As Professor Marty Culpepper SM ’97, PhD ’00 tells it, he spent his childhood breaking things. Most of the time, he put them back together. When he was 11, he took apart his father’s carburetor—without permission, it turns out. Despite his best efforts to return it to good working order, he was left with a few mystery pieces. I expect this was hard on Marty’s parents, but his obsession with how things work will sound familiar to nearly any MIT graduate—and it’s a perfect qualification for his role as our “maker czar.”
We are a community of makers. I think of this every August when I walk past the East Campus roller coaster. Or when the sun hits one of the glass pumpkins in my office. Or when 2.009 (Product Engineering Processes) takes over Killian Court with a fleet of homemade catapults.
With more than 130,000 square feet of makerspaces spread across campus, MIT is a playground of possibility for people who like to work with their hands. If you fondly remember the drill press and bandsaw in the Hobby Shop, don’t despair! Those tools are still there. We’ve just added to the collection. Our students and faculty use the campus’s tools to test, explore, prototype, refine, and perfect their ideas—and demand keeps growing.
MIT plans to convert the Metropolitan Warehouse, a massive brick structure at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Vassar Street, into a spectacular new home for two entities: the School of Architecture and Planning and a new makerspace, the largest on campus, which will boast expanded design and fabrication facilities available to the entire MIT community.
Our maker czar is leading the way. Together with student volunteers, he is spearheading Project Manus, an Institute-wide effort to create the gold standard in next-generation academic maker systems. Project Manus will design and build the Met Warehouse makerspace.
Learning by doing has defined the Institute from the start. It is central to our work to understand the world and make it better. That will never change. We are thrilled about advances our community is making in computing and artificial intelligence, but we will always retain a deep appreciation for the physical—things we can touch and feel and make, and even break—with digital innovation enhancing physical making, and vice versa.
Stay tuned, because at MIT we are always optimizing the prototype.
Drones go almost everywhere these days, providing access to places too dangerous or remote for people to explore. They support disaster relief efforts and military reconnaissance missions, and they document the impact of climate change by monitoring the intensity of storms, counting endangered wildlife, and photographing beach erosion.
Unfortunately, drones often crash, damaging costly equipment and stalling research, according to Sertac Karaman SM ’09, PhD ’12, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. To reduce failure rates, Karaman and his team use virtual reality (VR) to train drones, simulating environments that unmanned vehicles might encounter in the real world. They call this VR training system for drones “Flight Goggles.”
The drones programmed by Karaman and his colleagues “see” a world rendered as if in three dimensions—like a video game. The drone learns how to navigate in this environment without the risk of colliding with physical objects.
In reality, the drone is flying in what looks like a big empty gymnasium—a state-of-the-art testing facility made possible by the 2017 renovation of Building 31, one of MIT’s oldest research buildings. Outmoded workshops and labs were transformed into custom-designed space for research in robotics, autonomous systems, energy storage, turbomachinery, and transportation. The top-to-bottom modernization also added more than 7,000 square feet of usable space for students, faculty, and researchers.
Karaman has lofty goals for his drone technologies; for example, saving more lives in disaster response work. “So many people lose their lives in the first 15 or 20 minutes after a natural disaster,” he points out. “If you could locate them sooner, tell rescuers where they are, you could save more people.”
While the human brain can process an astonishing amount of information, he observes, in an emergency, our split-second decisions are often wrong. “Imagine a system that can make those decisions for you,” Karaman says, noting that autonomous super-vehicles promise to have maneuvering and navigation capabilities that go far beyond today’s human-piloted or human-driven vehicles. “That’s an innovation that will save as many lives as the invention of the seatbelt.”
Students in 4.657 learn
that all chairs are
not created equal and
that not everyone
fits the “Josephine”
and “Joe” standards
that were created for
20th century furniture.
ART RESOURCE, NY
4.657: Design: The History of Making Things
Instructors Timothy Hyde
Clarence H. Blackall Career Development Associate Professor, Department of Architecture
Associate Professor, Department of Architecture
From the Catalog
The term “design” has many meanings, but at its core it refers to the human capacity to shape the environment we inhabit. Design is as old as humanity itself, and studying its history provides a way to think critically about the past through the lens of design.
