The Fearless Inventor
Saul Griffith likes taking risks–and attacks problems wherever they arise, without fear of failure.
One sweltering afternoon in a remote village in Guyana, Saul T. Griffith, SM ‘01, PhD ‘04, found himself issuing a pair of rhinestone-studded, blazing-pink sunglasses to a burly road worker. “He was about six-three, a handsome fellow,” Griffith recalls, “and I remember thinking, ‘I’m sorry, pal, but these glasses are the closest match I can find to your prescription. If you want to see better, you’re gonna have to wear ‘em!’ ” Feeling guilty, he apologized to the laborer and continued handing out free eyeglasses to any villagers who needed them.
For Griffith, an inventor who cofounded the California design and prototype-building partnership Squid Labs, that encounter in July 2000 helped fuel a passionate interest in finding ways to use technology to help solve problems in developing countries–and closer to home. These days Griffith puts most of his energy into inventing portable devices for people who might have little access to an optometrist’s office or even to electricity. And last September, he won a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant as “a prodigy of invention in service of the world community.”
As often happens when Griffith confronts a frustrating social problem, the incident of the inappropriate granny glasses soon triggered an ingenious solution. He and other workers were doing their best to match the prescriptions of local residents to thousands of pairs of donated eyeglasses that had been sent to the village, he remembers. “That was certainly a worthwhile project–but I wound up thinking there had to be a better way. So I started noodling, started thinking about ways to manufacture prescription lenses on-site and inexpensively.”
Griffith returned to the MIT Media Lab to continue his doctoral research, which focused on engineering particles that can, with minimal programming, assemble themselves into completed objects. (His 2004 dissertation was titled “Growing Machines.”) But he kept noodling with the eyeglass problem, and in 2003, he invented a novel, low-cost process for making lens molds. By pumping oil against two flexible plastic membranes, he alters their shape to conform to a patient’s prescription. This eliminates the need to create a separate injection mold for each lens type, which greatly reduces the cost.
The small, portable, cheaply produced device he created can manufacture a pair of acrylic lenses in five minutes for about $5. The invention, now patented, won Griffith the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize in 2004–and launched him on a high-profile career.
Still only 34, Griffith (who made Technology Review’s list of top innovators under 35 two years ago) has also, with colleagues at Squid Labs, invented a handheld personal generator (pull on a string for 60 seconds, and run your laptop nearly 10 times that long) and a “smart rope” that warns you electronically long before it starts to break–one of Time’s “most amazing inventions of 2005.” He’s recently launched four spinoff companies to develop and distribute his fast-growing lineup of a dozen new products. The generator and smart rope are among those scheduled to hit the market within the next year.
Raised in Sydney, Australia, as the son of a textile engineer father and an artist mother who gave him what he calls an “incredibly rich and creative childhood,” Griffith studied metallurgical engineering at the University of New South Wales before arriving at the Institute in 1998. His time at MIT was “a fabulous six years,” he says, sitting at a gadget- and tool-cluttered worktable at Squid Labs, which he founded in 2004 with Eric J. Wilhelm ‘99, SM ‘01, PhD ‘04; Colin A. Bulthaup ‘01, MEng ‘01; and former Media Lab researcher Dan Goldwater. “I don’t think there’s anyplace on earth quite like Cambridge when it comes to working with smart, creative people.”
“I certainly wasn’t a classical graduate student, content to work on projects handed down by the academic lords above,” he says. “I was always getting distracted by this, that, and the other.” Describing his dissertation as “so far out that it was almost a science fiction project,” Griffith notes that he was “lucky to get a very generous advisor, Joe Jacobson.”
One of Griffith’s key achievements at the Media Lab was to create self-replicating objects made of collections of small particles with built-in instructions for assembling and even improving themselves, says his colleague Paul W. K. Rothemund, a senior research fellow in computer science at Caltech. “Saul created objects that could encode binary information which can be faithfully replicated,” Rothemund says, “and his clever mechanisms for making them were a nice step forward.” Although Griffith’s objects didn’t do anything that could be commercialized, they could one day lead to machines capable of reproducing without human assistance. (Imagine throwing a truck made of Legos into a bucket of Lego components and shaking it, Griffith says; then imagine the truck giving its information to the components, which would harness the energy of the vibrating bucket to assemble into more trucks. That’s kind of the idea.)
Griffith has worked on several other projects linking logic and information theory to materials science, and on top of everything else, he and some of his colleagues have put together an open-source technology website (www.instructables.com) where do-it-yourselfers can trade engineering ideas and designs.
Then there are the “howtoons” that Griffith and Joost Bonsen, EE ‘90, started creating while they were still MIT grad students. Eager to encourage the next generation of inventors and technology enthusiasts, they began collaborating with DC Comics illustrator Nick Dragotta on cartoons to show kids of all ages how to build such devices as a balloon-powered hovercraft and safety goggles cut from plastic soft-drink bottles. They posted them online, and last fall HarperCollins published a compilation of 15 of them in the book Howtoons: The Possibilities Are Endless!
“I’m extremely passionate about showing kids how they can manufacture all sorts of wonderful objects for themselves if they’ll only be daring enough to jump in and attack projects without fear of failure,” he says. “If you let the memory of your failures discourage you, you’re in big trouble as an inventor.” Describing his own childhood assaults on household devices, he jokes that “no Christmas toy ever made it past lunchtime with me, because I’d quickly tear it apart and try to improve on it.”
Indeed, Griffith says he’s been attacking both tools and machines ever since kindergarten. His smart rope, for example, emerged in part from his continuing frustration with equipment failure in kite surfing, a sport in which kites tow riders through the water on surfboards. Like some brainy, high-tech Crocodile Dundee, he seems to enjoy taking adrenaline-soaked risks; a notorious crasher of bikes, surfboards, and kites, he readily admits to having broken more than 20 bones. “I think that’s just evidence of living a full life,” he says. Yet he also regards the caricature of the beer-quaffing Aussie roughneck as “totally inaccurate.” “Look, I really rebel against that stereotype, although it’s certainly true that I fit it!” says Griffith, barefoot, before downing a beer with his interviewer.
Armed with patents in optics, textiles, and nanotechnology, Griffith says he’s now positioned to begin realizing his “admittedly optimistic and idealistic” goal of bringing the benefits of technology to the masses. After a tour of his humming laboratory, where laser cutters and milling machines vie for space with the latest computer, video, and optical tools, he leads the way to the top of the old Alameda Naval Air Station Control Tower–part of the defunct military installation that now serves as headquarters for Squid Labs and several of his spinoff businesses. He clearly gets a kick out of having transformed an abandoned U.S. military base into a lab that has produced multiple inventions for the benefit of the developing world. But for Griffith, it doesn’t much matter where problems arise; he just likes to solve them. “Good design and good engineering are the same in the developed or developing world,” he observes. “Low cost, high elegance, efficient, robust.”
“This is an unbelievably interesting and exciting time to be an inventor,” Griffith says. “Right now we’re witnessing the birth of a new relationship between tools and materials–between information and physical structure–which has the power to make life better for everyone.”