Remarks to The Technical University of Denmark

Thursday, March 9, 2023

I am delighted by this opportunity to get to know the Technical University of Denmark. 

DTU is right behind MIT on the World University Research Ranking, in the number two spot. So, I am thrilled to visit a great competitor I respect.

Today, I would like to share my views on how universities can be a force for good in a time of great disruption—particularly technical research universities like ours.

The world is confronting enormous cross-border challenges such as climate change and the need to prevent future pandemics. And with the advent of widely available generative artificial intelligence tools, AI is now poised to reshape our workplaces, our economies, our national security, and our lives.

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s increasingly threatening posture, we are seeing a retreat from globalization worldwide, growing fragmentation, and a new emphasis in many countries on national security and self-sufficiency. 

In times like these, I believe universities have a unique role to play. We may be the only institutions in our societies truly able to take the long view, beyond the tensions of the moment. Because our explorations push against the boundaries of human understanding, we often have important insights into what the future will bring.

So, how can we contribute in the 21st century? 

Clearly, though education, research, and innovation. Most universities are focused on the first two missions, education and research. MIT and DTU stand a little apart, in that we are equally committed to our third mission, innovation—or getting our ideas into a world full of challenges, where they can do a great deal of good.

I would like to share with you how MIT’s three missions are attempting to address the demands of a changing world. 

Let me start with education. Clearly, universities have to prepare graduates able to do well in workplaces that demand rapidly changing skills, within a complicated global economy.

Educating talent for this new era of AI, for example, is an enormous challenge that needs to be answered across the globe. In fact, I believe that nations that fail to recognize this challenge, risk falling behind.

At MIT, one way to gauge the power and pervasiveness of artificial intelligence and related technologies is by the way our students are choosing to prepare themselves. Computer science has long been the most popular disciplinary major at MIT, but in recent years, the interest has been explosive. Forty percent of our undergraduates are now enrolled in computer science programs. In fields as diverse as molecular biology, economics, brain science, and urban planning, our students now consider computing as indispensable as mathematics.

In fact, I believe we need to equip all of tomorrow’s leaders, in every field, to be “bilingual” in artificial intelligence. And we need the technology specialists among them to be equally fluent in the cultural values and ethical principles that should govern the creation and use of digital tools. 

In 2019, MIT stepped into this challenge by creating the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing—the most important structural change at the university since the early 1950s, when we added the Sloan School of Management and the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. Our Schwarzman College is accelerating fundamental research in AI and other technologies, fostering innovation, and delivering the power of these new tools to every other discipline. A special focus is educating leaders ready to consider the societal impact of computing technologies.

Another way universities can step into the moment and do a lot of good is by educating graduates who are not only great citizens of their home nations, but great citizens of the world—people who understand how to safeguard our planet and promote a harmonious global community. 

One way to accomplish this is by having students interacting across borders, learning and collaborating with students from other countries. We can encourage such interactions by opening up opportunities for our students to spend time abroad—and by welcoming the world to our campuses. 

American universities have long been magnets for brilliant students from all over the globe—a key to our success—and a key asset of the United States. At MIT, 40% of our graduate students and 40% of our faculty are international. 

As students and faculty from different cultures and countries engage in education, research, and problem-solving in collaboration with each other, they discover and learn from the goals and aspirations of different cultures and nations. Inevitably, they come to realize that—no matter where each of us comes from—we have a lot in common—particularly because we share the same language of science and scholarship. 

So, I believe that universities can and should be a force for peace and diplomacy. I believe our nations have much to gain from academic engagements, even with unfriendly nations—in both student exchanges and research. 
Research, of course, is the second part of our mission—and a crucial way that society advances and improves.

As you know, research comes in three flavors: 

  • First, curiosity-driven or basic research that expands our understanding of the laws of nature. 
  • Second, use-inspired research. Like basic research, it is often conducted at the very frontiers of science—yet it is targeted at overcoming specific technical obstacles that stand in the way of progress; 
  • And third, applied research, where knowledge is used to solve a practical problem.

Most scientists focus on the first, curiosity-driven research. Most engineers focus on the third, applied research.

I believe that the world needs us to do, in addition, much more of the second. 

