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MIT heading into home stretch of hunt for next Media Lab director

Posted by Scott Kirsner  February 2, 2011 01:54 PM

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Running MIT's Media Lab is one of the more alluring — and challenging — academic gigs in town, and we should know by April the name of the lab's next director.

Nicholas Negroponte created the lab in 1985 with then-MIT president Jerome Wiesner to explore the ways technology, design, and communication were converging. Neither of the two subsequent directors have really made much of an imprint on the place, though outgoing director Frank Moss did successfully introduce the theme of developing new technologies to help the sick and disabled, and dialed up the emphasis on turning lab research into start-up ventures. [Update: Moss phoned me after this post initially appeared, noting that he landed 28 new sponsors for the lab's work within the past two years, and hired five new faculty members during his five-year tenure.]

"I think there is a short list" of candidates, says Idit Harel Caperton, an entrepreneur and Media Lab alum who serves on the lab's visiting committee. "We're looking very long-term. It's an important time for the lab. The new building is fantastic, and there are amazing fundraising opportunities. The lab is inventing the future, but also inventing a better world — using technology and innovation to really make the world a better place for everyone, including those with special needs and poor people."

One former Media Lab researcher told me via e-mail that the new director "needs to be a person who is to some degree amphibious, able to swim with sharks in academia as well as the whales in industry...a person with some personal vision, but also the ability (like a great orchestral director) to let other soloists carry the day."

My hunch: the lab is going to hire a young-ish academic with plentiful energy, rather than selecting someone from industry...someone who will invigorate the Media Lab without trying to alter its trajectory too much. Some people who'd be interesting candidates (these are people who'd be on my list of individuals worth talking to — not necessarily who is on the search committee's short list):

Danny Hillis, the MIT alum who founded supercomputer-maker Thinking Machines, and subsequently worked at Disney....Liz Altman, once a Motorola mobile devices executive who served as a liaison to the Media Lab, and now a doctoral student at Harvard Business School...Larry Smarr of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology...Krisztina Holly, formerly executive director of MIT's Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, and now a vice provost at USC...Joe Marks, who once ran Mitsubishi's R&D Lab in Cambridge, but is now vice president of Disney Research...Rich Miner, an investor at Google Ventures who earlier headed up the Cambridge R&D Lab for Orange, the French telecom company...and John Maeda, a former Media Lab prof who became president of the Rhode Island School of Design back in 2008, but might be lured back (his family still lives in the Boston area.)

"I hope to get a person who cares about diversity," says Caperton, "one who can bring more women, more Hispanics, and more African Americans in, as well as more international faculty and students. MIT at large has been doing a lot better at that than the Media Lab."

Moss tells me he has already stepped down as director — a bit earlier than expected — so that he can spend more time finishing a book that is due out this June, tentatively titled, "The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives." Moss says he hasn't yet determined what his next full-time job will be, but says he'll serve on the board of a Cambridge company he helped start called Bluefin Labs. Moss will continue working at the Media Lab one day a week, heading a research group he created called New Media Medicine.

Jim Citrin of Spencer Stuart has been helping MIT source candidates; Pattie Maes is leading the faculty committee reviewing candidates.

Until the next director arrives, a committee headed by faculty member Mitchell Resnick is running the lab. I'm told that Negroponte has been spending more time at his office in the Media Lab — an intimidating prospect to whomever steps into the wheelhouse of the boat he built.

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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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