07 Jun 2011

Back to the Future


Once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur. Consider the case of William Alden (MBA ’52), as reported in the Cape Cod Times (April 12, 2011). More than fifty years ago, Alden was working on an automated mail-flow system for the postal service when he started thinking about a people-moving system based on cars that could drive over roads but also attach to computer-controlled track networks. A version of his idea was adapted in the 1960s and is still in use at West Virginia University. That was as far as the idea went, until recently.

Partnering with an MIT expert on autonomous vehicles and mobile robotics, Alden has a new company, Alden DAVe Systems (with “DAVe” an acronym for Dual-mode Autonomous Vehicle), designed around the use of small vehicles in places like airports, university campuses, or amusement parks. “Forget the guideways, forget the stations, just do it all with software,” Alden explained. “Basically, software is replacing all this infrastructure.’ As investors show interest, the 84-year-old Alden looks to the future and sees himself as part of a relay race. “We’re older gentlemen,” he said. “We have time to move it along and turn it over to a younger crew.”

As a youthful entrepreneur, Alden seems to have been ahead of his time. Back then, he recalls, “there really wasn’t much interest in entrepreneurs or entrepreneurship.” As a Harvard undergraduate, Alden did read economist Joseph Schumpeter on entrepreneurship and wrote his honors thesis on his father as an entrepreneur of the family company. At HBS, Alden notes that several courses were helpful to anyone starting or running small companies but “the only one I know of that encouraged entrepreneurship was General Georges Doriot’s.” Doriot, who had “a giant class,” had students form teams that worked on projects that often “showed interest in the future or new products and markets,” Alden says.

Today’s HBS entrepreneurially-minded students, it seems, would certainly feel at home in the Doriot classroom, a precursor of the surge of interest in entrepreneurship now evident at the School.


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