The future of entrepreneurship lit up 50 years ago in one of those MIT moments when Institute opportunities fan personal inspiration. Ed Roberts, Class of ’57, spark in human form, had aced 100 percent of MIT’s computer courses — all 3 of them; completed an SB and SM in electrical engineering and a second SM in industrial management, and, ignoring his advisor’s caveat that he was doing too much, plunged into a doctoral program in economics. All this while studying the life cycles of R&D projects, original research that would be the foundation for MIT’s technological innovation and later its entrepreneurship programs.
“My career’s first gear was fast forward,” says Roberts, currently the David Sarnoff Professor of the Management of Technology and founder and chair of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center. His own pace and the pace of the expanding field he created have kept accelerating.
Roberts became the “go-to guy” in system dynamics as a graduate student. At 25, he joined an MIT team to discern if NASA had “researchable management problems” — meaning, could the young MIT management school generate insights to help the sprawling U.S. space agency?
NASA’s call still delights his entrepreneurial spirit, says Roberts. “‘We’ve got a problem’ is music to my ears!”
That tune is music to any entrepreneur’s ears, and Roberts has been a driving force in developing an Institute ecosystem that continually helps MIT student- and alumni-entrepreneurs form innovative businesses. He both founded and directs the intensive MIT Sloan Entrepreneurship & Innovation MBA Track, and he cites the Deshpande Center, the Technology Licensing Office, Venture Mentoring Service and student clubs including the $100K as critical partners of the Entrepreneurship Center.
In recent original research, Roberts produced the seminal 2009 study, Entrepreneurial Impact: The Role of MIT, showing the regional and national economic impact of alumni who create their own firms.
The data are startling: If the active companies founded by living MIT graduates formed an independent nation, their (estimated) revenues would make that nation the 11th largest economy in the world.
Led by MIT, the field of entrepreneurship expands constantly. More entrepreneurs are emerging out of each successive graduating class, and they are starting their first companies sooner and at earlier ages. Roberts’ research forecasts that women entrepreneurs will increasingly found companies. Among MIT departments, electrical engineering and computer science will retain its lead in producing entrepreneurs, and life sciences and biology will continue their post-2001 growth spurt.
Energy technology companies are already on fast-forward. MIT alumni are creating 30 to 35 new energy-focused firms every year, establishing more than 250 in Massachusetts alone, and Roberts predicts his favorite tune — “We’ve Got a Problem” — will inspire many future entrepreneurs. Equipped with science, technology and management skills, he says, their teams will “reach across disciplines to meet national and global challenges.”