This article originally appeared on MIT News on December 5, 2016.
In Lagos, Nigeria, a man straddles a motorcycle. He speeds off into the sprawling network of streets in Africa’s largest city to deliver a package.
The biker is a delivery driver for MAX, a fledgling Nigerian startup that is trying to solve the problem of so-called “last-mile delivery.” How do you pick up and deliver packages or food in an efficient way in a city where many people don’t have an address?
MAX has built a mobile and web platform for deliveries, not unlike the system used by Uber and other on-demand services. It seeks goal-driven, customer service-oriented drivers, offers no-interest loans so drivers can own their motorcycles, provides a training program, and gives drivers a smartphone.
Then the drivers—30 of them so far, all of whom are “champions” in MAX parlance—head out on deliveries. They geotag the location of customers using the company’s app, creating an address that can be used for future drop-offs.
“We are not the first company to try to tackle this problem in Lagos or on the continent,” says Adetayo Bamiduro MBA ’15, cofounder of MAX. “We’re the first company to think about it this way. The problem we’re solving requires a very detailed systematic approach. We’re not just building logistics. We’re not just building retail.”
“If you look at our systematic diagram, you can see how all of these factors together are driving the growth of the entire platform,” he said. “And that’s something you learn at MIT.”
Bamiduro believes he can expand MAX across Africa. He is building a retail component that will allow people to shop locally through the MAX app. MAX, of course, will then deliver the purchase.
This month, the young entrepreneur will travel to London to tell MAX’s story—how it was conceived, how it was built, how it can scale—and to meet with investors, government officials, entrepreneurs, and professors at an MIT conference on entrepreneurship and finance in the developing world.
Showcasing Innovation-driven Enterprises
The December 13 conference is hosted by the MIT Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship, where Bamiduro was a fellow in 2014–2015. Along with a December 2 startup showcase by the MIT Startup Exchange and the MIT Industrial Liaison Program, it brackets a series of MIT gatherings in London this month. Together, the events demonstrate the facets of an innovation ecosystem unique to MIT, one where theory meets practice, where innovation-driven entrepreneurs are bringing new technologies from labs to markets, and where, very often, the drive for positive social impact is woven into companies’ operations from the outset.
The sort of ecosystem where a company like MAX is born.
“The theme that is embedded into the [Legatum] conference, that is very MIT, is this idea of MIT producing innovation-driven enterprises. Those lead to both social and economic impact around the world,” says Georgina Campbell Flatter SM ’11, executive director of the Legatum Center. “Innovation-driven enterprises tend to lead to businesses that will scale. You can reach global markets eventually. You can provide thousands of jobs. Take Adetayo, he’s touching thousands of people’s lives through his business.”
In London, MIT will showcase this approach in five gatherings. Taken together, this series of unique offerings demonstrates how MIT functions not simply as a collection of individual units, centers, programs, and events, but as a facilitator and leader in global innovation and impact.
December 2: MIT Startup Showcase London
More than a dozen MIT-affiliated startups will present at this event connecting industry leaders with innovative startups in enterprise information technology, data analytics, automation, security, and more. The showcase will include a keynote talk on innovation through analytics from MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Dimitris Bertsimas, who will also join a panel on managing innovation.
This is the third event of its kind for the MIT Startup Exchange, which is led by former MIT Sloan lecturer Trond Undheim. The group chose London because it is a “global innovation capitol,” Undheim says.
Startups presenting “Lightning Talks” at the showcase all feature a technology innovation at their center. Tulip Interfaces, for example, is an internet of things platform company for the manufacturing sector. Luminoso is an artificial intelligence-equipped “deep analytics” company that helps clients like Autodesk and Sprint gain insight into customer sentiment and feedback.
Unlike startup incubators and accelerators, the MIT Startup Exchange does not mentor new entrepreneurs or teach them how to execute on a business plan. Instead, it connects mature startups with industry leaders for strategic partnerships, product development collaborations, new business lines, and new customers.
