Nathan Ball invented a device to save lives. Thanks to him, it is now possible for a firefighter carrying 100 pounds of equipment to reach the top of a 30-story building in just 30 seconds, instead of the six minutes it would take to climb the stairs.

The 23-year-old grad student who studies mechanical engineering has created the Atlas Powered Rope Ascender, a 20-pound portable device that can lift 250 pounds more than 600 feet into the air at up to 10 feet per second, all on a single battery charge. The invention — which won him this year’s Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for invention and it’s $30,000 cash prize — would make it possible for rescuers, emergency workers, and soldiers to climb faster with more control.

“Getting to the top of a building super fast is fun and exciting,” he says, “but the obvious application of rescue made it even more appealing to build.”

An accomplished pole vaulter, Ball was once afraid of heights. Now that he has mastered the sport and developed the rope ascender, he says: “I’m not afraid at all.”
“To be an inventor, you can’t be easily discouraged”

Ball, who has eight patents pending, also developed another life-saving invention, improving the needle-free injection technology developed at MIT’s BioInstrumentation Lab. He developed a dual-action, faster technology that increases drug volume delivery. It is now being tested on livestock, and one day he hopes it will be used for safe, low-cost, mass inoculation of people in developing and developed countries.

Ball, along with MIT friends Daniel Walker, Bryan Schmid, and Tim Fofonoff, recently co-founded Atlas Devices, a company that builds highpowered rescue tools. The U.S. Army purchased a number of prototypes of the rope-climbing invention and has also expressed interest in having the team build other high-powered devices.

“I am inherently passionate about sharing my knowledge with other people,” says Ball, who is co-host of Design Squad, a new engineering TV show for kids that airs nationally on PBS. He landed the role in part for his inventive ideas for kids to create — like how to build a backyard ski lift, figuring out how to get a couch into your tree house, or how to build a security system for your bedroom that sends you an email if your little sister breaks in.

“To be an inventor, you can’t be easily discouraged,” he says. “Most of the time, ideas don’t work. Sometimes ideas fail 10 times out of 10. I always keep in the back of my mind that I’m learning from my mistakes.”