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Yearly Archives: 2015

From battleground to hospital room: The challenge of humanizing radar

Radar. The word conjures up images of colossal metal dishes pointed toward impending danger. Anupam Nayak, SF ’10, is out to replace that old black and white picture we now have imprinted on our brains with images of fuzzy slippers and warm blankets. She and Lucas van Ewijk, former head of the radar department at TNO, the leading Dutch research institute, and a small group of entrepreneurs have decided it’s time to free radar from its confined military identity. Radar is a powerful, versatile tool, they believe, and can be a crucial game changer in other realms. Healthcare, for example.

Anupam Nayak SF10“We realized we could install a radar device the size of a business card in a patient’s room—either at home or in the hospital—to monitor respiration and other vital signs,” Nayak says. The idea of continuous patient monitoring blossomed into the startup Applied Radar Technology, which successfully navigated three years of regulatory trials before attracting the attention of the marketplace. She and van Ewijk decided to set up a new entity, VDisha, that can truly expand radar research and commercialization into the healthcare realm. In collaboration with government-funded radar research groups in the Netherlands, their aim is to expand VDisha into a multi-million dollar international initiative, bringing in partners from research groups around the world.

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It takes a continent: The case for Pan-African leadership

Yaya MoussaWhen it comes to approaching African leadership challenges, Yaya Moussa, SF ’10, believes the focus should be through a wide-angle lens. The leaders of individual African nations, he says, must think continent-wide and must collaborate with and leverage the strengths of neighbors.

A native of Cameroon now based in the U.S. after two decades in Europe, Moussa is CEO of Kontinent, an investment company that specializes in African extractive resources. His global resume has given him a multicultural perspective when it comes to finding solutions, and he brings that perspective to the problems of Africa.

“If African countries are to survive and compete in the global arena,” Moussa says, “their leaders must transcend narrow nationalism and think of the continent as a whole. Raising that awareness is of survival-level urgency. African countries need to collectively build a critical mass to have some weight on the global stage. A divided Africa is a weak Africa, an Africa with no future.”

Many of the crises facing countries across the continent, he notes, are first and foremost leadership crises—lack of vision, concerns about legitimacy, and misalignment of interests between leaders and their people. “Those deficiencies are only compounded by the sense of exclusion and by the enduring injustice felt by large chunks of the population—the root cause of political, social, and military unrest.”

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Execution-style thinking can be the death of progress

Execute, execute, execute. Managers in large organizations are promoted for their ability to execute, which is useful when scaling up a successful business model. The execution mindset becomes an obstacle, however, when firms need to pivot to a new model. The search for insight, says Duncan Simester, NTU Professor of Marketing at MIT Sloan, starts in the weeds.

Duncan Simester “Although strategy asks big questions,” Simester believes, “the answers can be found by focusing on specific problems and concrete examples.” He uses the oil-drilling business to illustrate his point. In the past, it was common practice for a company to purchase rights to an oil field and start drilling multiple wells. The dilemma: drilling is costly and only one in a dozen or so wells will yield oil under that scenario. The more strategic oil companies are now thinking harder about where to drill before they begin—a practice that is bringing them closer to their goal of finding oil in half their wells.

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The transformative force of African inventiveness

Necessity has been the driver of invention in Africa perhaps more than any other region of the world. In most nations on the continent, notes Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, everyday life requires innovative responses to a daunting string of challenges. “You have to be able to think on your feet and develop creative workarounds to get things done.”

Gregersen believes this demanding environment could prove ideal for producing the next generation of innovators. In Africa, he says, business leaders have few opportunities for complacency. “Leaders hoping to create new markets and develop business opportunities have to be open to surprises. They also must be able to take setbacks in stride. In temperament, nearly all successful innovators are very present in the world around them. Operating in a somewhat unstable environment commands your attention and delivers opportunities you might overlook if everything is running smoothly.”

Not that uncertainty and turmoil are ideal conditions for sustainable development. Gregersen acknowledges the profound constraints that exist on developing a generation of creative entrepreneurs in African countries. “One of the great tasks of present-day leaders,” says Gregersen, “is establishing trust-based environments for teaching and learning in communities across the continent.” Gregersen cites the transnational art education initiative Room 13 as one example of how this can be accomplished.

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Leveraging a pro-innovation regulatory environment in a major energy market

David ParkinRegulation is generally considered a dirty word in the realm of big energy. “Regulation stifles innovation,” is a common mantra throughout the industry. But David Parkin, SF ’12, has a different perspective. When Parkin worked for a natural gas startup earlier in his career, innovations related to carbon footprints and renewable sources didn’t figure into his strategic vision. “There’s a bit of irony in my current position,” says Parkin. “Here I am with the UK’s largest natural gas provider in a strictly regulated environment, and I have to be more nimble and innovative in my thinking than when I was with a startup.”

As Director of Network Strategy for gas distribution at National Grid UK— a government-regulated energy monopoly—Parkin, has to innovate within the confines of comprehensive criteria. “Our performance,” Parkin explains, “is measured by the security of the supply, affordability for consumers, and the extent to which we are minimizing greenhouse gas emissions. We have to balance all three within an eight-year price control structure. Regulators set our revenue based not on what we spend to provide natural gas service but on what we achieve for our customers on those three criteria.”

