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"Black nail" engineering – the "real" stuff

by Dean Thomas L. Magnanti, Vol. 3, No. 5, September 2006

Today's "real"engineers

Colin Angle, Rod Brooks, Helen Greiner
Co-founders of iRobot Corp.

Angle and Greiner met Professor Brooks in the 1980s when they were researchers in MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Since 1990, Angle and Greiner have been leading the day-to-day development of iRobot Corp. The company is known for producing the first affordable robotic vacuum cleaner, the disc-shaped Roomba, as well as mini tank-like Packbots that save the lives of soldiers in Iraq by identifying and defusing IEDs (improvised explosive devices). In 2003, Ernst and Young named Angle and Greiner New England Entrepreneurs of the Year, recognizing their key roles in fostering the growth of a brainchild into a successful business. Angle and Greiner both hold bachelor's and master's degrees from MIT; Brooks is director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Yet-Ming Chiang
Co-founder of A123Systems and American Superconductor. Kyocera Professor of Ceramics, MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

In 1987, Chiang co-founded American Superconductor, the world's leading supplier of high-temperature, super-conducting wire. More recently, he co-founded A123Systems, a company producing a new generation of lithium-ion batteries based on nanoscale electrode technology that Chiang helped develop at MIT. The batteries will achieve unprecedented levels of power, safety, and useful life. Chiang has a bachelor's degree in materials science and engineering and an ScD in ceramics, both from MIT.

Albert K. Chin, M.D.
Co-founder of Origin Medsystems, Inc.

Chin's 29-year history of medical device development began with an education that combined engineering and medicine. He holds 150 issued U.S. patents for designs that span the areas of cardiac, vascular, orthopedic, gynecologic, urologic, and general surgery. Chin co-founded Origin Medsystems, Inc., which is now part of the Cardiac Surgery Division of Guidant Corporation, a Boston Scientific Company. He received his bachelor's in mechanical engineering from MIT, his master's in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, and his medical degree from the UC-San Francisco School of Medicine.

Francis deSouza
CEO of IMlogic.

A pioneer of instant messaging, DeSouza spent more than a decade successfully bringing products to market in start-ups and large organizations prior to founding IMlogic, Inc. in 2001. The market leader in secure IM (instant messaging) management, IMlogic was acquired by Symantec in early 2006. DeSouza was also co-founder and CEO of Flash Communications, acquired by Microsoft in 1998. While at Microsoft, he led the development of enterprise Instant Messaging, NetMeeting, Conferencing Server, and Chat. He has a bachelor's and a master's from MIT in electrical engineering and computer science.

Brian L. Hinman
President & CEO of 2Wire.

An industry expert in digital signal processing, Hinman holds 11 U.S. patents and has been honored by ACE (the Association of Collegiate Entrepreneurs) multiple times as one of the nation's most successful young entrepreneurs. His company, 2Wire, makes networking devices for homes and small offices that offer a "triple-play" of data, voice, and media services. Before 2Wire, Hinman co-founded and was CEO of Polycom, Inc., the world's leading teleconferencing company. Prior to that, when he was just 22, he co-founded PictureTel Corporation. In 2005, Ernst & Young named him Entrepreneur of the Year in Northern California. Hinman holds a master's in electrical engineering from MIT.

Robert Langer
Co-founder of Momenta Pharmaceuticals and numerous other companies. MIT Institute Professor.

Langer is recognized worldwide as a pioneer in biotechnology, specifically for his innovations in drug delivery and tissue engineering. He developed biocompatible polymer technologies that control the release of medicine over time. This and other Langer contributions have significantly advanced controlled drug delivery, a $40 billion industry in the U.S. alone. A prolific inventor, Langer has over 550 issued or pending patents, many of which have led to new companies. In 2002, he received the Charles Stark Draper Prize, considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for engineers, and he is the only engineer to receive the Gairdner Foundation International Award (65 recipients of this award have subsequently received the Nobel Prize). He holds a doctorate in chemical engineering from MIT.

David Levy
Founder and CTO of Digit Wireless.

