MIT Media Lab's New Boss Wants To Reinvent R&D

Frank Moss says innovation will come from online communities of inventors rather than universities, corporate research labs, and organized startups.

Aaron Ricadela, Contributor

February 24, 2006

4 Min Read

If Frank Moss' analysis of the state of high-tech invention is correct, innovation stalwarts like the MIT Media Lab may no longer be the place where the best ideas are born. But those centers can serve as midwives.

Moss, named earlier this month as director of MIT's pioneering IT lab, is preparing for a future in which online communities of inventors--rather than universities, corporate research labs, and organized startups--germinate the best ideas. That has already happened in Internet music sharing and open-source software. And it could happen again in research and development, Moss says. "Ideas and innovation are going to come from consumers," he says. "This is a process companies are totally out of."

Will this smile attract corporate dollars?

Getting the Media Lab's corporate sponsors plugged into the brain waves on the Web could be a key part of revitalizing the 20-year-old institution. Nicholas Negroponte, one of the Internet's original big thinkers, founded the Media Lab in 1985 to address the convergence of computers, telephones, and television, and its "demo or die" culture yielded useful inventions such as electronic ink, robotic toys, wearable computing, digital video, and wireless networks. Corporate sponsors shelled out millions of dollars to ship their researchers to Cambridge, Mass., to cozy up to professors and bring inspiration and useful intellectual property back home.

But the Media Lab has lost some 30% of its corporate funding since the late 1990s, and its annual budget of about $32 million a year is under pressure from labs at other big schools. In addition, companies are directing more of their shrinking research budgets to efforts in emerging markets such as India and China.

"Ten years ago, corporate CEOs and CTOs were rushing to see how much money they could put to get close to places like this," Moss says. "What we have to do to make ourselves attractive to corporate sponsors is different than it was in Nicholas' time."

Negroponte is leaving the lab to pursue his goal of delivering a $100 laptop for less-developed countries, while Moss, who has a pair of Ph.D.s from MIT but has spent his career as an entrepreneur, will attempt to redefine the Media Lab to bridge formal R&D with online innovation, accelerate the rate of invention in a way that appeals to sponsors' bottom lines, and do it without sacrificing academic freedom. If he succeeds, it could provide a template to other labs struggling to remain relevant. Moss understands the business world; he founded software companies Tivoli Systems and Bowstreet, and then sold them to IBM. He also founded Stellar Computer and cancer-drug-discovery company Infinity Pharmaceuticals. "We need to create new ideas that are closer to products and what these companies actually need," he says.

Speed = Relevance

The urge to go faster is partly a product of the crunch business-backed labs are feeling from investors seeking a quick return on R&D investments. "He's saying, 'We have to do it more rapidly, and if we don't do it more rapidly, we're not going to be as relevant to the sponsors,'" says Wayne Johnson, VP for university relations at Hewlett-Packard, a Media Lab sponsor. HP invested $25 million in a variety of MIT projects in 2000, and "we've found over time that the Media Lab has been a very good investment," he says. Last week, the government's Advanced Research and Development Activity office said it's launching a $4.5 million research effort among HP, North Dakota State University, and the Media Lab's Center for Bits and Atoms.

Moss is urging Media Lab researchers to come up with prototypes for sponsors on shorter notice. He's organizing workshops of sponsors and MIT Ph.D.s in areas such as making computers easier to interact with and online advertising less intrusive. For example, a group of MIT grad students, Media Lab faculty, and researchers from media companies and a pharmaceutical company broke off into teams at a recent workshop and spent most of the night building prototypes of a system that would serve up contextual ads as a user typed an E-mail message. The sponsors liked what they saw and "lit up," Moss says. For the Media Lab to stay relevant, it will need to elicit more reactions like that.

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