A beige plastic human head sits on a table in the corner of MIT’s Hatsolpoulos Microfluids Laboratory. It’s an incongruous sight in a lab devoted to swirling currents and dynamic flows, but then, innovations usually do cross boundaries. Professor Douglas Hart, SM ‘85, turns on his prototype video system, and a 3-D image of the head appears on a nearby computer monitor. He clicks on the image with a mouse, and it rotates from ear to ear. Touch the plastic head, and instantly your hand appears in the 3-D scene on-screen.The link between fluids and faces is an innovative image correlation algorithm that Hart developed as a fluid analysis tool, but which he later adapted for a promising commercial opportunity in industrial 3-D imaging. Like many innovations by MIT faculty and their research teams, however, Hart’s work threatened to stall on its way from the lab to the market for lack of funding. “There’s no government support for this kind of instrumentation research,” Hart explains. And commercial support, his other likely option, was limited to some entertainment-industry sponsorship of a niche application in 3-D animation.
Fortunately for Hart and his team, funding for the imaging system arrived last year from a new MIT organization designed to aid engineering faculty entrepreneurs: the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation. “The Deshpande Center is our own mini National Science Foundation, but with greater speed and flexibility,” says dean of engineering Thomas Magnanti. With a potent mix of grants and support services, the center is helping faculty develop promising ideas toward commercial success. Projects funded in the first year range across engineering’s leading edges: infotech, biotech, nanotech, complex systems, and energy. And the center’s approach to nurturing new technologies is as innovative as the technologies themselves.
Creating Fertile Ground
A $20 million gift from Jaishree and Desh Deshpande launched the center in 2002. Desh Deshpande, who is a member of the MIT Corporation, is revered in New England’s high-tech circles as a cofounder of Sycamore Networks and Cascade Communications, two of the most successful telecom startup companies ever. By funding the center, Deshpande found a way to connect his affinity for spurring technology to market with MIT’s wellspring of innovation. Deshpande hopes that the center’s support will help MIT faculty and researchers address the growing “innovation gap” by moving more technology to market.
This gap is expanding just as the market’s need for new technologies is accelerating and corporate research and development budgets are shrinking. Many universities are encouraging faculty with entrepreneurial leanings to fill the space, but it’s not easy. Unproven technologies are particularly prone to a chicken-and-egg problem when it comes to sources of financing, says Krisztina Holly ‘89, MS ‘92, the Deshpande Center’s executive director. “Prior to proof of concept, traditional sources like the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation usually won’t fund technology-oriented research.” And although commercial investors could reap huge payoffs from early investments, they tend to view projects fresh from research as too risky to support.
The Deshpande Center, on the other hand, helps MIT cultivate promising ideas from engineering faculty without concern for external limitations. Twice a year the center’s steering committee, working with MIT experts and business advisors, considers proposals, evaluating their novelty, feasibility, and market potential and selecting projects to finance. During its first year, the center funded 17 of 81 proposed projects. Many of the projects came from established engineering research programs; others involved interdisciplinary collaborations between engineering faculty and those in other MIT schools.
The center awards two kinds of grants that target different stages in the research-to-market cycle. The $50,000 Ignition Grant helps the youngest projects achieve that essential proof-of-concept stage. Its funds might be used to hire a graduate student, start a lab, or create a first prototype. The $250,000 Innovation Program Grant supports researchers with projects that have established technical feasibility and allows them to hire more staff, refine and test prototypes, and finalize their market strategies. The goal is to make these technologies ready for market and eligible for conventional financing, such as venture capital, and for business partnerships negotiated through MIT’s Technology Licensing Office.
With his Innovation Program Grant, Hart founded Brontes Technologies to take his 3-D technology to market. He is thrilled and just a bit awestruck by the chance to add “faculty entrepreneur” to his MIT credentials. The company’s startup team includes Harvard Business School students and MIT research scientists, postdoctoral scholars, and engineering doctoral candidates. “If it weren’t for our grant, we’d probably be left trying to license the basic technology without fully developing it,” Hart explains. Instead, the team is relishing the opportunity to bring an exciting technology to market itself.
Three-dimensional imaging is more accurate and reliable than conventional 2-D for checking tolerances in sophisticated machine assembly or for sizing up tumors during laparoscopic medical procedures. But according to research scientist Jnos Rohly, 3-D has been considered too expensive and cumbersome for most uses. The Brontes technology-compact, flexible, and one-tenth the cost of previous solutions-is fast enough to process 3-D data at real-time video rates, which promises the first practical access to depth data for many clients.