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Updated: 40 min 28 sec ago

Engaged neighbors

Tue, 03/21/2017 - 23:59

MIT faculty, students, and alumni consistently find creative ways to apply their knowledge to local contexts, collaborating with partners around the globe to make the world a better place. Arguably, no MIT exchange is more fertile than the one the School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P) enjoys with Mexico.

Recently, students and scholars from SA+P have worked with local collaborators to plan mixed-use developments around mass transit hubs in Mexico City and to design novel solutions for Baja wineries faced with chronic drought. And here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Mexican artist and social activist Pedro Reyes spent a semester in residence at the MIT Center for Art, Science, and Technology (CAST), where he explored potential collaborative projects with MIT faculty and taught a course that invited students to consider the human cost of unbridled technology.

The Institute’s synergy with Mexico will be celebrated on March 23 at the MIT Better World campaign event at the Four Seasons Hotel in Mexico City. Part of an ongoing celebration of MIT’s global culture that has already sponsored gatherings in New York, San Francisco, Hong Kong, London, Tel Aviv, and Los Angeles, the Mexico City event will feature economist Pedro Aspe Armella PhD ’78, cellist and author Carlos Prieto ’58, faculty members Miho Mazereeuw and Paulo Lozano SM ’98, PhD ’03, and master’s in city planning candidate Carlos Sainz Caccia, as well as MIT President L. Rafael Reif.

The event will reflect the spirit of the many innovative collaborations between MIT and Mexico, from urban initiatives around housing, transportation, and the environment, to scholarly exchanges on many other topics. Through these engagements, including the recent SA+P activities described below, faculty, students, and alumni are tackling pressing global issues.

Researching transportation in Mexico City

Last spring, P. Christopher Zegras, an associate professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), co-taught a graduate practicum in which students traveled to Mexico City to study the potential of linking real estate development to public transportation networks. Known as transit-oriented development, the development paradigm requires designers to engage with multiple stakeholders — government officials, local businesses, residents, transit authorities, and private developers — to help create sustainable mixed-use communities around mass transit stations.

Zegras’s students integrated their classroom knowledge into the realities of Mexico’s economy, geography, and politics, crafting solutions that made sense — and could be implemented — in that particular time, space, and culture.

“The good news is that there are concrete actions that can be taken,” says Onésimo Flores PhD ’13, who co-taught the course as a visiting lecturer at MIT. Flores is now CEO of Conecta Cuatro, a company that promotes innovative technology ventures to tackle urban and transportation problems in Mexico.

The client and sponsor for the practicum was Grupo Prodi, a private developer and operator of multimodal transit stations in Mexico City. “It’s clear that transit-oriented development can be the key to improving quality of life in urban areas not only in Mexico City, but also in cities like Monterey and Guadalajara,” says José Miguel Bejos, Grupo Prodi CEO.

Designing sustainable agriculture in Baja

Sheila Kennedy, a professor in the Department of Architecture, brought her Architecture Design Core Studio III students to the Valle de Guadeloupe, in Baja — a wine region severely affected by drought and climate change. “I wanted to place the students at the intersection between places of production and the limits of natural resources,” says Kennedy. “The students needed to have a strategy for their designs, their materials, and where those materials were sourced. They couldn’t just rely on standard sustainable solutions like green roofs.”

After a weeklong visit to Baja, with host and sponsor Bodegas F. Rubio Winery, the students returned to campus to develop novel architectural and site designs that could help wineries survive and thrive in a challenging climate. One student suggested using solar chimneys to take advantage of the sharp nightly drops in temperature, storing cool air and releasing it during the day. Another designed a temporary winery that would exist just as long as there was water and could then be dismantled — with its materials repurposed or recycled — when the water ran out.

Second-year master’s student Anne Graziano came to Baja intending to work on dew collection. But after she saw the morning fog roll in each day from the nearby Pacific Ocean, she returned to MIT to design an undulating series of walls made of MIT’s Fog Harvesting Mesh, a finely woven metal textile that can increase fog collection yields fivefold.

