There are a few things that contribute to the creation of a vibrant startup ecosystem. Some of these factors include the amount of entrepreneurs, the support system, the mentor network, the availability of funding and the proximity of all these. All these factors, combined with the concentration of young technology savvy millennials, may just be the reason why Boston has been producing successful startups in the past few years.

While we all know of the famous Harvard and MIT startup story of Facebook and Dropbox, more and more student-started startups are coming out of the Boston startup scene. With this in mind, I decided to dive deeper, visit Boston and speak with multiple student entrepreneurs, community leaders, startups and investors to better understand why Boston has become a hub for student startups.

1. Student-run startup clubs, startup accelerators and VC firms

A key part of Boston's thriving startup ecosystem are the student-run startup accelerators and VC firms that anchor the development of student entrepreneurs. While all the schools have entrepreneurship and business clubs, certain universities have taken this a step further with programs that turn knowledge into action.

Northeastern University in particular has IDEA, a student-run startup accelerator that was started five years ago to really help Northeastern students turn their ideas into reality. IDEA uses a three-step model called ready, set, go that helps students validate their idea, develop their business model and acquire customers. Thirty-eight startups have successfully gone through all three stages, and these startups have gone on to collectively raise over $36 million. Some success stories include Crystal, New Grounds Food, TableList, FreshTruck and more.

Boston is also home to two inter-college student-run venture capital firms, Rough Draft Ventures and Dorm Room Fund. These student partners spend time looking for the next big dorm room started startup that may just end up becoming the next Facebook.


2. Inter-college community and collaboration

A big part of the reason why Boston has such a thriving startup scene is the amount of university students in Boston right now. Close to one-third of Boston's population are university students which makes Boston the perfect testing ground for student-run startups especially the consumer facing one. At the same time, it becomes so much easier to find students who share your similar interests or have complementary skills for your startup. It's not uncommon for students from MIT to work with students from Northeastern on a startup idea.

In fact, this is the type of community that student-run VC firms Rough Draft Ventures and Dorm Room Fund have been working on building through inter-college dinners and meetups. Both programs have student partners from MIT, Harvard, Boston University, Boston College, Olin University, Babson College, Tufts University, Northeastern University, among others. This cross-pollination leads to more resources for student entrepreneurs across campuses.

Each University also organizes a hackathon which brings students together for 48 hours to work on projects for a weekend. HackMIT is known to attract over 1000 university students to build cool projects that range from web and mobile applications to wearable hacks. In Harvard, a whole new culture of hacking and coding is being formed with the famous CS50 Intro to Computer Science class becoming one of the most popular classes.

3. Tailored startup internships and programs for students

Another thing that really makes the Boston startup scene come alive is the amount of engagement that students get from startups and VC firms in the greater Boston area.

Dorm Room Fund Partner Ariel Winton shared with me how many students work part-time at startups to get hands-on experience while in school. Ariel herself has spent the last two years working full-time for her co-op and part-time for a startup in Boston called Yesware. She shared with me, "If you're willing to hustle and figure it out, startups are willing to take you in because they're not always looking for experience because every startup is different."

She added, "The startup community here is very tight-knit and student friendly. There are also more and more programs popping up trying to connect students to the startup community." Ariel mentioned a program called Greenhorn Connect which holds dinners for students to meet local entrepreneurs.

4. Emphasis on problem solving, research and innovation

Aside from the entrepreneurial environment, having multiple universities in close proximity with each other has also fostered a culture of turning cutting-edge research and technology into startup ventures.

MIT has the MIT Media Lab where students get the opportunity to work on cutting-edge technology from robotics and wearables to biotech and medical devices. Even undergraduate students get to work on hands-on projects with Ph.d students. Harvard also runs a similar program through the Harvard Innovation Lab which hopes to encourage students to turn their research projects into entrepreneurial ventures.

An example of this cross collaboration is a startup called Lumii that was founded by 3 Ph.D students from MIT who started talking about their projects in a bar, and decided to combine their Ph.D research projects into one.

5. Mentor network, startup resources & funding

Boston is also home to one of the biggest startup accelerators in the world called MassChallenge which takes in over 120 startups each year.

Interestingly, most startups that go through MassChallenge are startups that were started by students from the different Boston schools. The MassChallenge mentor network also gives student entrepreneurs a chance to branch out and learn from hundreds of mentors, fellow entrepreneurs and investors.

Aside from MassChallenge, Boston is also home to TechStars which is one of the top accelerator programs in the world. Aside from these accelerator programs, Boston is also home to one of the most active VC funding environments in the East Coast. In fact, this Entrepreneur article ranked Boston third in VC funding received, only trailing San Francisco and San Jose.

All these creates a funnel for student entrepreneurs, and an ecosystem that helps these young founders every step of the way. While entrepreneurship is still a risky path, this support system has helped minimize the risks for students interested in diving into the startup scene.

Thank you to Ariel Winton, Karine Hsu, Kimberli Zhong, Benjamin Bungert, Annika Morgan, Robby Bitting, Peter Boyce III and all the other Boston-based founders and entrepreneurs for meeting up with me and helping me learn more about the Boston startup scene.

Published on: Nov 25, 2015