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Faculty spotlight: Vladimir Bulovic, MIT.nano Director, engineering professor, inventor, tech entrepreneur

Vladimir Bulović

On the list of reasons why people come to MIT, our faculty are at the top. Which makes sense, since these professors, researchers, thinkers, and innovators are at the very top of their fields. At MIT Sloan Executive Education, we are proud to count many of these world-renowned names on our own faculty roster.

Vladimir Bulović—if you follow science and technology news, you probably know of him—has been in the media spotlight lately as the director of MIT.nano, the brand new 200,000-square-foot nanoscience and nanotechnology center that opened in October in the heart of campus. The center’s purpose is to accelerate the pace of innovation in the nano space and bring forth nano-powered solutions to many industries: healthcare and pharmaceuticals, sustainable agriculture, construction and energy production, computing, packaging and materials design, and more.

In addition to leading MIT.nano, Bulović holds the Fariborz Maseeh Chair in Emerging Technology and co-directs the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Center. He also leads the Organic and Nanostructured Electronics Laboratory (ONE Lab), which he developed as a unique open nanotechnology facility. And on top of all this, he teaches regularly in our Advanced Management Program (AMP) and other executive education programs.

We recently caught up with Bulović between teaching sessions to get his thoughts on what makes MIT such a special place for business professionals who are interested in the practical applications of the latest advances in science and technology. “If your goal is to build a technology-driven business, we know the whole journey of innovation,” he says. “From inception in a lab to spinout in a startup to acquisition by a corporate partner of bigger size, all of those we can present in numerous colors, in example after example.”

Bulović himself is an active contributor to Kendall Square’s reputation as “the most innovative square mile on the planet.” He holds over a hundred U.S. patents, most of which are used by both startups and multinationals. He is a co-founder of several companies that utilize nanotechnologies for a variety of applications now used by millions of people. As for the school overall, not only does MIT lead all universities in patents granted, but living MIT alumni have launched 32,000 active companies, creating over 4.6 million jobs and generating roughly two trillion in annual revenue, according to the “Entrepreneurship and Innovation at MIT: Continuing Global Growth and Impact” study.

One could argue that Silicon Valley and associated universities in California can point to impressive numbers, too. However, as Bulović points out, “the other thing that is unique about our innovation ecosystem in particular is that there is a lot of 'physical object-oriented' innovation here compared to most other innovation ecosystems. MIT is one of the dominant centers of digital innovation, but we are particularly good at providing entire new sets of insights into how to build physical innovation ecosystems that are hard for other regions in the world to reproduce.”

Bulović is alluding to what many see as a shortsighted trend of the last few decades, where venture capital decisions favor digital innovations over physical object innovations. In pursuit of quick ROI, VC firms tend to shy away from funding what’s called “tough tech,” technologies that have great potential for global impact but require more time, resources, and equipment to develop than digital products. While there is nothing wrong with investing in digital, many leaders in industry and academia, including MIT’s President Rafael Reif, see this development as chipping away at “America’s edge” as the world leader in innovation. In the true school spirit, MIT’s response has been systematic and sustained. We built something practical—in this case, a tough-tech accelerator aptly named The Engine. A big part of its mission is “to move hard tech from the lab into the light,” which is a great example of what Bulović calls “MIT’s ceaseless commitment to being useful.”

MIT initiatives like The Engine, MIT.nano, and really any other place on campus, including MIT Sloan Executive Education, are embodiments of our “Mens et Manus” philosophy—Mind and Hand, academic and practical. “I haven’t seen any other university quite as committed to impact, to recognizing that our purpose is not academia for the sake of great new ideas, but academia for the sake of great new ideas that can dramatically benefit the world,” says Bulović. He sees lasting value in this approach. “It’s a self-fulfilling legacy,” he says. “The impact of our work leads to us attracting the next generation of individuals who want to deliver the next set of impacts. As a professor, I feel incredibly fortunate to have a chance to be here and hence I feel incredible responsibility that my days are spent enabling others to transform the world.”

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