MIT’s interdisciplinary Media Lab is famous for its blue-sky research, focusing on the study, invention, and creative use of technology. Over the years, its big thinking has led to some impressive achievements, including the development of MPEG video compression, the Hundred-Dollar Laptop project, and the founding of eInk, a company that makes electronic paper displays.
But venture capitalists no longer readily throw money at “vague” projects, and government funding is drying up. Today, 70 percent of the lab’s annual budget of around $35 million comes from corporate sponsors, with whom they must forge ever-closer ties. Since corporate benefactors want practical technologies, the Media Lab has to strike a balance between meeting sponsors’ needs and maintaining its traditional philosophy of open-ended research.
These challenges now face a new director, Frank Moss, who was introduced to the MIT community on February 15. An entrepreneur, he came from Infinity Pharmaceuticals, and has 25 years of experience in the software and computer industries. Moss says that under his guidance the Media Lab will focus on projects that use technology to address social problems, such as aging and education. He also believes his commercial experience will be helpful in dealing with the lab’s sponsors. Director Moss talked with Technology Review assistant editor Katherine Bourzac about the lab’s refocused mission.
Technology Review: The system of corporate sponsorship at the Media Lab is unusual. Can you explain how it works and how you balance academic needs with the interests of your corporate sponsors?
Frank Moss: It is unusual, but I think we’re going to see more of this with government funding decreasing. I think it’s important to be able to engage industry and corporate sponsors to sponsor this kind of work. Fundamentally, we have a system whereby sponsors join up as a member of the lab community. As part of that, they have access to all the intellectual property being generated by all the faculty and the students here.
What has changed over the past seven or eight years is that simply coming here and rubbing shoulders with very smart, creative people is often not enough for our sponsors. They need us to help them make a connection between all the wonderful creative work we have here and problems they have.
The balance is between working more closely with our sponsors and understanding their problems, while continuing to generate the wild and crazy new ideas that they’ve joined us for. After looking at the problem for a while, I’m convinced that we can help our sponsors make that connection more effectively at the same time that we continue to build on the highly creative environment we have here. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.
TR: What is the advantage to having an entrepreneur, rather than a research scientist, direct the Media Lab?
FM: I think we’re all entrepreneurs, but I’m coming from a commercial environment. I think the reason MIT went in that direction is that in many ways running an academic research lab in today’s world requires a keen understanding of the sponsors and what their needs and wants are – because, at the end of the day, although we’re doing very cool and advanced research, it has to be relevant to the organizations that are going to fund us. That’s true everywhere. I think that the Media Lab, in making a change, saw an opportunity to embrace that. We need to understand what corporations are looking for when they make an investment with an academic institution like the Media Lab.
I think having been part of that world, I’m able to communicate [with our sponsors] and I can put myself in their shoes – and therefore redefine the relationship between the Media Lab and the sponsors in a way that makes it more compelling for sponsors to invest their time and effort.
The Media Lab has grown over the years, and with growth comes problems with scale and management – not only creating the most exciting atmosphere for research but also dealing with financial, organizational, and people issues. That’s something someone with commercial experience can bring to the table.