By the time he won the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for inventing in 1996, Levy had already made a name for himself as an inventor. Among his better known innovations is Fastap, the world's smallest keypad and the main product of his company, Digit Wireless, LLC. Levy's career began at Apple Computer, where he contributed significantly to the PowerBook laptop computer's design. In 2000, he created Digit Wireless to establish Fastap technology as an international ergonomic standard, and in 2005, the company introduced the first commercially available Fastap phone. Levy received his bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering from MIT.

Thomas Massie
Founder of SensAbleTechnologies.

Massie won the first Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for inventing in 1995. While at MIT, he developed his most notable invention, the PHANToM 3-D Touch, in collaboration with Dr. Kenneth Salisbury. The PHANToM is a haptic (touch-based) computer interface that enables users to sense the shape, size, and consistency of objects on a computer screen. It allows designers and engineers to create and interact with objects in 3-D, and it can even train doctors to perform surgery on "virtual patients." SensAble Technologies, the company Massie created to market the PHANToM, counts Disney, Boeing, and Adidas among its clients. Massie holds a bachelor's in electrical engineering and a master's in mechanical engineering from MIT.

Alexander H. Slocum
Innovator. MIT Professor of Mechanical Engineering and MacVicar Faculty Fellow.

Slocum has over 60 patents issued or pending. His main research focus is precision engineering, and he designs manufacturing equipment for the automotive, aerospace, semiconductor, and entertainment industries. Slocum has received nine R&D 100 Awards for scientific product developments, the Society of Mechanical Engineers' Frederick W. Taylor Research Medal, and the Martin Luther King Leadership Award, among other honors. He is admired by MIT students for his spirited instruction in course 2.007 Introduction to Design, which culminates each year in a famed machine design contest. He holds MIT bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering.

Amy Smith
Innovator. MIT instructor in Mechanical Engineering and the Edgerton Center.

Smith, who won a MacArthur "genius" grant in 2004, is known for inventing low-tech devices that help people in developing countries. Her inventions include grain-grinding hammer mills, water-purification devices, and the Phase-Change Incubator, an inexpensive, low-maintenance device to help test for microorganisms in water supplies. As an Edgerton Center instructor, she co-founded the MIT IDEAS (Innovation, Development, Enterprise, Action, Service) Competition for students who develop designs to solve community problems. She also co-founded the International Development Initiative, which expands opportunities at MIT for work in international development. Smith received her bachelor's and master's in mechanical engineering from MIT and won the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for invention in 2000.

I'm sure that all of you who are practicing engineers have frequently encountered stereotypical views of the profession. The School itself also faces a stereotype about engineering schools. I often encounter conflicting views, even from alumni that: (1) MIT, like many major engineering schools, is stodgy, no longer asks our students to roll up their sleeves and create things, and has lost touch with practice, and (2) we have broadened our engineering education (read: "watered down") to the point that we no longer provide our students with the required foundations. Both perceptions are way off base.

The nitty gritty of "real engineering" – in education and product development

The truth is, today's School of Engineering focuses both on giving our students the best foundation of engineering science fundamentals and on developing abilities to create products and services that impact society. Indeed, one of our underlying tenets is that theory and practice go hand in hand, as embodied in MIT's motto mens et manus.[1] There is much that I could say about this topic. I write today about one aspect of the theory-practice spectrum: what one of our former faculty members called "black nail" engineering, that is, the "real" engineering that takes getting your hands dirty to make things. It's this kind of engineering that is key to the School's mission and that has significant impact on the world. The School, through our faculty and alumni, has a glorious tradition of developing and contributing to life-changing technologies over the past decades. That tradition goes on today.

Developing "real engineering" skills is a critical ingredient of an MIT engineering education, one on which we place tremendous importance. Our faculty support this thrust in a variety of ways: by conducting exciting and engaging design contests, by teaching how to create and develop products, and by creating novel products, services and even companies. Our School-based Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP) provides students with needed skills and experiences to prepare them for careers in "real" engineering. The Innovation Teams ("i-Teams") course, taught jointly by the School of Engineering and the Sloan School of Management, gives entrepreneurial graduate students experience in bringing innovations from research to the marketplace.

