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June 03, 2009

New England's Top 10 Innovators

June is innovation month in New England and it has started off with a bang.  A few weeks ago, Business Week named Boston the 3rd most inventive city in the world.  This week, The Deal declared that Route 128 is well-positioned to continue its leadership in innovation, despite the economic crisis, due to its diverse economy and robust enterpreneurial environment.  All month, there are numerous high-quality events going on, including an Unconference run by Mass TLC,  MIT Deshpande Center's IdeaStream and MITX 2009 Awards night.  Much thanks to Scott Kirsner for catalyzing this energy around innovation month (to learn more, see:  www.neinnovation.com)!

With all this attention being put on innovation in New England, I thought I would throw out a top ten list.  If there were ever to be created an Innovator Hall of Fame, these 10 would get my vote for the first inductees.  With apologies to Edwin Land, Ken Olsen, and others, this is not a historical view.  These are currently active players in the innovation scene.  I solicited input via Twitter and Facebook on this and got great (and fairly consistent) responses.  In no particular order:

1) Bob Langer.  With over 600 patents in his name, MIT Professor Langer is second only to Thomas Edison as the most inventive American in history.  Bob's work during his decades at MIT has resulted in the creation of 25 companies.  My partner, Michael Greeley, refers to Bob as a "National treasure" and New England is very fortunate to have him.  Harvard Business School did a wonderful case on the Langer lab.

2) Ray Kurzweil.  Ray is a controversial figure as a futurist but is an accomplished inventor and entrepreneur.  His latest book, "The Singularity", claims we will have multiple microchips and machines blended into our body over time to prolong life (which, given our investment in a Langer founded emerging leader in implantable biosensors and drug delivery, MicroChips, this may not be so far fetched!).  Newsweek had a wonderful profile of him last week, describing him as "a legend in the world of computer geeks".

3) Bill Sahlman.  Bill has been a professor of entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School for nearly 25 years.  When he began, he was one of two or three professors teaching this topic.  Today, the entrepreneurship department, which he chaired for many years, is the second largest department in the school with over 30 faculty members.  Bill has inspired and seeded countless entrepreneurs (including me!) and has taught his sold out Enterpreneurial Finance class (created in 1985) to over 5,000 students, including probably 20-30% of the VCs in the country.  He once told me he has been a private investor in over 100 start-ups and 70 VC funds - many of whom were former students (HBS profs aren't allowed to invest in current students)!

4) Helen Greiner.  The founder and former CEO and chairwoman of iRobot, Helen has been the godmother of the robotics industry in Massachusetts.  Today, there are dozens of robotics start-ups that can trace their roots to iRobot, which pioneered both military and mainstream consumer applications for robots.  iRobot's Roomba vacuum is so mainstream, it was the subject of this hilarious Jon Stewart piece.  Helen  is starting another robotics company (currently in stealth mode) and serves as chair of the national Robotic Technology Consortium.

5) Yet Ming Chiang.  MIT Professor Chiang is the technical founder of A123, the battery start-up that is shaking up how power is generated in the automobile, utility and tools industries.  A123 has become the poster child for the power of innovation in clean technology, both in Massachusetts and nationally.  Yet isn't resting on his innovation laurels.  He recently founded another company, Entra (currently in stealth mode), with fellow MIT Professor Michael Cima.

6) Eric Lander.  Eric is the director and co-founder of the Broad Institute, the leading genomics research institute in the world.  With the help of the Broad family, other philanthropists, and your tax money via the NIH, he now presides over a research institution with a $240 million annual budget that is using cutting-edge genomics research to revolutionize medical knowledge and practice.  One of the leaders of the Human Genome Project, Eric was named one of "America's Best Leaders" by US News & World Report and recently asked by President Obama to co-chair the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

7) Paul Sagan.  As CEO of Akamai, Paul has been there from the beginning in leading this pioneering start-up in Internet content delivery from inception (alongside now chairman George Conrades) to its current status as the $1 billion king of the Internet content delivery industry.  Paul's work in navigating the company through the IPO during the boom times of the 1990s and bubble crash has allowed it to emerge stronger than ever.  As a former media executive (Paul won three Emmy Awards as a broadcast journalist) teamed with brilliant MIT technical founders, Paul is proof positive that teaming up business minds with technical minds can create a revolutionary company.