“I love the idea that architecture can create something functional but also communicate a sense of place and create shade and shared spaces,” says Graziano. “Because of the landscape and the culture and the community I encountered there, I was able to imagine a winery whose walls provide the water with which the wine will be made.”

Engaging technology through an artist’s perspective

While working and studying in Mexico has stimulated innovation by MIT scholars, the Institute has also inspired others who call Mexico home. “I don’t think there’s any other place in the world that has such a density of creativity” as MIT, says Reyes, the Mexican artist and activist who is the Dasha Zhukova Distinguished Visiting Artist at CAST. “Every person I meet there is inspiring.” Reyes’ ongoing appointment was the first in a series endowed by a $1 million gift to CAST from Russian-American philanthropist, entrepreneur, and art collector Dasha Zhukova.

Last fall, Reyes taught a course with visiting lecturer Carla Fernández, a Mexican fashion designer, titled “The Reverse Engineering of Warfare: Challenging Techno-Optimism and Reimagining the Defense Sector (an Opera for the End of Times).” Reyes encouraged his students to consider the effects of automation on global employment, reexamine the influence of the military sector on U.S. government policies, and imagine retooling the U.S. military complex to combat global climate change.

“My Latin culture leads me to place more importance on human interaction than on technology,” says Reyes. “I’m more interested in replacing robots with humans than in replacing humans with robots. But that doesn’t make me any less of a tech lover. You can see great potential in technology, but also recognize that technology needs to be applied with care. That critical dialectic is a vital part of MIT culture.”

Featured video: Tackling science and technology together

Mon, 02/13/2017 - 13:15

Addressing the 21st century’s great challenges requires the world’s best minds to come together and collaborate on solutions. That is why, reflecting the borderless nature of science and technology, MIT President L. Rafael Reif charges each graduating class with a mission to spread far and wide the lessons they’ve learned while in Cambridge. “Hack the world,” he says, “until you make the world a little more like MIT.”

The Institute comprises a diverse, international community of nearly 23,500 students, postdocs, faculty, and staff. MIT faculty alone hail from 73 countries — including the seven affected by the presidential executive order of Jan. 27.

“All my colleagues are from different countries, different cultures, and I think that’s what makes this whole place an amazing place,” says Nikta Fakhri, an expert on the mechanics of living systems and an assistant professor in the Department of Physics, who hails from Iran.

Dina Katabi, a Syrian-born pioneer in wireless technologies and a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, says: “We’re talking about dedicated, smart people who can contribute so much to our nation, but also to making the world a better place.”

Video by: MIT Video Productions | 2 min, 9 sec

Matthew Cavuto: Getting a leg up on engineering

Thu, 02/09/2017 - 00:00

Matthew Cavuto, now a senior in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, embarked on his career path partly as a result of a talk he heard in high school by MIT Professor Hugh Herr, a double amputee who works on improving prosthetic devices and systems to allow people with similar disabilities to regain as much control, independence, and capability as possible.

Herr “gave an awesome talk about the work he was doing in his field. … It both piqued my interest in MIT and made me want to tackle similar problems in my studies,” Cavuto recalls.

Now, thanks to a Marshall Scholarship that will provide him with two years of graduate studies in England, Cavuto will be taking that interest to the next level. He plans one year of work at Imperial College London, with one of the world’s leading research teams on providing sensory feedback to users of prosthetic limbs, and then a year at Cambridge University with a leading team developing devices known as exoskeletons, to restore mobility to patients with paralysis.

Cavuto knows a thing or two himself about graceful, highly controlled mobility: He spends his free time in high-level competitive ballroom dancing and varsity fencing, two very different but equally demanding disciplines that are based on precision movement.

Even as an undergraduate, Cavuto has made some significant progress in providing mobility for some amputees in developing countries. Working with MIT’s GEAR (Global Engineering and Research) Lab, under the guidance of Amos Winter, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, Cavuto has developed a patent-pending artificial knee device that allows above-the-knee amputees to cross their legs, something that typical prosthetic legs do not allow. In India, being able to sit cross-legged is an important part of being able to participate fully in society and is even a requirement for some kinds of work, he explains.

