Brussels, 18 Jan 2005
Media Lab Europe (MLE), the research and innovation laboratory in the field of digital technologies set up by the Irish government and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has announced that it is closing due to a chronic lack of financing.
The institute, which was launched in Dublin in 2000, had high hopes of promoting innovation and incubating successful products in Europe. However, too few of the ideas proved commercially viable for sponsorship.
'We certainly underestimated the time it would take to reach financial stability,' Walter Bender, executive director of the Media Lab at M.I.T., wrote in an e-mail interview with the International Herald Tribune. 'More important, we underestimated the intangible cost of running a lab outside of the context of a university, where one can have ready access to students, who don't yet know the meaning of the word impossible and provide a natural churn.'
The project, which was initially launched with an Irish government contribution of 35.5 million euro, aimed to become self-financing like the original Media Lab in the US, which receives about 90 per cent of its financing from corporate sponsors. However, with the dot-com bubble bursting soon after its opening, the laboratory was unable to establish a financial base. Media Lab Europe only signed with eight corporate and public-sector partners, and only one has joined since 2003.
In a statement, the Irish Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Noel Dempsey, noted that the success of MLE was identified early on as being dependent on its ability to replicate the MIT Media Lab model of operation and fundraising in a European environment. 'Regrettably this has not happened to the extent anticipated. This can be explained in part by the economic downturn that particularly affected the technology sector, but also by a changing attitude of business to the model of non-directed research,' said Mr Dempsey.
Indeed, some say that in Europe potential sponsors tend to be mostly subsidiaries of multinational corporations that lack the freedom to finance independent research.
During its five-year existence, a team of 60, mostly young researchers, explored a wide range of technological ideas. One recent project involved allowing iPod users to connect to nearby iPod users' sets - to see what they were listening to, and to send them text messages. Another sought to design interactive video games that required strenuous physical effort. Researchers also designed speakers that could be implanted in teeth, gadgets that measure passive smoke inhalation and 'digital butterflies' that help children to communicate in a novel way. Few of these projects, however, offered immediate commercial prospects.
The Lab also participated in a number of EU-funded projects, including FASIL (Flexible and Adaptive Spoken Language and Multi-Modal Interfaces) and a Network of Excellence called ENACTIVE, under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) IST (Information Society Technologies) thematic area.
In its closure statement, the lab's board of directors suggest that the project may have become profitable had it been given a longer lifeline.
This is the second high-profile MIT laboratory that has failed to take off overseas. In 2003, MIT abandoned Media Lab Asia in Bangalore, India.