When the head of NASA asked MIT in 1964 to create a project that might link government R&D funding with economic impact, Ed Roberts ’57, SM ’58, SM ’60, PhD ’62 obliged.
“I proposed studying people that leave the labs to start new companies,” says Roberts, “and by linking back to the work that was done in the lab, showing the impact on the marketplace.” That project led to decades of studying entrepreneurship and applying that knowledge at MIT and beyond.
At MIT, Roberts had become interested in emerging technologies, particularly computers and system dynamics. He earned his master’s degrees in electrical engineering and management and became a graduate assistant in system dynamics to Sloan professor Jay Forrester SM ’45. Roberts then earned a PhD in economics and joined the faculty while finishing his thesis.
By the early ’90s, Roberts had published Entrepreneurs in High Technology: Lessons from MIT and Beyond and founded the MIT Entrepreneurship Center, now called the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, which he continues to lead. Roberts and the center have fostered a culture of entrepreneurship at MIT ever since.
“I’m very proud of what we have accomplished,” says Roberts. “Our most recent studies found that living MIT alumni have created more than 30,000 existing companies, with 4.5 million employees—the equivalent in revenues of the 10th-largest economy in the world.”
The entrepreneurship efforts have succeeded, says Roberts, because they’ve stayed true to the recommendations outlined in his original proposal for an entrepreneurship center: relying on research insights (such as the importance of mixing engineering and management students on teams and in classes), integrating research and hands-on experience, and quickly translating research ideas into new companies.
Over the years, Roberts has cofounded 10 companies, including Meditech and Sohu.com; served on the board of some 20 companies; and invested in more than 100 startups. He helped turn an idea from three students into the world-renowned $100K Competition, the student-run entrepreneurship contest. In 2006 he cofounded the MIT Sloan Entrepreneurship & Innovation program, Sloan’s largest MBA career track, which he still directs.
Now 81, Roberts doesn’t see himself retiring soon. “I regard every day at MIT as a day of learning,” he says. “I maintain whatever degree of youth I have by my constant exposure to my students.”
Roberts and his wife, Nancy, spend their winters in Boston and their summers in New Hampshire, where he enjoys taking in the scenic mountain views, swimming, and planning for the coming academic year.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2017 issue of MIT Technology Review magazine.