MIT in the Bay Area

This article was originally published on MIT News on November 2, 2016.

When Federico Parietti embraced his inner entrepreneur, life sped up, he says rapidly in an Italian accent, “like, unbelievably fast.” He moved to the Bay Area. Within six weeks, he built a robotic 3-D-printer system for his startup and wrote his MIT doctoral thesis. He would meet with his research advisor in Cambridge one day, venture capitalists in San Francisco the next. If he was lucky, he would get some sleep on the plane.

Now it’s autumn. Parietti has finished a PhD in mechanical engineering, and he’s free to apply his abundant energy to the robotic technology behind his new shared venture, Multiply Labs. He is one of four cofounders. Parietti (CEO), Tiffany Kuo MBA ’16 (head of marketing and operations), and MBA candidate Joe Wilson (head of product), along with Alice Melocchi (CTO), “went all in,” as they say, to launch their startup. Melocchi, who serendipitously met Parietti as a visiting scholar at Novartis-MIT in 2014, has since earned a PhD in pharmaceutical technology from the University of Milan.

Multiply Labs makes robots that print customized pills. People in the target market—millennials, primarily—can select minerals, vitamins, or other compounds (caffeine, for instance) and specify dosages and release times. Things are looking good. The startup incubator, Y Combinator, has tapped Multiply Labs to join its annual batch of promising companies. This spring, a first round of packages featuring their 3-D-printed design-your-own pills, will ship.

Parietti and the others, who received $120,000 from Y Combinator, are renting a house between Menlo Park and Palo Alto. They live, work, and eat together six days a week, if they decide to go for balance—seven if there’s a deadline to meet.

“In the Bay Area, just like at MIT, people have a ‘doing’ mindset,” says Parietti. Within 24 hours of his arrival in Silicon Valley, an MIT-connected mentor, Waikit Lau, head of business and corporate development at Tremor Video (who has also founded two companies, including one acquired for $86 million), gave the team a welcome call. “Have you started fundraising yet?” he asked.

With a solid idea and a talented team, “you get meetings with big investors quickly,” Parietti says. “Decisions are made quickly. Startups are expected to grow as fast as possible.” However, he adds after a pause, they were not unprepared. Being in a competitive environment is not exactly new, and he and his teammates have all come to appreciate the value of the resources and confidence drawn from MIT.

Wilson, a relaxed presence and Nashville native, says the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund, which provided $5,000 in seed funding in the spring, is what “really got us thinking about how to make our startup real.” That funding also enabled the group to build a prototype of their 3-D printing and robotic manufacturing system. And discussing entrepreneurial plans, devising a budget, and working with Sandbox mentors, including Lau, helped immensely, Wilson says. The Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship also provided key advice. “It’s hard to overstate how important MIT has been in our development.”

In good company
Multiply Labs is in good company. More than 13,000 affiliated MIT alumni work and live in the Bay Area—many of whom will gather on Nov. 2 for MIT’s Campaign for a Better World event at San Francisco City Hall.

More than 13,000 affiliated MIT alumni work and live in the Bay Area—many of whom will gather on Nov. 2 for MIT’s Campaign for a Better World event at San Francisco City Hall.

When the cofounders got the news about their selection for Y Combinator, Jinane Abounadi, executive director of Sandbox, told them the selection was a priceless vote of confidence in an extraordinarily competitive landscape—the entry point to an elite network and just “a really big deal, you guys.” Y Combinator, a seed accelerator started in 2005 with headquarters in Mountain View, California, was cofounded by Robert Morris, a professor of computer science at MIT.

Just this month, the Institute launched a Cambridge-based endeavor of its own: The Engine, an incubator that will support the cultivation and translation of basic science and technology to the marketplace. The ambition of startups like Multiply Labs suggests that there is certainly a need for more venture-investing arms to provide long-term capital support and expertise—at MIT and beyond.

The technology behind Multiply Labs was imagined and actualized by Melocchi and Parietti after the pair met at a campus lunch, hit it off, swapped ideas, and launched into three intense years of ideation and research. Now they’ve designed something that sits at the intersection of robotics and pharmaceuticals. Melocchi, soft-spoken and modest, says she even invents in her sleep. She dreams of different printing techniques, new possibilities.

In the meantime, they are seeing results. Before Y Combinator Demo Day, a vaunted Silicon Valley tradition, the startup team gathers in a meeting room at a high-end makerspace in Redwood City to run a test of their 3-D robotics equipment. With some ceremony, Parietti explains the process. “Watch as it rises,” he says. A machine 3-D prints a pill with compartments of varied thickness, which enable the release of supplements at different times. The next machine, another 3-D printer (which was itself 3-D printed), fills the capsule. Parietti retrieves the capsule and holds it up with a flourish.

The cofounders, who are all in their 20s, are alive with possibility and fairly bristle with enthusiasm. “Isn’t this cool technology?” says Kuo, who is originally from Taiwan. “We took these ourselves when we first presented before Y Combinator,” she adds. “We equipped them with vitamins and a late-afternoon release of caffeine, to keep us at our best. And, hey, it worked.”

In the months following that summer demo, Multiply Labs has moved to a larger space in San Francisco proper and hired two robotics engineers, which makes it a company of six and climbing.

“People have asked me how many hours I work a week,” says Wilson. “My response: all of them. You look around and see so many companies that have hit escape velocity. You see that future and it pushes you.”