Joi Ito Named to Take Over MIT Media Lab

4/25/11Follow @wroush

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology news office has confirmed a New York Times scoop today revealing that ubiquitous technology entrepreneur Joichi “Joi” Ito has been named the next director of the MIT Media Lab—an institution famed for giving its industry sponsors, and the outside world, a perpetual window into the future of computing and communications.

Though the Times deemed him an “unusual choice” due to his lack of academic credentials, observers say that Ito, 44, will likely infuse the Media Lab with a new spirit of youthful enthusiasm and global awareness—and, potentially, new funds. ”He’ll bring youth, globalness, social networkness, the world stage, fund raising resolve and a charmed personality of enablement,” says Media Lab founding director Nicholas Negroponte. “We could not have picked a better candidate.”

Ito is known as an early and avid proponent of the Internet and digital commerce. The company he founded in 1994, Eccosys, evolved into Digital Garage, one of the highest-flying Japanese Internet companies of the 1990s. He helped to start the first Japanese Internet service provider, PSINet, as well as Infoseek Japan, the country’s first commercial search engine. He founded a Tokyo-based venture firm called Neoteny (which is now a holding company) and has lectured and published widely.

Ito’s list of angel investments reads like a who’s who of pioneering social media companies, including Six Apart, Technorati, SocialText, Flickr, Twitter, Last.fm, Kongregate, Rupture, and Kickstarter. Most recently, he served as CEO of Creative Commons, a non-profit promoting licensing schemes that foster greater sharing and reuse of digital media content. He is still a board member at Creative Commons, and also serves on the boards of the Mozilla Foundation, the human rights group Witness, and the blogger network Global Voices.

Ito was born in Kyoto, Japan, and spent his childhood in Canada, Michigan, and Tokyo. He attended Tufts University in Massachusetts and the University of Chicago but left both without a degree. He will be the Media Lab’s fourth director since Negroponte founded the organization in 1985. He succeeds Frank Moss, who took over in 2006 after a career in computing and pharmaceuticals. Moss announced his departure last summer.

Though the Media Lab recently expanded into a new $90 million building that roughly doubled its footprint on the MIT campus, its existence still depends on a network of roughly 60 corporate and government sponsors, who contribute $200,000 or more per year in return for royalty-free access to technology developed in the lab. Part of Ito’s challenge will be recruiting new sponsors, and persuading existing sponsors to re-up, at a time when consumers’ media and communications habits are changing rapidly and industry R&D budgets are under pressure.

In a post on his personal blog this evening, Ito says that upon his first visit to the new Media Lab building this spring, he “felt like a pilgrim from the Middle Ages entering a cathedral. I was in awe and a bit of shock wondering if I would fit into an ‘institution’ like the Media Lab and MIT.” But Ito says he soon realized that ”I’d found my tribe. Everyone was super-smart, driven, working on very cool stuff and weren’t afraid to try anything. There was extreme diversity but also a common DNA and sense of mission that combined with the physical proximity created by the space and the empowering brand and legacy of the Media Lab. It created a power to think long-term with agility that I’d never seen anywhere else.”

Ito suggests in the post that the Media Lab occupies favored ground in between the commercial, industrial, government, and non-profit worlds. He says startups often fail to achieve impact “because of the nature of venture capital and the public markets,” and that government and large company research labs “are increasingly unable to move quickly enough or be flexible enough to tackle the high speed and complex problems facing us today.” The Media Lab, he argues, has the flexibility and agility to combine ideas from academia, the public sector, venture-backed startups, bug companies, the arts, journalism, social entrepreneurship, and non-profits.

Ito even uses the post to make his first fundraising pitch to companies in his personal network: “For those of you who aren’t sponsors of the Lab, I urge you to come visit and hang out and consider joining the team. I sincerely think that the Media Lab has an essential role in providing context and innovation for the future and the first step is to make sure all of you are at the table and part of the conversation.”

With that kind of alacrity, it’s no wonder Negroponte called Ito “the perfect director for the Media Lab going forward” in MIT’s announcement today. The digital revolution that the Media Lab had helped to foster is now complete, Negroponte said, and what the lab needs now is a director with a broad range of connections and experiences. “Today, the ‘media’ in Media Lab include the widest range of innovations, from brain sciences to the arts. Their impact will be global, social, economic and political—Joi’s world.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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