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MIT Technology Review

35 Innovators Under 35Inventors (2014)

These people are inventing the devices and technologies that will redefine how we live and work.
  • Shyam Gollakota

    28

    An expert on wireless technology figures out how to power devices without batteries.

    The energy demands of wireless devices have held back the spread of cheap sensors that could be monitoring our homes, the environment, and physical infrastructure such as bridges. Shyam Gollakota has an ingenious solution—a way for these wireless devices to operate without batteries.

    Gollakota’s prototypes use the fog of radio noise that surrounds us from TV stations, cell towers, and other sources as an energy supply and a means of communicating. By absorbing and reflecting those ambient signals, the devices can send messages to one another and even link to the Internet.

    When Gollakota became an assistant professor in the wireless lab at the University of Washington in 2012, he joined a team already working on using ambient radio waves as an energy source. The group had found ways to power simple sensors such as those used for measuring temperature and humidity. But transmitting that data is more challenging. The researchers’ devices stored up the trickle of harvested power and occasionally sent out data using a transmitter.

    Gollakota saw that a better solution lay in skipping the conventional, power-­hungry transmitter. His battery-free devices—the latest prototype is half the size of a credit card—have antennas that switch between reflecting and absorbing ambient radio signals. In the absorbing mode, they collect enough energy to power chips, sensors, LEDs, and even black-and-white displays. In the reflecting mode, they scatter ambient radio signals in a way that nearby devices can detect. The design makes it possible to deploy battery-free sensors or other devices just about anywhere at low cost, Gollakota says.

    His latest prototypes can send and receive signals over 20 meters and between different rooms in a building. They can also connect to the Internet, by communicating up to two meters over Wi-Fi with smartphones or home routers.

    Gollakota believes that eventually his energy-scavenging designs will make it possible for ambient radio waves to power stripped-down devices. Many poorer parts of the world lack reliable electricity sources but have strong cellular coverage. Even “a primitive computer or device that can only send e-mails by harvesting these signals,” he says, could be valuable.

    Tom Simonite

  • Emily Cole

    31

    Can we cheaply convert carbon dioxide into something useful?

    As the chief science officer of a startup called Liquid Light, Emily Cole is attempting to accomplish something that has long thwarted chemists: finding an economical and practical way to turn carbon dioxide, the chief culprit in greenhouse warming, into useful chemicals.

    The idea that could make this possible came from a visit to the Princeton University lab of Andrew Bocarsly. Back in 1994, Bocarsly had published an intriguing but largely ignored paper reporting a way to convert carbon dioxide into methanol without using a lot of energy. Bocarsly couldn’t get funding to pursue the research, and the work sat on the shelf until he mentioned it to Cole. She was fascinated and decided to join his lab as a graduate student.

    Cole kept tinkering with different catalysts and conditions, increasing the yields of the reactions and learning how to produce other valuable chemicals. The researchers have gone on to show they can convert carbon dioxide into isopropanol, acetone, and more than 30 other chemicals. Moreover, they have shown that light can be used to drive the reactions.

    In 2009, Cole and Bocarsly cofounded Liquid Light in Monmouth Junction, New Jersey. The company is working to scale up the conversion process and hopes to market ethylene glycol, a chemical widely used to make plastics, as soon as 2017.

    Stephen S. Hall

    Watch this Innovator at EmTech 2014
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  • Tanuja Ganu

    31

    Simple devices allow consumers to cheaply and easily monitor India’s rickety power grid.

    Using the small box plugged in between a wall socket and an appliance, Tanuja Ganu can tell you when the electric grid in India is likely to shut down. Sensors inside the device, called nPlug, detect the voltage and frequency of the incoming electricity; analyzing that data over time, the box can determine the periods of maximum power demand on the grid and predict when the need for power will exceed the supply. With that information, the box can schedule when to run water heaters and dishwashers to avert outages, allowing utilities to more easily meet peak demand.

    Ganu hopes that the simple data-­harvesting gadget and others she is developing will help India’s consumers navigate the country’s notoriously unreliable power system. Growing up in a small town in India, she studied for exams by candlelight and endured hot days with no fan or air conditioner because the power would shut off for hours with no warning.

    She joined IBM Research in Bangalore in 2011 and quickly understood that the basic premise of the so-called smart grid—a two-way connection between consumers and the grid that helps optimize the production and consumption of power—is a nonstarter in her home country. “If you build any solution that requires computation and communications, that’s not going to be practical for many developing countries,” she says.

    Tanuja Ganu’s boxes are a simple way to monitor unreliable power grids.

    Instead, she’s designed devices that work autonomously. In tests, nPlug is able to infer the status of the grid using simple pattern-recognizing algorithms and a few weeks’ worth of data. For example, voltage dips during spikes in demand, such as morning hours and early evenings. The device can also identify when outages are likely to occur: the frequency of the electric current drops substantially when grid operators can’t supply enough power.

    If deployed widely, these simple gadgets could help address India’s energy deficit without requiring expensive infrastructure investments. “With the amount of data available, there’s a lot we can still do with the available power,” says Ganu.

    Martin LaMonica

  • David He

    28

    This watch could finally get your blood ­pressure under control.

    David He wants to change how we manage our own health. But at first, he was just trying to find a noninvasive way for hypertension patients to continuously keep tabs on their blood pressure. It was 2009, and He, then a graduate student at MIT, figured people might be helped by a wearable gadget that could record an electrocardiogram—a measure of the heart’s electrical activity also known as an ECG.