The course asks: How have the processes and products of design been shaped by new technological possibilities, whether the discovery of silk, the invention of the automatic loom, or the development of the computer? What role has design played in globalizing capitalist consumer desire, and how, in turn, has it been mobilized in the service of alternative economic and political systems? What are the ethics of design in an age of inequality and environmental crisis? Finally, how have the meanings we assign to design been mediated by magazines, exhibitions, corporate communication, glossy design monographs, and advertising?
Hyde: “Ethics of design means asking why you’re designing something. Not ‘what is the purpose or the function of this object’ but what are the consequences of something you’re making.”
Students enrolled in Design: The History of Making Things come together for two lectures and one recitation (led by a teaching assistant) every week. Through these meetings, students learn about the process, history, and social implications of design. The course aims to create a critical thinking environment, challenging the students to explore not just design success but also missteps and unintended consequences throughout history. In the lectures and discussions, students explore every aspect of design—from the development of pigments to the manufacturing chain behind any given object. They investigate how changing societal norms and economic pressures have affected both the process and result of design. Each class explores the history of a different design industry, including fashion and city planning, for example, and things as seemingly mundane as the chair.
“Chairs have a very long history, but that history is not just how to seat oneself comfortably. For a long time it was not about comfort at all, it was about status,” says Associate Professor Kristel Smentek. “There are gender considerations as well. We talk about the models that designers used in the mid-20th century—the standard, normative ‘Joe’ and ‘Josephine’— that determined design of furniture for most of us who don’t look like Joe or Josephine.”
Edwin Song ’22: “The question of what is good design also brings up questions about who it’s designed for and is this design ethical … It’s way more complicated than someone might think.”
Design: The History of Making Things fulfills one of MIT’s undergraduate CI-H (Communication Intensive in the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences) requirements. Over the course of the semester, students complete two major communications-focused assignments.
Students select an item important in the history of design, which will become the focus of their assignments. First, each student creates and presents an oral pitch about the object from the perspective of its inventor or investor. This requires that the student evaluate the object’s function and place within its time. The second assignment has each student take a more critical, historical perspective by writing a museum catalog entry for the same item. The goal is to get students to understand the myriad decisions and thought processes that go into designing something for human use, and to analyze from a modern perspective how the making of things has changed over time and from culture to culture. At the end of the semester, students complete a take-home final.
Sophia Mittman ’22, on her project item American Modern dinnerware by Russell Wright: “It became such an iconic symbol in the 1950s … It helped to transform the idea of American home lifestyle, linking it to a more leisurely lifestyle instead of a prim and proper European one.”
Hyde: “This is a novelty that we’re rediscovering in advanced consumerist societies, the idea that you can make stuff for yourself. For four billion other people, this is just daily life.”
Each semester, guest lecturers provide students with additional perspectives on design from around the world. For example, last year, one lecturer discussed the thought processes involved in design behind the Iron Curtain, presenting a counterpoint to design in a Western, capitalist framework. A speaker from the MIT Museum talked about the MIT Office of Design Services, a woman-led graphic design studio (1960s to 1980s) that led the world in bold graphic design concepts. Dietmar Winkler, who worked in the Office of Design Services, also spoke about the group and its impact. And students heard from an artist who designs objects and social spaces with an eye to accommodating the disabled—revealing how deliberate design choices can transform social situations.
All the lessons raised in Design: The History of Making Things mesh together to teach students that every decision has consequences. As Smentek says, “Problem-solving can also simultaneously be problem-producing.” For example, the advent of plastics has both provided convenient packaging and generated a lot of pollution.
Students come away understanding they can make a difference by taking a longer, deeper view of the design process when creating things in their own lives. “Exposing MIT students to historical and theoretical thinking about design, about objects, about engineering, about making will make them better students, better engineers, better scientists, better citizens,” Hyde says.
Smentek: “Design decisions were driven by ambition to forge a new society—a classless society—by transforming chairs, cups, and clothes” in ways that would downplay social division.
Mittman: “Everywhere you look, wherever you are … there is some aspect of design that has an entire history behind it.”
Possibility, ingenuity, artistry, continuous learning—making is in MIT’s DNA. Take a look inside some of MIT’s makerspaces, where students get access to the tools they need to build on MIT’s long history of inventiveness. And learn how the forthcoming Metropolitan Warehouse makerspace will forge a new maker community at MIT.
