Nantucket: President of MIT Puts Ergs on Energy

Uncategorized Posted May 22, 2006 by metropolis

Having Dr. Bob Metcalfe host a fireside chat with Dr. Susan Hockfield, the president of MIT, puts almost more intellectual wattage in one spot than the average person can bear. Metcalfe kicked off the session at the ever chic Nantucket Conference by noting (tongue in cheek) that Hockfield is an MIT first — the first life scientist to hold the position. (Read her bio here, unless you’d prefer to feel like a moderately useful human being.) She is a noted neuroscientist, specializing in brain development. She’s also warm, witty and thoroughly impressive.

When Hockfield landed at MIT in late 2004, she did what good new managers do — polled her constituents (faculty and staff) to learn what was on their IQ-popping minds. The result was a bit of a surprise — energy was the topic generating the most heated conversations.

Since MIT is a “can-do rather than a can-talk kind of place,” according to Hockfield, there were already a number of energy projects in the works in different departments. “Lots of flowers, no garden,” she quipped, noting that’s her idea of a sports analogy. This led to the Energy Research Council, which had just issued its first report last week. It states:

“The need for new global supplies of affordable, sustainable energy is perhaps the single greatest challenge of the 21st century. Increasing tension between supply and demand is exacerbated by rapidly escalating energy use in developing countries, security issues facing current energy systems and global climate change. These converging factors create an unprecedented scenario requiring a multifaceted approach to increasingly urgent energy issues.”

Hockfield noted that the biggest impediment to advances in energy has been the ability to store it once you’ve created it, so there is lots of critical work being done in battery technology. Four important new battery technologies have come out of MIT in recent years.

Metcalfe suggested that we need a catchy moniker for this field, so he’s dubbed it “enertech.” (I see there is already an environmental firm out there that has nabbed the name.) He made an appeal that the VCs and other attendees at the conference do for “enertech” what we’ve done for biotech (i.e., make it a hot growth sector for New England).

An aside: Another noteworthy MIT energy initiative is the Ignite Clean Energy Competition, which is sponsored by the Energy special interest group at the MIT Enterprise Forum. The competition recently named its winner, Stellaris Corporation, which is developing a solar technology that can reportedly reduce traditional solar module manufacturing cost at least 40 percent.