MIT Students, Lured
To New Tech Firms,
Get Caught in a Bind
They Work for Professors
Who May Also Oversee
Their Academic Careers
By AMY DOCKSER Mucus
StaffI3eporterof THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
CAMESRIDGE, Mass. - William Koffel,
a junior at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, was among the brightest stu-dents
in his 6.033 Computer System Engi-neering
course last spring. But he couldn't
handle one of the homework assignments
from Prof. M. Frans Kaashoek.
It wasn't that the assignment, to design
a new system to speed up delivery of Web
pages, was too complex. Actually, it was
easy, because Mr. Koffel already had been
working on just such a project-not as a
student, but as an employee, at a company
co-founded by a different. MIT professor.
And Mr. Koffel was bound by a nondisclo-sure
agreement, or an NDA, not to reveal
his work for the company.
"At first I thought, 'What a boring pro-ject
if I have to write about something I al-ready
understand,' " recalls Mr. Koffel, 21
years old. "Then I thought about the
nondisclosure agreement I signed and won-dered
if I could do my homework at all."
Three other students who live in Mr.
Koffel's dorm and work at Akamai Tech-nologies
Inc. were in the same fix. So Mr.
Koffel poured out his predicament to F.
Thomson Leighton, the MIT professor who
helped found Akamai. After the two profes-sors
conferred, the students sent an e-mail
to Mr. Kaashoek asking for a new home-work
'A Bad Deal'
He agreed-but reluctantly. "ITelt the
students were getting a ba deal. The stu-%
dents should be able to do a assignment
at MIT," Mr. Kaashoek says. "I'm not go-ing
to let it happen again. It's ridiculous
that an NDA is going to set the content of
my course. In the future, my policy is going
to be, 'If you sign an NDA, you take this
class at your own risk.' "
Mr. Leighton realizes the situation was
awkward, but says the issue isn't simple.
He says Mr. Kaashoek has started his own
company, SightPath r c,, that is attempt:
b ing to do work similar . Akamai's. Indeed,
Mr. LeigUon wonders if his fellow profes-sor
g8ve that a8a&nment as a way to learn
more about Akamai's progress.
Mr. Kaashoek insists it was homework,
not espionage: "There's tons of companies
in #at space." But Mr. Leighton isn't so
Mr. Kaashoek insists it was homework,
not espionage: *'There's tons of eornmes
in that space." But Mr. Leighton isn't so
8ure* "Frans was awaR! of uRt&Iywhat we
are doing " he says, *'If Akama! d@> &&
is& woukib have thought of this question?
It% not cleai"
What is clear isthat on many cam-puses*
st&?nt jobs have come a long way
from the days of busing tables in the cafe
teria or checking the footnotes in a profes-sor's
l?sear& project. A@ a$ the p@RnIts
at Internet start-ups skyroe& tieof the
conflicts these jobs present are as cutting-edge
as the techno@y they develop.
High-tech launches from universities
frequently can't get off the ground without
a steady f3upply of studen& who are often
' the must talented
to toil around the
clock. But intense
can keep students
from doing their
best academic work.
And when both stu-dent
share a huge finan-cial
make a company a
success, some professors might be
tempted to look the
other way when studies slip or homework
gets in the way.
Other universities with top-notch engi-neering
programs, such as Stanford or Gal
Tech, are also grappling with the phenom-enon,
but nowhere are the dilemmas more
intense than at MIT, the school responsible
for such pioneering innovations as com-mercial
spreadsheet programs and en-cryption
for secure online transactions.
MIT actively encourages professors and
students to turn university-developed tech-nologies
into businesses, which often re-sults
in a return to the school in licensing
fees, royalties or stock. The MIT Technol-ogy
Licensing Office coaches students and
faculty on how to set up companies and
connects them with venture capitalists.
The office has helped create about 150 com-panies
that are still in business; MIT holds
equity in about a third of them.
MIT official policy requires professors
to disclose any situation that might pose a
conflict; . potential problems are then
worked out with the department heads on a
case-by-case basis. But the number of stu-dents
working at start-ups has soared so
quickly that issues like the homework prob-lem
have taken the school by surprise.
"We're making up policy as we go along,"
says John Guttag, head of MIT's Depart-ment
of Electrical Engineering and Corn-puter
He sometimes turns down faculty who
ask for leaves to start companies: otherwise
he wouldn't have enough professors to teach
courses. Meanwhile, some professors note
that students are more frequently missing
assignments and getting poorer grades be
cause of work commitments at start-ups.
A walk down the main hallway of the
Pleuse W-n to Rage A6, Column 1