MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXVIII No. 3
January / February 2016
Improving Faculty Governance
For Changing Times
Is This Really Who We Are?
Constraints on Civilian R&D Budgets
From Excessive Pentagon Spending
The Roles of the Standing Committees of the Faculty in the Governance of MIT
Introducing Sandbox
A Critical Look at the Plan
for MIT's East Campus
Our Faculty Agenda
MIT Campus Research Expenditures
Printable Version

Introducing Sandbox

Ian A. Waitz


Starting this semester, a new educational program will be available to all 11,000 of MIT’s students. Called the Sandbox Innovation Fund Program (“Sandbox” for short), the program will provide meaningful seed funding of up to $25,000 for student-initiated ideas, mentoring from within MIT and from a broad network of committed partners, and tailored educational experiences. The objective of Sandbox is to help students to develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to be successful innovators and entrepreneurs. It is about developing people, not ideas. However, the learning will be in the context of advancing innovative ideas or projects of the students’ own creation – ones that serve important needs in the world.


The students and alumni from the five MIT Schools represent an incredible force for innovation in the world. This is well reflected in our history and recounted in multiple studies, including one by Professors Ed Roberts and Fiona Murray, and their student, Daniel Kim that was released in December. MIT’s legacy is amazing, but even more exciting, and more important, is what our students and alumni will do in the future, and how we as faculty can better prepare them to do it.

As faculty we take on multiple roles to support our students: we teach, we mentor, we encourage, we collaborate, we support, we provide resources and opportunities, we connect students with others, and we hope occasionally to be a source of inspiration or the spark for a new idea. And sometimes we know enough to just get out of the way and let our students do remarkable things on their own – where they are often a source of inspiration for us.

Keeping pace with student needs and expectations has always been challenging at MIT. These days, one key area of change – both within and beyond MIT – is the nature, pace, and process of innovation. We live in a world with the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, a biotech revolution, engineering at the nanoscale, and an explosion of data and information. These advances present unprecedented opportunities for our students. Likewise, the world increasingly needs MIT’s unique brand of deep scientific and technological innovation to address grand challenges in areas such as health, energy, environment, poverty, and education. It is important to think about how we can better prepare our students for the world they’re going to land in when they leave MIT.

Responding to a need

A significant number of our students are on a path to becoming innovators and entrepreneurs while at MIT, and some are headed that way even before they get here. For example, over 1,000 students participated in the MIT $100K competition last year. Many more are involved in UROP, SuperUROP, club activities, dorm room projects, D-Lab, and other efforts to make and create things.

Large company or small, for-profit or non-profit, academia, industry, government, or entrepreneur – the ability to identify a need, create and communicate an innovative solution, and build a team that produces a positive impact are things we ought to better prepare our students to do, especially as the data indicate they are doing it already.

Further, Institute-wide efforts to consider innovation and the future of education contain ample evidence of these changes in our students and those that are occurring more broadly in the world. These very thoughtful reports also offer many exciting ideas and plans for improving what we do at MIT to better enable our students to have an impact. The new Sandbox program has emerged from these and other discussions.

We have heard from our students that they want more opportunities, resources, and spaces to pursue innovative student-initiated ideas. They would like more integrated curricular programming around entrepreneurship. (The growth of the excellent programs at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, StartMIT, and a proposal for a new minor in entrepreneurship and innovation are also responses to this need.) Our students would like help navigating the rich ecosystem within MIT as well as the network outside MIT.

As faculty we want to ensure students have appropriate educational foundations, effective independent mentoring (especially when they are interacting with people who may have a financial interest in their ideas), and guidance on conflicts of interest that increasingly involve other students, faculty, or non-MIT entities. We would also like to help them achieve an appropriate meta-curricular balance (e.g., not adding three new things to their plate if they are struggling in freshman physics). Finally, we would like to ensure that external partners in our educational enterprise interact with our students in a way that is consistent with our mission, culture, values, and policies. Putting education and community-building first, Sandbox was designed, and will operate, with all of these considerations in mind.

How Sandbox works

Engaging with Sandbox will be easy for students.

