300 Geniuses Call Him Boss ; Will Frank Moss Push MIT's Media Lab, Home of Digital Ink and $100 Computers, to Innovate Itself out of Existence?

Article excerpt

Frank Moss hasn't had much time to decorate his fourth-floor corner office. The plain white walls are nearly bare except for a single black-and-white photo. It shows legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas stepping back to launch a pass in the 1958 National Football League championship game, called by some the greatest football game ever played.

Unitas was always "willing to take a risk" to make a big play, says Mr. Moss, who grew up in Baltimore and was appointed last month as director of the prestigious Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Moss has taken a few risks himself as a computer industry entrepreneur. He's seen one company he's started sold for hundreds of millions of dollars, another go belly up, and others fall somewhere in between. Now his assignment is to try to push the Media Lab into new territory - even if it means it might one day innovate itself out of existence.

Cofounded by Nicholas Negroponte and former MIT president Jerome Weisner in 1985, the Media Lab earned its reputation envisioning today's "digital lifestyle," developing ideas from wearable computers to digital ink to a $100 laptop computer for use by children in developing countries.

The lab is also, Moss boasts, "clearly the coolest place on the planet" to work, for those interested in how technology can change society. Its 30-plus research groups have names like Biomechatronics (how technology can enhance physical abilities), Lifelong Kindergarten (creative ways to learn), and Smart Cities (how buildings can respond more intelligently to inhabitants). Most of the lab's $32 million yearly budget comes from corporate sponsors ranging from the expected - tech giants such as IBM, Sun Microsystems, Intel, and Cisco Systems - to the less obvious, such as Campbell Soup, Philip Morris, and The LEGO Group, maker of LEGO toys.

One of Moss's top priorities is to make sure these 80 or so corporate sponsors feel they benefit from the work of the lab. In the go-go days of the late 1990s tech boom, companies could simply decide, "This is cool. We're going to put money behind it," Moss says. But today, "You have to be able to justify that [spending] as a good investment that has a return."

Companies come to the lab to become immersed in the creative atmosphere and to see what the future possibilities are, Moss says. "They take that back to their companies and [use it to] try to understand where they are going."

The lab offers a "totally unique model" for its sponsors, who receive worldwide rights to the research they fund.

"One ticket buys everything," Moss says. "When you buy into the Media Lab, you buy into our community here. For just about the cost of one engineer, [companies] get access to the intellectual property of 300 of the smartest people on the planet." In his mind, "It's almost an irresistible purchase" - if, he quickly adds, the company understands how to apply what it learns to its own business.

A graduate of Princeton University, Moss hoped to get a job in the space program. But he began to see the huge potential of computers during his graduate work at MIT in the 1970s.

"He's really one of the smartest technologists I know, both in terms of the understanding of technology and where things are going to be moving," says Judith Hurwitz, CEO of Hurwitz & Associates, an information technology research and consulting firm in Waltham, Mass. She has known and worked with Moss for more than 20 years. "He's also a very charismatic leader, and he'll have the ability to bring in new energy and new outside involvement," she adds. …