Charles River Rivalry for Startup Supremacy

Author Bart Howe (@barthowe) is a second-year student at the Harvard Business School. This post previously appeared on the HBS Managing Innovation Class Blog, where students publicly reflect on what they are learning in the classroom.

If competing in business plan contests was a sport, mid-April would be the heart of the playoffs. With few exceptions, this seems to be the month in which higher education has decided that students are most likely to have a stroke of brilliance worth sharing. As a prime example, both the HBS Business Plan Contest and the MIT $100k Business Plan Contest are currently underway.

I came to Harvard Business School dead set on leaving as an entrepreneur. For better or for worse, I’d made that decision long before I knew the team, the geography, or even the industry in which I’d work. I intended to compete in the HBS business plan competition last year, but when push came to shove, I wasn’t as sold on my own idea as I wish I’d been. This year is a different story. I love my team, I love the business, and I love the potential impact of our efforts. As a participant in the business plan contests as both MIT and HBS, I’ll do my best to be objective. Though my HBS pride is source of contention, I feel I’m in position to speak knowledgably about both institutions’ innovation processes. Not only am I cross-registered in a business innovation course at MIT, but the team with which I’ve enter the business plan “playoffs” is composed of an MIT majority.

What has occurred to me during my time as a Cambridge resident is the striking difference between the two flagship schools, particularly in their approach to business creation. I’m not suggesting that one is better than the other, but it has been interesting to compare the processes. The differences in the business plan competitions alone are a great place to start.

Let’s compare the basics:

The MIT $100k competition claims to be responsible for over 150 companies, which have subsequently raised $1.2 billion, resulting in 4,600 jobs, 36 exits and $16 billion in market cap and exit value. HBS is a little more vague (or at least less overt) with regard to the contest’s impact: “The Contest has spawned hundreds of business plans, and winners and non-winners alike have gone on to implement their plans and start successful enterprises.” Regardless, both contests have proven to be a great launching pad for students and businesses, though using a very different approach. Where HBS has only two primary competition tracks, Business Venture and Social Venture, MIT has six: Development, Life Sciences, Products & Services, Web/IT, Energy, and Mobile. Is this representative of a thematic difference between the two schools’ business innovation processes? I would argue, Yes. (Forgive me in advance for the gross generalizations I am about to make.)


HBS, at least in the last decade, has prided itself on the ability to generate business model innovations. (See the Table 2 for a few recognizable examples of successful businesses launched from HBS.)

On the other hand, MIT, as suggested by the institution’s name, is much more likely to introduce innovation in the form of a technological breakthrough. (See Table 3 for a few examples of successful businesses launched from MIT.)