Up, Up, and Away
Sometimes the most elegant solution to a challenging technical problem is right under your nose-or rather, over your head. Just ask Jerry Knoblach ‘85, cofounder, chairman, and CEO of Space Data Corporation. Knoblach has devised a way to use weather balloons-much like those used by the National Weather Service for decades-to fill the gap in wireless communications coverage across rural America.
Eighty percent of the population lives on 10 percent of the landmass, explains Knoblach. Since the wireless market is about $77 billion annually in the United States, the remaining 20 percent represents a significant market. “There’s potentially $14 billion of revenue that’s lost every year just because there isn’t a good technical solution for providing the same quality and cost and level of service to rural areas as you see in urban areas,” he says.
Cell towers cost up to $300,000 to build and cover a range of about 200 kilometers, so the number needed to fill the gap is financially untenable. And because even the lowest satellites are over 750 kilometers up, they would require a far more powerful signal-and hence bulky equipment for wireless consumers.
Space Data’s solution is the SkySite, a small radio transceiver enclosed in Styrofoam connected to a biodegradable latex weather balloon. Each SkySite can be launched to a height of 30,000 meters, where it remains for up to 24 hours, providing coverage within a 290-kilometer range. By operating in constellations, with launches every 12 hours, SkySites could provide wireless service nationwide, because they work in concert with existing towers. At $300 per launch, Knoblach estimates it would cost roughly $15 to $20 million per year to provide the service.
The technical challenges of developing compact, lightweight microelectronics (SkySites weigh less than three kilograms, so they can’t damage aircraft on their descent back to earth) have been modest compared to other hurdles. Knoblach and his MIT cofounder Eric Frische ‘85, vice president of technology and CTO, also had to attract investors, purchase wireless spectrum, and gain acceptance from regulatory agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission.
“Eric and I joke that it’s only because we have a couple of MIT degrees between us that people actually let us in the room and didn’t think we were nuts when we started proposing putting wireless equipment on weather balloons. After they listened for about a half-hour, they said, Wow, this actually makes a lot of sense,’” Knoblach says.
Since Knoblach and Frische founded the company in 1997, they’ve raised $22 million from investors (“the old-fashioned way-eyeball to eyeball,” Knoblach notes) and now have 35 employees at their Chandler, AZ, facility.
The company plans to phase in service gradually. The first phase is a regional launch program this spring in Texas and Oklahoma. Four balloons will remotely monitor wells for the oil and gas industry. The constellation could be used for other telemetry applications, like monitoring irrigation or alarm systems. The second phase includes enhanced coverage for personal digital assistants (PDAs) and two-way wireless e-mail. Space Data hopes to expand to a national wireless voice and data network within a year, as funding allows and the SkySite system matures. Essentially, the company will wholesale airtime to wireless carriers, who can then offer the expanded service to consumers.
Space Data has also partnered with Native American tribal governments to build wireless infrastructure on their lands. Knoblach foresees many wireless applications that are beneficial to tribal nations. For example, those suffering from diabetes could track their diet, exercise, and glucose levels and relay the data via PDA to a remote clinic, where a doctor could monitor it.
“It’s always been my desire in life to basically take a new technology and build it into a business that takes it to market and improves people’s way of living,” Knoblach says. “MIT gave me the kind of broad technical background to do this.”
His Harvard MBA probably hasn’t hurt the company’s chances of success, either. Knoblach jokes that there are two kinds of companies. “There’s the classic MIT company, where the technology is so brilliant, an idiot could sell itand then there’s the classic business school company, where the guy could be selling dirt, but he does it so well he can sell dirt and make money at it,” Knoblach says with a laugh. “What we’d like to do at Space Data is have a company that has the best of both worlds.”
At the Intersection of Business, Technology, and Science
As the crowd rolled into Kresge Auditorium, MIT Enterprise Forum chairman Matt Haggerty ‘83 was spotted talking quietly with a group of MIT alumni. Asked what he expected from the evening’s program, Haggerty didn’t hesitate: “A record-setting event.”
Haggerty’s expectations were met, as the MIT Enterprise Forum set an attendance record for listeners at its Jan. 21, 2004, event. And what attracted the large crowds? “A dynamic topic and world-class names on the marquee,” said Haggerty.
Entitled Innovation at the Interface: Technological Fusion at MIT, the live broadcast featured three of MIT’s most prolific talents, who explored the intersection of business, technology, and science. The consensus? The next wave of technology innovation has already started, and it’s coming from entrepreneurs who recognize opportunity in the fusion of traditional disciplines.
The program featured the renowned professor of chemical and biomedical engineering Robert S. Langer, ScD ‘74, who is considered by many to be MIT’s all-time leading innovator, with more than 500 issued or pending patents, and Professor Rodney A. Brooks, one of the country’s foremost experts on robotics and head of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Professor Edward Roberts ‘57, who chairs the Sloan School’s Management of Technological Innovation and Entrepreneurship Group, served as the host and moderator of the program. Roberts, whose expertise in entrepreneurship spans 30 years, was an ideal host, as he brought not only extensive business experience to the discussion, but also a lively voice and a quick wit that added to the intimacy of a live broadcast.
