Are Harvard MBAs Solving Real Problems?

By Dmitry Kozachenok

Recently HBS student groups on Facebook have seen an increase in the number of posts related to new ventures. The reason is very simple - first year students are launching micro-businesses as part of a Field course, introduced last year. As I read these posts, I realize that ideas haven’t changed since last year. Food delivery from Harvard square, mani pedi services, laundry pick-up and delivery, monthly subscription for [fill in any category], etc. My team last year was not much better - we were working on a taxi sharing service called Glimpsy.

Then I think about the student business plan competition, which is not a required part of curriculum and, therefore, attracts only the entrepreneurial-minded students. The types of ideas people pursue there are not much different. As one of the judges put it: "Year after year we read through tens of the same fashion business plans".

Finally, I remember the conversations with entrepreneurial classmates about their future after school. Many of them say that they would like to run their own start-up one day, but don't have a big, promising idea yet. As a compromise, they chose to join existing start-ups and not launch something on their own.

As I reflect on those points, several questions come to mind:

Are we trying to solve real problems, the ones that are worthwhile for a Harvard MBA?
Are we fully using the resources we have here at school to create the most value?
What can be done to get the most return from the entrepreneurial energy we have at school?

The answer that comes to mind is science. Science is solving some of the real problems facing the world. However, a lot of the research is done in isolation from potential users. Researches are not best positioned to understand which application of the technology will address the largest market or generate the highest willingness to pay. As a result, it is often hard to make a business case for moving from research to development or for scaling a technology from a lab bench to commercial volumes. The problems remain unsolved.

What can a Harvard MBA do to address this issue? A lot. Understand who may be the customer, what pain point may be addressed by the technology, how much they are willing to pay, how to create barriers to entry for future competition, what skills and resources are required to bring the technology to market and what are the exit options. As a result, technologies that are now not being commercialized will have higher chances to be pursued and pushed forward.

What can be done to engage Harvard MBAs into commercializing science? Below are some of the measures which can be taken:

- Increase HBS program collaboration with MIT, Tufts and Harvard Labs. This can be done through, for example, introducing a science track into Harvard business plan competition or bringing in MIT projects to HBS entrepreneurial field courses (like Field, or Evaluating Business Opportunity). Another lever should be illustrating to researches the value of having HBS MBAs on board and addressing some of the skepticism that may be out there. This can be done by highlighting successful examples of such collaboration, because in rare cases when it happens, such collaboration is fruitful. Examples may include SolidEnergy (HBS-MIT, finalist of MIT 100K), Vaxess Technologies (HBS-Tufts, winner of HBS Business plan competition), Cryoocyte (HBS-MIT, finalist of MIT 100K), and others.

- Work with SBIR grant recipients. Using SBIR funding as a trigger for considering technologies for commercialization may be a good way to curate most promising science projects. It may be used as a criterion for selecting projects from universities in Boston as well as for identifying projects from other universities, which would otherwise not get on the radar of Harvard MBAs.

- Consider rethinking university rights on IP. Currently, the deal that researchers sign with universities is roughly that the university has the majority ownership of all technologies developed within its walls. That leaves a small percentage of the IP to the inventor and often makes it uneconomical to build a business out of the technology: raise funds, incentivize founding team, etc. One solution is restructure university claims on IP may if steps are taken towards commercialization: external funding is raised, a business team is formed, customer contracts signed, etc. That may increase the number of attempts and successes in bringing science to market and at the end of the day make universities better off economically. This measure may be a tough one, but will address a major barrier for commercialization of science.

As an MBA, you don’t need to make science-based start-up your career – there is a lot to be learned just by working on it while at school. So if you are tired of discussing another dress exchange idea, just cross the river and start solving real problems.


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