MIT Emtech Conference Puts Spotlight on Innovative, Young Entrepreneurs

NEWS ANALYSIS: MIT’s Emtech conference highlighted the ideas of innovative, young entrepreneurs who are trying to solve some of the world’s serious problems.

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The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s EmTech conference mixes (as its name states) discussions of emerging technologies and awards for young entrepreneurs developing innovative companies that matter, instead of tiresome replays of existing business models. But it also presents interviews with seasoned executives.

The format and content of the MIT conference provides one of the better conferences in the tech arena and one from which conferences such as TechCrunch Disrupt, DEMO and Interop could learn and should emulate. In any case, I was only able to make one day of the two-day conference this year. I caught up on Day One using the free conference Web stream (which was another good idea) and here are my highlights of the highlights.

First, there were the Innovators under 35. This group ranges from nearly every global locale, and represented ideas and startups to provide inspiration to anyone thoroughly tired of social media startups designed to solve inconsequential problems—like picking up dry cleaning, selecting the best sushi bar or finding people who think just like you in crowded nightclubs.

Low-waste, high-efficiency safe micro-nuclear, solar-powered lanterns to spur economic development in Kenya, improving the delivery of health care and making cities more efficient are among the ongoing projects. While those of us over 35 might feel we have something to also add to the discussion, it is this younger group that’s able to combine intelligence, enthusiasm and sufficient time to fail a few times along the way that has the best chance to fundamentally improve the world.

Then there were the stalwarts. This is the group of speakers (my own naming convention here) are executives successful in careers one, two, three or more, and are now engaged in returning what they learned along the way.

Steve Case followed and prospered with the rise of consumer Internet. He was the man who filled our mailboxes with CD-ROMs, made the “You’ve Got Mail” voice message part of American vernacular and rose to great financial heights when in 2001, Case’s AOL merged with Time Warner.

This much-heralded marriage ended up as a case of the tail wagging the dog causing much grief and frustration that could only be resolved by a costly divorce a few years later. Now, as chairman of Revolution LLC, Case is finding and encouraging startups outside the traditional confines of Silicon Valley.

Craig Mundie, senior advisor to the CEO at Microsoft, and former boss of the Microsoft research and development labs, provided one of the better ideas on how users might once again regain their privacy that was so thoughtlessly given away.

“There’s just too much data being collected in too many ways. And most of it now is from things where you don’t feel like you had a specific role in the transaction,” he noted. While users can’t control the amount of data being collected, they should be able to regulate how the data is going to be used. It's no easy task and requires a mix of technology to encrypt and wrap data along with policy to provide (in Mundie’s words) a felony for violating a user’s privacy setting.

Ever wonder what would happen when you mix someone in love with the arts with the mind of techie? Mary Lou Jepsen is now head of the display division at Google’s “Google X” skunkworks. She has been instrumental in nearly every major display advance. She also spent years in Asia learning the manufacturing side of display production. Jepsen described the intersection of engineering and art—or “coding and creation” —as the most interesting place for innovation to take place.

After the innovators and the stalwarts, I’d call the third group the system thinkers. For example, while much attention is devoted to 3D printing, the real potential surrounds developing and designing a manufacturing and distribution system of which 3D is a piece but not the sole player. Stephen Hoover, CEO of PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), described the emerging manufacturing ecosystem as the first real big change in manufacturing since the assembly line.

The Emtech conference achieves the right balance between innovation, celebration and the ability to translate ideas into practice.

Eric Lundquist is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Lundquist, who was editor-in-chief at eWEEK (previously PC WEEK) from 1996-2008, authored this article for eWEEK to share his thoughts on technology, products and services. No investment advice is offered in this article. All duties are disclaimed. Lundquist works separately for a private investment firm, which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this article and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.