Innovation and Entrepreneurship: The MechE Way
by Alissa Mallinson
Innovation and creativity are concepts that imbue everything we do in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. They’re woven into every lab, every experiment, every faculty member and graduate student rooted here. It’s who we are.
But as Professor David Wallace teaches his students, innovation and creativity are not the same thing. Creativity is the seed for innovation, and – despite popular belief – it can be learned, according to Professor Ian Hunter. You must learn to think outside the box, to challenge traditional ways of approaching problems, and to develop a full toolbox of knowledge from which to pull.
“Part of the MIT way is to be very knowledgeable and to be able to compute quickly,” says Professor Ian Hunter. “That allows you to analyze things around you and unlock opportunities more rapidly than others who might have to take the time to look things up. I find that students who have these skills become more creative.”
“I always like to think about solving a problem in a way that might seem counterintuitive,” says Professor Kripa Varanasi, “to potentially create something that you wouldn’t think could happen, something that gives you a big jump in the ultimate performance.”
If creativity is the seed, then innovation is creativity aptly applied. MechE students receive the knowledge and hands-on experience necessary to transform creativity into innovation, into a product that solves a real problem or fulfills a specific need, and the business acumen to turn innovation into entrepreneurship. Because, as Professor Maria Yang explains, technology is just one way to spur innovation; conversely, many great products are driven by a deep understanding of the human needs of end users. It’s important for engineers to recognize the difference between “technology push” and “market pull” and to be flexible enough to adjust their ideas as necessary.
The End (Users) Justify the Means
But why is it important for an engineer to know the market, to understand the end users?
“It doesn’t matter if people have a second-grade education, they know more about their lives than I will ever know,” says Professor Amos Winter. “It’s important to start and finish with the end users because they’re the ones who have to say, ‘I have this need in my life’; and once it’s done, it’s the end users who have to say, ‘Yes! This meets my need.’ They’re the ones who matter.”
MIT mechanical engineers are taught to understand the entire process of product design from beginning to end: to become better innovators who understand who they are innovating for and know how to work with others to get it done. They are taught through experience to appreciate the importance of each person’s role in that process and to partner with them to create a cohesive, effective solution that’s not only made well, but on time and on budget too.
“The key competitive battleground now is in the area of innovation,” says Wallace. “If you have a fantastic hockey team but you show up at the wrong rink, you lose the tournament. Creativity and vision are the right rink. There are a lot of smart people in the world who are very good at executing the details, but … in order to be competitive, it is also important to be thinking of the next big idea. To be a technical leader, you have to be able to do both.”
The Department’s curriculum offers a series of undergraduate and graduate product design courses for this purpose – such as Course 2.00b: Toy Lab; Course 2.007: Introduction to Robotics; Course 2.009: Product Engineering Processes; Course 2.013/4: Engineering Systems Design and Development; and Course 2.739: Product Design and Development – as well as programs that integrate elements of fundamental business and marketing ideas, such as the Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) program in conjunction with the Sloan School of Management.
The MIT Entrepreneurial “Ecosystem”
Even so, how could MechE students truly internalize that entrepreneurial drive if MIT as an Institute didn’t live it? If our own faculty weren’t themselves examples of that renowned MIT entrepreneurial spirit?
It’s the fact that MIT lives that spirit that gives it the entrepreneurial ecosystem so coveted by others. Since the beginning, MIT’s motto mens et manus (“mind and hand”) has guided the MIT community toward industry partnerships and entrepreneurship through appreciation for the invention of useful ideas and products. According to a 2011 report by the MIT Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship, “if the active companies founded by living MIT alumni formed an independent nation, their revenues would make that nation at least the 17th largest economy in the world.”*
The MIT support system is one of the best too — including the MIT Enterprise Forum, the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, the Martin Trust Entrepreneurship Center, and a multitude of competitions, such as the $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, the Lemelson-MIT Award, and the IDEAS Challenge, all of which award seed money to help grow promising ideas. Just in the past few years, several MechE students were recognized by all three competitions: Nathan Ball and Nikolai Begg, who each won the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize Award, Karina Pikhart and Kevin Cedrone, who each won the MIT IDEAS Challenge; and the Varanasi Lab team, which was awarded the Audience Choice Prize at the $100K Entrepreneurship Competition for their product LiquiGlide.
