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A question inverted
A Reflection on MIT Tough Tech Summit
What doesn’t make a good conference is a better question than what makes a good conference.
I don’t know if the staff at The Engine asked themselves this question, but the MIT Tough Tech Summit is the best conference I’ve attended. I wouldn’t be surprised if they used inversion to plan it.
What doesn’t make a good conference?
1) Limited access doesn’t make a good conference.
Many conferences have grandiose setups with speakers on stages 10 feet above the ground. You’re being talked at. Because of the staggering stage setup, you feel less qualified than the speaker. You admire their position on stage and want to give a talk there too. After the speaker is done, they exit through a side door that leads to the backstage forum, where they meet with the other speakers and exclusive executive guests (who paid $10,000 for this access). Although you scramble, pushing past others when you see them roaming around the conference floor, they’re always seen with three security guards who kindly deter people as the speaker walks from stage to stage.
At MIT Tough Tech Summit, they’ve embraced a style they call unconference. The speakers sit in a circle with you and the other tough tech founders. The sessions begin with introductions. My favorite part of the intros is the occasional founder smile and nod that signals, “I’ve been there too.” Startups, especially tough tech, are so difficult there’s a secret language that only the people working on complex problems understand. As people introduce themselves, they mention what their company is struggling to figure out at that moment. You’ll see the speakers make notes or address the struggle as soon as they hear it. For some, conversations will continue into lunch, with speakers giving contacts and strategy suggestions to the founders.
2) Conversations with people trying to sell you something don’t make a good conference.
You’d think surely; even invite-only conferences have some people who want to sell something. I didn’t have that experience. I saw the most “selling” at the pop-up library, where people pitched each other on which book to read. Every person I talked to was either investing in tough tech, founding/working on a company in tough tech, or in the Massachusetts ecosystem trying to support tough tech. Because of this combination, the value of each connection is higher. And the medium of exchange is ideas. After one of the unconference sessions I attended, Ben Linville-Engler (Chief Investment Strategist at MassTech Collab) and I talked about ways to make cities sticky and retain people who fail at their first attempt to build a company or students who move out of Mass. after they graduate. In Seattle, I run into a Starbucks every block; at MIT Tough Tech, every person I talked to was a nerdy, determined, tough tech’er.
3) No opportunities for building with others doesn’t make a good conference.
At Tough Tech, the post-lunch activity was a case study. Out of the three tracks to choose from, I selected Manufacturing, Supply Chain, and Scale-up with Kunal Girotra, founder and CEO at Lunar Energy. Lunar exists to make it easy for every home to transition to clean energy. They’re using solar power, battery storage, and home grids to create personal power plants for everyone.
The case is collaborative, and most likely, you’re paired up with people you hadn’t met during the conference. The founder of the company you’re going to make decisions about (in my case, Kunal from Lunar) is standing at the front of the room alongside a professor from HBS/MIT Sloan. I thought having the founder in the room was a nice touch; it turned out to be the core reason why the case study was enjoyable. Having the founder present while you’re solving the case isn’t typical. You’re usually making numerous assumptions (most of them are wrong) about what a founder would do or think.
There were two critical decisions Lunar made that our group was asked to figure out.
To figure out the first decision, Kunal walked us through Lunar’s model architecture. Solar panels capture energy from the sun, batteries and storage components store the power for the night, and software communicates the results to the homeowners. The groups knew that Kunal and his early team were former Tesla employees who worked in power. They were a scrappy group that preferred to build everything in-house. Because of their experience and early demand for the product, they raised a $150M Series A. After briefly learning about Lunar, we were asked if Lunar should build the technology in-house or work with a contract manufacturer.
Here’s where I realized why having Kunal in the room made the case more enjoyable than reading in a PDF.
Groups asked about what parts of Lunar’s stack were IP-protected. If they were to work with a contract manufacturer, could the manufacturer take the idea? Some groups asked about the location of the manufacturers. Kunal made this first decision in March 2020 when COVID had begun. Others asked about the cost structure of both and the capital burn at the time of his decision. Most groups decided that a combination of in-house and contract manufacturers made sense. Lunar went all-in on contract manufacturers. There were two reasons why, 1) Lunar energy has IP (and edge) in the design of the virtual power plant, not a job of the contract manufacturers. They also had 50 patents at the time, so IP was less of a worry. 2) Lunar did the EVT and DVT in-house; the contract manufacturer did the PVT. EVT, DVT, and PVT were a framework Milo Werner (GP at The Engine and board member at Lunar) explained to the groups. EVT is engineering validation and is the stage in product development when companies have a working prototype. DVT is design validation when sourcing the material for mass production and perfecting the product design. In this stage, you usually test the product under unconventional conditions for safety and reliability. PVT is production validation when you deploy and get customers to use the tool.