It was “use-inspired” research at Bell Labs, one of America’s greatest industrial laboratories, that led to the invention of the semiconductor transistor in 1947. The physics was completely new. The mission was replacing the bulky and unreliable vacuum tubes then used in telephone technology. The result was a revolution that has reshaped the human experience to this day. The invention of the semiconductor transistor led to the invention of the semiconductor integrated circuit—better known these days as the semiconductor chip—which enables just about every single product we use in our everyday lives, from mobile phones to automobiles to washing machines.

In the United States, for much of the 20th century, the industrial laboratories of America’s greatest corporations engaged in long-term, targeted scientific explorations that generated many breakthroughs. In the 1960s, the chemical company DuPont published more articles in the Journal of the American Chemical Society than MIT and Caltech combined. 

However, as the century wore on, many corporations found themselves unable to capture the value of their general-purpose inventions, or to justify the costs of large research operations to their shareholders. 

Universities have been trying hard to fill this gap. 

For example, in July of 2020, MIT launched the Climate Grand Challenges to mobilize the creativity of our research community around some of the most difficult unsolved climate problems. The initial call for ideas yielded nearly 100 proposals representing almost 400 MIT faculty and researchers. Ultimately, we chose five teams to proceed as “flagship” projects, with funding and support secured by MIT. 

One team is directly addressing four fundamental industrial products that together generate 45% of all industrial greenhouse gas emissions worldwide: ethylene for plastics, ammonia for fertilizer, steel and cement for building.

All of them require tremendous heat energy to manufacture, with the essential thermochemical transformations driven by burning fossil fuels. So, what is the team’s bold idea? Entirely reinvent the manufacturing processes, with electrochemical transformations driven by clean energy achieved at ambient or mild temperatures.   

Clearly, there is no shortage of use-inspired questions universities could be pursuing today. Another example: How do we cure Alzheimer’s disease—or prevent it? The global economic losses from Alzheimer’s are expected to reach $4.7 trillion a year by 2030. And this does not, of course, take into account the immense suffering of numerous families worldwide.

However, universities cannot pursue use-inspired research at any kind of scale without public funding dedicated to such projects in the civilian realm.

So, MIT was delighted when last year the United States government, at the urging of MIT, with strong support from the academic research community, established a new directorate within the National Science Foundation to promote use-inspired research, and help accelerate the translation of the resulting innovations into society. The National Science Foundation is the U.S. federal agency that funds science and engineering research at universities through project grants. I expect its new directorate to contribute substantially to our ability to generate and implement new approaches to problems that have long held the world back. 

The third part of our mission is innovation—which, in the academic realm, I would define as using new scientific and technological knowledge to solve a practical problem and then getting those solutions ready to make an impact on society. It is something few universities in the U.S. practice, but it is of great benefit to society when it happens. 

MIT, which had $846 million of sponsored support for research and other activities in fiscal 2022, regularly ranks first as a single university in the number of U.S utility patents issued to us—354 patents in 2022.  

Sometimes, we help to bring these inventions to market through connections with an existing company. About 20% of MIT research is sponsored by some 400 companies eager to tap the ideas of our faculty and students. Among universities without a medical school or medical center, we consistently rank first in the United States in business sponsorship of MIT research.

However, it has to be said that many of the innovations generated by our faculty and students are disruptive technologies that threaten existing products or companies. 

So, often, the only way to bring them to the marketplace is via a start-up. As a result, more than 100 companies a year, on average, emerge from MIT. I know that generating and supporting entrepreneurs is a domain in which DTU also excels. 

The cumulative impact of this entrepreneurship can be astonishing. A 2015 study estimated that the active companies founded or co-founded by living MIT alumni employed 4.6 million people around the globe and generated annual revenues of nearly $2 trillion—equivalent, then, to the GDP of the world’s 10th largest economy, putting MIT alumni slightly behind Russia and ahead of India at the time. 

Moreover, a recently completed survey of current MIT faculty members suggests that they are more than a match for the students they educate. The companies that they have founded are estimated to generate trillions of dollars in total revenues each year. 

As you well know, start-ups require risk capital. In the United States, our venture capital industry works well for new ideas in software or health care. About 60% of MIT start-ups fall into these categories. 

However, in the last decade, MIT became keenly aware that many science-based innovative ideas with obvious benefits to humanity were being stranded in the laboratory because they were expensive to fully develop and slow to commercialize. For what we call “tough tech” in fields such as energy, materials, infrastructure, and biomanufacturing, the timeline to generate investment returns is relatively long, compared to digital products. And compared to new medicines, “tough tech” often lacks clear milestones on the road to market. So, the venture capital industry was, by and large, not interested in this kind of science-based innovation.