    Since the ear is a good place to monitor the body’s physiology and pretty easy to hook a device to, He started there: he bought a hearing aid on eBay, removed its guts, and added his own electronics. After doing a lot of jumping jacks and other exercises while wearing the gadget, He looked at the data and saw something odd: a signal that looked similar to an ECG, but with a sharp peak.

    There were other weird things, too. The signal was larger than the one from an ECG gathered simultaneously from a heart-rate monitor on his chest, even though the ear was farther away from the heart, and it was noticeably delayed from the chest ECG. As it turned out, what He tracked was actually a ballistocardiogram, or BCG, which is a mechanical signal indicating the tiny body movements that result as the heart pumps blood. First spotted in the 1870s, it gives a more direct view of the heart’s mechanical performance than an ECG can, capturing the strength and timing of a person’s heartbeats. But it fell out of favor over time, in part because it was difficult to track.

    In 2012, He cofounded Quanttus to build a watch-like gadget. There are plenty of wristbands already on the market that track things like steps taken and calories burned, but they don’t measure vital signs like heart rate and blood pressure as accurately as Quanttus expects a BCG-based device to do. An optical sensor on the underside of the wristband shines light onto the skin and keeps track of the tissue’s selective light absorption, detecting volumetric changes in blood vessels that occur with each heartbeat. This information can be used to deduce heart rate, while an accelerometer measures the body movements that occur as a result of heartbeats.

    Though the wristband doesn’t yet have a release date, Quanttus has tested it at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. The results have been encouraging enough to help the company raise $22 million in venture capital.

    Rachel Metz

    Watch this Innovator at EmTech 2014
    Meet the Innovators Under 35

  • Jinha Lee

    27

    Finding more powerful ways to manipulate and interact with digital data.

    “I’m keen to explore better ways to interact with data and environments,” says Jinha Lee. “What would be the tools that help us think better? What would be the tools that help us reflect ourselves better?” Statements about his research often come after a pause of 15 to 20 seconds; it is, he says, the time he needs to picture his thoughts in images and translate them into words.

    Among the projects Lee worked on as a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab is one he began developing as a research intern at Microsoft Applied Sciences Group; it is a 3-D desktop that allows a user to “reach inside” the screen, flipping through digital documents and windows. He also created a physical pixel that levitates and moves freely about, allowing users to physically manipulate data in three-­dimensional space.

    Lee, who is from South Korea, cultivated his algorithmic and artistic sense by making origami with his mother, a professional teacher of the art form. These days, as leader of the Interactive Visualization Lab at Samsung Electronics in Suwon, Korea, he is working on user interfaces for the company’s next-generation products, including its interactive TVs.

    Yewon Kang

    Watch this Innovator at EmTech 2014
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  • Maria Nunes Pereira

    28

    Patching holes in the hearts of sick infants.

    Problem:
    Each year, an estimated 40,000 babies in the United States alone are born with congenital heart defects. Some are treated with open-heart surgery, which is invasive and can be risky. Sutures or staples are used to close the holes between the chambers of the heart, but these can damage the fragile tissue. Additional surgery may also be needed as the tissue grows.  

    Solution: 
    Maria Nunes Pereira has created a biocompatible glue that a surgeon could use to patch the holes in the hearts of these infants. It can be applied and activated during a minimally invasive procedure. And the adhesive is strong and flexible enough to work in one of the harshest environments in the body—inside a beating heart. Unlike sutures and staples, the glue doesn’t harm the tissue when it’s applied to the heart, and it doesn’t need to be replaced as the child grows. 

    Pereira developed the glue as a graduate student in the MIT-Portugal program; working with a team of surgeons at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, she demonstrated the adhesive inside a beating pig heart. The procedure required only a single incision. Today, she works at a startup called Gecko Biomedical in Paris, where she is hoping to adapt the technology to human patients within the next two years. 

    The material could be used in other parts of the body where repairs are invasive or require potentially damaging sutures. “I think these materials have potential to change how surgery is performed and how defects in the body are closed,” she says. 

    —Alexandra Morris

    Watch this Innovator at EmTech 2014
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  • Tak-Sing Wong

    33

    Carnivorous plant inspires solution to “sticky” problems.

    Tak-Sing Wong has invented one of today’s most intriguing and potentially useful new materials. Called SLIPS, for “slippery liquid–infused porous surface,” it repels any type of liquid, from oil to water to blood, and prevents organisms like bacteria and barnacles from sticking. 

    The range of possible applications for the new material is wide: it could be used to coat medical devices such as catheters to decrease the potential for bacterial contamination or cover the hull of a ship to prevent barnacles from adhering to the surface. 

    Working at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, Wong modeled the SLIPS material after the carnivorous pitcher plants Nepenthes, which produce a surface that can upend even the oily feet of an ant and send the bug hydroplaning into the stomach of the plant. He assembled micro- and nanoscale structures and filled the empty spaces within the structures with a lubricant that repels both liquids and solids, including ice and bacterial biofilm.

    Now an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Pennsylvania State University, Wong continues to invent novel materials based on nature’s inspiration. He hopes to develop wearable devices with camouflage capabilities or gadgets that use a gecko’s ability to adhere to walls. “Like Spider-Man, we could walk on walls,” he says, “or [use] camouflage like a chameleon that can change color on demand.”

    Alexandra Morris

    Watch this Innovator at EmTech 2014
    Meet the Innovators Under 35