The company, which sells monitor extension kits and other tools to help people work productively from anywhere, ballooned from three employees and $4.2 million in sales at the end of 2019 to $20 million by the end of 2021. This year, Yao says he expects to reach $30 million in sales. While nobody could have predicted this path to success, Yao credits MIT with giving him the skills to launch his company and thrive through the pandemic.
Yao earned master’s degrees in engineering and management through MIT System Design and Management (SDM), which teaches its fellows to use systems thinking to understand the technical, managerial, and societal components of large-scale, complex challenges. The program has taught a method focused on designing and architecting systems to solve problems since its founding 25 years ago.
Yao, who was a business leader at GE Aviation when he arrived at MIT in the fall of 2015, says he wasn’t expecting to launch a company when he enrolled in SDM; he simply hoped to advance his career at GE. He says MIT’s entrepreneurial ecosystem made his success not only conceivable but achievable.
“I thought you had to be a real genius to start a company. But when you are at MIT, everyone next to you is starting a company, so that goal becomes more realistic,” Yao says.
The SDM curriculum also gives students the tools entrepreneurs need, Yao says. “A lot of the business classes are taught with an entrepreneurship focus. You have to write a business plan, build financial statements, research the competition, and put a pitch deck together,” he says. “On the engineering side, in every class you had to build a working prototype. So, that combination really prepped students to start their own companies.”
Not surprisingly, when Yao got an idea for a product during the summer of 2016, he knew just what to do. The inspiration for Mobile Pixels’ first product—a portable external monitor that attaches to a laptop as a second screen—came to him during his SDM summer internship at Amazon. Frustrated by the constraints of working on his small laptop screen, he thought: “Wouldn’t it be great if another screen could slide out?”
Once back at MIT, Yao picked up some off-the-shelf components and built a working prototype in the Hobby Shop. “My classmates and professors thought it was cool and said: ‘Could you make one for me?’” he says. Eventually, he teamed up with his roommate, Stephen Ng, a mechanical engineering student at Northeastern University, to build more sophisticated prototypes. Yao’s SDM classmate Shruti Banda SM ’18 joined to help the team develop its marketing strategy, and the three officially founded Mobile Pixels in January 2018.
With some seed funding and mentorship from MIT’s Sandbox Innovation Fund and from a similar program at Northeastern, Mobile Pixels launched a crowdfunding campaign through Kickstarter. In October 2018, the company won the $100,000 Diamond Prize from the startup accelerator MassChallenge. “That’s when we decided to pursue this full time,” Yao says, noting that the crowdfunding effort raised $1.5 million in presales.
Today, Mobile Pixels is doing so well that Yao has fielded several acquisition offers (although he says he and Ng have no plans to sell the business; Banda left the company in 2019). It’s a level of success Yao never anticipated when he arrived at MIT but which he believes SDM made possible.
“I think SDM is great because of the exposure to both engineering and management. The two go hand in hand if you’re going to start a company,” Yao says.