Presidential Charge to the Committee to form an MIT Innovation Initiative

October 17, 2013

Charge to the Committee to form an MIT Innovation Initiative

This document lays out a vision for an Innovation Initiative at MIT and identifies components essential for its success. I ask the committee to deliver to me by January 31st, 2014, a set of recommendations for bringing this Initiative to life.

L. Rafael Reif



MIT built its reputation for serious innovation by translating basic science into concepts and technologies to serve society. Today, we see a world that needs MIT insights and ingenuity more than ever, and we see an opportunity to substantially enhance our ability to deliver innovation: to identify problems and create solutions faster and more effectively, at every scale and for any context.

Innovation now rules in realms from the most centralized, complex and capital-intensive – a multibillion dollar plant for fabricating nano-devices – to the radically distributed and democratized: a remote village FabLab inspiring solutions to local challenges. To seize global opportunities and solve global problems, the Innovation Initiative at MIT will focus and amplify MIT’s natural strength in innovation to span the spectrum of need, in service to the world. We define innovation broadly; we embrace the virtual as well as the “real” – tangible products and processes that make life better in big, important ways.


Innovation in our DNA

As MIT launches this new initiative, we have the confidence that comes from practice: we have been piloting aspects of this idea for 150 years. In a sense, MIT itself is our prototype:

We push the frontiers of fundamental research. We understand the technologies of production, from the factory-tested to the laboratory-new, and we invite industry to join us, so we concentrate on problems that matter in the real world. With an interdisciplinary attitude and an appetite for hands-on problem solving, we define compelling new questions, attack them in novel ways – and bring our students with us every step. Analytical, practical, economically realistic, environmentally attuned and globally aware, we instinctively work across boundaries and use the power of human organizations to deliver useful innovation to the world.

Our goal is to refine and optimize these strengths, which have served MIT so well for so long. In launching this Innovation Initiative, we aim to create a “product” that could be useful far beyond MIT; we want to succeed for ourselves and to serve as a model of what works.


Mens et Manus in motion

Building on MIT’s long tradition of making and doing, the Initiative will give students, faculty, alumni and others beyond MIT the space, skills, knowledge, tools and opportunities to design, build, test, prototype, hack, scale up and accelerate the transformation of academic ideas into practical innovations through ventures, partnerships and networks. 

The Initiative will actively celebrate, support and intensify MIT’s culture of making, our faith in the creative power of mind and hand. To society’s boldest makers, we say: “If you want to change the world, make yourself at home at MIT.”


Engaging a spectrum of stakeholders

We will explicitly focus on engaging five major stakeholders in the innovation ecosystem: innovators themselves, entrepreneurs, large corporations, risk capital providers and policy makers.  The Innovation Initiative allows us to re-imagine how these parties come together on an academic campus to solve the world’s greatest innovation challenges. We will also ensure that, as we immerse our students in innovation in action, we reach beyond our campus and region to engage other innovators around the world. 


Proposed elements of the Innovation Initiative

  • Innovation Spaces
    We want to make spaces for making, extraordinary spaces in which students, faculty and alumni can gather to play with new ideas, develop their innovations and turn their inspirations into reality. We will give them room to create products, spin off companies – and bump into people who can help them succeed at both.
    In its physical realization, the Initiative will be literally Institute-wide: a chain of new and existing spaces that would together create an “Infinite Innovation Corridor.” Important stops would include the soon-to-be-constructed Nano building and a possible new Innovation Center. But this elongated ecosystem would also feature existing innovation spaces such as the MIT Hobby Shop and the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. The Infinite Innovation Corridor can even digitally link our MIT ecosystem to new and emerging innovation locations across the globe.


  • Innovation Education
    We want to educate the makers of tomorrow – a new generation of thinkers, designers, doers and entrepreneurs equipped to frame compelling problems, create practical solutions and nurture them from lab-scale to prototypes to full-scale manufacturing. We aim to develop innovators skilled at continuously re-imagining what can be made, how and where new products are built, and what vehicle will best amplify their impact – a start-up or not-for-profit, working in partnership with large corporations or governments, and so forth.
    This aspiration requires us to innovate in the way we educate. We will embed experiences in innovation throughout the curriculum and develop co-curricular activities that equip students with lasting, real-world skills in innovation and entrepreneurship. We will offer students expanded options for “living” innovation in both entrepreneurial and large corporate settings, nearby and around the world. And we will provide new opportunities for hands-on learning, such as working through the challenges of “scale up.” Our initiative can serve as a model to help industry, academia and governments decide how to train new innovators and put their skills to use.
    Undergraduates represent a relatively “unhoned” resource in MIT’s innovation ecosystem; one important new program could be an undergraduate minor in entrepreneurship.  Through creative use of kits and prototypes, we also hope to collaborate with MITx to introduce aspiring innovators around the world to MIT-style hands-on learning.
  • Innovation Research
    Drawing on the expertise of all five MIT Schools, research will include efforts to develop new production technologies and processes and to assess their potential impact on cities, communities, economies and nations.  Production research might focus on nanofabrication, robotics, and materials design and synthesis.  The Initiative may also emphasize “innovation science” – the rigorous evaluation of innovation and entrepreneurship programs and policies, particularly those that focus on accelerating the impact of tangible product and service innovations on the economy.  Doing so will create the opportunity to engage major capital providers – from venture firms to foundations to the federal government – in examining new ways to sustain MIT’s basic research to increase its global impact. We may also capture the lessons of “living” our own innovation ecosystem to help understand and address the challenges our international partners face in building ecosystems around the world.  


  • Innovation in Action
    In our research, our education and our innovation spaces, the emphasis will be on action. Students, faculty and the broader innovation community will have myriad opportunities to sharpen their skills and ideas through practice and interaction. The Initiative will be open and inviting, offering key stakeholders and other players in the ecosystem a variety of ways to interact freely with our innovators through feedback, mentorship and professional connections.
    We will develop new mechanisms to engage on campus with innovation policymakers and risk capital providers.  We will also work to re-imagine how innovators, large corporations and entrepreneurs may come together to bring ideas to market. This emphasizes our commitment to making innovation real for all parties. In all these efforts, we will systematically experiment, learn from our results and share those lessons through policy recommendations, educational leadership and publication.


Leveraging MIT

The Innovation Initiative will build upon MIT’s storied history as a place where we innovate to make a tangible difference in the world.  The Initiative embraces the responsibility to support and enhance the existing innovation ecosystem in and around MIT.  In this spirit, the committee will develop the Initiative by consulting widely and thoroughly with the range of internal units involved in helping innovation, entrepreneurship and “making” flourish at MIT. We will also engage critical external stakeholders – entrepreneurs, large corporations, risk capital providers and policymakers. 

The Innovation Initiative will also complement MIT’s pioneering work in digital learning (MITx) by providing thought leadership, tools and experiences to help enrich MIT’s “virtual” offerings with MIT’s signature style of hands-on learning by doing.

This Initiative will complement and strengthen MIT’s strategy of increasing international engagement by unifying and articulating the theories and practices that underlie MIT’s success as an innovation hub.  This will enhance MIT’s ability to identify, connect to, learn from and collaborate with other global innovation hubs, both established and emerging.


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The Innovation Initiative will amplify the MIT community’s powers of innovation and our passion for progress. By focusing on innovations, not simply ideas, and by emphasizing the importance of impact and the challenge of delivering at scale, we will expose our students to demanding, inspiring activities all along the innovation chain, in contexts from the developing world to industry. In the spirit of making, we say, “If you want to change the world, you have to Do It Yourself!”