Innovation Initiative

Manufacturing focus of new initiative

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Professor Suzanne Berger, above, and Professor Phillip A. Sharp co-chaired the Production in the Innovation Economy Commission, which just finished its two-year study of the U.S. manufacturing sector’s role in supporting innovation.
Dominick Reuter, courtesy of the MIT News Office

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: A previous version of this article misspelled Phillip A. Sharp's name.

President L. Rafael Reif announced Friday a new Innovation Initiative at MIT for research and education focused on the role of manufacturing in “accelerating” innovation, which he called the “signature competitive advantage” of the United States.

Reif made the announcement in 10-250 before dozens of industry leaders, who had gathered to hear the findings of a two-year study conducted by the 20 faculty members and 12 students of the Production in an Innovation Economy Commission, co-chaired by political science professor Suzanne Berger and biology professor Phillip A. Sharp.

The study asserts that domestic manufacturing is key to long-term innovation in the United States, despite the rise of companies like Apple, whose products are manufactured mostly outside of the country.

“For us at MIT, that feels like a call to action,” said Reif at the conference. The study also emphasized the role of institutions that set industry standards, coordinate resource-sharing, and help individual firms pool risks. It cited as examples SEMATECH, a consortium of semiconductor manufacturers, and a Massachusetts county employment board, which brought together machining firms and vocational schools during a labor shortage. Such institutions generate public goods, the study says, that reduce the barriers to innovation for any one firm.

In the vein of the MIT Energy Initiative, which began during Susan Hockfield’s presidency, the new Innovation Initiative will connect related efforts at MIT under a name and mission intended to bring in money from corporate sponsors, philanthropists, foundations, and the government, according to associate provost Martin Schmidt. MITEI has attracted $100 million from the oil and gas companies BP, Eni, Saudi Aramco, and Shell alone, according to its website.

“We are eager to engage our industry allies in the challenge of shortening the time to market,” Reif said, referring to the time it takes to develop and commercialize a new idea. “Making this vision real will give innovators a competitive advantage.”

The initiative will support engineering research into areas such as continuous pharmaceutical manufacturing, which streamlines drug synthesis. It will also oversee policy research on innovation incentives.

Programs like the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program and the MEng in Manufacturing offered by MechE would fall under the purview of the initiative’s educational “pillar,” according to Schmidt. Reif said there could also be a role for edX, the online education initiative founded by MIT and Harvard.

To help MIT “walk the talk,” Schmidt also said that the initiative would join the Martin Trust Center, the Deshpande Center, and contests like the 100K Competition in boosting entrepreneurship at MIT. This effort is analogous to MITEI’s campus energy efficiency programs in that it promotes the initiative’s vision through programs on campus.

Details about the initiative will be announced “in the next few weeks,” Reif said. “I can tell you now that this will be a serious effort, and I believe it will make an important difference.”