New England’s Top 10 Innovators

June is innovation month in New England and it has started off with a bang.  A few weeks ago, Business Week named Boston the 3rd most inventive city in the world.  This week, The Deal declared that Route 128 is well-positioned to continue its leadership in innovation, despite the economic crisis, due to its diverse economy and robust enterpreneurial environment.  All month, there are numerous high-quality events going on, including an Unconference run by Mass TLC,  MIT Deshpande Center's IdeaStream and MITX 2009 Awards night.  Much thanks to Scott Kirsner for catalyzing this energy around innovation month (to learn more, see:!

With all this attention being put on innovation in New England, I thought I would throw out a top ten list.  If there were ever to be created an Innovator Hall of Fame, these 10 would get my vote for the first inductees.  With apologies to Edwin Land, Ken Olsen, and others, this is not a historical view.  These are currently active players in the innovation scene.  I solicited input via Twitter and Facebook on this and got great (and fairly consistent) responses.  In no particular order:

1) Bob Langer.  With over 600 patents in his name, MIT Professor Langer is second only to Thomas Edison as the most inventive American in history.  Bob's work during his decades at MIT has resulted in the creation of 25 companies.  My partner, Michael Greeley, refers to Bob as a "National treasure" and New England is very fortunate to have him.  Harvard Business School did a wonderful case on the Langer lab.

2) Ray Kurzweil.  Ray is a controversial figure as a futurist but is an accomplished inventor and entrepreneur.  His latest book, "The Singularity", claims we will have multiple microchips and machines blended into our body over time to prolong life (which, given our investment in a Langer founded emerging leader in implantable biosensors and drug delivery, MicroChips, this may not be so far fetched!).  Newsweek had a wonderful profile of him last week, describing him as "a legend in the world of computer geeks".

3) Bill Sahlman.  Bill has been a professor of entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School for nearly 25 years.  When he began, he was one of two or three professors teaching this topic.  Today, the entrepreneurship department, which he chaired for many years, is the second largest department in the school with over 30 faculty members.  Bill has inspired and seeded countless entrepreneurs (including me!) and has taught his sold out Enterpreneurial Finance class (created in 1985) to over 5,000 students, including probably 20-30% of the VCs in the country.  He once told me he has been a private investor in over 100 start-ups and 70 VC funds – many of whom were former students (HBS profs aren't allowed to invest in current students)!

4) Helen Greiner.  The founder and former CEO and chairwoman of iRobot, Helen has been the godmother of the robotics industry in Massachusetts.  Today, there are dozens of robotics start-ups that can trace their roots to iRobot, which pioneered both military and mainstream consumer applications for robots.  iRobot's Roomba vacuum is so mainstream, it was the subject of this hilarious Jon Stewart piece.  Helen  is starting another robotics company (currently in stealth mode) and serves as chair of the national Robotic Technology Consortium.

5) Yet Ming Chiang.  MIT Professor Chiang is the technical founder of A123, the battery start-up that is shaking up how power is generated in the automobile, utility and tools industries.  A123 has become the poster child for the power of innovation in clean technology, both in Massachusetts and nationally.  Yet isn't resting on his innovation laurels.  He recently founded another company, Entra (currently in stealth mode), with fellow MIT Professor Michael Cima.

6) Eric Lander.  Eric is the director and co-founder of the Broad Institute, the leading genomics research institute in the world.  With the help of the Broad family, other philanthropists, and your tax money via the NIH, he now presides over a research institution with a $240 million annual budget that is using cutting-edge genomics research to revolutionize medical knowledge and practice.  One of the leaders of the Human Genome Project, Eric was named one of "America's Best Leaders" by US News & World Report and recently asked by President Obama to co-chair the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

7) Paul Sagan.  As CEO of Akamai, Paul has been there from the beginning in leading this pioneering start-up in Internet content delivery from inception (alongside now chairman George Conrades) to its current status as the $1 billion king of the Internet content delivery industry.  Paul's work in navigating the company through the IPO during the boom times of the 1990s and bubble crash has allowed it to emerge stronger than ever.  As a former media executive (Paul won three Emmy Awards as a broadcast journalist) teamed with brilliant MIT technical founders, Paul is proof positive that teaming up business minds with technical minds can create a revolutionary company.

8) Paul Levy.  He may not be a company founder, but Beth Israel hospital CEO Paul Levy is an incredibly innovative and entrepreneurial leader.  He is the only hospital CEO in the country who regularly blogs (see:  Running A Hospital) and uses Twitter ( to communicate with his employees and patients.  During the economic crisis, he was out in front in communicating with his eight thousand employees the impact on the hospital's budget and took a very public pay cut, alongside his senior team, to save jobs.  Paul may not be a technology entrepreneur, but as a leader who is using technology in an innovative way, he stands head and shoulders above his peers.

9) Governor Deval Patrick.  Deval has arguably done more to foster and support New England's innovation economy than any political leader in New England history.  He has demonstrated exemplary leadership both in words and deeds — passing legislation in clean energy and life sciences and travelling around the country as an effective Salesman in Chief.  As a former business executive, he gets the power of innovation and technology and values it as a key asset in the Commonwealth.

10) Ned Johnson III.  The very private and low key founder of Fidelity, one of the most important financial services firms ever created.  Johnson democratized mutual funds and the stock market, pioneered online brokerage and sophisticated call centers, and has created tens of thousands of jobs in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.  Celebrating his 79th birthday at the end of this month and still firmly in charge, he is well deserving of a Hall of Fame inductee.

These 10 are awe-inspiring innovators and it is simply a gift to have them as members of our community.  Honorable mentions include: Josh Boger (Vertex), Michael Cima (MIT, MicroCHIPs, T2, Certus, Entra), Desh Deshpande (Cascade, Sycamore, Deshpande Center at MIT), Dean Kamen (Segway, Deka), Alan Khazei (City Year), Larry Lucchino (Red Sox), Mike Stonebraker (MIT, Illustra, Vertica, Streambase, Goby), Jeff Taylor (Monster).

Who did I miss?  What would you argue with?

109 thoughts on “New England’s Top 10 Innovators

  1. An interesting discussion is worth comment. I think that you should write more on this topic, it might not be a taboo subject but generally people are not enough to speak on such topics.


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