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Remembering Danny Lewin

Photo: Jason Dorfman

MIT is the type of places where the students are expected to be exceptional, but even in the midst of a student population considered to be the cream of the crop, Daniel Lewin stood out as extraordinary. Lewin, who is best known for his role as co-founder at Akamai Technologies, Inc., was killed on-board American Airlines Flight 11 on Sept. 11. Although his life was cut short at age 31, he managed to make an indelible mark that can still be felt at MIT and Akamai 10 years after his death.

“He was just incredibly talented and hard-working, he had done it all. He accomplished an amazing amount in a short lifetime,” said Tom Leighton, a professor in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

Born in Denver, Colo., and raised in Jerusalem, Lewin came to MIT in 1996, working towards a PhD in applied mathematics under Leighton in the Algorithms Group at the Lab for Computer Science (the predecessor to CSAIL).

CSAIL Professor Steve Ward recalled how Lewin, “had a pretty clear picture of what he wanted to do, and the competence and drive to do it.”

It was while working with Leighton that Lewin responded to a call from CSAIL researcher Tim Berners-Lee to develop a better way to deliver content online.

Lewin’s master’s thesis, for which he received the 1998 Morris Joseph Lewin Award for Best Masterworks Thesis Presentation, was the basis for the foundation of Akamai, which Lewin co-founded with Leighton in 1998. His thesis called for distributing copies of content such as pictures and videos across the Web for faster retrieval.

Leighton, who served as Lewin’s research advisor, said that Lewin was the perfect business partner.

“Danny was a great person to be in business with, he was very smart, very trustworthy, driven, hard working, and so he was an ideal business partner,” Leighton said.

Lewin and Leighton crafted a business plan based on Lewin’s work and entered it into MIT’s 50K entrepreneurial competition. While Lewin and Leighton did not win the contest, they were inspired to move forward, and set about founding Akamai in 1998. In 2012, MIT’s 100K competition will feature an award named in Lewin’s honor.

Leighton fondly recalled that during the initial stages of getting Akamai off the ground, the two worked constantly and inseparably, even sharing a small desk at one point, to achieve their mission.

CSAIL Professor Charles Leiserson, who worked at Akamai as the director of system architecture for a number of years, said he looks back on his time working with Lewin as a “wild ride.”

“He was really like nobody I’d ever met, he really had the ability to focus and then just drive, drive, drive, drive, drive. It’s fun being around people like that who can really have an impact and make a difference,“ Leiserson said.

Akamai went public in October 1999, forever changing Lewin’s life and turning the young husband and father of two into a billionaire. When Lewin was killed on Sept. 11, it was quite a shock to the company. In a fitting tribute to Lewin, the company has not only survived since his untimely passing, but also flourished.

“It was quite a blow to the company because Danny really was a moving force behind it,” explained Leiserson. “But, in some sense, at that point things were so well-launched that it was no longer so dependent on any individual to make it through, but I think you’d find Danny’s can-do spirit very much in the company.”

Lewin’s inspirational spirit lives on today, both at MIT and Akamai, through his friends and colleagues who hope to pass on Lewin’s drive and motivation to today’s students, and through a number of awards and honors named in his honor.

MIT honored Lewin shortly after his passing by naming the intersection of Main and Vassar Streets, right outside CSAIL, Danny Lewin Square. The annual Symposium on Theory of Computing named its Best Student Paper Award in Lewin’s honor to memorialize his significant accomplishments to the field. Akamai presents the Danny Lewin Awards each year to three Akamai employees who represent Lewin’s spirit, technical savvy, and ability to "move mountains." This year the company also named a park right outside its offices in Kendall Square in Lewin’s honor.

Prior to matriculating at MIT, Lewin was an officer in the Israeli Defense Forces, an elite anti-terrorism unit. He then worked at IBM’s research laboratory in Israel, while also completing two undergraduate degrees. Lewin’s spunk, determination and drive continued through his last moments, as he is thought to have attempted to stop the terrorists on-board Flight 11 as they took control of the cockpit.

Recalling his time with Lewin, Leighton explained that he lost more than his business partner on Sept. 11, 2001.

“He turned into my best friend. He started as a student, but as we left MIT it wasn’t a professor-student relationship anymore. It was a colleague kind of relationship and a friend relationship. I certainly miss that,” Leighton said. “He was a very, very bright fellow, and a great leader, inspirational fellow, and really a unique human being. Anyone that extraordinary when they’re lost you never replace that, you miss that.”

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