Kathleen Kennedy, President of the MIT Technology Review, discusses how the standard profile of entrepreneurs has evolved, and how they are now generally looking to focus more on the human side of things.

#InnovatorsUnder35Europe: “The entrepreneur of today is looking to make an impact on society”

On the sidelines of the MIT Technology Review Innovators under 35 France Awards Ceremony held in Paris on 13 April, which L'Atelier BNP Paribas partners every year, we talked to Kathleen Kennedy, President at the MIT Technology Review, who sketched a portrait of the typical tech entrepreneur of 2016.

Kathleen Kennedy has been working for MIT for the last sixteen years and has been in charge of the MIT Technology Review for the last two. She describes how the character, goals and favourite sectors of the award-winning innovators have evolved over the years, how these pioneers are perceived by politicians and society at large and, most importantly, what tomorrow’s innovators will look like.

MIT Review launched its ‘Innovators Under 35’ concept in 1999 [Editor’s note: it was originally called the TR100]. So how has the standard profile of an entrepreneur evolved since then? Are their priorities the same as 17 years ago?

Kathleen Kennedy: To put it in context, when we launched the MIT TR35 in 1999 on the hundredth anniversary of Technology Review magazine, we were at the height of the ‘Internet bubble’. Everything around us was going digital and the Internet was bringing change to every kind of company. We became aware that there was a revolution underway among people under 35, who had either decided to concentrate on shifting physical companies online or were developing new-look companies which were growing rapidly and starting to compete with firms that were sometimes hundreds of years old. So the main priority was transformation – going digital. 

"Innovators used to concentrate on digital transformation. Nowadays they tend to focus more on what they can do for society"

Now 17 years later this transformation has taken place and the innovators who come to our notice nowadays are what we call ‘digital natives’. They’ve never really known a world without the Internet.

Some of them were only ten to fifteen years old at the time we launched. So in this second phase we observe right away that today’s entrepreneurs are more open, that they work far better as part of a network, and that they set out to really help solve society’s problems or make people’s lives easier. In fact we’re really seeing social entrepreneurship flourish. But there’s still this desire to disrupt the market and mark themselves out in a creative sense. The ‘MIT Innovators Under 35’ awards honour entrepreneurs at world level and also by region.

Would you say that entrepreneur profiles differ from one region of the world to another?

I think entrepreneurs’ personalities remain pretty similar from one region to another and even from one era to another. These people are inherently curious, they don’t want to see any barriers arising along the way. They’re not easily put off and they won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.                   Innovateurs récompensés par les MIT TR35

                         Winners of previous years’ MIT Innovators Under 35 France awards

But if there are any disparities between profiles, they’re mainly due to the gap that can start to open up when it comes to accessing digital technologies and infrastructure. Historically, the United States and Europe have concentrated on making technological advances at the workstation. Emerging economies, such as India or Africa, haven’t had the resources, or indeed seen the use of developing this kind of infrastructure. Now they’ve gone straight to mobile.

“Whatever the era or the place, innovators are noted for their daring and perseverance”

It’s interesting that while Europe and the United States struggled to shift from analogue to digital, and then moved on to mobile, emerging countries had the time to skip the first step. This in some ways simplified the process of developing the new technologies and enabled these countries to be the first to discover this social motivation which we now see increasingly among the entrepreneurs we work with.

Some members of your community of innovators were invited to the European Parliament last October to discuss their potential contribution in terms of thinking and action to help solve some of society’s issues. In your opinion, how do elected representatives really see this sort of person?

Both in the entrepreneurial sphere and across society as a whole, you get the feeling that people don’t believe they have a voice, they feel that their vote carries very little weight and that the politicians’ priority isn’t really to get things done. Or when getting things done is a priority it’s usually in reaction to a given crisis and not about being proactive. Innovators on the other hand tend to ask: "What can we do to improve the situation? How can we proactively find a way to solve crises before they happen?"                     Les MIT TR35 au Parlement Européen

     Last October MIT Innovators Under 35 were invited to the European Parliament

Right from the very start, the ‘MIT Innovators Under 35’ set out to create a community of innovators. Do you think that gives added weight to their thoughts on how to change society?

Absolutely. During the summit at the European Parliament, we heard some passionate arguments from the innovators intended to encourage the MEPs present to listen to what they had to say. They underlined that there are some talented people in Europe who are capable of solving society’s problems and that they should be given greater resources and a proper platform to help put their solutions into practice. The Parliamentarians found themselves facing a group of brilliant people who want to see a change in the way power is distributed.

"We have close to 200 community members from 50 countries and I think that does carry a lot of weight when it comes to making oneself heard on issues facing our society"

But this sort of argument has been heard countless times and I don’t think just turning up once at the European Parliament will have much direct impact. However the fact that this community of entrepreneurs we’ve created has been going for some time now proves that it is likely to last. And the fact that we have close to 200 people from 50 different countries…I think that does carry a lot of weight when it comes to making oneself heard.

The ‘MIT Innovators Under 35’ initiative has been running for 17 years now. What areas of entrepreneurial activity do you expect to emerge over the next 17?

At the moment there are areas that are under-exploited but likely to flourish in the coming years. One example would be synthetic biology, which at the moment is barely visible but I feel is set to take off over the next few years. The same goes for robotics and its effect on the future of work, but for different reasons. These two fields are currently at a pivotal moment in their development and I think they’ll turn the corner very quickly in terms of take-up.

By Aurore Geraud
Senior Editor & Analyst