“Our education here doesn’t make a distinction between people who are good at theory and people who are good with their hands, because at MIT, you need to be good at both,” says Hunter. “That idea permeates our teaching and has become part of our entrepreneurial culture. As a result, our students are people who march across any discipline to find solutions to problems. And that’s very much the MIT way. It’s not only important for research, it’s also important for successful startups.”
MechE faculty are crucial links in this ecosystem of MIT entrepreneurial spirit and know-how. Almost all of them have been part of a commercialization process at one point or another, either by licensing a patent or by directly participating in a startup. In the past 10 years, MechE faculty have licensed more than 200 patents. For many faculty, it’s an unparalleled feeling to see their creations utilized for the benefit of the planet and the public.
Professor George Barbastathis: Multi-Functional Glass
Professor George Barbastathis is no stranger to cool inventions. A co-inventor of the “Harry Potter”-esque invisibility cloak, Barbastathis’s newest development is multi-functional glass that is anti-reflective, anti-fogging, and self-cleaning. First developed by two of his optics students as part of a class project, the anti-reflection idea is based on reducing the mismatch that occurs between the properties of air and glass when they meet, causing light to reflect.
The solution to this mismatch was widely known: nano cones placed at the interface of the two media create a gradual transition that smoothens the mismatch and prevents reflection. But they still needed a high aspect ratio to simultaneously meet two requirements: firstly, a diameter that is smaller than half the wavelength of light to make sure the light does not “see” them but rather propagates through them as though they were an effective medium; and secondly, the longest length to ensure a slow transition from air to bulk glass to greatly reduce reflection.
In addition to addressing this mismatch, the nano cone shapes also alter the wetting behavior of glass, making it superhydrophilic (meaning that water droplets do not “bead up” on the surface) or, alternatively, after coating it with a very thin layer of an organic fluoro-chemical, making it superhydrophobic (meaning that water droplets form perfect spherical balls on top of the glass).
Post-doctoral candidate Chih-Hao Chang and graduate student Hyung-ryul “Johnny” Choi created a new process for manufacturing the cones using a shrinking mask of silicon that disappears gradually as it and the glass substrate are etched, thus creating an almost linear slope – a cone shape that is also very slender, with the slope determined by the relative etching speed between the silicon and the glass. Along with student Kyoo-Chul “Kenneth” Park and his advisors Professors Gareth McKinley from MechE and Bob Cohen from ChemE, the team soon demonstrated the multi-functionality conclusively in terms of both anti-reflection and wetting behavior.
After graduate student Jeong-gil Kim joined the team, their next step was to replicate the cone shapes by impressing the patterned glass onto a polymer substrate. But they ran into another problem: holes were forming instead of cones. Disappointed at first, they soon realized that the holes were actually even more effective in one important way.
“The cones are very slender,” explains Barbastathis, “and one could reasonably ask if they would shatter, and, in some applications, they might. On the other hand, the holes are not only more robust, but – if you can imagine what the negative of a cone looks like in a pattern – they support each other very well too.”
As Barbastathis and his team think about licensing their nano pattern to companies, a number of other potential applications have emerged.
“Once we finesse the nano replication process, we should be able to manufacture them for a few pennies per square inch,” he says. “We’re quite excited and looking forward to the easy replication for use in applications such as photovoltaics, smart phones, and even building windows.”
Professor Doug Hart: 3D Scanning and Imaging
Ending with the largest dental company sale in history even before receiving Series B funding, Brontes Technologies, Inc. began with 3D technology born out of particle image velocimetry that created 3D maps of flows using two cameras. That is what Professor Doug Hart was working on when he was asked to speak to a group of Taiwanese opto-electronics researchers working on 3D imaging for computer animation.
