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One sweltering afternoon in a remote village in ­Guyana, Saul T. Griffith, SM ‘01, PhD ‘04, found himself issuing a pair of rhinestone-studded, blazing-pink sunglasses to a burly road worker. “He was about six-three, a handsome fellow,” Griffith recalls, “and I remember thinking, ‘I’m sorry, pal, but these glasses are the closest match I can find to your prescription. If you want to see better, you’re gonna have to wear ‘em!’ ” Feeling guilty, he apologized to the laborer and continued handing out free eyeglasses to any villagers who needed them.

For Griffith, an inventor who cofounded the California design and prototype-building partnership Squid Labs, that encounter in July 2000 helped fuel a passionate interest in finding ways to use technology to help solve problems in developing countries–and closer to home. These days Griffith puts most of his energy into inventing portable devices for people who might have little access to an optometrist’s office or even to electricity. And last September, he won a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant as “a prodigy of invention in service of the world community.”

As often happens when Griffith confronts a frustrating social problem, the incident of the inappropriate granny glasses soon triggered an ingenious solution. He and other workers were doing their best to match the prescriptions of local residents to thousands of pairs of donated eyeglasses that had been sent to the village, he remembers. “That was certainly a worthwhile project–but I wound up thinking there had to be a better way. So I started noodling, started thinking about ways to manufacture prescription lenses on-site and inexpensively.”

Griffith returned to the MIT Media Lab to continue his doctoral research, which focused on engineering particles that can, with minimal programming, assemble themselves into completed objects. (His 2004 dissertation was titled “Growing Machines.”) But he kept noodling with the eyeglass problem, and in 2003, he invented a novel, low-cost process for making lens molds. By pumping oil against two flexible plastic membranes, he alters their shape to conform to a patient’s prescription. This eliminates the need to create a separate injection mold for each lens type, which greatly reduces the cost.

The small, portable, cheaply produced device he created can manufacture a pair of acrylic lenses in five minutes for about $5. The invention, now patented, won Griffith the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize in 2004–and launched him on a high-profile career.

Still only 34, Griffith (who made Technology Review’s list of top innovators under 35 two years ago) has also, with colleagues at Squid Labs, invented a handheld personal generator (pull on a string for 60 seconds, and run your laptop nearly 10 times that long) and a “smart rope” that warns you electronically long before it starts to break–one of Time’s “most amazing inventions of 2005.” He’s recently launched four spinoff companies to develop and distribute his fast-growing lineup of a dozen new products. The generator and smart rope are among those scheduled to hit the market within the next year.

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Credit: Jeffrey Braverman

Tagged: MIT

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