MIT President shares vision for the future of innovation

By Nathan Parde | Technical Communications Group

On 30 September, Dr. L. Rafael Reif, President, MIT, visited the Laboratory to provide his insights on the nature of innovation and the role of MIT and Lincoln Laboratory as technology leaders.

BernaysMDAAwardDr. Rafael Reif, President, MIT, spoke to the Laboratory community about the future of innovation, as part of the 65th Anniversary Distinguished Lecture Series.

"I've always felt a deep appreciation for Lincoln Laboratory and its role in protecting and serving our nation," Reif said in his opening remarks. "MIT and the Laboratory are in the same business—we turn ideas into useful products and then turn them out to better the world." To this end, in 2013, Reif introduced the MIT Innovation Initiative, which aims to strengthen and evolve the pathways for the MIT community and its partners to develop ideas into solutions that address today's most pressing challenges.

In his talk, Reif referenced Silicon Valley as an example of an "innovation ecosystem" that, since its beginnings in the 1950s, has proven to be a regional hub that continues to recreate itself. The result, said Reif, is "wave after wave of innovation." For example, Silicon Valley introduced integrated circuits, which evolved into personal computing, which in turn led to the formation of the software industry, which was followed by information services, and so on. Reif said that Kendall Square would benefit from developing its own innovation ecosystem. Although the region has launched several major industries, such as shipbuilding, jewelry, and minicomputers, it has never been able to generate multiple waves of innovation, each building on the prior. "I was fascinated by Dr. Reif's observations contrasting the history of Kendall Square to that of Silicon Valley as regional centers for innovation, and why Kendall Square has been unable to sustain the engine over the long term, whereas Silicon Valley has," said Richard Rosson of MIT Lincoln Laboratory's Surveillance Systems Group.

However, things may be changing. In recent years, the biotech industry in Kendall Square has seen substantial growth. Reif believes that the biotech industry is extremely important for the region, economy, and MIT, and could continue to develop into a chain of local innovative industries. In fact, an article published in Wired magazine cited modern-day Kendall Square as one of "the most innovative and productive crossroads in history," adding that "this one corner may generate 1 percent to 2 percent of the future global economy." Reif, who recalls seeing Kendall Square as quite barren in 1980, spoke about the region's more recent success: "This area is considered by many as the global hub of biotech companies and technologies...and this happened because of six MIT startups." Smaller startups are the key to innovation in modern society, because many larger companies no longer have their own internal research and development programs, said Reif. "The most innovative country in the world has big companies that don't innovate anymore—they buy small businesses that innovate."

The morning discussion then turned to how to encourage research in outlying areas, which might not usually receive funding. "We have a highway for innovation and technology, in areas such as software," said Reif. "And we also have slower roads with mile posts [in Biotech]...If it doesn't fall on one of those two tracks, it falls away. Now we need to nurture those innovative ideas that don't fit in these two tracks until they can compete head-to-head with the established tracks." Reif explained that new science-based technologies have four basic needs: access to advanced technology and rapid prototyping, patient investors, maker-spaces, and mentorship.

Fortunately, MIT and the Laboratory are well positioned to assist with the development of new science-based technologies. "I believe Lincoln Laboratory is the best rapid prototyping facility in the country," said Reif. "I'm extremely proud of our work together. It brings me great joy to know how recognized and well known you are."

Reif concluded by saying that the issue of innovation will continue to drive our economy in the future. "I don't think that anyone would dispute that innovation is the key to the future of our country."

Posted September 2016

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