2007 Lemelson-MIT Prize winner
Timothy M. Swager intended to become a rancher. Growing up in Sheridan, Montana, a town of 600 people, he spent summers as a
teenager working on the ranch owned by the family of his future in-laws.
But Swager has come a long way from his ranch-hand days. Now the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry and Head of the
Department of Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he is being recognized with the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT
Prize for his inventive accomplishments that stem from original molecular-based designs.
Swager sees many parallels between being a successful rancher and an accomplished scientist and inventor. "When you're on a
ranch, you're very independent," he said. "That's kind of the mindset of a rancher. They just feel, as far as the eye can
see, I rule this land. They're unbounded, just like scientists sometimes. I think that independence fuels creativity, because
it makes you unafraid to try crazy experiments."
Among Swager's notable inventions is an amplified chemical sensor that uses molecular wires to detect the presence of vapors
from explosives, such as TNT. The sensors are licensed to Nomadics, now a unit of ICx Technologies, a company that created an
explosives-detection device called Fido®—so named for its similarities to a bomb-sniffing dog. Swager is exploring other
applications for the molecular-wire sensors, including detection of environmental pollutants and early-stage cancer cells.
Swager is also a founder of Iptyx Corp., a Cambridge, Mass., company that is focused on organic dielectric and
electro-optical materials. These materials are being developed to improve the manufacture of next-generation semiconductor
integrated circuits, among other applications. Swager has also invented near-infrared optical imaging agents that could
someday enable simpler techniques for screening and diagnosing Alzheimer's disease.
Swager became interested in chemistry while an undergraduate student at Montana State University. "The thing I like about
chemistry," he said, "is I always liked to build things. When you're an organic chemist, you build things. You build
molecules. You learn how to put them together and you design the molecule to do something really cool. I like the idea of
applying organic chemistry as a toolkit to build molecules that have certain functions and then tying the functions to the
After receiving his B.S. from Montana State University in 1983, Swager went to the California Institute of Technology for
graduate and doctoral work under the direction of Robert H. Grubbs, who in 2005 won the Nobel Prize in chemistry. It was at
CalTech that he first became interested in conducting polymers, or plastics that conduct electricity like semiconductors or
After earning his Ph.D. in 1988, he took a post-doctoral assignment at MIT and became an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at
the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1990s. In 1995, Swager was able to demonstrate amplification by molecular wires,
an important milestone toward his invention of amplified chemical sensors for detecting explosives vapors. Swager returned to
MIT as a faculty member in 1996.
Swager holds 29 issued or pending patents and has published more than 200 peer-reviewed articles and 70 proceedings. In
addition to being a member of the ICx Technologies Science Advisory Board, he is on several other scientific advisory boards
and is also a technical advisor to three other start-up companies: Plextronics, Nano-C, and Collegium Pharmaceutical.
In May 2008, Swager will receive an honorary doctorate degree from Montana State University for his work in polymer and organic chemistry. Swager, along with three other individuals, will be presented with this honor during the university’s 112th commencement ceremony.