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Saul Griffith: Rethinking the Physical World

While he was a graduate student at MIT, Saul Griffith took some time off in 2000. He traveled to Guyana on a Lion’s Club mission to deliver eyeglasses, as well as to “learn practically how organizations were working in developing countries.” What he found was a frustrating and expensive system for providing eye-testing and refractive lenses.

So, taking advantage of his background in materials and mechanical engineering, Griffith began working on a novel solution: a process for manufacturing eyeglasses using membrane-liquid lenses (“like a drop of water on a leaf”) that could be produced for about a dollar each, in just a few minutes, using a machine “about the size of an inkjet printer.”

Griffith’s invention won him a Collegiate Inventors award from the National Inventors Hall of Fame. And a subsequent plan to distribute low-cost eyeglasses garnered a Harvard Business School Business Plan Competition prize. MIT also recognized his work last year with the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for inventiveness. And, today, Technology Review named Griffith the winner of its 2005 award for Technology in the Service of Humanity.

With a half-dozen other projects and a start-up company to run, Griffith still pursues his early inspiration as well. Specifically, he’s now developing an inexpensive device for testing eyes, a better process for molding lenses, and, of course, raising money to get his low-cost eyeglasses out to more people. “We are engaging with both investors and government support,” he says, “but not necessarily in all the ways and quantities that we would wish.” Standing on the stage in MIT’s Kresge Auditorium on Wednesday for his official photograph, Griffith seemed relaxed. “If I’d known this was happening, I’d have shaved,” he joked.

Ever since his days at MIT’s Media Lab, Griffith has been coming up with ways to bring people together to exchange not just the usual “cool” ideas, but practical know-how about how to make and distribute useful things. There was his Media Lab design studio in 2001, called Design that Matters. It turned into an international design conference, Development by Design, first held at MIT in 2001, then India in 2002.

Taking advantage of the Internet, Griffith then began a website, Thinkcycle, where 4,000 members eventually created “thinkspaces,” contributing papers, articles, notes, and images on dozens of development-related topics, such as Human Power Generation, Cholera Treatment Devices, Electronics Reuse/Recycling, and Venture Capital Funds for Low-Income Entrepreneurs.

That website has now morphed into another one, Instructables, “a venue for showing what you make and how others can make it,” in Griffith’s words. Within Instructables is a spin-off for younger participants, Howtoons. There, kids share plans for projects with names like Underwater Viewer, Soda Bottle Safety Goggles, and Simple Electric Motor. The site uses cartoons instead of text instructions.

While Griffith works on participatory websites and low-cost eyeglasses, he also keeps his mind in the world of cutting-edge materials and their possible interactions with software, robotics, and information theory. His company, Squid Labs, offers both prototyping services and engineered products – like rope. It’s not just a rope made from the latest synthetic fiber, though, but one with sensors embedded in it, so it can tell when it’s about to weaken. Squid Labs is beginning to see commercial interest in the material for a rigging application, Griffith says.

Griffith says he got the idea for “smart” rope while indulging one of his favorite hobbies: kite-surfing along the California coast. So life isn’t all work – even for a dedicated humanitarian.

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Tagged: Biomedicine

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