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The Exit Interview: Frank Moss, director of MIT's Media Lab

Posted by Scott Kirsner  July 30, 2010 09:38 AM

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medialab-moss.jpgA Globe story earlier this month mentioned in passing that Frank Moss, director of MIT's Media Lab, had sent out an e-mail to staff announcing that he planned to leave the post in February 2011. That would mark the end of Moss' first five-year term as director. He succeeded Walter Bender, who ran the lab from 2000 to 2006, and Nicholas Negroponte, who created the lab in 1985 to explore the intersection between computers, connectivity, and content.

I caught up with Moss on Wednesday to talk about his tenure.

"I want to move on to new adventures and new vistas," said Moss, previously an entrepreneur who'd started software and life sciences companies, "though I'll probably remain here part-time working with my New Media Medicine group," which explores how new technology can help patients and healthcare providers communicate more effectively.

Moss doesn't sound like he's planning to retire. "I'm not going to go back to a university setting this was my academic stint but I'd like to take some of the ideas we explored here for people who are disadvantaged or disabled, and apply them in an entrepreneurial or social entrepreneurship context, combining my entrepreneurial background with the experiences I've had at the lab."

Moss is also working on a book, as yet untitled, about what he calls the "innovation crisis in the U.S." He says it'll be out next year, and geared to general readers. "It talks about how creativity and research and innovation is done here at the lab. It's a book of stories about the professors and students here at the lab."

When I asked whether Moss saw his signal achievement as the opening of the Media Lab's new building by the architect Fumihiko Maki (a project launched under Negroponte), he suggested that his most important contribution was instead "revitalizing and redefining our relationship" with the lab's corporate sponsors, who fund the vast majority of the lab's research, in exchange for getting a first look, and the chance to apply the ideas in their businesses.

Moss said the lab had brought in "about 18 new sponsors over the past year," including companies like EMC Corp. and Humana, but he conceded that overall sponsor revenue at the lab was about the same as when he joined in 2006. (One corporate sponsor, Plymouth Rock Studios, seems unlikely to follow through on its promise to give the lab $25 million to fund a "Center for Future Storytelling.")

Moss' big contribution, in my view, was expanding the Media Lab's focus to consider ways that technology could be applied to help us manage our health and cope with illness, disability, and the aging process. The lab has been exploring new technologies to help those suffering from autism and their caretakers. And in 2007, the lab held the h2o symposium, exploring the "new science of human adaptability," like connecting computer interfaces to the brain, and communicating over long distances through robotic avatars.

Maintaining the lab's free-wheeling culture, which encourages researchers to pursue far-out ideas and continually refine prototypes, without imposing too much bureaucracy, was a key part of the job description for Moss as was finding productive ways to work with wildly independent (and sometimes fractious) faculty.

"If people said that I solidified sponsor relationships during a period of economic uncertainty, but that the craziness and wackiness that defines the Media Lab was gone, that would've been bad," Moss says. "I think the place is every bit as unorthodox and out-of-the-box as it was twenty years ago. Students seem to feel that, and they're really the measure of success here."

Moss said that he initially intended to spend just five years as the lab's leader. But asked if he'd considered sticking around longer, he admitted that he had. "But this seemed like a good time to go. I think the lab has gotten a lot of its mojo back."

"When I came, the place needed to get its mojo back and connect with MIT better, and say, this place is relevant. My job was to try and restore that relevance and importance."

Moss says he may stay a bit beyond February if the search for a new director hasn't yet concluded.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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