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October 17, 2019


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MIT Research News
September 19, 2019

Even short-lived solar panels can be economically viable

Research shows that, contrary to accepted rule of thumb, a 10- or 15-year lifetime can be good enough.
A new study shows that, contrary to widespread belief within the solar power industry, new kinds of solar cells and panels don’t necessarily have to last for 25 to 30 years in order to be economically viable in today’s market.

Rather, solar panels with initial lifetimes of as little as 10 years can sometimes make economic sense, even for grid-scale installations — thus potentially opening the door to promising new solar photovoltaic technologies that have been considered insufficiently durable for widespread use.

The new findings are described in a paper in the journal Joule, by Joel Jean, a former MIT postdoc and CEO of startup company Swift Solar; Vladimir Bulovic, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of MIT.nano; and Michael Woodhouse of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado. Read Full Article at MIT News Office
MIT Sloan Management Review
September 17, 2019

How business ecosystems rise (and often fall)

Ecosystems are not easy to build or sustain, but new research identifies three critical windows in their life cycle and the corresponding actions that lead to success at each stage.
Ecosystems are increasingly popular, fueled by the success of iconic examples such as Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. Yet confusion about them abounds, and many commonly held beliefs about ecosystems simply aren’t true. To objectively analyze several key details about ecosystems — such as how often they succeed, how important it is to be first, and how long they take to pay off — we conducted a quantitative study of ecosystems over the past four decades. The results show that ecosystems tend to follow one of four paths during their life cycle. Moreover, there are three critical windows during which actions by management can have a disproportionate effect on long-term success.

There is no measurable, standard definition of an ecosystem. We focused on multicompany systems cited by at least one academic paper as an ecosystem and then confirmed that they showed several defining characteristics: (1) a large number of partners, (2) diversity across industries, (3) relationships based on collaboration rather than ownership, and (4) the ability for partners to join with limited friction. We then analyzed market share data from IHS, Statista, and other sources to examine ecosystems’ life cycles. Because we covered several decades of performance, it is virtually impossible to avoid some survivor bias. As such, our failure rates are, if anything, conservative. Read Full Article
MIT Research News
September 16, 2019

New approach suggests path to emissions-free cement

MIT researchers find a way to eliminate carbon emissions from cement production — a major global source of greenhouse gases.
It’s well known that the production of cement — the world’s leading construction material — is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for about 8 percent of all such releases. If cement production were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter.

A team of researchers at MIT has come up with a new way of manufacturing the material that could eliminate these emissions altogether, and could even make some other useful products in the process.

The findings are being reported today in the journal PNAS in a paper by Yet-Ming Chiang, the Kyocera Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, with postdoc Leah Ellis, graduate student Andres Badel, and others. Read Full Article at MIT News Office
ILP Insider
September 12, 2019

Max Shulaker: Reimagining future electronic systems

Max Shulaker leads the Novel Electronic Systems Group at MIT, which leverages the unique properties of emerging nanotechnologies and nanodevices to create new systems and architectures with enhanced functionality and improved performance.
Max Shulaker’s interest in nanotechnology began during his PhD years at Stanford where he worked in a nanofabrication facility building and testing novel devices and materials. Specifically, the materials he focused on were carbon nanotubes. Put simply, these tubes are flat sheets of graphene (hexagonal lattices of carbon), rolled into 3 dimensional cylinders with a diameter of 1-2 nanometers. Not only are they extremely small (consider the fact that a sheet of paper has a thickness of about 100,000 nm), but they also have the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any known material and possess exceedingly high rates of thermal and electrical conductivity. Technologists like Shulaker posit that they might be the answer to the semiconductor industry’s looming silicon dilemma.

Moore’s Law projects that the number of transistors in a computer chip will double approximately every two years. But for some time, despite creative advancements, we’ve been grinding towards the inevitable limit of how many silicon transistors can be crowded into a chip. In a very basic sense, this is a question of space, or lack thereof. Enter the carbon nanotube and its champions. In 2013 Shulaker and his partners in the Stanford Robust Systems Group built the first computer made entirely of carbon nanotube circuits. If the goal is to one day replace silicon as the foundation for electronic circuits, this rudimentary design represented a massive step towards a previously unimagined high-speed computing reality.

