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Innovator of the Year: Scott Heiferman

CEO of Meetup.com pioneered the disruptive idea of going online to go offline

In a season when bloggers, Internet polling, and online donations are reshaping presidential politics, the man who created one of the first Web services to emerge during the Democratic primaries has been named Technology Reviews Innovator of the Year for 2004.

Scott Heiferman, 32, is cofounder and CEO of Meetup.com, a site dedicated, he says, to going online to go offline. Meetup provides software and a database that allows people with common interests to organize themselves, bringing together people devoted to everything from flying kites (nine groups with 13 members as of September 29) to electing John Kerry president (834 groups, 136,619 members).

Heifermans quest is to use technology to bring back some of the human-to-human interactions that have fallen by the wayside with the slow disappearance of such social groups as Elks Clubs and bowling leagues. He says he was inspired by the events to September 11 to try and build community among alienated Americans.

Accepting the award in MITs Kresge Auditorium Wednesday evening, Heiferman said credit for Meetups innovation should also go to the companys two other cofounders, Peter Kamali, Meetups chief technology officer, and Matt Meeker, vice president of member experience. But he stressed that whats really innovative about Meetup.com is what users do with it. Holding up the award, he said, This really is for the people who are using Meetup innovatively and organizing things in their communities.

In an interview afterward, Heiferman said he was shocked by the recognition. My partners and I werent the big stars, we just built the stage for other people, he said.

But Technology Review editor in chief Jason Pontin said the judges for the award found Heifermans work genuinely innovative, and also felt it will serve as a lesson to future innovators. What we found striking about Scott was the swiftness of his influence and how genuinely disruptive his idea was, Pontin said.

Pontin cited the way Howard Dean gained momentum as an early contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in part because his supporters used Meetup as an organizing tool. In the months before the Iowa caucuses, about 190,000 people were using the website to get together with fellow Dean supporters. What was interesting about the Dean insurgency is that it really was grassroots.

Heiferman was one of 100 people under age 35 named the worlds top young innovators by Technology Review. The Innovator of the Year award was presented during the Emerging Technologies Conference, sponsored by the magazine.

During a panel discussion at the conference with three other TR100 winners, Heiferman said Meetup.com is disruptive because it provides a powerful tool for users to organize themselves around any issue that interests them. From civil rights to womens rights to all kinds of rights, when people get organized they have all kinds of power, he said.

One audience member stood during a question and answer period to say he had gone online during the panel discussion and signed up for a Meetup group in California that discusses biology. Another audience member asked the panelists how to encourage children to grow up thinking innovatively.

Youve got to be really good at math and science to innovate, but too much math and science doesnt leave room for creativity, Heiferman responded. Goofing around is really important.

To use Meetup.com, people sign up at the website, indicating where they live and what topics theyre interested in. When a certain number of like-minded people in the same area have registered, the site announces a meeting. The meetings can happen anywhere; in a restaurant, bar, local library, or private home. Restaurants and the like can sign up to be venues for events. And to assure things run smoothly, the company just added the role of local organizer, so that one of the volunteers makes sure meetings run smoothly.

Meetups cover a wide range of topics, all according to user interest. There are the Trekkies, of course (254 groups, 2,401 members), but theyre outnumbered by Bill OReilly fans (277 groups, 5,731 members). There are people who drive Mustangs (211 groups, 809 members) and people who read Ayn Rand (126 groups, 646 members). More than 10,000 users signed up for Republican Party groups, more than 67,000 signed up for Democratic Party meetups, and almost 5,000 want to support Ralph Nader in 2004.

Panel moderator Robert Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet and now a venture capitalist, joked about the sites use for political purposes. My wife and I have used Meetup for a gathering of both Republicans in Massachusetts, he said.

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