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5 Minutes With a Visionary: Ian Waitz

Editor’s note: As part of CNBC’s “20 Under 20: Transforming Tomorrow” TV documentary, we interviewed thought leaders and visionaries who have paved the way for the next generation of entrepreneurs. In a series of Q&As called “5 Minutes with a Visionary,” we discover what has shaped and molded the careers of these innovators.

Dean Ian Waitz
Photo: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Dean Ian Waitz

Ian Waitz, 48, is no stranger to the quest for higher education. Waitz holds a bachelor’s degree from Penn State, an M.S. from George Washington University, a Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology and holds three patents. Until 2011, he was head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Today, he's dean of the engineering school — MIT's largest of its five schools. He spoke in a telephone interview with CNBC.

Q: What do you consider to be your greatest success as an innovator and why?

I think I’ve done some novel things with very small power generation devices. I was involved in a micro-engine program where we were looking at how to build a gas turbine engine that was the size of a coin, essentially, and that involved us pushing our many boundaries.

More so, the role that I play as dean is to provide the right kind of environment so our students, faculty and staff here at MIT can both innovate while they are here, as well as learn all of the skills and tools and attitudes that are required to be great innovators and entrepreneurs when they leave MIT. We have a marvelous track record with 125,000 living alums. We have 26,000 active companies that have $2 trillion in annual sales and employee 3.3 million people. We produce a great amount of entrepreneurs and innovators on a pretty regular basis and that's accelerating. … I hope my greatest contribution to entrepreneurship and innovation will be through a broader impact that I have across MIT rather than anything I’ve done in my own life.

Q: What current challenge, when resolved, would do the most to change the world?

Those related to both sustainability and human health. Those are dimensions which are pervasive around the globe. [If] we do not make advances in energy, environment and resource use, we are going to continue to have great challenges on earth. Global health is one where there is a huge opportunity with a surge of convergence of opportunity with science — to address our challenges in health and move towards personalized medicine. To me, I think those things could change the world in a very compelling way.

Q: If you had the world's intellectual elite all in one room, what thought-provoking question(s) would you pose for debate?

One that’s very prominent at MIT for us now is education for anyone, anywhere. We have a partnership with Harvard called EdX. We are providing online learning for anyone, anywhere, in an interactive way. If I were to ask a question, I would ask: “How do we do a better job or move that along faster?” … The opportunity to change the world through really effective education is really grand.

Q: What has been the most rewarding aspect of your education from undergrad to masters to Ph.D.?

The sense that I can solve problems. That was something that I learned as a kid, that I could be fearless and take things apart and put things back together even if they didn’t go back together. That, for me, was really enforced with my education. I could be given a problem, and with enough time and energy in that problem … find a good way forward. I have this feeling that with enough time and energy and effort, we can do great things and there are solutions to be found. That confidence to solve problems of all kinds is something, to me, that education has really enforced.

Editor's Note: This interview has been condensed and edited.

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