Shulaker joined MIT as an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in 2016 and leads the Novel Electronic Systems Group. “Our research here at MIT focuses on both the development and experimental realization of what I like to call nanosystems,” he says. Shulaker and his group use emerging nanotechnologies to enable new devices including transistors, memory cells, and censors, combining the benefits of these devices to realize new systems, which in turn enable new applications. “We’re going beyond proof of concept, shrinking the gap between the ideas that motivate the research and what we show in the labs. We’re actually building the systems and doing the applications that motivate the initial work on new types of technologies.”

One of the many emerging technologies that he focuses on are carbon nanotubes. And while they are only one aspect of what he’s currently exploring, he admits they represent an excellent case study. In other words, while the original focus might be on making an improved device using carbon nanotubes, Shulaker is interested in taking things a step, or several steps, further by pioneering cutting-edge systems using the technology. He points to the fact that he and other researchers in the community have made tremendous advances in the field, forging devices that can compete with silicon. “We’ve built systems that have millions of these devices on them. I think this demonstrates that after all these years of work the field is starting to become fruitful. Now we can go beyond the nitty gritty device level questions and start building some really exciting chips and systems with these technologies.”

He talks about a holistic approach to novel electronic systems, insisting that tweaking the material being used, altering a device, or modifying the architecture is insufficient. “If we want to dramatically improve the performance of electronic systems we need to take a holistic approach. It’s not about finding the best device or the newest and fanciest architecture, but rather it’s about finding the right technology to build the right systems to enable the right applications.” He continues, “When you combine these elements, that’s when you create something truly special. Perhaps even something we can only really imagine today.” For Shulaker, the process begins with a question. For example, “If we are already building systems with millions of sensors directly on a chip, what types of medical applications can we devise and what could this do for point of care diagnostics? Or if you use nanotechnologies and not even use a chip, but just put nanotechnologies inside the blood stream and monitor them in real time, what could you do with that?”

Having spent his initial time filling out the group he heads, as Shulaker approaches his one year anniversary with MIT he is looking to branch out. Specifically, the Novel Electronic Systems Group has begun collaborating with hospitals to perform medical trials on the chips he and his group have been developing. Given the fact that the rapidly evolving point of care diagnostics landscape is helping to drive the nanotechnology industry, it should come as no surprise that Shulaker and his Novel Electronic Systems Group have begun collaborating with hospitals to perform medical trials on the chips that he and his team are making. In addition to point of care partnerships, Shulaker says he is particularly excited to be working with Analog Devices (ADI), the semi-conductor giant perhaps best known as a supplier of Apple. “We’ve been able to start a few different projects with ADI, investigating how we can use these technologies to build new types of chips and systems. We’re trying to build the largest scale systems using technologies that have never been shown before. The goal is not just to understand more about the underlying physics or characterize the devices but to show large scale working systems that can actually outperform the best silicon based systems that exist today.”

Shulaker says that working with industry partners allows his group to address problems that really matter by pinpointing specific questions that will “enable the next generation of an actual product.” He cites the ability to work on high risk/high rewards projects as a particularly satisfying aspect of melding the worlds of academia and industry. Rather than looking for incremental performance gains, Shulaker says they strive for big improvements, which jibes well with his approach. “The direction, the technology, the systems, everything that we try to build is radically different from what exists today.” This allows for Shulaker and his group to transform their research by asking scientifically interesting questions while addressing industry problems with the goal being maximum impact. “At the end of the day, the work that we are doing now will not just lead to publications and interesting ideas, but to actual products that will make a difference in people’s lives.”

Watch the related videos here.
MIT Research News
September 11, 2019

Engineers develop multimaterial fiber “ink” for 3-D-printed devices

Filaments with embedded circuitry can be used to print complex shapes for biomedical and robotic devices.
A new method developed by MIT researchers uses standard 3-D printers to produce functioning devices with the electronics already embedded inside. The devices are made of fibers containing multiple interconnected materials, which can light up, sense their surroundings, store energy, or perform other actions.

