Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Last Night's Event with Ed Roberts of MIT

There was a nice crowd last night at the Vilna Shul for the Fireside Chat with Ed Roberts. Ed is one of the gurus of entrepreneurship at MIT.

What we discovered during the conversation is that I tend to think locally, while Ed thinks globally.

I wanted to focus in on what more we can do to encourage the creation and cultivation of big, important, innovative companies here. Ed wanted to talk about the growth of China, and how Tsinghua University aims to become the MIT of China.

I started by asking Ed about the most successful companies he has been involved with. In Massachusetts, he was a founder of the hospital IT company MediTech, with 2700 employees and $400 million in revenue. But an even bigger hit has been, the Chinese Web portal.

I asked Ed about his biggest concern for the Boston/Massachusetts economy. His answer: our entrepreneurs and VCs sell companies too soon. Ed said that his friend, the late Alex d'Arbeloff (co-founder of Teradyne) would always encourage the companies he counseled to "fight the fight" and ignore the VCs encouraging them to sell.

But Ed said his bigger worry was one related to how a single federal policy position will affect the future competitiveness of our country. Since 2001, it has gotten harder and harder for smart people (like MIT grads) to stick around in the US after they graduate, and either get experience working at a company here -- or start a company of their own. MIT alums who hail from foreign countries, he observed, have a higher rate of entrepreneurship than U.S.-born alums, and we're now essentially telling them, "Go back to India, China, or Africa."

Someone from the audience said he is starting a consumer tech company, and has been having trouble getting funded by Boston area VCs. Ed said that even on the West Coast VCs can be reluctant to back consumer-oriented companies. (Perhaps, but I'd say they're less reluctant there than here.) He talked a bit about how slow established VCs can be to expand the scope of their investing. "VCs have as much of a problem as large corporations do in shifting their focus to new areas" like nanotech or cleantech, he said.

Ed mentioned he is working on a new study, to be released in the coming months, about the economic impact that MIT entrepreneurs have had on the world. (It's an update of an old study conducted by BankBoston.) Basically, it's huge.

I suggested that our next challenge in the Hub is helping our other great academic institutions -- not just MIT -- get better at spinning out companies.

And I also noted that if our region is already the center of the universe for life sciences innovation (it clearly is), and is becoming an important hub for cleantech, why don't we do a better job of communicating that to the rest of the world, to attract more people, money, big companies?

Doug Levin, the organizer of this event, mentioned that the next two guests will be Marvin Minsky and Nicholas Negroponte, dates TBD. Info here.

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