In the basement of Building 37, a small red logo spray-painted on a wall points you to The Deep: subterranean rooms lined with machines sprouting gears and dials and bits that slice, sculpt, etch, vacuum-shape, burn off layers, or deposit material microns at a time.
Any day of the week you can find students signing in on iPads, donning safety glasses, and getting to work making things. The fact that their work is also play is the idea behind Project Manus, an Institute-wide initiative to upgrade makerspaces on campus and foster maker communities, building on MIT’s long history of inventiveness and the maker spirit embodied by the aproned craftsman pictured on the Institute’s seal.
Heading up the project is “maker czar” Martin Culpepper SM ’97, PhD ’00, professor of mechanical engineering. In his Building 35 laboratory, Culpepper creates new precision machines for manufacturing and robotics. At home, he makes, among other things, gourmet meals and gadgets for his Ducati motorcycle.
He believes MIT students get their hands dirty to make a difference. “The vast majority of students come here knowing there’s a high probability they’ll be able to do something meaningful,” he says. “Taking something that exists in your head and making it pop up in the universe—that’s the first step toward having an impact.”
All across campus, undergraduate and graduate students create with serious intent: researching new ways to deliver drugs to cells, for example, or to collect samples from deep within the Earth’s core. They design interactive music systems, build new economic modeling tools, and cast unusual components for buildings. Hands-on, project-centered curricula are part of the DNA of MIT and one reason the Institute has spawned so many imitators around the globe.
Beyond the classroom, students make things for fun, stress relief, or art—simply because they can. In 2015, Culpepper surveyed thousands of students about their personal approaches to making. Some of the responses surprised him: Men and women coveted access to hard-core machinery in equal numbers, and many students—in addition to writing code, building electric vehicles, and blowing glass— liked to cook gourmet meals.
Project Manus emerged to give students—many of whom were making things in their dorms or off campus—access to state-of-the-art facilities for whatever they want to make, and a nexus for like-minded people to come together to work on projects and solutions across different disciplines. In 2018, Alejandro Gonzalez-Placito, a senior studying art and product design in the MIT School of Architecture and Planning, saw a flyer about Project Manus. He ended up helping to build out the basement space that became The Deep. Growing up in Denver, he’d made both useful and frivolous things out of scraps from his dad’s woodshop. Now, he’s one of dozens of student mentors populating makerspaces around campus.
The makerspaces themselves are also many and various. For example, in addition to The Deep, there’s the Hobby Shop, a popular wood and metal shop in W31; ProtoWorks, an “entrepreneurial ecosystem” that supports everything from software to projects in clay and foam; and the MIT Electronics Research Society (MITERS), a machine shop in N52 run by a dynamic community of students and alumni that has spawned such startups such as Kitty Hawk, which is developing flying cars. MakerWorkshop, a student-run makerspace, enables users to prototype new parts or devices, and MakerLodge in Building 6C is geared toward getting first-year students familiar with belt sanders, hand tools, 3-D printers, laser cutters, and computer-controlled machining. There’s the Huang-Hobbs BioMaker Space, where you could, among other things, develop photos on petri dishes using bacteria, and MIT Student Arts Studio, which cultivates and supports MIT arts-focused entrepreneurial projects and business teams.
Making things has been a core human endeavor since the creation of fire and stone tools, but it’s easy to lose sight of this history. Professor of History Anne E. C. McCants recalls speaking in class about the importance of the textile industry in medieval Europe or using the expression “dyed in the wool” and getting blank stares. “My students actually had no idea what I was talking about because the world of spinning wheels and raw materials was so foreign to them,” she says.
She started bringing raw, dyed, and carded wool and drop spindles to class for students to examine. For years, she taught a week-long Independent Activities Period class on spinning. She keeps a spinning wheel in her office and students regularly ask her to show them how to use it.
She’s also led informal classes on sourdough bread-making and medieval cooking. She joined with fellow historian Jeffrey Ravel, a professor who is currently the head of the History Section, to lead a class that built a handset printing press in the Hobby Shop. “I very strongly feel that you can’t actually understand economic history without having a sense of the tactile experience of the way people lived their lives,” she says.