The new 3-D printing method is described in the journal Nature Communication, in a paper by MIT doctoral student Gabriel Loke, professors John Joannopoulos and Yoel Fink, and four others at MIT and elsewhere.

The system makes use of conventional 3-D printers outfitted with a special nozzle and a new kind of filament to replace the usual single-material polymer filament, which typically gets fully melted before it’s extruded from the printer’s nozzle. The researchers’ new filament has a complex internal structure made up of different materials arranged in a precise configuration, and is surrounded by polymer cladding on the outside. Read Full Article at MIT News Office
MIT Sloan Management Review
September 10, 2019

How managers can help workers tackle digital distractions

To regain focus in an ever-distracting digital world, managers must not only give employees tools and training but also model the right behaviors themselves.
As an analyst and adviser to tech companies, I’ve long known the tricks that digital platforms use to get people addicted. I didn’t think it would happen to me. But a few years ago, I fell into the trap.

Throughout the day, I could barely go a few minutes without checking notifications on my phone. My productivity suffered, as did my relationships and life outside of work.

The digital distraction trap happens in businesses across all industries and affects workers of all age groups. It’s taking a toll on worker well-being. A 2012 study estimated that digital distractions cost businesses more than $10,000 per worker per year. According to a more recent report from Udemy, nearly two-thirds of workers (62%) spend about an hour of each workday looking at their phones. Read Full Article
ILP Insider
September 5, 2019

ThruWave Inc: Making the invisible visible with human-safe millimeter waves

Matt Reynolds is the founder and CEO of ThruWave Inc., the startup using millimeter wave imaging to revolutionize e-commerce and high-value manufacturing.
“ThruWave mitigates the risk of missing or damaged parts associated with the just-in-time model of manufacturing,” says Matt Reynolds, founder and CEO of the newest member of STEX25. At its core, the just-in-time philosophy seeks to reduce waste in the manufacturing process by bringing parts to the production line only when needed, as opposed to keeping excessive inventory on hand (i.e, the old system).

Developed by Toyota in the 1970’s, the successful application of just-in-time management streamlines the supply chain and allows manufacturers to produce higher-quality products at lower costs with minimal lag time between order and assembly. Tier I automotive suppliers deliver their parts in reusable totes that are delivered to line workers for them to assemble the cars we drive. But if parts that should be in the tote go missing, manufacturers run the risk of having to stop production until the necessary parts are delivered. In the automotive industry, for example, the costs can be extreme—the cost of stopped production can be as high as $50,000 per minute.

Matt Reynolds
Founder & CEO,

How then to be sure that the proper number of parts are on hand, and that they are arriving undamaged? As we all know, humans are conspicuously prone to error, especially when performing dull tasks such as counting and inspecting items. Existing X-ray inspection technology presents its own complications, not least of which is the fact that exposure to radiation is unsafe for humans. Hence, the need for large, cumbersome machines to shield workers from radiation.

ThruWave, on the other hand, uses human-safe millimeter wave signals to provide item count and picking accuracy. These electromagnetic waves are 10X to 100X higher in frequency than the radio waves used by WIFI and smartphones. “A unique feature of millimeter wave signals is that they penetrate many optically opaque objects, for example, cardboard, plastics, and other packaging materials. That feature allows us to make high-resolution images of objects even if they’re obscured by packaging,” Reynolds explains.

ThruWave solutions involve a combination of technologies. First, they make the millimeter wave sensor itself. They also create the software that turns the sensor data into high-resolution 3D images, and further software that analyzes those images to extract business process variables, for example, item count, or the fill fraction of a cardboard box, or template matching to the objects that are supposed to be in a kit of items sold as a unit.

In short, it’s a boon for e-commerce and high-value manufacturing. “If you’re a manufacturer producing high-value goods and you need to count items, audit packages, either in the incoming or outgoing side, or if you’re doing high-throughput e-commerce and you need to count objects inside packaging, ThruWave can reduce or eliminate manual counting labor while increasing accuracy.”

