New ‘Sandbox’ funds innovation, projects

Students from across Institute will be able to receive up to $25K for projects

Students will soon be able to apply for funding from Sandbox, a two million dollar innovation fund announced Jan. 25 by Ian Waitz, Dean of the School of Engineering.

Sandbox will be open to all students, from all departments, and will support projects with up to $25,000 in funding.

“The primary aim of Sandbox is to develop people, not necessarily startups or products,” Waitz told the MIT News Office. “But the learning will be in the context of advancing an entrepreneurial venture or innovative idea — one that serves an important market or social need.”

The first recipients of funding were members of StartMIT. In a soft launch of the program, some members have already submitted their proposals to Sandbox. These proposals were evaluated last week, and some have begun to receive funding.

The program will open to the rest of the MIT community sometime in March. To apply for funding from the program, students or teams need only submit an initial proposal outlining their project and what the money will be used for.

The fund will grant initial seed money of $1,000 and match the student with a mentor to help them with their project. Waitz stresses that the mentorship component of the program is crucial because it provides students with someone who can help them fully develop their idea, as well as connect them with sponsors interested in their idea.

The program was conceived of almost five years ago, after the engineering department determined that innovations from MIT alumni were among “MIT’s greatest contributions to the world.” The department then decided to create a fund to invest in students’ ideas.

However, according to Waitz, “the initial conception of the program was not as well-suited for students as the department would have liked. The requirement to have students pay back the money was too restrictive and the initial sponsors, which were almost all venture capital firms, did not span the full range of student interests.”

To alleviate these problems, the fund removed the requirement for students to pay back the seed money, though students are still encouraged to do so. The fund has also partnered with a more diverse array of sponsors, including individual donors.

Though the program grants money to support student projects, Waitz emphasized that the program was about “developing the students, not the ideas.”

To further this goal, the program does not impose many temporal requirements on the students “so that it can marry well with the way that students develop ideas at MIT, where they don’t always have tons of time to devote to the their project,” Waitz said.

Though Waitz and Sandbox Executive Director Jinane Abounadi PhD '98 have figured out most of the essentials, there is still much that has not yet been decided. For example, no limit has been imposed on the number of individual proposals a single student can submit; the program is considering implementing one if funds become short.

Waitz said he will know if the program is successful if students know about it from other students’ positive experiences.

In the future, Waitz hopes that Sandbox becomes “entrenched in the Institute’s culture much in the way UROP or UPOP has.”