Such tactile experience is at the heart of Project Manus. In The Deep, Gonzalez-Placito comes up with project kits to help students become familiar with the many tools of making in use today. “We don’t expect people to be very rigid and follow every rule step by step, but play around,” he says. “Making mistakes is part of this space.” He shows a visitor the “wall of learning”: a display of broken drill bits, failed vacuum molds, and gnarled green plastic spit out by the 3-D printer.
One student wanted to devise a drink dispenser for a dorm refrigerator; that ended up somewhere in the bowels of Building 37, Gonzalez-Placito recalls. Other projects— a motorized skateboard, a reinforced welded-steel truss for a building technology class, a prototype of a spill-proof breast pump attachment—have been more successful. Gonzalez- Placito says that for himself he’s made a 3-D-printed spoon that can be adjusted to any angle, an intricate spiral lamp, and a 3-D-printed Faberge-style egg on a stand.
Ngoc La ’21, a student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, peers inside one of The Deep’s 3-D printers as a white rectangular structure takes shape. She is recreating an adapter for cameras and electronic components associated with Astrobee, a robot developed by NASA that supports astronaut-run experiments on the International Space Station. She estimates that she’s at The Deep most weekdays and likes the fact that it’s open after 5 pm.
Metal, wood, glass, stone, resin, plastic, leather—whatever medium students choose, Gonzalez-Placito helps them realize their vision. “It’s pretty awesome to just make sure that students feel empowered to come and make things,” he says. Once they become aware of The Deep, he says, “it sort of liberates them.”
Inspired by Doc Edgerton
The walls of a fourth-floor hallway known as Strobe Alley in Building 4 are lined with iconic images—the milk drop coronet, the bird in flight, the exploding apple. There’s a faint smoky odor, as if the ghost of inventor Harold E. “Doc” Edgerton SM ’27, ScD ’31 just fired off a stroboscope.
In the 1970s, when Edgerton’s electronic flash was transforming photography, Forbes Director of the Edgerton Center J. Kim Vandiver SM ’69, PhD ’75 was his student. Vandiver later worked alongside Edgerton on new ways to visualize the flow of air and water.
“There’s story after story after story of students coming to Edgerton and saying, ‘Hey, I’ve always wanted to build something,’” says Vandiver, professor of mechanical and ocean engineering. “And Doc would say, ‘There’s a workbench and a soldering iron. What are you waiting for?’”
At the time, shops in engineering departments were dedicated to class projects. After Edgerton died in 1990, Vandiver proposed turning his mentor’s lab of machine tools, drill presses, soldering irons, and oscilloscopes into a place where MIT students could invent or build stuff just for fun.
The Edgerton Center became one of the first independent makerspace at MIT, and its legacy continues. Peer mentors, staff, and alumni now offer help with engineering, coding, and more to MIT teams and clubs taking on ambitious international challenges such as designing autonomous racing vehicles and marine robotics. This year, a multidisciplinary MIT student team spent the summer designing and building a prototype for Space X’s annual Hyperloop Pod Competition—a challenge centered on propelling frictionless pods through a tube at 800 mph.
When Vandiver was growing up, he liked working with his hands. If he wanted to drive his dad’s vintage jeep, he had to help maintain it. He learned to tune it and replace the brakes. He built Heathkit electronics.
In central Iowa, Culpepper was the same kind of kid. He fixed everybody’s bikes and tinkered with machines he found in his grandfather’s junkyard. “If things broke, the only way they were going to get fixed was if you did it yourself,” he says. More recently, Culpepper’s creations have included a French-themed dinner, a mechanism for flushing brake fluid from his motorcycle, and laser-cut wall plaques he gave his teenaged kids as gifts.
Not everyone has spent as much time making stuff as Vandiver and Culpepper. Many MIT kids are more comfortable with hacking than hacksaws, and it’s not just students who suffer from maker anxiety. Culpepper recalled one time a faculty member and senior administrator balked at trying his hand in a makerspace. “If I said this person’s name, you’d be like, that’s crazy, but we see it at all levels. It’s human nature to not want to look like you’re not good at something.”
When you make stuff, you mess up. So, how do campus makers coax students out of their comfort zones?
Step one: free food. ProtoWorks at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, MakerLodge, and other spaces lure students with pizza, coffee, granola bars, and ramen. (Mobius, a new mobile app, will let students check in real time which of more than 40 makerspaces are open and available, book spaces and machines, sign up for training, and pay for materials.)