The December 2 startup showcase is “focused on technology, but also on… interaction in the innovation community,” Undheim says.
December 7–8: MIT Sloan Executive Board Meeting
Each of MIT Sloan’s four executive boards is led by a distinguished alumnus and composed of business, government, and academic leaders. The boards form a communication channel between the school and alumni and the wider world, both informing the work of the school and bringing new MIT research and discoveries from campus to the global community.
At this event, a meeting for the European, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Executive Board, members will hear from MIT Sloan Dean David Schmittlein on the state of the school, receive an update about the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, learn about new work from the school’s research centers, and join finance professors Antoinette Schoar and David Thesmar for a conversation about the Brexit decision by United Kingdom voters to leave the European Union.
December 7–9: Visionary Investing Workshop
Part of MIT Sloan’s new Family Leaders with Purpose program, this workshop will help members of affluent families develop their skills around investing for both profit and purpose, regardless of where they are in their journey or their level of financial acumen. Family leaders cultivate and sharpen their own vision for doing good in a real-world interactive environment by accessing proprietary MIT tools, frameworks, and faculty.
S.P. Kothari is the program’s faculty director, supported by program co-heads David Shrier and Heidi Pickett.
“MIT Sloan is responding to feedback we’re getting directly from these families,” Kothari says. “They have a passion for solving some the world’s toughest problems. What they’re seeking are the tools and skills to find and evaluate viable opportunities, and to craft an action plan that multiple generations can rally around. MIT has a unique capability set in finance, innovation, and impact.”
The immersive three-day workshop includes MIT Sloan faculty presentations on the implications of Brexit on the UK financial sector, managing a portfolio in uncertain times, and managing for impact. A well-received feature of the workshop, which has been held three times before, is a forum for participants to interact with guest CEOs of startups, engaging in a series of hands-on learning sessions incorporating frameworks and tools to evaluate the enterprises.
Participants are typically capable of investing a minimum of $10 million in direct deals each year, and attendees are expected from across Europe, Asia, and North America. Pickett said a goal of the program is to build a global community of like-minded families investing for profit and purpose in fields such as health, energy, environment, water, education, agriculture, finance, and real estate.
December 12: MIT Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program Reunion
From Morocco, Al Madinah, Nova Scotia, Iceland, Singapore, and elsewhere, teams of government officials, investors, entrepreneurs, academics, and business leaders will meet to discuss how they are building local entrepreneurial ecosystems.
The gathering brings together participants in the MIT Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program, a two-year global executive education initiative designed to facilitate economic growth, social progress, and job creation in regions worldwide.
The program, known as MIT REAP, is in its fourth year. Nearly 30 teams from around the world have participated. Now, MIT is launching a Global Innovation Network, a group with which MIT REAP alumni can network and facilitate connections, conversation, and support between the teams.
“We used to think of REAP as this two-year-long program, but actually participants enjoy it so much they want to continue the relationship,” says Phil Budden, an MIT Sloan senior lecturer who teaches in the program and is its diplomatic adviser.
The afternoon meeting will include updates on MIT entrepreneurship activity, including MIT’s new technology and science incubator, called The Engine, and a new entrepreneurship and innovation minor, as well as updates from six of the teams on their work in the program, says Sarah Jane Maxted, executive director of the program.
“It will be a success if we give them a chance to share their experiences,” says Professor Fiona Murray, associate dean for innovation and co-director of the MIT Innovation Initiative. “For teams that are much further along—because they are now four years into this whole experience of developing and accelerating their ecosystems—we give them a chance to share with teams that joined REAP more recently. We’ll know it’s successful when we’re really building those bridges across cohorts.”
December 13: Accelerating Developing World Growth Through Entrepreneurship and Finance
“We don’t just want to have a conversation focused on US investors and US alumni,” says the Legatum Center’s Flatter.
