of skiing and snowboarding as well as the grievances that come with both sports. Following this, the issue we chose to tackle is that of rigid and unforgiving ski boots, a bugbear that many individuals who have been skiing for any length of time would be well acquainted with,” says team member Chris Balmer.
What it’s like to work at MIT
The experience at MIT was intense – with the team often working 14 hour days, however all the students found it hugely rewarding and loved the time they spent there. They describe MIT as more of a community with a goal of higher education than a university, and they worked in very different ways than they were used to. For example, their prototype design came about by brainstorming on the whiteboard walls of the Martin Trust Centre!
“Along with getting access to world-class labs, we are also pushed to be ever more adventurous, sending fewer emails and calling or knocking on peoples’ doors instead,” explains team member Anthony Wainman. “The human side to projects is immense. People are incredibly compassionate and collaborative while being hard working, driven and ambitious.
“Guest speakers also came along twice a week to talk about their experiences and share their knowledge. World-renowned entrepreneurs such as Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus Development, had dinner with us all in a classroom, talking about his life path and how he’d learned from his failures… staying to answer questions until 10-11pm.”
“We were given the opportunity to see and do things that would normally not be accessible to us,” Chris continues. “Particular highlights of the experience included pitching in with MITERS, a student lead design lab. The atmosphere at the Martin Trust Centre was certainly one of the highlights of working at MIT, as it was such a great working environment. The structure of the course was that we were not competing and as such every team leant on the others for help.”
Gaining new multidisciplinary skills
As well as developing ALPrint as a company and coming up with a solid business plan and project, the students were able to gain multidisciplinary skills that they would normally not have had the opportunity to explore.
“I personally gained more business orientated skills, mainly concerning the conducting of market research and the scoping and targeting of potential initial markets. Further examples include one of our other members Gavin Balmer, who as an electrical engineer, would never normally have gained the manufacturing experience that he experienced at MIT,” Chris notes.
Now back to reality, the ALPrint team continues to move their business forward.
“We’re currently developing the project further with the Heriot-Watt University Snowsports society, whilst also producing prototype hardware units and constructing a business model for the initial beach-head and expansion in the United States, with the target date currently being set for the 2013/14 ski season,” Chris concludes.