  • Submission. Students (individually or in teams) will have the opportunity to submit short proposals three times per year to secure funding (ranging from $1,000 to $25,000) and receive programmatic resources and mentoring.
  • Evaluation. Students seeking amounts greater than $1,000 will present their proposal to the Sandbox Funding Board (more details below).
  • Education. Accepted proposals will be accompanied by expected milestones and/or co-curricular requirements that are tailored to the needs of the individual student or team. These will be fulfilled largely by connecting the students with existing programming and resources across MIT.
  • Mentorship. All participants will be matched with mentors leveraging the alumni and non-alumni networks in the area. Advanced teams will be able to take advantage of existing strong mentorship programs, such as the MIT Venture Mentoring Service (VMS).
  • Partners. The education and mentoring will be significantly augmented by an impressive team of participants on the Funding Board. They represent individuals and organizations from around the world and span the range of pathways through which our students and alumni may have an impact: foundations, large companies, small companies, individual entrepreneurs, investors, and government laboratories. They will provide guidance and feedback to the students and make recommendations to the Sandbox Executive Director on which projects to fund and at what level.
  • Sustainability. In order to help sustain the fund, students will be encouraged, but not required, to make a non-binding personal pledge to “pay it forward” if their idea eventually results in creating a successful start-up that goes on to produce significant gains for its founders.

    Sandbox is integrative by design, not a standalone endeavor.

    Led by the School of Engineering in close partnership with the MIT Innovation Initiative, Sandbox will work collaboratively with existing campus programs and resources to empower and educate student innovators and entrepreneurs: StartMIT, Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, Bernard M. Gordon MIT Engineering Leadership Program, Technology and Licensing Office, i-Teams, Alumni Association, Venture Mentoring Service, MIT $100K Competition, capstone design subjects, GEL, and others. It will be overseen by an MIT governing board that includes the Chancellor, the Provost, the Dean of Engineering, the Dean of the Sloan School of Management, the President of the Graduate Student Council, and the President of the Undergraduate Association or their designates. 
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What’s new and different about Sandbox?

MIT has one of the most powerful and expansive innovation networks in the world. We are fortunate to have so many programs and resources, but that also means when we launch a new program we have to be concrete about what sets it apart. In the case of Sandbox, it is not one feature, but a collection of characteristics. It is:

  • about developing people, not ideas, but in the context of an authentic learning experience driven by advancing an innovative idea which a student or student team is passionate about;
  • not a competition or a fellowship, and it does not pick winners. It is about offering educational experiences to as many students as possible, and failure is recognized as an important part of the learning experience;
  • not solely about start-ups. It is about innovation writ broadly – through new or existing organizations, for-profit or non-profit. It is designed to reflect the breadth of pathways through which our students and alums will have an impact on the world;
  • time-flexible. A student could start as a freshman, and finish as a senior (or as a doctoral student);
  • a connector (e.g., students with ideas looking for team members with different strengths from across the Institute, companies with hard problems looking for talented students with creative new ideas);
  • a source for meaningful seed funding;
  • a vehicle through which we will enforce a code of conduct among participants and partners; and
  • a way to gain insight into potential conflicts of interest and a mechanism to manage them.

Like the Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program, Sandbox is made possible through a partnership with people and organizations who are committed to its educational objectives and are willing to support it with time, mentoring, and funding. Our partners bring a wealth of knowledge and a network of connections and opportunities that we could not hope to replicate solely with MIT personnel.

How you can help
We have sufficient financial contributions to provide more than $2 million per year for innovative student-initiated projects. In short, we have the gearing to do something big. We have lots of ideas and visions and plans, but we are also inventing as we go. We need your help and feedback.

In particular…

  • please share this opportunity with your students. You can find more information at; and
  • if there are aspects that are unclear or don’t seem to make sense, please let us know. One of the benefits of a new program is that we have a lot of flexibility to change and improve it. You can provide feedback to Ian Waitz (Faculty Director) and Dr. Jinane Abounadi (Executive Director).

    Ultimately, we would like Sandbox to become, like UROP, a hallmark of MIT’s singular educational experience. It will exemplify our collaborative spirit, our emphasis on learning by doing, our desire to tackle hard problems with new ideas, and the importance of partnering within and beyond MIT. It will respond to what students have told us we can do to help them go further. We want students to become future entrepreneurs and innovators who are grounded but bullish about taking on grand challenges. We want students to feel they can make an impact from day one of their MIT career. But most of all, we want them to become people who use knowledge and innovation to make the world a better place.
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