Wednesday, June 10, 2009

SDM lessons pay off in $100K competition - SDM Pulse, Summer 2009

By Alex Shih, SDM ’09

Alex Shih
SDM ’09
In many ways, MIT’s System Design and Management (SDM) Program is about seizing opportunities. For me, one of these opportunities arrived in the form of the MIT $100K Competition, the nation’s premiere student-run entrepreneurship competition.

There were 260 teams in this year’s competition, so I was particularly proud that my team, Global Cycle Solutions (GCS), was named a finalist in the Business Plan Competition and received the Audience Choice Award. SDM students were among the top competitors, as teams Hammock, nexiwave, and InstantQ all made the semifinals—demonstrating the power of systems thinking and the value of SDM.

Elevator pitches, executive summaries, business plans, pitch slide decks—I was familiar with all these terms, but before the $100K I had never formally endured the creation process. I wanted to understand the experience—setting up business models, pitching to VCs, creating something from scratch. Perhaps it was a bit masochistic to take on the extra work, but like most SDMs, I had a hunger to learn. I was particularly interested in honing my presentation skills, having been involved with the Toastmasters group at my company, Raytheon.
Global Cycle Solutions team members pose with some of
the $100K organizers. From left: Carter Dunn MBA '10
(organizer), Alex Shih SDM '10, Lisa Tacoronte '10, Jodie Wu
'09, Brian Cantwell MBA '10 (organizer), Caroline Hane-
Weijman '11, Semyon Dukach, Javier Lozano MBA '10,
Sombit Mishra MBA '10 (organizer).
During the fall of 2008, I signed up for the $100K mailing list and began receiving notices about their mixers. At one Development Track mixer (there are six tracks, or categories, in the $100K competition), I learned about a project called Global Cycle Solutions. GCS creates bicycle-powered agricultural tools for small farmers in the developing world. I reconnected with the project again this past spring via a Design Lab course and officially joined the team.

This project appealed to me partly because of my interest in international development. But I was also delighted to discover an opportunity to directly apply the lessons I’d learned about systems thinking. For example, our efforts to identify and analyze our target market, core competencies, and competitive advantage were heavily influenced by the strategic lessons acquired in Senior Lecturer Michael Davies’ course on technology strategy.

Similarly, Professor Eric von Hippel’s user-centered innovation course was critical not only to how we set up our business model, but also to our sales and marketing strategies. On several occasions, members of the MIT community served as sounding boards for my ideas about models and frameworks that would incentivize our end-users (rural farmers in our case) not only to innovate, but also to collaborate with us in order to market their inventions.

It was clear that our business plan needed to reflect a comprehensive, systemic understanding of both the technology and the environment in which it operated. Not only were the technical aspects important, but the cultural and social issues were also germane to the feasibility of our project. These issues were especially important to consider because low-cost, mechanized tools are not widely adopted in most rural, developing areas, so we needed to understand the drivers and inhibitors to adoption.

The entire experience proved very rewarding. Despite the occasional all-nighters before major deadlines and the daunting experience of presenting in a small room packed with venture capitalists and judges, we all grew
tremendously as individuals and as a team. Thanks to Senior Lecturer Ralph Katz, who teaches the Human Side of Technology, I improved my presentation skills and learned more about positive team dynamics as well as the types of personalities that complemented mine and who could influence the direction of the project.

In the words of an SDM cofounder, Professor Edward Crawley, this experience (among many others in just my first semester) provided a perfect “cognitive framework” to continue absorbing theories behind leading and managing complex systems. This, of course, will be enhanced through more project-based learning to come.

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