For the second decision, Kunal gave us information about the contract manufacturer (CM) Lunar began working with after deciding this path made sense. They were located in Mexico and had a productive on-ground staff, but alignment between the CM’s executive team and their on-ground staff began to dwindle around week five. Given the slow movement to produce the technology from CM#1, Lunar needed to decide if they should continue pushing CM#1 for output, work with another CM#2 (a CM they’d been talking to and had great executive team alignment), or hedge between CM#1 and CM#2. If they transitioned to CM#2, they’d lose $50M as production would be delayed four months.
Most groups responded that Lunar should hedge. Lunar decided to choose CM#2. There were two reasons why 1) Hedging required more staff. Lunar would’ve needed to task people with CM#1 relations and others with CM#2. Lunar is also impatient with building, and their team moves quickly (their first working prototype was built in a couple of months); staying with CM#1 would’ve slowed their deployment process (they had 5k preorders at the time). 2) Executive alignment with CM#2 gave Kunal confidence the $50M loss wouldn’t matter long-term. Milo Werner mentioned that the on-ground staff at CM’s move around based on the executive team’s orders. In the case of CM#1, if Apple enters a contract with them and requests more staff, they’d move members working on Lunar’s (or any company’s) product to Apple; Lunar would’ve had to spend money training a new staff too. In the case of CM#2, executive alignment prevents this.
4) Fluffy presenters don’t make a good conference.
I wonder if the world prefers hearing the truth less because it hurts more. Investors don’t want to hear that they are useless or provide negative value to entrepreneurs. Co-founders don’t want to hear that the company they helped build has outgrown them and they are no longer needed. Entrepreneurs don’t want to hear how complex and tumultuous the process of building a company is and how often their bank balance will be near $0 before they get a break. Candor was alive at the summit, and it was healthier for all the builders.
5) Impersonal staff interactions don’t make a good conference.
In companies, the culture comes from the top down. In conferences, I think it comes from the bottom up. In other words, the staff at the summit sets the culture. The team carries a smile with them everywhere. It doesn’t matter if they’re meeting someone new or catching up with an old founder. And because you’re greeted at registration by three people smiling wide, you start to smile wide too. You meet other attendees and smile at them; they begin to smile too. Within 15 minutes of the conference, I saw more teeth than dentists probably see in a year.
And, at the Tough Tech Summit, every staff member is on the team at The Engine. They care as much as the attendees about solving the world’s biggest problems. I met with program managers who work with every CEO on the portfolio, investment associates with PhDs in nuclear engineering, and designers who previously worked at IDEO. I think this like-mindedness is underrated.
A good conference is also measured by what you don’t have to think about. I didn’t have to think about the quality of the sessions. The staff is so intentional about the quality of the people they’re bringing in and the output of the event you get to follow your curiosity instead of searching for the best speaker.
It would be too cheesy to say that what makes a good conference is the MIT Tough Tech Summit staff planning it, but by thinking about what doesn’t make a good conference, I think they’ve created a magical experience for tough tech builders.
Excited for next year.
Thank you to Bela and Alex for hosting the TKS Crew and me! You’re wonderful people, and I appreciate you both for finding a way to get us involved.
Thank you to Michael Raspuzzi for the conversation at the Tough Tech Summit library, the conversations between events, and the Thursday night 1:1. The in-person jam(s) were worth the wait.
Thank you to Andrés Velarde for the conversations about education and your curiosity that forces me to go 3-5 layers deep in my reasoning.
Thank you to Shreya Hegde, Raina Bornstein, Christina Wang, and Apurva Joshi for exchanging insights from the case study sessions.
Thank you to Ben Linville-Engler, Dhananjay Goel, Danny Donovan, Anna Scott, Jeff Terrey, Yvonne Mccague, Kunal Girotra, Fiona Murray, Milo Werner, Reed Sturtevant, Ben Downing, Lakshana Huddar, and more for the conversations.
Thank you to Navid and Nadeem Nathoo for creating TKS; conferences like this highlight why the organization is so valuable.