MIT’s The Engine wants to fuel bold tech ideas in Boston

Boston and its surrounding universities are jam-packed with big ideas, but the problem is that many of them never get out of the lab. MIT president Rafael Reif recognized this and decided the city needed an engine to push those ideas and The Engine — part venture capital firm, part business incubator — was born.

When smart people are working on hard problems inside a lab, they have access to all of the resources of the university including all that expensive lab equipment and faculty brain power. Once they leave academia, it can be hard to get access to either one, especially when the equipment alone could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more).

The other issue is the problem every smart person with a good idea and no business experience faces. How do you translate that idea into a repeatable business that solves a real-world problem? “While these people tend to be incredibly smart and experts in their field, they [often] don’t know how to run a company. They need support and mentorship and they need access to industry partners to prototype their ideas,” Fran Barros, design director at The Engine told me in a recent meeting in their Cambridge headquarters.

The Engine was launched with a $200 million fund in September to help solve this challenge.

They are looking for big, bold ideas in science and engineering that have the potential to benefit society in some way, and that might have trouble getting off the ground otherwise. “We have a mission for impact in the world, not just cool technology, but something that addresses a societal need and has great impact and the drive to be a big ambitious company,” Ally Yost, an associate at The Engine explained.

Like any VC out there, the company is trying to find a promising team with a crazy good idea. Among the areas they are exploring include advanced manufacturing, robotics, space, energy, life sciences and biotech. And they especially like to see multi-disciplinary ideas that move across these broader categories.

The Engine is looking for startups based in Boston or who are willing to relocate. The company itself offers a startup space with equipment for those who need it. Then there is the matter of being in Boston, which as Barros points out, is a city full of experts that can act as an external network for the company’s startups to fill in knowledge gaps.

Among the ideas in the first batch is C2Sense, a company that has developed a digital sense of smell of sorts that could help food companies detect gasses that signal when their food is going to spoil before it happens, and Analytical Space, a company run by two former White House employees involved in space research, who want to develop a more efficient way to move lots of data being collected by satellites to storage on earth, a problem that is hard to solve right now.

The Engine has a broad vision for the company as a concept. The first batch consists of seven companies, but they expect to fund between 50 and 60 before they are said and done with this round of funding. Eventually, they hope to spawn Engines in other cities throughout the world and spread the concept.