Step two: eye candy. MIT students are very curious, Vandiver says. “If they see something cool, they’ll take the time to try to make it themselves.” Students in The Deep, for instance, can copy Gonzalez-Placito’s original design for a mold that makes ice in the likeness of Tim, MIT’s beaver mascot.
Step three: peer mentors. “One of the biggest strengths we have on campus is a culture of paying it back,” Culpepper says. “Among the student mentors, that’s worth way more than any army of 40- or 50-year-old grumpy people like me. “I want students to leave with the mind-set, ‘I’m going to have to make something eventually, and I’m going to be able to do that,’” he says. “You’re building a likelihood that they’ll hop on this kind of learning, whether it’s programming or machining. Making things is about solving complicated puzzles, working with other people, and challenging yourself.
“It changes you,” Culpepper says. “I would call it confidence.”
MIT founder William Barton Rogers’s view that science should fuel innovation and functionality was radical in the late 19th century; makerspaces are now ubiquitous in universities, public libraries, and even storefront studios in local communities. Provost Martin A. Schmidt SM ’83, PhD ’88, who in 2015 initiated Project Manus, believes “if you don’t know how things are made, then you’re severely limited in knowing how to make them better or how to make new types of things. These makerspaces ground people in an appreciation of what it takes to make something and helps them think creatively about how to make new things. We see this as an investment in the innovation ecosystem.”
Schmidt and others say it’s time for MIT to reclaim its place as the ultimate makers’ playground. Culpepper says, “It’s almost like MIT is this wonderland—a place in the world where students should feel that if they want to build almost anything, they can.”
For more than a century, the red-brick Metropolitan Storage Warehouse with its crenellated tower has been a formidable presence at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Vassar Street. Now, the historic structure is envisioned as a state-of-the-art hub for the MIT School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P), including a separate, expansive new campus-wide makerspace.
The building, designed by prominent Boston architectural firm Peabody & Stearns and considered to be of high historic significance, has been owned by MIT since 1966. The proposed renovation will preserve much of its historic architecture and distinctive exterior while expanding SA+P’s range of activities in design, research, and education.
The renovation will also create the largest makerspace on campus, an approximately 17,000-square-foot facility overseen by Project Manus—MIT’s makerspace initiative.
“Our goal is to create a makerspace that will set the ‘gold standard’ for the next generation,” says Provost Martin A. Schmidt SM ’83, PhD ’88, who in 2015 launched Project Manus. The Met makerspace will provide a full range of cutting-edge maker tools and supplies—enabling users to create anything from holiday ornaments to industrial prototypes. It will also be among the first makerspaces on campus to fully meet the accessibility standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The location will double the amount of makerspace available to the entire MIT community. It will be “an open-access gathering place for MIT’s innovators and makers,” says Martin Culpepper SM ’97, PhD ’00, director of Project Manus and MIT’s maker czar. The Met will be “the big community space where anybody at MIT can build things, and you can hang out with people who want to build anything from research projects to business prototypes.”
Culpepper, a professor of mechanical engineering, likens the Met makerspace to a centralized, free-form innovation nexus: a destination where students, alumni, faculty, and staff of all departmental and school affiliations “can meet and do what MIT community members do best—create.”
The new makerspace is made possible with support from the Victor and William Fung Foundation, founded by MIT alumnus Victor Fung ’66, a prominent Hong Kong business and civic leader, and his brother, William.
Through telecommunication technology, the Met makerspace will link to the MIT Hong Kong Innovation Node, a collaborative space that aims to connect the MIT community with unique resources—including advanced fabrication capabilities— and other opportunities in Hong Kong and the neighboring Pearl River Delta.
The Met makerspace “will vastly increase MIT students’ access to the resources they require to iterate and drive ideas toward realization and adoption by the marketplace. It will also provide maker training to students and help build an Institute-wide maker community,” Schmidt says. “It will cultivate our students’ deep passion for learning, inventing, tinkering, and creating while providing them with new avenues through which to share their potentially game-changing prototypes and visionary projects with the world.”