So Flatter, MAX’s Bamiduro, and many others in the MIT, global investing, and developing world entrepreneurship communities will meet in London, due to its greater proximity to Africa and other developing world regions. As with the MIT Startup Exchange conference, entrepreneurs will be at the center of every discussion, presenting TED-style “Vision Talks” and joining investors and academics for panels covering seed stage capital, crowdfunding, and philanthropic capital, among other topics.
“Having that entrepreneur perspective just brings a different lens to the problem,” Flatter says. “When you bring together governments and corporations, and they have a conversation about entrepreneurship, they’re often talking about what they think is best based on secondary data. Don’t get me wrong—they’re often working on great things and working for a great cause. But when the entrepreneur is in the room, the conversation tends to be different. I think MIT brings that.”
The goal of the conference is to facilitate a conversation about funding mechanisms while showcasing and celebrating the entrepreneurs working in the developing world, Flatter says. Those funding mechanisms include equity crowdfunding, programming-related investments, grants and fellowships, and prize money from entrepreneurship competitions.
“Our mission is to foster broad-based prosperity around the world through entrepreneurship,” Flatter says. “One of the sticking points for early-stage entrepreneurs is how to raise the capital they need, and in the developing world it’s harder to raise capital because people are less willing to take risks. Traditional VCs and angels don’t tend to invest in emerging economies, but there are new funding mechanisms that our students and our alumni have found to be helpful.”
Entrepreneurs working in the developing world also face a unique set of ethical choices, as there can be few, if any, regulations governing minimum wage or health care coverage. In the way they structure their business operations, startup founders can choose to make a broader impact beyond simply offering a job or a needed service.
In providing drivers with no-interest loans to buy a motorcycle, for example, MAX is empowering the employees it relies on, Flatter says. Another MIT alumnus-founded startup appearing at the conference, Soko, relies on a “virtual factory” of independent jewelry makers around the developing world who retain 25 to 35% of the revenue generated when their products are sold to major retailers.
“At the core they are well-run businesses, for-profit businesses, but because of the principled entrepreneur leaders at the top, they make business choices that are also ethical and ultimately have impact,” Flatter says.
A Bias for Action
Murray says the flurry of MIT innovation events in the city is distinguished by the way it brings so many different people together.
“These events engage all the key ecosystem stakeholders,” she explains. “And I think that’s something that MIT over the years has done extremely well. I’m not sure it has always been conscious about it. I think it has become more conscious. But now, in a sense, we’re taking those same conversations [we host in Cambridge] to a different part of the world and saying ‘We want to have this conversation with you—risk capital providers, large corporations, policymakers, particularly focused on development, innovation, and entrepreneurship.’”
And the conversation won’t end in December. On January 13, MIT President L. Rafael Reif will visit London as part of MIT’s MIT Better World Campaign, to discuss his vision for MIT’s future and for the MIT community worldwide. It’s a fitting follow-up to a series of events that demonstrates MIT’s singular impact on global innovation.
For his part, MAX’s Adetayo Bamiduro is looking forward to meeting other members of the MIT innovation ecosystem when he visits London for the Legatum Center event. He said his company would not exist today without his Legatum fellowship, which comes with $50,000 in tuition and a stipend and $10,000 in travel and prototyping grants.
“The cushion of the scholarship is a huge motivating factor for taking the plunge right out of school,” he says. “The entire MIT entrepreneurship ecosystem is very strong, it’s very powerful. The MIT environment is unique because you have management and execution skills that you learn. But you also learn engineering skills. We had the capability to build the system ourselves.”
“The MIT slogan—“mind and hand”—has really distinguished us,” Bamiduro said. And that ethos—the movement from idea to action, and from classrooms and labs into the world—is what MIT’s packed London agenda is all about.
For Bamiduro and his cofounder Chinedu Azodoh MFin ’15, that means not just having a new idea, and not just building MAX’s digital platform and executing its business plan. It also means learning to ride motorcycles, zipping into Lagos’ busy streets to make deliveries when needed.
That man hopping on a motorcycle to deliver a package to one of MAX’s customers? That’s the CEO.