This recently established regulatory framework exerts a strong influence on National Grid’s entrepreneurial thinking. “Historically, we were driven by the same imperatives propelling most large companies—minimize expenditures and maximize revenue,” says Parkin. “Now, we have to identify and develop innovations that deliver beneficial outcomes across several performance metrics through an eight-year cycle.”

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Crafting a vision to advance Africa

xoli-kakana-modalClarity of vision, says South African tech entrepreneur Xoli Kakana, SF ’08, is central to all African solutions. And she believes that the absence of that vision is what plagues the continent. “Most African leaders exhibit very little understanding of the systems and power bases that sustain the problems plaguing their nations,” she says. “They do not commit boldly to tackling all components of those systems with the persistence and focus necessary and supported by the appropriate mechanisms that enable monitoring and evaluation.”

Founder and Group CEO of ICT-Works, Kakana knows a thing or two about clarity of vision. She has overcome myriad cultural and technological challenges to raise the standard of IT and telecom services in South Africa and boost career opportunities for women in her country. She concedes that the sheer enormity of the African continent—with 54 individual nations—makes it very difficult to generalize about leadership challenges, but believes that most African countries are hindered by a few common failings—poor governance, for example, weak institutions, a lack of infrastructure, and a reluctance to own any of those crippling problems.

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Will 3-D printing revolutionize manufacturing—and the global marketplace?

MIT-3D-Printing-Inter-1MIT launched the 3-D printing phenomenon thirty years ago—even trademarked the term 3-D printing (3DP) back in the early 1990s. Today, the Institute is a nerve center of invention in what is technically referred to as additive manufacturing. The MIT Glass LabMIT Media LabMIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), and MIT Computational Fabrication Group are just a few of the laboratories and centers at MIT that are exploding 3-D into a broad spectrum of fields.

MIT-3Dglass-1_0The MIT Glass Lab and the MIT Media Lab have developed a new high-temperature system to create transparent yet robust glass structures from computerized designs. The key to their success, just published in the Journal of 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing, is high temperature. Previous efforts working with glass have met with mixed results because the viscosity of glass changes dramatically with the degree of heat. Using a special high temperature process, however, researchers at the Glass Lab have found a way to design and print glass components of variable depth and complexity. The project began in an MIT additive manufacturing class.

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The political health of a nation dictates other vital signs

Alan_Doss_closeMany associate the African continent with political volatility, but while it is the tension that makes headlines, peace and progress reign in many countries on the world’s second largest continent. Kofi Annan Foundation Executive Director Alan Doss points to nations like Liberia and Sierra Leone as reasons for optimism. Doss is encouraged by the fact that those nations have recently elected leaders according to a peaceful and transparent process. “These officials have come in with the confidence of the people,” he says. “Now they have to build productive partnerships—locally and globally—to produce the sustainable results their citizens are expecting.”

Doss observes that nations like Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ivory Coast only recently have emerged from periods of terrible violence and enormous human suffering. “To create a dynamic of sustainable progress,” he says, “they need to rebuild sound governance and avoid slipping back into conflict.”

If Doss understands African challenges, it’s because he has devoted much of his career to the continent, promoting peace, sustainable development, and human rights. Before taking on leadership of the Geneva-based foundation established by Kofi Annan, SF ’72, Doss was the Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the UN in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and head of the peacekeeping mission there.

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The anatomy of a 21st-century game-changer

Hal Gregersen Are innovators exceptionally smart, creative, or just lucky? All three? MIT Sloan Leadership Center Executive Director Hal Gregersen and coauthors Clayton Christensen and Jeff Dyer explore a question that is often asked but rarely answered to satisfaction: What does it take to be a successful innovator?

In their latest book The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators, they attempt to dispel the myths and identify the distinguishing characteristics of a game changer. They reveal the findings of an eight-year study during which the team interviewed hundreds of inventors of revolutionary products. They talked to CEOs of pioneering companies. That sat down with societal game-changers. And they began to see a few patterns emerge.

Gregersen and his team identified five skills that set apart innovative leaders—leaders who could disrupt the status quo and deliver meaningful change.

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Can a new generation of young entrepreneurs retool Africa?

Africa is the ultimate conundrum. Many countries across the continent are plagued with dizzying infrastructure, security, and corruption challenges. Yet, the regional economy has climbed steadily over the last decade and is accelerating at an annual rate of approximately 5 percent a year. Government debt is low as are inflation rates, and the United Nations human development index shows that several African nations have been climbing the charts—a significant quality-of-life indicator.

Sloan Fellows Program SF13 Portraits“You often hear in the media and in development circles that Africa is rising,” says Ezekiel Odiogo, SF ’13, a native of Nigeria, “but I disagree. Africa has risen.” Odiogo, a principal investment officer in the Transport and ICT Department of the African Development Bank Group, supports his assertion with the fact that several African nations rank among the fastest growing economies in the world—in fact, they dominate Business Insider’s “Top Thirteen” list. “The overall balance has shifted to where we see an increasing number of check marks on the positive side of the ledger,” he says.

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