Think Big. Collaborate. Media Lab’s Moss Says Boston Area Can Lead the World.

7/19/07Follow @bbuderi

Get this—Silicon Valley is thinking too small. Web 2.0? Small. Social networking? Small potatoes. Google, Yahoo, YouTube, iPhone—all too small, at least in Frank Moss’s view.

A little over a year ago, Moss took over as director of MIT’s Media Lab. He had some big shoes to fill. Moss’s charge was to return the lab to the lofty heights it had enjoyed under its founder, Nicholas Negroponte (now the lab’s chairman emeritus). It was a challenge Moss gladly embraced. The energetic former entrepreneur (and member of Xconomy’s editorial advisory board) has a penchant for challenges: he has founded and/or run several successful IT companies and a biotech firm. At the Media Lab, he has worked to build the framework to pursue a far grander vision, though, one that has Boston leading the world in high-tech innovation. All the area’s people and institutions have to do, he says, is embrace their strengths and work together better—and, of course, learn to think big.

I met with Moss in his corner office at the Media Lab, where his seriousness about this vision was plain. “I think we’ve got all the pieces,” he says. “If you were to draw a circle of radius 10 miles around Kendall Square, I think you’d find within that, between the universities, the venture community, the biomedical community, the business community here, you’d find all the ingredients to really have the Boston area lead in a way that it has never led before. There’s more opportunity within that than anywhere else in the world.”

It’s not that the area hasn’t done well. By most yardsticks, it is second only to Silicon Valley in high-tech innovation—although it has been slipping by some indicators, such as venture funding. But that’s not enough, says Moss. “I view the Boston area just as basically underperforming relative to its assets,” he says. “Yes, it performs well in some areas. But to whom much is given, much is expected. If you look at the assets we have available, we should be outstripping every other area in the world.” He adds, “The whole is not greater than the sum of its parts, it’s less.”

“I personally would point as an example to the Media Lab,” he says. The lab, in Moss’s view, has not been as vital to the innovation ecosystem as it could have been. “Within the four walls there are an incredible number of great ideas generated,” he says. “But if you measure how that all has integrated with the ecosystem here in the community, the results are not nearly as good as they might have been.”

Okay, so what is missing, both at the lab and in the greater Boston region—and what should be done? For starters, says Moss, “What is missing is collaboration.” Other areas that don’t “have nearly as much to offer” make up ground by being much more collaborative, he says. “If we find new and creative ways of collaborating, we can be the leader.”

Also hindering the area is a somewhat risk-averse attitude. Although great startups have long been formed and funded in the Boston region, Moss says, “the willingness to take risk on new and kind of crazy ideas is greater in other parts of the country.”

Moss is working to change that. For starters, at the Media Lab, he is looking to get venture capitalists “in the front door rather than the back,” to give ideas and technologies more of a chance to be commercialized. This will require re-thinking some of the basic founding precepts of the Media Lab, and its relationship with its critical industrial sponsor base, he says, but times have changed for them as well as the Lab. Second, Moss is laying out a vision for taking on much grander challenges—with the help of other groups around MIT and in the community at large.

Web 2.0 is great, he says, but let Silicon Valley own it. “I think that’s small, compared to ‘Human 2.0,’ or ‘Democracy 2.0,’ some of the huge challenges facing society today—dealing with the problems of the disadvantaged, the disabled and the disenfranchised of the world. Not just inventing the future, but inventing a truly better future. Searching, socializing, and shopping online is fine, but we can and must do much better than that. We must look for a deeper, more profound connection between people and technology.”

“Let’s not be too conservative here,” Moss says. “It’s time to say, ‘What’s to lose?’ There’s a huge amount to gain. We can really knock the cover off the ball.”

Coming next week in Part 2: Moss’s grand challenges

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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