Five years ago, MIT created something we called the Engine to offer tough tech entrepreneurs patient capital—contributed by private investors more interested in impacts on society than quick returns. The Engine also offered access to specialized equipment, space to start and grow, back-up office support, and a network of like-minded entrepreneurs. There are now about 40 start-ups of breathtaking ambition in the Engine’s portfolio. 

One company focuses on bioengineering wood products that can be grown in a laboratory, rather than chopped down in a forest.

Another company is addressing a challenge that DTU has also taken on…advancing safe, carbon-free power through nuclear fusion. Our start-up intends to deliver that power to the grid within the next decade. Working with MIT experts, it has already overcome a significant technological hurdle, achieving an immensely powerful magnetic field to contain the plasma for fusion—within a relatively small device. 

Still another company proved very important during the COVID crisis. It uses data analytics on wastewater as an early warning system for threats to public health. It has played a key role in helping our government monitor the prevalence of COVID—including cases with no symptoms or mild symptoms that might never appear in hospital data. 

In other words, the Engine is on track to exceed our wildest dreams, in terms of fostering radically new technologies to benefit humanity. The scale of problems these companies are tackling is so great that we believe some of them will become massive enterprises—and generate enormous returns—possibly reshaping the nature of venture capital.  

When universities such as DTU and MIT fulfill our missions in education, research, and innovation with imagination and foresight—we can seed an innovation ecosystem that attracts not only talent but also significant contributions from government, businesses, investors, foundations, and philanthropists—and that readily nurtures great ideas all the way from the laboratory to society. 

To me, an innovation ecosystem is not an abstract idea, but a physical reality I saw develop in a few decades just a few steps from my office at MIT.  

Forty-three years ago, when I first arrived at MIT as a faculty member, the adjacent neighborhood of Kendall Square consisted of abandoned candy factories and empty pavement. At the same time, though, Kendall Square was already becoming an informal gathering place for young scientists from MIT, Harvard, and Boston’s great medical centers excited by recent scientific discoveries in molecular medicine and genetic engineering. And it quickly became the obvious site for academic research centers focused on cancer, genomics, neuroscience, and biomedicine. Much of the work done in the United States on the Human Genome Project took place there. And then, in a relatively short time, Kendall Square became a hotbed for start-ups in the biosciences, which MIT was able to support in many ways, including as a very sympathetic landlord. 

Now, Kendall Square is home for large companies as well, in biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, information technology, and energy—drawn by the talent educated by MIT and Harvard and the groundbreaking research we conduct. And Kendall Square has been called “the most innovative square mile on the planet.” 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the full human value of such an ecosystem has been on display. One of the companies founded in Kendall Square was Moderna, which, like Pfizer-BioNTech, brought to the world highly effective messenger RNA (or m-RNA) vaccines against COVID, with unprecedented speed. 

But this speed was only achieved after decades of patient publicly-funded research at universities—dating back to the 1970s, when one of the leaders of MIT’s Center for Cancer Research, Professor Phil Sharp, discovered RNA splicing and the potential of mRNA. He would later win a Nobel Prize for this work. At around the same time, MIT Institute Professor Bob Langer, a chemical engineer who would go on to co-found Moderna, began pioneering new ways to deliver medicines, including nucleic acids such as mRNA. 

Researchers around the world continued contributing to the science and technology of mRNA. And by the time COVID-19 hit in 2020, Moderna had been working on mRNA-based medicines for 10 years

The ecosystem was ready—and many lives were saved.

This one example suggests how much good universities can do, above and beyond educating the next generations of globally aware and highly skilled graduates, as important as that is.

Through basic, curiosity-driven research, they can advance the underlying knowledge that societies need to make progress. 

Through use-inspired research, they can address critical challenges, including by making fit-for-purpose but revolutionary new discoveries. 

Through applied research, they can use the knowledge that has been generated to solve practical problems. 

Through innovation, they can bring products to the market that answer important societal needs and problems and drive the creation of many jobs. 

To do all of the above well, they have to stay alert to the ways that a changing world impinges on the innovation ecosystems they have created—and to use their resources and influence to address imbalances and seize opportunities, so those ecosystems continue to stay innovative and thrive.

I am delighted to have this opportunity to get to know another university that is making enormous contributions to the world through education, research, and innovation, and I look forward to hearing your questions and reactions.

Thank you.