“I went out there wondering what a fluid dynamicist was going to talk to an electro optics group about,” Hart says. “But at the last second it occurred to me that you could use the same technology we were using for velocimetry to image objects in 3D by simply projecting a speckled pattern onto an object and imaging it with a camera. Two years later, without my knowing, that group submitted a pre-proposal to the Taiwanese government to work with us on the idea.”
After a successful collaboration wherein Hart’s team developed a system to take human expression and apply it to animated characters, the two groups went their separate ways. Hart was trying to solve the problem of how to improve 3D processing speed without decreasing the accuracy. The less spatial disparity between the two cameras, the better the processing, but as they approached the limit, they wondered what to do next.
“I was sitting in my office asking myself how we could get them any closer when I realized that we could put an off-axis aperture in the system and rotate it,” says Hart. “It was like taking 50 cameras and putting them all in one tiny lens, and then being able to dynamically control the imaging.”
They teamed up with the then-newly formed MIT Deshpande Center and entered the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition (then a $50K competition), where they were joined by two MBA students. At the time, Brontes was pitching the system as a facial recognition device, but after a visit to the dentist by a team member, the group changed its mind and decided to develop the technology as a dental scanner instead. What developed as a result was the first video-rate intra-oral dental scanner, which looks like a toothbrush and scans the mouth, replacing the antiquated casting process. It was the right choice, because as they started to search for Series B funding, Brontes received an unexpected bid for purchase. Then a second, higher bid came in from 3M Company, and they decided to sell.
When Hart was approached shortly thereafter about applying the technology to hearing aids, he didn’t need much arm-twisting to start another company. “After we sold Brontes,” he says, “I felt like something was missing from my life, because there wasn’t this intense excitement and hard work and team building. I had been bitten by the entrepreneurship bug.”
The dental scanning technology was too big to fit into ear canals, so Hart created a second 3D system from scratch. The new invention resulted in Lantos Technologies’ Lantos Scanner, a portable device that creates perfect-fit hearing aids.
Professor Ian Hunter: Bioinstrumentation
Professor Ian Hunter, director of the MIT BioInstrumentation Lab, is well known for his love of invention and his passion for commercialization. He has founded and/or co-founded 22 companies, the two most recent within the past year. MicroMS and Portal Instruments both spun out of instruments Professor Hunter invented with post docs and students in his lab.
MicroMS was developed in conjunction with Dr. Brian Hemond, one of Professor Hunter’s PhD students. Together, the two created a miniature mass spectrometer (MS), an instrument for chemical analysis that is usually very large. The portable device they developed is handheld, with a manufacturing cost possibly as low as $100. It can be used to characterize smells, such as wine and coffee; to detect undesired chemicals such as lead or pesticides; or possibly even to deduce one’s health status from breath analysis.
“I consider myself primarily to be an inventor, but I’m also a serial entrepreneur,” says Professor Hunter. “I enjoy inventing things, and I like to make sure that if I’ve got an invention that is going to do good for the planet that it gets out there and gets commercialized. Rather than handing it off to somebody, I like to guide it through its initial stages.”
Portal Instruments manufactures a jet injector that delivers drugs through the skin without a needle at specific depths and volumes. Following two years of successful feasibility studies, Professor Hunter decided that instead of continuing to adapt the technology to different applications, such as the eye and ear, he was ready to start optimizing it in the context of a startup company. Portal Instruments was incorporated late in 2012 with Dr. Patrick Anquetil (MIT PhD ‘05, Harvard Business School MBA ‘09), who Professor Hunter named CEO.
“There are four key philosophical approaches to innovation,” says Professor Hunter. “One is to be able to carry a lot of laws and equations around in your head and be able to compute them quickly.
“Two is to surround yourself with great tools so you can implement an idea as soon as possible.
“Three is to surround yourself with people who can criticize what you are doing and keep you on your toes.
“And the last one is to be passionate about what you do. Without that, the other elements are irrelevant.”
Professor Yang Shao-Horn: Lithium Air Batteries
It’s clear why innovative product design and development are important, but what about innovative fundamental research? Without it, the game-changing discoveries and products you see at the end of the process would never exist. Take Professor Yang Shao-Horn: Her Electrochemical Energy Lab’s (EEL) fundamental research often has a domino effect that leads to a progressive series of discoveries, as is the case with their current research project to develop efficient lithium-air (Li-O2) batteries for electric cars.