Roberts opened the show by briefly examining technology’s historical trend toward fusion, revealing that significant innovation happens when a new technology either breaks the boundaries of an existing industry or fuses with other technologies to create new hybrids.
Professor Brooks, who was introduced first, illustrated this point immediately by comparing today’s robotics with the early days of the computer industry. When the computer finally permeated traditional sciences, a number of fusion technologies emerged, such as bioinformatics, computer-aided design, and computational biology, to name but a few. According to Brooks, today’s robotics industry is where the computer industry was in 1978, still out of the public eye and accessible to only a handful of technical wizards. And as with the early computer industry, the military and the toy industry have been the early adopters. But Brooks also showed that momentum is shifting, as cleaning robots, lawn tools, and even robotic prostheses are gaining traction in their markets.
Brooks also pointed to a major upcoming shift in American demographics as a force behind the future growth of robotics, as over the next 15 years, the U.S. population of adult workers will drop dramatically. This change could create serious talent shortages in the employment markets, which will lead to the development of machine solutions, particularly for low-end work.
Then came Robert Langer, whose reputation continues to grow worldwide, since his discoveries helped spawn the $20 billion controlled-release-drug industry. Langer began by showing how technology fusions can often have very humble beginnings. For instance, early models of artificial hearts were constructed with polyether urethane from ladies’ girdles, and early dialysis tubing came from sausage casing. He also gave fellow entrepreneurs a small laugh and some encouragement when he shared some of the disparaging reviews he received for his early work on controlled-release drugs (“A polymer-drug system would be toxic”).
But in Langer’s world, technology fusion often happens on a cellular level. And more times than not, it includes the fusion of engineering and materials with biology and medicine.
An area of particular interest to Langer is the work being done in tissue engineering, which fuses materials science with biological and medical technologies. The result is that scientists are making significant strides in spinal-tissue growth and in growing skin tissue for burn victims. Langer showed before and after photos of a young burn victim who had received this new skin treatment, and the crowd was visibly moved by the dramatic difference. Langer covered a half-dozen or so emerging technologies being driven by technological fusion. His talk ended with an update on recent work on microscopic chips that can be implanted as drug delivery devices. Such work involves fusing a number of different technologies, including nanotechnology, computer science, engineering, and medicine.
The program ended with a 20-minute Q&A session that revealed how time flies when pioneering innovators are the attraction, as there was no shortage of questions.
After the program, MIT Enterprise Forum chairman Matt Haggerty was again spotted in the crowd. The final number of listeners and attendees was not officially counted at that point, but his satisfied smile told the real story: things are pretty busy, and downright interesting, at the intersection of technology, science, and business.
Tech Challenge Games
The Tech Challenge Games have been a can’t-miss tradition of Tech Reunions for more than 14 years now. Providing a style of competition unique to MIT, the Tech Challenge Games are guaranteed to test your mettle and your sense of humor. Neither athletic prowess nor an engineering degree is required.
Reunion classes may assemble teams consisting of classmates, spouses, children, friends, and even interested bystanders.
Founded by alumni for alumni, the spirited games consist of a variety of fun-filled events, such as the Woody Allen Challenge, the Tuition Riot, the Water Glove Toss, and the 2.70 Design Contest.
This year the Tech Challenge Games will be played on Sunday, June 6, from 12:00 noon to 2:00 p.m.
Reunion row, one of the traditional and fun-filled events of Tech Reunions, will be held on Sunday, June 6. Alumni will compete by class year for the right to claim the Reunion Row Bowl, one of the most coveted awards at Reunions. The competition will begin at 8:00 a.m. and consists of two heats. Teams will use eight-man shells, and all teams will compete on a handicap system, with 1.5 seconds being added for every five years out from graduation.
Last year, the Class of 1963 won the prize with an impressive time of 1:02.5, knocking a full 10 seconds off the time with which the Class of 1992 won the previous year.
To find out more information, or to contact the captain from your class year, please visit http://alum.mit.edu/ne/reunions/reunion-row.html.
Tribute to IAP
More than 300 young alumni gathered in 14 cities across the country this past January to raise a toast to that unique MIT tradition, the Independent Activities Period (IAP). For more than 30 years, IAP has provided students, staff, and alumni with a month-long smorgasbord of educational experiences, from the esoteric to the sublime.
To pay homage to this tradition, young alumni organized a coordinated toast around the country, complete with a short IAP quiz that served to rekindle enthusiasm and remind alumni of the IAP’s eclectic offerings. A contest was also held and a $100 cash prize given to the organizing club that had the most IAP points, combining quiz results, total attendance, and photo submissions. The group in Cambridge, MA, organized by Rena Nassr ‘01, won the contest. Honorable mentions were given to Austin, TX, organized by Katie Shiels ‘00, Princeton, NJ, organized by Stephanie Thomas ‘99, and Santa Monica, CA, organized by Stefan Carp ‘00.
