Exxon, Microsoft Recruit Genius Teens at MIT

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. ( TheStreet) -- ExxonMobil ( XOM), Microsoft ( MSFT) and Amgen ( AMGN) are among companies that sponsor a summer program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that's designed to teach whiz kids that brilliant scientific minds can yield lucrative careers.

It used to be that learning science was an end in itself. Not always at MIT, whose alumni helped found companies including Intel ( INTC), Texas Instruments ( TXN), Genentech ( DNA) and Harmonix, maker of the "Rock Band" video game and a unit of Viacom ( VIA).

The Center for Excellence in Education's Research Science Institute at MIT is a free, six-week program for 80 of the smartest high school kids in the world, 50 of whom are American citizens. About 1,000 vie for the spots. The Research Science Institute differs from other hey-kids-science-is-wicked-cool programs in that the students get a chance to interact with a mix of superstar mentors from the academic and business worlds -- Nobel laureates, successful entrepreneurs and capitalists.

"What is needed in the business community is mentoring by those who have made it," says Joann DiGennaro, who co-founded the Center for Excellence in Education in 1983 with Admiral H.G. Rickover, who led the effort to build the world's first nuclear-powered submarine, the U.S.S. Nautilus, which is why students in the program are known as "Rickoids." Some 80% of the Rickoids end up pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering or math, DiGennaro says.

Corporations that donate at least $10,000 to the Center for Excellence in Education get the chance to woo program alumni at an exclusive recruitment reception each November. And investors wondering where to place their bets in the next decade might do well to skulk around the MIT campus in the summer. The Research Science Institute has proven to be a breeding ground for young entrepreneurs.

To wit: Pehr Anderson, class of 1991, dropped out of MIT in 1996 at age 22 to found telephony software startup NBX Corp., which was acquired by 3Com ( COMS) in 1999 for $90 million. As a Rickoid, Anderson was inspired by the chutzpah of his mentors.

"It was really great to see people with incredible accomplishments tell us how little they knew what they were doing while they were doing it," Anderson says. "The story of Admiral Rickover taking an impossible, immobile organization the U.S. Navy and turning it on its head was incredibly inspiring. So for me, when I looked at things that looked impossible, I thought, 'Of course I've got to go after them. Of course I've got to attack them.' "

Alumnus Mark Kantrowitz founded the student financial-aid Web site FinAid, now part of Monster Worldwide ( MWW).

Rickoids Matt DeBergalis and Benjamin Rahn met as students in the summer of 1994. Ten years later, they founded the Internet-based Democratic Party fundraising firm ActBlue.

"My summer there as a high schooler was my first exposure to the sort of creative problem-solving mindset that sits at the heart of any successful venture," says DeBergalis, chairman and president of ActBlue. "RSI's alumni community is its strongest asset. Alumni have been my business partners, employees, donors, investors, advisers, and have made countless intangible contributions to all my projects."

Nine out of 10 Rickoids come from public school and more than a third are female. "It's a myth that all the brightest students are white, private-schooled, moneyed and male," DiGennaro says. At any rate, connections the kids make the summer before their senior year of high school are at least as valuable as the relationships formed at any Princeton eating club or country club.

"Several of my best friends in the world date back to that summer," says 41-year-old Steve Strong, who was a member of the first class, in 1984. Following a career as an academic physicist, Strong joined the D.E. Shaw Group hedge fund in 1998, where he worked as a managing director until last year, when he retired. (It pays to be a whiz kid.) D.E. Shaw is famously picky, with only one applicant in several hundred invited to join the firm, according to the company's Web site. Yet, "I don't remember seeing a resume with 'RSI' on it and not giving that person an interview," Strong says.

-- Reported by Carmen Nobel in Boston.