Because Li-O2 batteries utilize oxygen for energy storage instead of the heavier transition metal-based materials in today’s batteries, they represent the potential to create a lightweight battery with up to three times the energy density of standard lithium-ion batteries. The inefficient charging process in Li-O2 batteries and the inability to cycle (charge and discharge) more than a few times have posed significant obstacles, but if these challenges can be overcome, electric cars with rechargeable, lightweight batteries could become a consumer-friendly alternative to gasoline-fueled vehicles.
With their eyes toward that goal, Shao-Horn and her team – Ethan Crumlin (SB ‘05, SM ‘07, PhD ‘12), now a post-doc at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab; recent graduate Betar Gallant (BS ‘08, SM ‘10, PhD ‘13); and Yi-Chun Lu (PhD ‘12), now an assistant professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong – made innovative developments that have progressed the fundamental understanding of lithium-air batteries and moved them closer to market.
Shao-Horn’s group has pursued a strategy that combines fundamental characterization and electrode materials design to help address the efficiency challenges. In one project, the group developed a vertical carbon-fiber-based electrode, increasing the amount of void space – essential for maximizing the amount of discharge product and energy that can be stored – up to roughly 90% compared with approximately 60% in more conventional electrodes. The electrode structure enabled one of the highest gravimetric energy densities, 2400 Wh/kgelectrode, to be realized to date. The team was pleased to discover that an unintended consequence of this electrode development – where the carbon is arranged in an organized, vertically aligned “carpet” pattern – was the ability to visualize the electrode behavior during charge and discharge and “see” how the discharge product grows and disappears.
In another project, the team was able to watch the electrochemical reactions taking place in real time during discharge and charge using an in situ ambient pressure X-ray photoelectron spectroscope (XPS). Their study showed that using an all-solid-state battery with metal oxides as the oxygen electrode is crucial for studying the fundamental chemistry of discharge products and their removal during charge, because carbon-based electrodes can react parasitically during discharge, preventing direct study of the fundamental electrochemistry of lithium peroxide formation and oxidation. Such an approach can provide important insights into the reversibility, round-trip efficiency, and cycle life limitations in real cells. New fundamental insights from this work can be used to drive development of practical electrode materials suitable for use in real cells.
Just this past spring, the team made yet another step in their quest to develop a commercial lithium-air battery: Using a transmission electron microscope, they observed in real time that the oxidation of lithium peroxide at high charging rates occurs closest to the carbon nanotubes used in the electrode rather than at the electrolyte interface. As a result, they now understand that this resistance of lithium peroxide to a flow of electrons is a major contributor to charging limitations at high rates – a critical obstacle for automotive applications where fast charging is a requirement for consumers.
Professor David Wallace: Design Process Education
For many MechE students, particularly those who take the ever-popular Course 2.009: Product Engineering Processes, Professor David Wallace is a hero.
Wallace’s fun-loving approach to teaching is a welcome surprise to overworked students who arrive expecting formulas and textbooks. “I’m a big believer in active learning,” he explains. “I like to play games and have fun with my students. I want them to be engaged in the lecture and get excited to go do things on their own. If the students see the instructors getting excited about the subject, they tend to get excited too.”
Wallace notices if they’re not and adjusts his approach, often spending close to 100 hours of development time every year improving the course – just another facet of his innovative teaching philosophy.
“We ask our students to work very hard in this class. So we have to work just as hard,” he says. “Every year I choose what I think are the two weakest aspects of the most recent class and try to replace them with one or two new things that will hopefully work better.”
2.009 takes students through the entire process of real-world product development, encouraging creativity and unfettered brainstorming, sketching, prototyping, and all the steps in between. When they’ve completed this capstone course – a requirement for a mechanical engineering undergraduate degree at MIT – they not only have hands-on experience and an understanding of the business considerations, but they also understand what it means to innovate.