Ask Henry Houh ‘89 about volunteering for MIT, and you’ll most likely get a modest shrug. That’s because volunteering comes naturally to Houh, who has been helping out ever since he was an undergraduate.
“I like being involved in various activities,” says Houh. “I also enjoy meeting new people, hearing of their experiences.” As an undergraduate, Houh was active as a class officer and a member of the symphony, the brass ensemble, the Technique yearbook, and the senior gift committee, to name but a few of his extracurricular activities.
“MIT is such an invigorating place that it was natural to want to be involved,” says Houh. After graduating with an SB in Course VI in 1989, Houh enrolled in graduate school at MIT, where he went on to earn his PhD in electrical engineering in 1998. At the time, the World Wide Web was exploding as a new business tool, and Houh immediately saw its potential to help organize student and alumni activities.
“I had become involved with the MIT Alumni Association as a member of the senior gift committee,” says Houh. “So I approached some staff members and volunteered to help get them on the Web.”
“Henry’s timing was perfect,” says Joseph Recchio, director of the Alumni Association’s technical services.
“We were really just contemplating our online strategy. The Web was new, its potential and pitfalls were a big unknown to us, and here came Henry with real-world experience and a very steady approach.”
Houh eventually gave a presentation to the Alumni Association Board of Directors, who then asked Houh to join them in leading the development of the Association’s online strategy.
“It was a lot of fun to help out,” says Houh of the Association’s first Web site. “I also learned quite a bit about the workings of the Alumni Association.”
Houh’s background in Course VI was certainly helpful, but so was his real-world experience, which he had gained as systems architect and chief technical officer for a number of high-tech startup ventures.
“I’m very attracted to the mindset of a startup,” says Houh with a small chuckle. “I love the focus, the energy and drive that permeates a startup. It’s all about creating something and working with high-energy, dedicated people. It’s invigorating.”
The soft-spoken Houh would probably not be labeled an extrovert by the casual observer, but beneath the technical expertise is a genuine people person, and someone who likes to roll up his sleeves to get things done. His volunteer activities for MIT include participation in the MIT Club of Boston, the MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge, the Advisory Committee for MIT Clubs, the Advisory Council for Alumni Network Services, the class reunion committee, and the Alumni Association Board of Directors.
“One of the reasons I volunteer,” says Houh, “is I really enjoy meeting new people. For instance, when I joined the MIT Club of Boston, I got to know a lot of very interesting alumni from a number of different generations. That’s very rewarding as you build a community of new friends and lasting relationships. And you’re also learning new things from fellow alumni who have different experiences than your own.”
Houh says he joined the MIT Club of Boston right after graduation and gradually became more involved, first as a volunteer and then as a club officer. Houh currently serves as vice president of communications for the club.
“The MIT Club of Boston was among the first clubs to build a Web site to facilitate club communications,” says Houh, who revamped the club’s Web site. Since then the club has added a number of online enhancements, including rich-text e-mail capabilities, an online photo album of club events that now houses more than 1,500 pictures, and electronic transaction capabilities.
“We had been very interested in putting the registration for our club activities online for a number of years,” says Houh. “We knew the demand was there, so it was a matter of developing an efficient technology.” The Boston club began with a product called Club Tools but moved to PayPal shortly after. “Right away, we noticed that 30 percent of our registrants were signing up online.”
That success motivated Houh and the Boston club to participate as a beta site for the development of SmarTrans, the online registration and payment system the Alumni Association was working on.
“Henry is just terrific,” says Cherie Martin, product manager of SmarTrans. “He was a great resource of ideas and feedback as we developed SmarTrans. He’s really been instrumental in helping us develop our online vision.”
“I knew from our PayPal experience that our club would embrace online registration,” says Houh of SmarTrans. “And personally, I was delighted to contribute feedback because it gave me a chance to see how the Association is continuing to build out its online strategy, which is one of the rewards of volunteering, watching a project grow beyond its original goals.”
As to his own goals, Houh says he plans to continue volunteering at MIT. “It keeps me connected to other alumni, which is what volunteering is all about.”
The dark secret behind those cute AI-generated animal images
Google Brain has revealed its own image-making AI, called Imagen. But don't expect to see anything that isn't wholesome.
Inside Charm Industrial’s big bet on corn stalks for carbon removal
The startup used plant matter and bio-oil to sequester thousands of tons of carbon. The question now is how reliable, scalable, and economical this approach will prove.
The hype around DeepMind’s new AI model misses what’s actually cool about it
Some worry that the chatter about these tools is doing the whole field a disservice.
How Charm Industrial hopes to use crops to cut steel emissions
The startup believes its bio-oil, once converted into syngas, could help clean up the dirtiest industrial sector.
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.