A Lesson in Entrepreneurship from MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte

Nicolas-negroponte I was so glad that I had the distinct opportunity to attend the 20th Anniversary of the MIT Enterprise Forum of Israel that was held on December 3rd, 2013. There were so many great speakers and a general atmosphere of knowledge sharing. Although there were many interesting lectures at this conference, including the one given by Or Offer – CEO at SimilarWeb, the one that especially grabbed my attention was a lecture given by Nicholas Negroponte, an MIT faculty member who’s been with MIT since 1966. Negroponte talked about the early days of a far reaching research lab that was way ahead of its time. This talk aimed to inspire the forming of a certain mind set which Negroponte feels any entrepreneur should possess.

Stirring up quite a few laughs with his well-polished speaker skills, Negroponte talked about his early years as a co-founder of the media lab at MIT, alongside Jerry Weisner, the president of MIT at the time. He painted Weisner, as an open minded man that wasn’t afraid to try new things and to encourage people around him to think outside of the box, ignore traditional way of thinking, and challenge common perceptions.

Setting up a new ‘hybrid creature’ at MIT – both lab and department all in one, Negroponte and Weisner managed to completely detach themselves from any other influential individuals at MIT. In this new lab, which was named – The Media lab, they could accept students which were not what you would call a “typical MIT student”. Same goes for the faculty members they hired, all of which were “the fringes of their department”, as Negroponte had phrased it himself.
So with a combination of:

  • Not answering to anyone
  • Working with big dreamers that were practically outcasts amongst their colleagues, precisely because of their out of the box thinking
  • Having diverse people from different cultures, ages, expertise etc.
  • and enough funds to keep going

This Media lab managed to come up with ideas that years later are still considered innovative and world changing! Two such ideas, which I found the most interesting, were the Movie Map and the first touch screen.

The Movie Map (1978-1980), was a project of mapping streets using a camera which is placed on a moving vehicle. Sounds familiar? Yes, Google did it again with Google Street View, almost 30 years later. Not many people are actually aware that this concept was not a new one. At the time, this project was considered “simply silly”, as Negroponte put it, by all respectable members at MIT.


Another fact not many are aware of is that the first touch screen was created over 30 years ago. This amazing feature that we’ve grown so accustomed to in just a few years, was first used in a touch calculator and as an interactive bicycle user guide which you can browse through by clicking on different parts of a bicycle image.


What amazed most of us in the audience, at least by the reactions I’ve witnessed, was what Negroponte said about the reactions they got for this project, and this is from intelligent people, including many MIT professors. The common saying was again that it’s so ‘silly’ to use sophisticated machinery for something as simple as a calculator; completely ignoring the endless possibilities and uses for a touch screen. In fact, Negroponte named 3 main reasons which were included in well-known news magazines at the time, for why touch screens are a bad idea:

  1. Your finger doesn’t have enough resolution
  2. You’re hiding part of the screen with your finger
  3. You’re getting the screen dirty.

It’s hard to understand such outdated perceptions when we all know what we know today about touch screens. Negroponte puts it very simply with a catch phrase that will stick with me forever.

“Most entrepreneurship comes in spite of what people tell you.”



About the Author -

Natalie Halimi is the Head of Marketing Communications & Education at SimilarWeb. With over 10 years of experience in marketing, Natalie has promoted services and products in the B2C and B2B arenas, in various industries.

Discover the secrets of online success