An architecture major and design fellow in the MIT Office of Sustainability, Effie Jia is making the sign for a new campus garden. “Making to me is being able to take my ideas as a visual thinker and transform them into tangible, useful products that are beautiful as well,” she says. In one MIT design studio, for example, she worked with Tumi to prototype a new design for luggage. “That was one of the coolest experiences,” she says, adding that making things has been an invaluable part of her time at MIT. “I like to be self-sufficient and to be able to look at something and say, ‘I know how to make that’—that’s a really cool mind- set to have.”
Weixun He ’19
Making: Brass Rats and robotic bartender
Almost every day this summer, Weixun He practically lived at ProtoWorks, a makerspace at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. “Making is very powerful. You learn all these theoretical concepts that are useful, but until you make something, there is so much you don’t know,” he says, noting that in addition to machines, the makerspace provides mentorship and a supportive community. This support has proved invaluable as He works with a startup to develop robotic bartenders— “to make the office more social.” He’s team fabricated its whole working prototype at ProtoWorks. “This room represents the bridge between the physical world and your idea,” says He, who majored in mechanical engineering.
Sabrina Hare ’22
Making: Map of Barcelona
“I discovered through makerspaces and a lot of the hands-on classes I took freshman year that I really liked making things,” says Sabrina Hare, a mechanical engineering major who is making the map as a reminder of her hometown. “I really like The Deep because it gives you access to intense machinery you aren’t able to access in other shops, like laser cutters, mills, and lathes. There aren’t as many barriers to cross before being able to use them. You go through a general orientation and a specific-machine training and then you can get going.”
Bobby Johnston, PhD candidate
Making: Machine that makes cocktail ice balls shaped like the Death Star
Physics PhD candidate Bobby Johnston is making the Death Star machine as a gift. “My sister and her husband just got married and I wanted to get them an awesome gift, but being a graduate student I don’t have a ton of money to throw around, so I figured I would just build something myself,” he says. “I’m pretty psyched with how it has come out.” He says working in the MIT Hobby Shop is “incredible.” “Most people are only here because they want to be, so everyone is in a really good, helpful spirit. I am happy I found this place.”
Nora Enright ’19
Making: Bacterial photography
“People have been working really hard to make the new biomaking space an exciting space that involves the wide scope of bioengineering projects,” says Nora Enright, who is making images using bacteria that respond to light. “I think having opportunities to try out these different skills and build projects in a way that other engineering disciplines can do is really exciting.” Enright, who majored in biological engineering, believes the experience she is gaining will also help her achieve her ambition of running her own lab someday. “Getting to talk to people who have these amazing ideas and all this passion for what they do and getting to be a part of it is just great.”
Juan Carlos Garcia ’20
Making: Live-streaming app for music program notes
Juan Carlos Garcia is in the Music Technology Lab working with others on ConcertCue, an application that streams program notes to audience members during concerts. “Classical music is dying in popularity, especially among younger people. This is a way to make a more interactive experience,” he says. A double major in computer science and music, Garcia says he values the opportunities MIT has given him to put his two passions together. “I’m super happy to be incorporating computer science and music in a way that can help society develop a deeper understanding,” he says. “I have a deep appreciation for art and culture and making.”
The Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and its flagship delta v accelerator program prepare aspiring student entrepreneurs to launch business ventures when they leave MIT. For three months each summer, select student teams work to make their visions viable—consulting with mentors, attending simulated board meetings, drafting business plans, studying finance options, and conducting market research. At the beginning of the school year, delta v graduates present their work to potential investors at Demo Days at MIT and in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area.
More than three-quarters of the 76 companies the accelerator has launched since 2013 are still in business (or have been acquired). Overall, the accelerator has helped its companies raise more than $151 million. Participant companies produce myriad products, including a smart device that monitors birth control pill consumption, a virtual reality program that promotes cognition and mental health in the elderly, and a trailer that can be towed by motorbike to provide ambulance service in remote, developing regions.
Whatever the product, the Trust Center focuses on helping MIT’s makers make their companies work. Here are a few examples.
With a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science, Carlos Castro-González could have worked for a telecom company or designed the newest mobile phone. But, he says, “Solving medical problems seemed more meaningful.”
So, as a postdoc at MIT, Castro-González joined the Madrid-MIT M+Visión Consortium (today MIT linQ) a health innovation partnership that would connect him to his three company cofounders: Ian Butterworth, research engineer in electronics at MIT, Álvaro Sánchez-Ferro, a Madrid-educated physician, and Aurelien Bourquard, a Swiss biomedical engineer.
