Professor Edward Roberts, management scholar, champion of entrepreneurship, and “MIT icon,” dies at 88

Edward Roberts, the David Sarnoff Professor of Management of Technology at the MIT Sloan School of Management, was a prolific scholar and mentor whose career at the Institute spanned seven decades.

The trailblazing MIT Sloan professor identified keys to successful technology-based business, helping generations of MIT students and faculty to start firms.

Peter Dizikes | MIT News

February 29, 2024

Edward B. Roberts ’58, SM ’58, SM ’60, PhD ’62, a visionary management professor who studied entrepreneurship while building a flourishing innovation ecosystem at MIT, died on Tuesday. He was 88 years old.

Over a remarkable seven-decade career at the Institute, Roberts was a prolific scholar and mentor who founded what is now the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, a unique resource that has guided thousands of innovators as they have brought inventions and ideas to the market.

Roberts, the David Sarnoff Professor of Management of Technology at the MIT Sloan School of Management, was an energetic and encouraging presence who espoused the value of founding companies organized around a clear core idea, and of having significant new technology to apply to that idea. Generations of MIT students as well as faculty found a path forward for their startups as a result, benefitting from the structure of the Martin Trust Center and influenced by Roberts’ work.

“It is not too much to say that MIT’s flourishing entrepreneurial culture and global reputation as a source of influential start-ups grew from seeds Ed planted here 50 years ago,” MIT President Sally Kornbluth wrote in a letter to the MIT community yesterday.

Kornbluth called Roberts an “MIT icon” who was “always doing things no one had done before,” including “pioneering the very idea that entrepreneurship is a craft that can be systematically studied and successfully taught.”

In 2015 Roberts co-authored a report estimating that, as of 2014, MIT alumni had launched 30,200 active companies employing roughly 4.6 million people and generating roughly $1.9 trillion in annual revenues, a figure that would have ranked among the top 10 countries in the world in GDP.

“I have helped MIT to become a much more entrepreneurial place,” Roberts said — in something of an understatement — during a 2011 interview for an MIT Sloan oral history series.

Wide-ranging intellect, entrepreneurial spirit

Born in 1935, Roberts grew up in nearby Chelsea, Massachusetts, commuting to MIT as an undergraduate. Through his intellectual life as a student, as well as his later career as a scholar, Roberts personified the interdisciplinary possibilities of MIT.

Even while earning his undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in electrical engineering, Roberts was often taking two additional courses in economics and at MIT Sloan — despite, as he once recalled, the vocal concerns of his faculty advisor.

As a graduate student, by the late 1950s, Roberts had begun working with MIT faculty member Jay Forrester, a computing pioneer who had started developing many core ideas now integral to the study of system dynamics. Roberts became increasingly interested in the application of those ideas to management, also helping to create a framework for the field then known as industrial dynamics.

Assisted by the extra courses he had already been taking, Roberts earned his master’s in management from MIT Sloan, and then his PhD in economics, with his doctoral work focused on applying system dynamics to the management of research and development. It was MIT’s first doctoral dissertation in system dynamics.

Having joined MIT as a student, Roberts never left. He took a position as a faculty member at MIT Sloan and began working on wide-ranging and important studies of organizational practices in areas that included health care management, among other things.

Along the way, Roberts practiced what he advocated: In the 1960s, while still a junior faculty member, he co-founded his own firm, Pugh-Roberts Associates, which took the ideas of system dynamics to partners in the private sector and government. The firm still exists today, as the Sage Analysis Group.

The books Roberts co-authored early in his career include “The Persistent Poppy” (1975), examining the social and economic impact of heroin use, and “The Dynamics of Human Service Delivery” (1976), applying system dynamics analysis to the service sector.

Over time, Roberts’ work became increasingly focused on the components of successful entrepreneurship. His high-profile 1991 book, Entrepreneurs in High-Technology: Lessons from MIT and Beyond,” was based on a thorough examination of 113 companies founded by entrepreneurs, moving the field forward through its extensive empirical work.

That overlapped with Roberts’ work building a framework for encouraging entrepreneurship at MIT. The MIT Center for Entrepreneurship opened in 1990, providing an essential resource for potential firm founders at the Institute. As the center grew, Roberts himself became a vital figure to many budding entrepreneurs, a vigorous presence offering input based on expert analysis.

“Ed will always be remembered at MIT Sloan as a campus pillar,” wrote Georgia Perakis, interim John C. Head III Dean of MIT Sloan, along with Deputy Dean Michael Cusumano, in a letter to the MIT Sloan community on Tuesday. “He could be found walking the halls, visiting faculty, staff, students, and alumni at the school, and sharing with them parts of the history of MIT Sloan. He remained connected to generations of MIT entrepreneurs, offering advice and guidance as companies were launched. Those of us who knew Ed count ourselves lucky to have had his counsel and will miss him dearly.”

“Virtually everything today in the MIT entrepreneurial ecosystem, from classes to extracurricular activities, has some level of Ed’s DNA at it core,” says Bill Aulet, professor of the practice at MIT Sloan and the managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. “But his impact also went well beyond MIT, where Ed Roberts was a generational figure in entrepreneurship as a field of research and instruction.”

MIT faculty who studied with Roberts also recall the impact his teaching had on their own careers.

“I, and many others in the system dynamics group here, took Ed’s course as a doctoral student and learned a great deal about how to work with policymakers and other leaders to increase the chances that the results of modeling would be implemented and have sustained beneficial impact in organizations,” recalls John Sterman, the Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management at MIT Sloan and a professor in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society.

A celebration of MIT pioneers

In all, Roberts published 12 books and over 160 articles on entrepreneurship and management, with an audience both inside academia and in technology-driven growth industries.

Among his recent works, Roberts’ 2020 book, Celebrating Entrepreneurs: How MIT Nurtured Pioneering Entrepreneurs Who Built Great Companies,” examined how the Institute developed its formal framework and culture of entrepreneurship across a variety of industries.

In addition to founding the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, Roberts at one point chaired the MIT Management of Technology (MOT) program. He also co-created the MIT Sloan Entrepreneurship and Innovation Certificate program.

Roberts was also an active presence as a co-founder, board member, and investor in startups, including the health care information firm Medical Information Technology, Inc. In addition, Roberts co-founded a group of Zero Stage Capital equity funds, which provided early-stage capital for promising tech startups. All told, Roberts was a board member for more than 40 firms and a co-founder of 14 companies.

Roberts is survived by his wife, Nancy; his children, Valerie and her husband, Mark Friedman, Mitchell and his wife, Jill, and Andrea and her husband, Marc Foster; and nine grandchildren. Donations can be made to the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston in his memory.

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