“We’re really trying to build the attitudes and set of skills that will allow these engineers to become technical innovators in various forms. They brainstorm their own ideas, they develop their own ideas – and we have them do things that are very real. That level of engagement with their own creativity motivates them to go beyond a homework assignment and approach it as if it’s a real product. That’s when a lot of learning takes place.”
According to Wallace, almost every year there are a handful of 2.009 teams that file for patents and incorporate, such as 6dot Innovations, HelmetHub (helmet vending machine), Phil (intelligent faucet attachment), and Ferno (compact outdoor stove). But, “it’s really about education and lighting that fire in the students,” he says.
Professor Amos Winter: Products for Developing Countries
Assistant Professor Amos Winter (SM ’05, PhD ’11) doesn’t leave the commercialization of his inventions to chance. With a research focus on product and machine design for developing countries, Winter takes a strategic two-pronged approach to bringing his products to market. Last year, he created Global Research Innovation and Technology (GRIT) to commercialize his Leveraged Freedom Chair (LFC) and serve as an established vehicle for future product commercialization.
“I felt very strongly that I needed to create a mechanism through which I could take the technologies we create in the lab and transfer them into the real world … without me personally having to expend the effort every time to get them there,” says Winter.
He also partners with large, successful companies who have a proven track record in the markets where new research opportunities exist. For Winter, there are three reasons for collaborating with large outside organizations: 1) they have tremendous internal R&D capabilities and can contribute to the research; 2) they have the ability to manufacture at enormous scales; and 3) they know the market well and have established distribution channels. “As engineers, we can contribute knowledge generation and fundamental research that leads to innovative technology, but large companies are good at making it, productizing it, and distributing it. It’s a great partnership,” he says.
Some designers may consider the restrictive parameters involved in designing products for the developing world a hindrance, but Winter revels in it.
A great example is his LFC. He wanted to create a wheelchair that could travel off-road for approximately 2 miles a day, could be powered manually with ease, was small enough to use indoors, and didn’t cost more than $200. It was these constraints that forced Winter to create an innovative solution, one that was able to solve a complicated problem simply and elegantly.
Made out of widely accessible bike parts, his chair exploits basic geometry and eliminates the need for complex mechanisms. By pushing on two levers and adjusting the height of their grip, LFC users vary the torque going into the drive train as needed, based on the environment.
“These types of challenges are extremely difficult to solve, with no clear solution, so we really have to innovate. But there’s a potential for huge impact, and you may affect a person in a life or death way. Not only that, but if your solution works in a very constrained environment, then it has the potential to work well everywhere.”
Professor Maria Yang: Early-Stage Design
Where other MechE faculty members come bearing specific innovative artifacts, Professor Maria Yang offers conceptual strategies for innovation, regardless of the technology. For her, innovation first manifests itself in early-stage design.
“My pitch is for visual literacy,” she explains. “Students come to MIT and they are very strong mathematically, but visual literacy is part and parcel of being a mechanical engineer. You need to think about how things fit together, how gears work, how a product works.”
To find out how important early-stage sketching is, Professor Yang conducted several studies. “We found that those people who drew earlier in the process tended to have better design outcomes,” she says. “But surprisingly, one’s sketching ability didn’t seem to play a role in how well the design turned out.”
Yang describes three major types of drawing for product design: prescriptive (giving instructions for someone else, such as a blueprint), communication (using a drawing to explain or sell an idea), and thinking (creating drawings for oneself to think through an idea), the third being the one she is most interested in, the one she believes begets creativity and innovation.
“‘Thinking drawing’ tells people how to think for themselves. It doesn’t matter how well you draw, it just helps people think through their ideas. It’s known as having ‘a dialogue with the paper.’”
Based on her studies, Yang encourages her students in 2.00: Introduction to Design to sketch and build prototypes early in the design process. This strategy also extends to the design of complex engineering systems. “Engineers typically think in terms of sub-systems and sub-components,” she says, “but integration is a major issue, and one of the things we’ve found through our work with NASA is how critical visualization is in facilitating integration.
“Understanding the process of designing things – and sketching is a piece of that – helps engineers to see the process end to end.”