It began as a politician’s pet idea. Back in 1999 the United Kingdom’s chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, was looking for a way to jump-start Britain’s economy. He visited MIT that year and found a spirit of creative innovation spawning numerous startups.Determined to help his country’s institutions have the same kind of impact, Brown formulated a plan for a cross-cultural alliance. He sought to link one of Britain’s premier universities with MIT in the hope that the Institute’s prowess for turning research into companies might rub off on U.K. innovators. In 2000 Brown’s idea became the Cambridge-MIT Institute (CMI), a partnership of MIT and the University of Cambridge, backed for five years with about $100 million from the British government. CMI’s aim is to undertake education and research projects that will improve competitiveness, productivity, and entrepreneurship in the United Kingdom.
Today the Cambridge-MIT Institute sits at a crossroads while its administrators evaluate the partnership’s effectiveness and look for ways to sustain the program’s momentum beyond its initial funding period. Foremost among the successes are promising CMI-funded joint-research programs. Everyone hopes these will lead to marketable discoveries that will directly spur the U.K. economy. But a secondary success, particularly for MIT, has been the effort’s undergraduate student exchange program, the largest of its educational pursuits. The exchange has proved key to its mission by bringing future leaders into close contact, where they can share ideas and learn from each other.
CMI’s mission will be achieved first through its concentration on research. In fact, directors hope this research will quickly lead to commercially viable applications. Each of CMI’s 50 integrated research projects falls into one of two categories: future technologies or competitiveness, productivity, and entrepreneurship. Every project has a designated principal investigator at both Cambridge and MIT. And the U.K. government funds the research, supplying a $40 million chunk of the total CMI budget. Additionally, certain projects receive funding from such industrial partners as British Petroleum.
Projects in competitiveness, productivity, and entrepreneurship evaluate Britain’s business acumen in a variety of industries. Meanwhile, research into future technologies includes scientific work in a variety of fields-from stem cells to microelectronic mechanical systems. Because the goal of the partnership is to encourage the development of patents and the transition of research into the marketplace, the funded projects are those that promise a payoff within two to seven years.
One research group is studying a bacterium called Rhodococcus. For some time, John Archer of Cambridge’s genetics department and MIT biology professor Anthony Sinskey, ScD ‘67, had been working independently on this soil-dwelling bacterium, and when the Cambridge-MIT Institute formed, the pair discovered an opportunity to combine their research. Their work on this organism may lead, among other things, to the development of drugs for AIDS and other diseases.
Working with about $1.7 million of CMI backing and an additional $3.2 million in funding from pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, Archer’s and Sinskey’s researchers have made significant discoveries. The first of these is Rhodococcus’s ability to eat very complex molecules, essentially recycling them into harmless molecules found in nature. MIT research scientist Philip Lessard, who helps lead MIT’s work on Rhodococcus, says this feature makes the bacterium an excellent candidate for cleaning contaminated sites. Currently, the researchers are studying the bacterium’s metabolic processes in detail. Their primary goal is to use it, with its unique metabolism, to quickly and inexpensively alter the molecular structure of other compounds, making the bacterium a significant new production platform for antibiotics.
But beyond the research developments, Lessard says this alliance is unique in the amount of information that has been shared by the two institutions. In previous collaborations, he had been careful about providing too much information about his work to collaborators who were potential competitors. But through the Cambridge-MIT Institute, cooperation and joint ownership are guaranteed by administrative policies. Lessard says, “I no longer even think twice about saying [to Archer], I have this plasma, and it took me a year and a half to make this, and I have all these tremendous resources. Do you want it?’” He notes also that CMI encourages researchers to concentrate on commercializing their work instead of just creating new knowledge for knowledge’s sake.