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MIT launches $5 billion fund-raising campaign

A new campaign aims to use research at MIT to combat issues including climate change, access to clean water, and Alzheimer’s disease, among other efforts.
A new campaign aims to use research at MIT to combat issues including climate change, access to clean water, and Alzheimer’s disease, among other efforts.(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

CAMBRIDGE — The Massachusetts Institute of Technology must accelerate the pace of its long-term research to entice venture capitalists to fund it, university President L. Rafael Reif said in an interview.

Reif’s remarks on his vision for MIT’s future coincided with the announcement Friday that the college has launched a $5 billion fund-raising campaign.

MIT has no shortage of promising ideas to solve problems that range from climate change to HIV, but ideas get left in the laboratory when the university can’t compete with venture capitalists who see safer bets in short-term projects like software, Reif said.

“Society is missing on innovation that is happening here on many campuses because it gets stuck here, it gets bottle-necked,” Reif said.

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Speeding up university research will be a key focus of MIT’s going forward, he said.

The fund-raising effort, called MIT Campaign for a Better World, became public Friday, but the university already has raised $2.6 billion toward the goal, university officials said. The campaign aims to use research at MIT to combat issues including climate change, access to clean water, and Alzheimer’s disease, among other efforts.

The campaign has no deadline but such drives usually last five years. The last MIT fund-raiser ran between 1997 and 2004, officials said.

Reif said the university of the 21st century should do more than educate students and advance knowledge — it should solve real problems.

Traditionally, venture capitalists fund projects that take a much shorter time to develop, and to produce returns. That can lead to digital innovation, like Uber and Facebook, but few tangible products, like a desalinization membrane or HIV vaccine.

Reif said MIT should speed up the time it takes to develop more concrete innovations, to give those scientists a better chance at attracting venture capital.

MIT does not track exactly how much venture capital funding it receives, according to university officials. However, much of that funding goes directly to startup companies created by people affiliated with MIT.

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Seventeen percent, or $119 million, of all research expenditures at MIT is funded by private companies, a percentage much greater than at other universities. Most of the rest of the funding comes from the federal government, although governmental support for research nationwide has dwindled in recent years.

Also recently, large companies have shed their internal research and development departments and come to rely on universities to shepherd ideas from lab benches to startup companies, then they buy the startup.

That means universities have to do more to guide ideas to a stage where a company wants to invest.

According to MIT’s Technology Licensing Office, MIT started 28 companies and had 91 licenses granted and 314 patents issued in 2015. The same year, Harvard created 14 companies, had 50 licenses granted, and had 125 patents issued, according to its own technology transfer office.


Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com.