MITdesignX Entrepreneurs Share Aim: “Solving Problems for People”

With a view to affordability, most low-cost housing in Colombia is sold unfinished: the buyer gets four walls, windows, plumbing, and electricity, but flooring, painting, kitchens, and cabinetry are strictly DIY. For the home buyer of limited means who isn’t a skilled tradesperson, completing the job can take years. In a nation of 50 million with a high poverty rate and a severe housing shortage, too many developments are blighted with shell apartments that are never finished.

Bogotá-based civil engineers Esteban Castro and Alberto Cuéllar, a master’s candidate in real estate development at MIT, had an idea: Why not create a one-stop shop to enable homeowners to access design, funding and quality construction needed to finish their home-improvement projects at affordable rates?

With the help of MITdesignX, a startup accelerator in the MIT School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P), Cuéllar and Castro launched AKAVIS, a for-profit company in Bogotá that provides connections to contracting and design services and home-improvement financing.

“I am inspired by AKAVIS’s potential to transform living conditions for many people in Latin America,” says Cuéllar. “We are providing a tangible solution that addresses an urgent need for adequate livable homes, while creating a sense of belonging that is a milestone on the road to progress for thousands of families.

“MITdesignX helped make this dream a reality by providing unparalleled mentorship, along with the resources needed to holistically understand the problem then execute a solution that is actually viable.”

MITdesignX is dedicated to design innovation and entrepreneurship. The program’s executive director, Gilad Rosenzweig MCP ’13, explains: “Entrepreneurship is the idea that everybody can create something new. They can take a problem and find a solution for it. An accelerator is a place to take that idea and actually turn it into a business. The process gives discipline and structure—in our case, curriculum—and money and connections, so people can do it faster.”

AKAVIS is one of the latest budding success stories to come out of MITdesignX. A high-profile success has been Biobot Analytics, whose technology to capture public health data from urban wastewater was developed in concert with MITdesignX and other MIT innovation programs, and has proven a breakthrough in tracking Covid-19 levels during the pandemic.

There are more good stories where that came from, says Rosenzweig.

Helping India’s migrant workers negotiate better wages

For example, Rosenzweig cites Bandhu Tech, which aims to serve as a LinkedIn of sorts for India’s 200 million migrant blue-collar workers, who travel from their home villages to cities in search of jobs, typically on construction sites. Bandhu’s mobile phone platform keeps track of where the jobs are, and by noting workers’ past employment and skills, enables them to negotiate for better pay. The service also connects the workers with affordable housing.

“Since graduating from MITdesignX in 2019, we have helped over 50,000 workers access jobs, and have helped digitize affordable housing opportunities with a total capacity of over 1,000 guests,” says chief operating officer Jacob Kohn MCP ’19, who cofounded Bandhu with Rushil Palavajjhala MCP’19.

“Our students don’t want to just prepare for a profession. They come to MITdesignX to be change-makers.”
Gilad Rosenzweig MCP ’13
MITdesignX executive director

“Throughout our time at MIT, MITdesignX provided us with critical support in the form of grants, networking connections, and advising,” Kohn says. “Support from the MET Fund was especially valuable, giving us a strong foundation to start our business and complete [a prototype].

“Since graduation, the MITdesignX network has proven invaluable as we sought out additional investment opportunities and partnerships with industry, nonprofits, and other players in the ecosystem. It has also provided us important and timely advice on technology development, patents, and fundraising,” Kohn says.

Changing the way maps are created for the built environment

Another startup that has emerged from the program is AirWorks, which converts aerial images taken from drones, manned aircraft, or satellites into CAD engineering drawings, an innovation Rosenzweig describes as “absolutely a game-changer in the surveying field.”

Says cofounder and CEO David Morczinek MBA ’18 says, “Accurate maps are at the center of building and managing the world’s physical assets. AirWorks provides the capability to create accurate on-demand maps and surveys anywhere in the world from available data.

“MITdesignX has been a home for AirWorks in its early phases and a trusted partner since,” Morczinek adds. “The mentorship and expertise in all things design and built environment is unparalleled and has helped AirWorks choose the right customer segment and to gain early traction.”

On its website, MITdesignX invites applications from “diverse, interdisciplinary teams working on challenging ideas with clear vision, passion, and drive to design solutions and launch a real venture.” Applicants can include graduate students, researchers, staff, or faculty members from SA+P as well as from all MIT schools, other universities, and industry.

AKAVIS, with its idea for completing affordable housing units in Colombia, is one of 11 teams selected for the 2022 cohort. Others in the current cohort include ventures to redesign residential garages for electric vehicles, make 3-D modeling technology more widely accessible, and create a biodegradable protective wrap to replace plastic coverings for construction materials.

“We stress to everybody that they’re solving problems for people,” says Rosenzweig. “They work with that mantra in mind and come up with some fascinating proposals. You test, and some things fail, and you retool and try again. But if there’s a will, and the entrepreneur’s going to stick with it, and there’s a need for something, they can do it.

“Our students don’t want to just prepare for a profession,” he explains. They come to MITdesignX to be change-makers.”

Image: An AirWorks-produced map of a mall area in Sudbury, MA, showing surface features and topography. Image courtesy of AirWorks.