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Report from ETC: The Young and the Innovative

Up-and-coming researchers, technologists, and entrepreneurs convene at MIT to celebrate their achievements and reaffirm their hopes for the future.
October 1, 2003

It seems like your average cocktail reception. Soft music from a live band fills the autumn air under the outdoor tent on the lawn outside the MIT Student Center, and attendees chatter in small groups. It is not until one lends a more careful ear to the topics of conversation-from intelligent nanorobotics to spectroscopic phenomics-that the scene becomes striking.

Gathered here are inventors, CEOs, engineers, and scientific researchers who are the catalysts of innovation in their fields of computing, nanotechnology, biomedicine, and the Internet. Collectively, they have created more than 40 new companies, raised over $500 million, and developed dozens of potentially revolutionary technologies.

“I usually don’t think of myself as an innovator,” said Guillermo Ameer, 33, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Northwestern University. Ameer has two patents pending on “biorubbers” that he has developed as medical replacements to damaged body tissues. He already holds a patent on a blood filter that removes the unwanted protein beta-2-microglobulin from patients with kidney disease. Ameer is one of the “TR100” honorees named by Technology Review magazine. Seventy-nine of the 100 attended the Emerging Technologies Conference at MIT last week-an event that was devoted in part to honoring their achievements. The 100 recipients-by rule, none of them older than 35-were chosen out of over 650 nominees from around the world by a panel of 24 judges, which included two Nobel laureates. 

The reception followed a panel discussion with four of the recipients (moderated by Robert Metcalfe, inventor of Ethernet and co-founder of 3Com) about what inspires and drives them in their work. “I always see the world as lot of different pieces of the same puzzle and try to figure out how they fit together. That, to me, has always been the heart of where ideas come from,” said Alexis Borisy, 31, recipient of the TR100 Innovator of the Year award. Borisy is the founder and CEO of CombinatoRx, a Boston-based biotech company that uses a novel research platform to discover the synergistic benefits of existing drug combinations for new clinical treatments. Since its launch in 2000, CombinatoRx has grown from two to 65 employees, has raised more than $60 million, and has already begun human clinical trials of drug combinations to treat cancer and rheumatoid arthritis.

In accepting the Innovator of the Year award, Borisy emphasized that the greatest satisfaction he has gained from his current endeavor comes from the human impact of his company’s new technology. “Patients believe in you and the work you’ve done,” he said, adding: “I hope that the promise that is CombinatoRx can continue through the long and arduous path ahead of us.”

The potential social impact of technological innovations was also stressed by Paul Meyer, 33, who received the Humanitarian Award for his work in bringing technology to the developing world. “The thing I find important is the desire to find big problems and try to solve them,” he said. “I encourage people to look at the developing world to solve big problems [where] one can have a much greater impact,” Meyer said. His Washington, DC-based company, Voxiva, brings the power of computers and Internet to remote communities around the world through touch-tone phones. Meyer, a former speechwriter for President Clinton, was also responsible for building the first wireless network in Kosovo.

Meyer stressed that focusing on the “important problems” would eventually lead one to success. “It’s actually easier if you can appeal to more than people’s financial interests and produce something with great social value,” he said. Current projects being undertaken by Voxiva include developing a national disease surveillance system in Iraq, working with HIV/AIDS in Africa, and working with patient and blood supply monitoring in the United States.

The TR100 recipients were being recognized for their endeavors that have already achieved some measure of success still, some of them see the honor not only as a validation of the work they have done, but as motivation to continue to create new and bold things in the future. “This makes me want to live up to the award,” Ameer said. In addition to further developing materials with mechanical properties suitable for replacing tissues in the body, Ameer is also a pioneer in the new field of spectroscopic phenomics, which uses optical techniques to study the morphology of biological tissues.

“In 10 years, I hope to be in on one or several new startups,” Borisy said. “Knowing myself, I know there will be new things I’ll be going after.”

“This is just a confirmation that I’m doing is the right thing and that it does mean something,” said Ayanna Howard, 31, who writes artificial intelligence programs for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “But it’s back to work on Monday.”

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