8) Paul Levy.  He may not be a company founder, but Beth Israel hospital CEO Paul Levy is an incredibly innovative and entrepreneurial leader.  He is the only hospital CEO in the country who regularly blogs (see:  Running A Hospital) and uses Twitter (www.twitter.com/Paulflevy) to communicate with his employees and patients.  During the economic crisis, he was out in front in communicating with his eight thousand employees the impact on the hospital's budget and took a very public pay cut, alongside his senior team, to save jobs.  Paul may not be a technology entrepreneur, but as a leader who is using technology in an innovative way, he stands head and shoulders above his peers.

9) Governor Deval Patrick.  Deval has arguably done more to foster and support New England's innovation economy than any political leader in New England history.  He has demonstrated exemplary leadership both in words and deeds -- passing legislation in clean energy and life sciences and travelling around the country as an effective Salesman in Chief.  As a former business executive, he gets the power of innovation and technology and values it as a key asset in the Commonwealth.

10) Ned Johnson III.  The very private and low key founder of Fidelity, one of the most important financial services firms ever created.  Johnson democratized mutual funds and the stock market, pioneered online brokerage and sophisticated call centers, and has created tens of thousands of jobs in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.  Celebrating his 79th birthday at the end of this month and still firmly in charge, he is well deserving of a Hall of Fame inductee.

These 10 are awe-inspiring innovators and it is simply a gift to have them as members of our community.  Honorable mentions include: Josh Boger (Vertex), Michael Cima (MIT, MicroCHIPs, T2, Certus, Entra), Desh Deshpande (Cascade, Sycamore, Deshpande Center at MIT), Dean Kamen (Segway, Deka), Alan Khazei (City Year), Larry Lucchino (Red Sox), Mike Stonebraker (MIT, Illustra, Vertica, Streambase, Goby), Jeff Taylor (Monster).

Who did I miss?  What would you argue with?


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Very interesting list and a lot of people that were not obvious.

How about Robert Metcalfe?

I admit I through up in my mouth a little with # 9 are you vying for the next Chris Gabrieli? :-)

Thanks for acknowledging the lesser known yet significant technologists.

Jeff - great list.

I would add following under honorable mentions:
- Ron Rivest (RSA)
- Bob Metcalfe (Ethernet)
- Amar Bose (Bose)
- Tim Berners-Lee (WWW, though he proposed it while he was at CERN)
- old one: Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson (DEC)

Thanks for these additions Ravi and Tom! Tom: I hugely admire Chris
Gabrielli and his work both as a VC and community leader, but if you
mean run for office then I'm the one who just got ill - no thanks!

Well done--this is a great thought provoker. My sense is that many of us outside of the biz and tech circuit would love to know these personalities better and hear and be motivated and influenced by their contributions even if we are not in their "space."
How could we make this happen in Boston? Are we lacking the right kind of civic space (in spite of having so many non profits?)
Andy Tarsy

Good question, Andy. I feel as if there are many forums, but they do tend to be industry insider forums. If they all blogged like Paul Levy, you'd never need to meet them outside of the online forum! I've never met him but feel like I know him from his transparent posts. Maybe PBLN.org serves that purpose? :-)

A very thoughtful piece of work. At the same time, while I (maybe) agree you can keep Edwin Land and Ken Olsen in the side bar, I think the Bricklin/Frankston innovation belongs near the top of the list. It's not just the quantity of inventions or innovations that matter, it's the impact. I'd argue that the spreadsheet (Visicalc) has had far more significant consequences than many of those that you have included. Maybe you should take this a step further and create a reader poll. Meanwhile, I also have to agree with an earlier comment that you have let politics creep into your agenda. I guess that's just a fact of life in Massachusetts. Politics is a part of everything:)

Hey Jeff. While not on the scale of Bob Langer, I'd give honorable mention to the Harmonics guys.