Prior to earning his PhD from the MIT Media Lab, Reynolds received his S.B. and M.Eng. from MIT's Course 6, the department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. What followed was a foray into the startup world as co-founder of ThingMagic Inc., the RFID systems firm acquired by Trimble Navigation. He would also go on to found the energy conservation firm Zensi (acquired by Belkin) and the home sensing company SNUPI Inc (acquired by Sears).

In addition to his work with ThruWave, Reynolds is a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Washington. “I would say that my life has been driven by innovation in both academia and in my work in the startup field,” says Reynolds. “ThruWave is my fourth startup. In each case, I’ve taken a research idea from the lab to commercial practice, and that technology has been adopted by major industries.”

At the moment, nine people make up the ThruWave team, all of whom have advanced degrees in electrical engineering or physics. They are experts in millimeter wave system design and image reconstruction, as well as in high-performance computing to turn those millimeter wave sensor data into 3D images. ThruWave is funded by a Federal small business innovation research grant from the National Science Foundation, as well as early-stage investors. “We’re working on a couple of pilots with carefully chosen large companies this year,” says Reynolds. “We’re expecting to have our product in general availability by the end of next year, which will allow us to expand to a much larger base of companies in the ecommerce and high-value manufacturing spaces.”

As they approach general availability for their product, Reynolds and his team are looking for a broader customer base. Soon, they’ll be able to supply millimeter wave sensors and a software suite that will enable that sensor data to be used in business process automation. “A key advantage of millimeter wave technology is that it’s always on and always making images of goods as they flow past,” says Reynolds. “Our ideal customer relies on high-throughput material handling, either producing or using items being manufactured at a high rate of speed. We’re also interested in working with companies that are shipping or handling those products at a high rate of speed.”

The e-commerce space is experiencing more than 15 percent compound annual growth in the number of packages delivered to people’s homes. UPS and FedEx alone handle close to 20 million packages per day from the e-commerce supply chain. Reynolds is betting that a large portion of those packages will need to be audited for item count and picking accuracy, and he believes that ThruWave has the technology capable of handling that job. “We see almost unlimited growth for ThruWave because of the growth of the industries that we serve. As the rate of e-commerce ordering increases, we’ll be able to keep up with our sensor. Similarly, in high-value manufacturing industries, there’s an ever-increasing drive towards automation, and we think we’re going to be an important part of that evolution.”

About MIT Startup Exchange, STEX25, and MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP)
MIT Startup Exchange actively promotes collaboration and partnerships between MIT-connected startups and industry. Qualified startups are those founded and/or led by MIT faculty, staff, or alumni, or are based on MIT-licensed technology. Industry participants are principally members of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP).

MIT Startup Exchange maintains a propriety database of over 1,500 MIT-connected startups with roots across MIT departments, labs and centers; it hosts a robust schedule of startup workshops and showcases, and facilitates networking and introductions between startups and corporate executives.

STEX25 is a startup accelerator within MIT Startup Exchange, featuring 25 “industry ready” startups that have proven to be exceptional with early use cases, clients, demos, or partnerships, and are poised for significant growth. STEX25 startups receive promotion, travel, and advisory support, and are prioritized for meetings with ILP’s 230 member companies.

MIT Startup Exchange and ILP are integrated programs of MIT Corporate Relations.

MIT Research News
September 5, 2019

Cleaning up hydrogen peroxide production

Solugen’s engineered enzymes offer a cheaper, safer, and far less toxic way to produce the chemical.
The most common process for making hydrogen peroxide begins with a highly toxic, flammable working solution that is combined with hydrogen, filtered, combined with oxygen, mixed in water, and then concentrated to extremely high levels for shipping.

The transportation process is equally convoluted. Most of the massive chemical plants that make hydrogen peroxide are located in Russia and China. For big markets like the U.S. oil and gas industry, concentrated hydrogen peroxide is usually freighted to America, diluted, then shipped via rail or truck to places like western Texas, where a service company buys it and pumps it for the customer.

