Eric Wilhelm isn’t merely an avid kite surfer. The mechanical engineer and entrepreneur loves the sport so much that he spent most of the week before defending his PhD thesis in–and above–Pleasure Bay in South Boston. “In Boston, when the wind is good, you go to the beach,” he explains. “It doesn’t matter if you have work, family, or a thesis defense.”
Wilhelm also likes to build things. Aside from constructing his own surfboards while studying at MIT, he developed methods to print microelectromechanical systems using nanoparticles. He won the Collegiate Inventors Award in 2000, with Colin Buthaup, SM ‘01, for developing a liquid embossing technique to create patterns in films of nanoparticles or polymers.
After completing his PhD, Wilhelm and Saul Griffith, PhD ‘04, cofounded Squid Labs, a San Francisco-based engineering design firm. (See “The Fearless Inventor,” March/April 2008.) They quickly spun out four companies: Makani Power, OptiOpia, Potenco, and Instructables. Wilhelm has been CEO of Instructables since 2005, and his wife, Christy Canida ‘99, works there as a “community manager,” helping build interest in the company’s online interest groups.
Proclaiming itself “the world’s biggest show and tell,” Instructables.com offers free step-by-step instructions on how to make a slew of stuff, from a Dixie Cup spherical dodecahedron to Wilhelm’s own ice-kiting vehicles. You can also find directions on how to grow a square watermelon and how to turn a dead stuffed beaver into a computer. Wilhelm sees the company as a good way to “make technology accessible through understanding and [to] inspire others to learn as much as they can and share it with others.”
Wilhelm continues to kite-surf every chance he gets with his equally enthusiastic surfing buddy, Griffith. “Saul and I used to store all our kiting vehicles in the clubhouse at the MIT Electronics Research Society,” says Wilhelm. They often tested their contraptions on Pleasure Bay or at Lake Quannapowitt in Reading. “It’s the perfect sport for an engineer,” he says. “You get to build your own equipment, test it out, and have fun doing it.”