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Three Business Professors and the Innovators They Inspired

How educators are influencing a new generation of entrepreneurs
Three Business Professors and the Innovators They Inspired
Image credit: Photography by Natalie Brasington
Learned: Professor Ed Roberts of MIT, from left, with entrepreneurs Brian Shin, C.J. Johnson, Josh Miller and Ric Fulop.

The Professor: Ed Roberts
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Professor Ed Roberts
• Professor of technological innovation, entrepreneurship and strategic management and chair of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center

• Bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering from MIT, a master's of science in management from the MIT Sloan School of Management and a doctorate in economics from MIT

• Co-founder of about 10 companies, on the board of about 20 companies and investor in more than 40 firms

Ed Roberts fashioned himself as the champion of business innovation at MIT long before the school established a formal entrepreneurship program. In the mid-1960s, as an assistant professor, Roberts started tracking how NASA researchers from MIT were using their work to start new companies. In the ensuing decades, Roberts conducted more research, taught business, successfully started his own ventures and observed how often MIT's best and brightest were at the intersection of technology and business development.

By 1990, when Roberts was a full senior professor, MIT's leaders still had not embraced the tradition of entrepreneurship through any kind of formal curriculum.

"When I proposed we start the MIT Entrepreneurship Center, the dean opposed it," Roberts says. "He asked why he should waste his time on this project. I told him I was sick and tired of telling graduate students there was nothing for them but to do a thesis for me or take the one class on business plans that we offered."

Roberts believed there was a real need for a formalized program that better introduced the great technological talent and the many innovators on campus to the business principles necessary to bring their ideas to market.

"I have learned from my research, from other people's research and from years of experience at a lot of companies that it's the market side--the relationships with the customers and the perspectives on competition--that become so essential when building successful companies," he says. "I really lean heavily on students in the classroom around that."

Roberts was the driving force behind the MIT Entrepreneurship Center, which finally launched in 1990. He also helped grow a $10,000 business plan competition into the $100K Competition, which has resulted in notable alumni companies such as Silicon Spice (acquired by Broadcom for $1.2 billion), Firefly (purchased by Microsoft for $40 million) and Brontes Technologies (bought by 3M for $95 million).

As a supporter and teacher, Roberts also helped make possible the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, an MIT School of Engineering center designed to help innovative MIT research reach the marketplace. He and his staff at the Entrepreneurship Center teach entrepreneurial engineering participants at the Deshpande Center about important business fundamentals.

And in 2006, he founded the MIT Sloan Entrepreneurship and Innovation (E&I) program, a rigorous track within the MIT Sloan MBA program for future entrepreneurs.

"We now have 20 years under way of dramatic growth of institutional base at MIT," Roberts says. "We had one course then--we have 30 courses now in entrepreneurship. We had one faculty member--me--who was devoting only a piece of his time to it. Now we have 20 faculty members--half of whom are tenure track and half are adjunct--all successful entrepreneurs or venture capitalists."

Advice: Roberts with FulopAs for Roberts' philosophy? "I argue that you ought to develop an environment in a firm where you can be open with each other about your feelings, your attitudes and the like, and that you have to develop an ability to talk openly--especially with your partners--about concerns, issues, disagreements and the like," he says. "My experience says this is good for you."

According to the most recent study done in 2006, researchers at the institution found that the companies held by living MIT alumni equaled nearly 26,000. Those companies employed more than 3 million people and did $2 trillion in business worldwide.

"That's equivalent to the 11th-largest economy in the world," Roberts says. "And all of that essentially took place in the last 20 years."

The Student: Ric Fulop
Founder of A123 Systems (now partner, North Bridge Venture Partners)

Serial entrepreneur Ric FulopSerial entrepreneur Ric Fulop experienced some of his biggest successes as a student and just after graduating from MIT Sloan with an MBA in 2006. During that time, he built up A123 Systems from a tiny MIT-bred startup to a publicly traded company with more than 2,000 employees.

Fulop used technology developed by professor Yet-Ming Chiang of the MIT Materials Science and Engineering Department to create a new breed of lithium ion batteries. A123 is now one of the market's major players in high-powered lithium ion batteries, and its $371 million initial public offering in 2009 was the year's largest.

Fulop is now a partner at North Bridge Venture Partners, a VC firm with a portfolio of more than $3 billion specializing in early-stage technology investments (and an early investor in A123).

He still keeps in touch with professor Roberts and keeps his finger on the pulse of the MIT entrepreneurship community--connections that he says were instrumental to his success. But Roberts' understanding of business structure has had the most impact.

"He's really good at converting concepts into frameworks that are useful for looking at technologies in relation to markets," Fulop says. "When you're looking at a good technology, you try to find markets for it. It's very helpful when you go through a framework or process of best practices to do that."

The Student: Brian Shin
Founder and CEO, Visible Measures

Brian ShinBrian Shin might be Roberts' most successful non-student. Shin, a 2006 MIT Sloan MBA grad, had heard that Roberts was the person to approach at MIT for help in starting a new venture. It took Shin two months of pestering, cajoling and camping out as an auditor in one of Roberts' classes before he landed a meeting.

The result of that diligence is Visible Measures, which Shin founded in 2005 to provide video playback metrics for measuring audience behavior when it comes to watching videos online.

Shin was a software developer by training before receiving his formal business education. He was still in school when he devised a solution for software developers to more efficiently create programs. That was the first evolution of the technology platform that runs his company. The idea evolved when his first customer, Macromedia, asked him to help it use Flash metrics to track user behavior in beta software. The company now serves companies like P&G, Microsoft, ESPN, Sony, Fox, Warner Bros. and others.

Roberts was one of Visible Measures' founding angel investors (the company has raised more than $30 million) and Shin's go-to collaborator during the first few years--through the departure of a reluctant partner, the tweaking of the company's business model and the acquisition of more substantial VC money.

"Ed has had such a huge impact on my life," Shin says. "I think of him as sort of a father figure. And I tell people that I'd take a bullet for Ed, because he's been so great to me."

The students: Josh Miller and C.J. Johnson
Co-founders, 3Play Media

Josh Miller and C.J. Johnson

Josh Miller and C.J. Johnson graduated from the first two classes to run through the MIT Sloan E&I program. Together they went on to build 3Play Media with two other MIT Sloan MBA graduates, Chris Antunes and Jeremy Barron.

Their company focuses on creating time-synchronized transcriptions of audio and video files for closed captioning, research and financial reporting. The business is based on speech recognition technology research conducted at MIT labs and technology that Johnson started developing for class credit while working on his MBA.

The team founded 3Play Media in 2008 and bootstrapped the company for two years before landing an angel round of $600,000 in February of this year.

Miller and Johnson say E&I's support network and Roberts' business connections were integral to 3Play's early success.

"Ed gave us the resources to start our business," Johnson says. "Upon graduation there was this ecosystem there where we all jumped off the cliff together and formed our own little support group going forward."

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Self-described tech geek Ericka Chickowski also writes for Consumers Digest, the Los Angeles Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

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This article was originally published in the October 2010 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Gurus and Grads.

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