All of this complexity masks the fact that hydrogen peroxide is structurally simple. In fact, a large group of specialized proteins, called enzymes, have long been known to work with hydrogen peroxide in various biological systems. But translating that knowledge into a more natural way to create hydrogen peroxide has proven difficult — until recently. Read Full Article at MIT News Office
MIT Research News
September 4, 2019

Soft robotics breakthrough manages immune response for implanted devices

Discovery could enable longer-lasting and better-functioning devices — including pacemakers, breast implants, biosensors, and drug delivery devices.
Researchers from the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) at MIT; the National University of Ireland Galway (NUI Galway); and AMBER, the SFI Research Centre for Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research, recently announced a significant breakthrough in soft robotics that could help patients requiring in-situ (implanted) medical devices such as breast implants, pacemakers, neural probes, glucose biosensors, and drug and cell delivery devices.

The implantable medical devices market is currently estimated at approximately $100 billion, with significant growth potential into the future as new technologies for drug delivery and health monitoring are developed. These devices are not without problems, caused in part by the body’s own protection responses. These complex and unpredictable foreign-body responses impair device function and drastically limit the long-term performance and therapeutic efficacy of these devices. Read Full Article at MIT News Office
MIT Sloan Management Review
September 3, 2019

The only way manufacturers can survive

Digital transformation is no longer optional for industrial companies. The problem is it’s really, really hard.
Leading a corporate transformation of any kind is difficult, and it hasn’t become any easier over time. But starting and sustaining a digital transformation in a manufacturing company? That’s tougher than managing any other change initiative — from total quality management to Six Sigma to lean manufacturing — and, believe us, we’ve lived through, or seen, them all over the last three decades.

Becoming digital is a requisite for survival today. However, while waves of technology — automation, additive manufacturing, AI — are washing over the corporate world, redefining the nature of work and productivity, there are no playbooks and few best practices for manufacturers’ digital transformation. Few industrial companies even paid attention to digital technologies until recently. Just nine years ago, for instance, General Electric didn’t track them closely, never thought about how they could fit in with the machines it manufactured, and, above all, didn’t realize it could make money from them. Digitalization was far removed from GE’s industrial reality. Read Full Article
MIT Research News
August 29, 2019

MIT’s fleet of autonomous boats can now shapeshift

New capabilities allow “roboats” to change configurations to form pop-up bridges, stages, and other structures.
MIT’s fleet of robotic boats has been updated with new capabilities to “shapeshift,” by autonomously disconnecting and reassembling into a variety of configurations, to form floating structures in Amsterdam’s many canals.

The autonomous boats — rectangular hulls equipped with sensors, thrusters, microcontrollers, GPS modules, cameras, and other hardware — are being developed as part of the ongoing “Roboat” project between MIT and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS Institute). The project is led by MIT professors Carlo Ratti, Daniela Rus, Dennis Frenchman, and Andrew Whittle. In the future, Amsterdam wants the roboats to cruise its 165 winding canals, transporting goods and people, collecting trash, or self-assembling into “pop-up” platforms — such as bridges and stages — to help relieve congestion on the city’s busy streets. Read Full Article at MIT News Office
MIT Research News
August 28, 2019

Robotic thread is designed to slip through the brain’s blood vessels

Magnetically controlled device could deliver clot-reducing therapies in response to stroke or other brain blockages.
MIT engineers have developed a magnetically steerable, thread-like robot that can actively glide through narrow, winding pathways, such as the labrynthine vasculature of the brain.

In the future, this robotic thread may be paired with existing endovascular technologies, enabling doctors to remotely guide the robot through a patient’s brain vessels to quickly treat blockages and lesions, such as those that occur in aneurysms and stroke.

“Stroke is the number five cause of death and a leading cause of disability in the United States. If acute stroke can be treated within the first 90 minutes or so, patients’ survival rates could increase significantly,” says Xuanhe Zhao, associate professor of mechanical engineering and of civil and environmental engineering at MIT. “If we could design a device to reverse blood vessel blockage within this ‘golden hour,’ we could potentially avoid permanent brain damage. That’s our hope.” Read Full Article at MIT News Office