Together, the four developed the technology that launched Leuko Labs—a noninvasive portable device that measures a patient’s white cell status and relays the measurement to the cloud, where the data are processed and transmitted to the health care team. Low white cell values, a typical side effect of chemotherapy, can leave patients unable to ward off infection, potentially leading to life-threatening—and costly—hospital readmissions.
The team won a spot in the 2016 delta v accelerator, where they found many of the tools they needed to succeed. “After our summer at the Trust Center, we knew that if our technology was sound, there was definitely a market for it,” says Castro-González. “The Trust Center provides you with all the things you need to become an entrepreneur.”
Founded in 2018, Leuko Labs currently has nine full-time employees in Boston and Madrid, Spain. The company closed out its seed round of financing earlier this year. Castro-González estimates Leuko Labs’ device could save an average cancer center $50 million or more each year.
Rebecca Hui MCP ’18 concedes she was an unusual candidate for the delta v accelerator—but she never once felt out of place. “It was fantastic,” says Hui, whose company, Roots Studio, digitizes the work of artists who live in isolated and distressed regions and licenses those images for consumer products sold in the developed world. “Coming from a cultural space, it was invaluable for us to steep in an environment focused on marketing, manufacturing, and securing funding. The Trust Center forced us to become concrete and take shape.”
An urban planner by training, Hui came to MIT in 2015 after creating and running Toto Express, a school on wheels in India. That project brought teachers to students in rural Bengal villages who were struggling with school attendance. The experience heightened Hui’s appreciation for native art and fueled her desire to share that beauty with the world— and to offer indigenous artists a living wage.
Hui’s original plan had Roots Studio digitizing the artwork, printing the images on notebooks and posters, and then distributing those products. Her dorm room was overflowing with notebooks when she started at the delta v accelerator in 2017.
She says the accelerator helped her realize that print products were not the right business track to pursue. “Our core assets were the images and the trust we’d built with the native communities,” she says, noting that the Trust Center mentors “changed the way we thought about process and scale.”
Today, Roots Studio licenses production to companies with scalable manufacturing and existing supply chains. The business has eight full-time employees, more than 40 field workers, and collaborates with more than 1,200 indigenous artists in India, Indonesia, the Middle East, and other regions. The startup also pays artists from 5 to 20 times what they can receive for their work at home.
One long-term company goal, Hui says, is to revive art and craft forms in danger of disappearing. “Many of the artists we meet believe their art forms will die with them,” she says. “We’ve given some of those art forms a market and a future.”
In 2017, Nicholas Harris PhD ’17 and lab partner Darius Bunandar PhD ’19 decided to take a class on entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management. They were in the early stage of incorporating photonic components into computer chips that would enable those chips to significantly outperform conventional chips. The pair believed their technology could have widespread applications for deep learning and artificial intelligence.
“We were running into the logical end of Moore’s law,” Harris observed, referring to an early prediction linking the shrinking of transistors to ever-more powerful computer chips. “We thought the introduction of photonics could continue that progression.”
While at the Martin Trust Center, the pair (together with Lightmatter cofounder Thomas Graham MBA ’18) took advantage of the workspace and mentors to prepare for the 2017 $100K MIT Entrepreneurship Competition— which they won. “As scientists, Darius and I had learned to value hard skills, like doing math and solving physics problems,” says Harris. “At the accelerator, we learned the value of building relationships, negotiation, and dealing with people. It was an excellent preparation for the $100K challenge.”
The trio launched their company in December 2017, naming it Lightmatter. The not-yet two-year-old startup has 30 employees and has produced two early chips—the most recent containing over a billion transistors. An early round of financing netted Lightmatter $11 million. Last February, GV, a venture division in Google’s parent company, Alphabet, invested another $22 million in the fledgling venture.
“We’re planning to share a preliminary version of our product with big cloud providers,” says Harris. “And shoring up our engineering and business structures. We should be ready to get to market in the next few years.”
Dozens of makerspaces proliferate across MIT’s campus, giving the MIT community access to a host of tools—from chisels, saws, and belt sanders to 3-D printers, welding machines, and oscilloscopes—to bring their ideas to life.