You probably already know how vital creating new technologies and products is to the economic well-being of a nation. Robert Solow, an MIT faculty member and Nobel laureate in economics, has estimated that 50 percent of this nation's economic growth since World War II can be attributed directly to technology. Looking at MIT alone, a well known BankBoston study in 1997[2] cited 4,000 MIT-founded companies as employing over a million people and having annual world sales of $232 billion. If these companies had constituted a foreign country at that time, they would have ranked 24th-largest in the world – just behind South Africa and ahead of Thailand. The same study found that one out of every 170 jobs in the United States in 1994 had been created by an MIT graduate or professor.

School of Engineering contributions add economic value

As I have noted before in this newsletter, the MIT School of Engineering has contributed to many of the major technological developments that transformed the last century: electricity, automobiles, spacecraft, radio and television, refrigeration, telephones, health technologies, and computers. Some of our most distinguished alumni, those luminary "real engineers," took a hands-on approach to develop spectacular products and lead companies that shaped significant aspects of our lives in the 20th century and beyond. These include Amar Bose, Alex d'Arbeloff, Alex Dreyfoos, Bernie Gordon, Bill Hewlett, Bob Metcalfe, Bob Noyce, Ken Olsen, Neil Pappalardo, and Ray Stata, to name a few. Their extraordinary achievements and those of many, many other successful engineering alumni exemplify MIT's magnificent tradition of "real" engineering. As MIT engineers, we take our mens et manus seriously!

That's only part of the story. Many of our faculty, researchers, and alumni have started companies and continue to do so in impressive numbers. MIT alumni are credited with having started 75 percent of the companies along the Route 128 high-tech beltway that rings Boston. Today, MIT makes new invention disclosures at a rate of one to two per day and, in fiscal year 2005 alone, had 133 new U.S. patents, over 100 new license agreements, and launched 20 new companies. MIT inventions add more than $20 billion and 150,000 jobs to the economy each year.

"Young" companies based on MIT "real" engineering

One way we continue to create new products and new companies is through our Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation. The Center bridges the innovation gap that often exists between leading-edge technologies and the marketplace. Entering its fifth annual funding cycle, the program provides research funds that permit MIT faculty and students to create and investigate new technologies and support the transfer of new knowledge and technologies from the Institute to young companies. Over 200 faculty and their students have participated. Of the 51 projects that have received $6 million in Deshpande Ignition and Innovation Grants to date, about one-third are making progress toward startups, with nine new companies having already been formed, raising a total of $40 million in outside financing.

The Deshpande Center spinoffs include the following:

  • A powered orthotic device that enables independence and self-treatment for stroke survivors. The developers won the MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition, formed a company, Myomo, and are in clinical trials at a major leading rehabilitation center and teaching hospital in the Boston area.
  • A quantum dot light-emitting device (LED) that led to QD Vision, a startup developing next-generation displays.
  • A cell therapy technology that led to the formation of Pervasis Therapeutics, with first-round financing from Polaris Ventures and Flagship Venture Partners.
  • A 3D imaging technology, licensed by Brontes Technologies, that is currently being used to enable practitioners to perform ImpressionFreeTM dentistry.

I could tell you of many other new companies successfully started by our faculty and young alumni that are creating economic value for society. Instead of detailing these and other companies, however, let me tell you more about some of today's "real" engineers among our alumni, faculty, and researchers in the sidebar to this article.

MIT'S enduring commitment to "real" engineering

The School of Engineering has a glorious tradition in "real" engineering, developing revolutionizing technologies and products that have served the betterment of the world. We continue to do so every day. You can see evidence of our long-standing commitment in our delivery of applied, hands-on engineering education; you can see it in the spectacular achievements of our alumni, faculty, and researchers who, in their application of "real" engineering skills, create and develop important products and launch companies. Our impact on the world is something of which I will always be immensely proud.



[1] Mens et manus and MIT's seal

[2] MIT: The Impact of Innovation, BankBoston Economics Department, 1997.