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Breakthroughs and Milestones

Last March, pilot tests of the PicoPeta Simputer, a handheld device developed by Ramesh Hariharan (2002), were completed in India. Village accountants with no computer experience successfully uploaded data about harvests to central servers that tabulated results and set crop prices. Hariharan’s manufacturing partner, Bharat Electronics, aims to have the Simputer in stores by year-end.

Together with two colleagues, Pamela Lipson (2002), founder of Cambridge, MA-based Imagen, engineered what Guinness World Records declared the world’s smallest reproduction of a book-a five-millimeter-by-five-millimeter edition of the New Testament written in 24-karat gold. Such minuscule printing could be used in identifiers on sensitive materials, foiling thieves and counterfeiters. Image-processing techniques Lipson and Imagen developed are currently being used by Boston-based Teradyne, a manufacturer of automatic inspection equipment, to test electronic components of cell phones, computers, and handheld game machines.

This past spring, Sean Morrison (2002), an assistant professor and researcher at the University of Michigan, discovered that the Bmi-1 gene plays a crucial role in the ability of stem cells found in adult tissues like bone marrow to “self-renew”-to divide in such a way that they give rise to more stem cells. Without Bmi-1, stem cells become depleted. If scientists can harness the regenerative power of stem cells, it may be possible to culture them in the laboratory and use them to treat Parkinson’s disease and a wide variety of other ailments that develop as a consequence of cell death.

Stanford University’s Vijay Pande (2002) accomplished a long-sought goal of computational biology: starting with genome sequence information, he simulated protein folding. Genes provide the recipes for building proteins-the strings of amino acids responsible for many vital functions in the body-but when proteins fold incorrectly, they can become toxic. Pande believes that the ability to correct such mistakes could lead to cures for such ailments as Alzheimer’s disease, Cystic Fibrosis, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob, or mad-cow, disease.

Cryptographer Vincent Rijmen (2002) helped Cryptomathic in Brussels, Belgium, release its electronic-voting and digital-signature products. Encryption can be used to validate e-votes while preserving voter anonymity, supporting legitimate elections under the scrutiny of independent observers. A pilot e-voting test for the European Union is under way.

David Sabatini (2002) of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, MA, won a patent in April for his “reverse-transfection method” for assembling DNA microarrays. These computer-chip-sized devices are dotted with genes or other biological agents, which can be simultaneously tested against therapeutic compounds. Sabatini’s reverse-transfection microarrays could help researchers and drug companies study thousands of interactions of proteins and prospective drugs in a single hour-up to a million per day. Akceli, the Medford, MA, startup Sabatini cofounded, licenses the technology exclusively.

Samir Mitragotri (1999), a chemical engineer at the University of California, Santa Barbara, pioneered “switchable surface” materials early in 2003. Such surfaces could potentially function as tiny valves in implantable devices designed as drug delivery systems or as optical waveguides that bind and release a reflective liquid coating to direct light in fiber-optic cables.

MIT assistant professor Yoel Fink (1999) is excited about his lab’s invention of mirrored fabrics. A manufacturing process the lab developed this year combines alternating bands of polymer and glass to form a “photonic band gap” yarn that can reflect or transmit light with nanoscale precision. Fink plans to further refine his fabrics so that they might one day provide bar-code-like identifiers or transmit optical signals. In 2000 he founded OmniGuide Communications in Cambridge, MA, to develop optical-fiber technologies.

Changes of Scenery

Ethan Zuckerman (2002), cofounder of Geekcorps-a nonprofit company that sends information technology volunteers to underdeveloped countries-and TR100 Technology in the Service of Humanity award winner, has been named a fellow of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. In July he cohosted the first Geek Activism Summit, where participants discussed ways to close the global digital divide.

Nanotechnology trailblazer Angela Belcher (2002) left the University of Texas at Austin last year to join MIT as an associate professor. Belcher has recently made strides in quantum dot and nanowire construction. Her process might prove the basis of self-assembling computer chips, optical devices, and biosensors.

PayPal founder and 2002 TR100 Innovator of the Year Max Levchin left the company in December 2002 after its sale to eBay for more than $1.5 billion. He is using his time to catch up with friends and family, and to start a new company he hopes to launch by December 2003. 

Last year Matthew Shair (1999) became a tenured chemistry professor at Harvard University and a founding science advisor to Infinity Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, MA. The company, with $82 million in seed funding, has made extensive use of Shair’s gift for synthesizing hard-to-create compounds that can be systematically tested for their potential as pharmaceutical drugs.

Last June, Linux inventor Linus Torvalds (1999) went on leave from chip maker Transmeta to join Open Source Development Labs in Beaverton, OR, where he is focusing on the next version of his operating system. The organization is a nonprofit global consortium dedicated to accelerating corporate adoption of open-source software.

In March 2003 Jackie Ying (1999) took a leave of absence from MIT to return to her native Singapore as founding executive director of the Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology. The institute is part of Biopolis, a 186,000-square-meter government center dedicated to life science research.

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