The Edgerton Student Shop is a machine shop that offers intensive training classes focused on metalworking. Students can, for example, learn to use a milling machine to shape surfaces.
The Hobby Shop has been serving the MIT community for nearly 80 years. A fully equipped wood and metal shop, it is a great place to learn to handcraft wooden furniture—perhaps using a set of chisels.
MITERS is a student-member-run project space and machine shop focused on electronics and metal-working capabilities. Equipment includes an oscilloscope, which analyzes the waveform of electronic signals.
The Deep is a 1,239-square-foot makerspace where anyone in the MIT community can use tools ranging from simple drills and saws to a computer numerical control (CNC) lathe or waterjet cutter. Students are even welcome to try tungsten inert gas (TIG) welding.
The BioMakerspace supports project teams working on long-term research in biology, optics, mechanics, mathematics, electronics, and chemistry. Makers using its extensive laboratory and fabrication facilities can, for example, culture photosensitive bacteria.
Martin Trust Center ProtoWorks is focused on giving budding entrepreneurs a place to create prototypes. It’s one of several makerspaces where students can use 3-D printing capabilities.
Neil Gershenfeld has been called the intellectual father of the maker movement. He’s spent more than a decade bringing the means for invention to remote corners of the globe via fab labs—facilities for custom-producing objects through digital fabrication (the umbrella term for computer-controlled manufacturing processes). Spectrum asked Gershenfeld, a professor of media arts and sciences and director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, about the growing popularity of fab labs— a topic he explores further in Designing Reality, a book he co-authored with his brothers, Alan and Joel.
How did fab labs get started?
NG: I teach the perennially oversubscribed MIT class How to Make (Almost) Anything (MAS.863). This started modestly to train users of the Center for Bits and Atoms’ digital fabrication research facility, and subsequently grew to add shop sections through the Department of Architecture, then the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and then Harvard. Inspired by what the students were doing in the class, and by the analogy with the history of minicomputers (which came between mainframes and PCs), my colleagues and I developed fab labs as an outreach project for the National Science Foundation. We put together a package of the most-used tools and processes from our shop to take into the field, including 3-D printing, scanning, and design; laser cutting, machining, molding, and casting; and electronics production, assembly, and programming. Fab labs today, like minicomputers a few decades ago, cost about $100,000 and fill a room. That cost is coming down as the equivalent of PCs for fabrication emerge, and also going up as regional super-fab-labs appear.
Where are fab labs located? How are they used?
NG: The first fab lab was started in Boston in 2003 with community pioneer Mel King at the South End Technology Center. The number of fab labs has been doubling ever since, approaching 2,000 now (this scaling has come to be called Lass’s Law, after Sherry Lassiter who manages the program). They’re located from the top of Europe to the bottom of Africa, and from inner cities to rural villages. They are, of course, used to make things—projects range from furniture to whole houses, from circuit boards to computers, from skateboards to drones, and from kitchen utensils to aquaponic systems. But in many cases, the act of making is itself more important than what’s made. Fab labs are used to teach classes, incubate businesses, build community, reduce conflict, and create infrastructure. To support these activities, we’ve spun off programs including a Fab Foundation for operational capacity, a Fab Academy for distributed hands-on education, and Fab Cities for urban self-sufficiency.
What’s your vision for the future of fabrication? What are its implications?
NG: Fab labs today can make (almost) anything, but they rely on a global supply chain for their inputs—they can’t yet make things like integrated circuits or precision bearings. But that boundary is steadily receding; research in the Center for Bits and Atoms is progressing through a roadmap in four stages. First is making things with machines, then comes rapid prototyping of rapid prototyping so that a fab lab can make a fab lab. After that, we’re replacing additive and subtractive processes with assembly and disassembly to create the full range of technologies from a small set of building blocks, as happens in biological systems. And, finally, we’re eliminating the distinction between machines and materials by coding the construction of self-reproducing systems. These are all being developed in parallel, but it’s not necessary to wait decades for the research to be completed to see its impact. Its current state is similar to the historical moment when the internet emerged; a National Fab Lab Network Act has just been submitted in Congress to charter universal access to digital fabrication. We’re finding that thinking globally while fabricating locally offers an alternative to conflict over issues including tariffs, jobs, and inequality.