I'd actually put in this little known guy, Corson Ellis, CEO of Kepware Technologies up in Maine. It was a New England thing, right? They came to my attention cause they just received Maine's annual technology award which is given to one company per year. It's not just the technology, (although they have become leaders in their field.) What got me was the contribution to New England's technology sector. When they found they were running short of good technically oriented people to hire, instead of the typical response - luring people to their area with all sorts of incentives and accolades about the beautiful area - instead they started giving out academic scholarships to Maine residents to go into the technical areas and giving them hands on experience. So they decided to invest in the area and build it from there. Nice to see a corporation doing that and I'm not saying other don't cause certainly many do. But it seems it's usually huge corporations that take that tact. It just seems to me this company is very invested in the area in which they reside on many fronts, in addition to making a huge impact in their industry (automation communications.) They have so many New England companies partnering with them, so there's also a ripple effect to it for New England.

Great point, David. I should have included them as honorable mentions
at least for sure. As for the politics point, given how important a
role government is playing in the economy, a political figure belongs on
this list and Deval is deserving. While we have our issues in
Massachusetts, compared to California and Michigan, it's utopia!

While I've never met them, the Harmonix guys, Eran Egozy and Alex
Rigopulos, are definitely "rock stars" and deserve honorable mentions.
I hope they stick around and do another one in the years to come.

Thanks for commenting, Nancy. I don't know him or the firm. How big
are they in revenue, employees? I was looking for really big impact
players or repeat offenders - particularly over a long period of time.

Hi Jeff,

Excellent overview.

One name you might have missed is George Gendron, the former Editor In Chief of Inc. Magazine.

What George is doing as both an investor/entrepreneur and in extending his reach via the Innovation & Entrepreneurship program at Clark University is substantial.

What he has done to champion the entrepreneur is legendary. It was through Inc that many of us found our tribe, and discovered strategic partners and critical relationships that helped us reach Inc 500 status.

Definitely a guy worth including in such a list.


Lastly, George is one hell of a nice guy.

Thanks again for the great list, and the excellent insights into these luminaries.

Mark Alan Effinger

Thanks, Mark - I don't know George and he sounds like a good addition.

Hi Jeff,

Great list, and I think gives great perspective to New England's long history and promising future as a global innovation capital. I've seen a handful of these folks at industry events, but interestingly enough, couldn't find the majority of them on Twitter after a quick search. If I missed them, I'd be grateful to anyone who can share their Twitter handles. If they're just not using Twitter, that's an interesting trend as well.

Great question. Paul Levy is the exception on this list. I guess many great innovators aren't just found on Twitter!

i'm confused - the title is innovators, and some of the picks suggest that you're thinking about people who actually invented things, but the final list includes politicians and executives who simply manage such inspiration and innovation (deval? levy?)

I wasn't thinking "top 10 inventors" but rather "innovators", which can
include CEOs and political leaders who are pushing the envelope, doing
new things, and helping foster a creative environment. I was also
trying to inject a little domain diversity rather than pick 10 MIT

Kissing up to MIT and Harvard was ok at least those guys did something. But the Governor as a top 10 Innovator? You should call this top 10 people I want to kiss up to.

Apparently if you don't have a ivy league education you don't count. This is the kind of thinking that has VC funds returning less then 5% to their investors.

Ouch. I'm fortunate to have no need to kiss up to anyone, but more important - who else would you nominate?

nice to know that you are open for a dialogue. I think you (VC community) are best suited to compile this list. Since you meet and work with real innovators on a daily basis.

I would like to see real innovators on the list, people who changed the way we do things everyday. Ned Johnson who you do have on the list is a good example. Professors and Politicians in my opinion are not.

Hm...Dan Bricklin (spreadsheets) fits that bill in spades. You might feel differently about professors when you are plugging your car in thanks to one of Yet Miang"s A123 batteries but I get your point.

There are rare exceptions to this, of course. Hog on Ice. Ace of Spades

Totally agree to a list of innovations/ innovators strictly from VC's point of view. Also for those interested go to www.vcgate.com and after checking out their portfolios. Try to make a top there, you have plenty to choose from.

Blogs are so informative where we get lots of information on any topic. Nice job keep it up!!


Here's another, Dean Kamen, an inventor and serial entrepreneur, Segway, etc. He also gives back - national high school science competition and work on mobility devices for the handicapped.

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