When Lyssa Koton Neel ’79, SM ’83, PhD ’88 was in seventh grade, her school in Connecticut got its first computer—a teletype-based system that she quickly learned to program using BASIC.
“I was always in the computer room,” she recalls. “I loved that there was this machine that would do whatever you wanted, if you learned to think logically. After I took all the computer courses at my high school, they let me take classes at the University of Hartford.”
That passion for working with technology—and a dislike of being told what to do—led Neel into an entrepreneurial life. She has founded or worked for seven startups; one went public, another was acquired, and two others are still operating. Her newest venture, Linkitz, is about to begin production of “wearable toys that teach kids to code.” She hopes the colorful programmable modules—such as links that fit together in bracelets that light up when friends are nearby—will prove engaging, especially to girls.
“We want to give kids a chance to do things with their hands and gain confidence, so they can advance to other activities that keep building their skills,” she explains. “There’s not much encouragement for girls to pick up hardware and tinker with it; we want to provide the opportunity to see if they like it.”
Neel credits much of her success to her Institute studies. “I loved my Course 6 experience,” she says. “The ideas, the technology, so many smart people—it prepares you to defend your ideas and look at problems from different perspectives. And the MIT name has opened many doors for me. It’s the most valuable thing in my life besides my husband and three daughters.”
Before starting Linkitz, Neel cofounded and served as program manager of the University of Toronto Early Stage Technology Program (UTEST), a startup incubator for the university’s students, faculty, and recent grads.
Neel advises would-be entrepreneurs that “customers are better than investors, because revenue is better than investment.” She adds that it’s essential for your family to be temperamentally suited to startup life: “You need three years to know if a company is going to make it, and that’s a long time.”
After eight years in Toronto, Neel and her husband, Benjamin Neel, a doctor, recently moved to New York City, where he is director of New York University’s Perlmutter Cancer Center. She enjoys life there and frequently goes on long runs without headphones. “Just feeling my feet on the pavement, the air going by—it totally clears my head,” she says.