That project will be going through a second round of field testing in coming months in India, after initial tests last year of an earlier version. The tests are focused on developing a system that would be affordable to low-income users, durable enough to provide years of service, and simple enough that its users could learn to repair and maintain the device on their own. “The challenge is to design devices that can be made for a much lower cost, but that are still as robust and functional as those in the developed world,” Cavuto says. And such solutions, once successful, “can also apply to the developed world,” where costs still do make a difference, he says.

The prosthetic device he designed, which works with an existing knee joint and is not a knee itself, is intended to be something that could sell for just $10, and consists of just five parts that a user can take apart, clean and maintain, and reassemble. Comparable prosthetic knees in the developed world cost “anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars,” Cavuto says. Part of the savings comes from replacing materials such as titanium with less expensive aluminum or plastic, and from the inexpensive yet durable custom locking mechanism he designed. His work on that project, and the associated fieldwork in India, was made possible by funding through the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) program and MIT’s D-Lab.

Cavuto’s mechanical skills — as well as his fencing and dancing skills ­— go way back. He has enjoyed woodworking since the fourth grade and over the years has made much of the furniture in his family’s home in Skillman, New Jersey. He has won prizes for his woodworking designs, and one of his creations is in the collection of a museum in Pennsylvania.

His interest in fencing started in fifth grade, and in high school he competed in that sport in the Junior Olympics. He has continued his competitive fencing on a team at MIT as a squad leader. In ballroom dancing, he has participated in many national competitions, including the annual MIT Open, which is the largest collegiate ballroom dancing competition in the world, he says. Dancing all 10 categories of standard and Latin dances, he competes with his dance partner at the highest amateur level in the U.S.

Cavuto’s parents are both doctors — in fact, “almost everyone in my family is a doctor,” he says — and he initially considered going into that family business. But he decided that becoming an engineer and designing biomedical devices offered the possibility of impacting many more lives than would be possible by treating one patient at a time.

His tentative goal at this point is, after completing the two master’s programs under his Marshall Scholarship, to pursue a doctorate, perhaps at MIT, and ultimately to become a professor. “Through inspiring and guiding the research of students, as a professor or head of a lab, I could accomplish far more than through pursing my research alone,” he says. Furthermore, based on his experiences working as a teaching assistant in mechanical engineering classes, including the very popular Course 2.007 (Design and Manufacturing) that culminates in a robotic competition, “I’ve also realized my passion for teaching,” he says.

Cavuto is looking forward to the work he will be doing next year on providing sensory feedback for prosthetic limbs. The lack of such feedback “is definitely a big bottleneck” in the development of better prosthetics, he says. Even with a prosthetic hand that provides highly precise control over movement, in order to perform complex tasks — or even simple ones like picking up a delicate object — feedback is important. Without it, users must watch all their movements closely and constantly. “The goal is to be able to pick up a pear without bruising it, or a plastic cup without crushing it,” he says.

Featured video: "I grew up in Damascus"

Wed, 02/08/2017 - 16:18

MIT is a home to individuals from all parts of the globe. These community members learn, do research, and advance the Institute’s mission of making the world a better place.

One student, a native of Damascus, Syria, looks forward to bringing what he is learning here back home. “Even though I’m thousands of miles away from my friends and family, I’ve gotten the chance to explore new things [and] meet a ton of interesting people,” says Ihssan Tanawi, a junior majoring in electrical engineering and computer science who has also enjoyed courses in economics and history. “Just seeing people with different opinions — that was something that was very new to me.”

In addition to his academic pursuits, Tanawi has tapped into the Institute’s many entrepreneurship and innovation resources. And he relishes participating in the MIT Muslim Students’ Association, which recently won the Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award for community engagement. As a mentor, Tanawi takes pride in helping others who come to MIT from a distant land and helping them learn the ropes as new community members — as he says, “making them feel welcome here.”

Submitted by: School of Engineering | Video by: Lillie Paquette | 1 min, 36 sec

MIT, Conservation International announce collaboration on climate adaptation and mitigation

Fri, 01/27/2017 - 13:00

MIT and Conservation International (CI) will participate in a multiyear collaboration to develop and advance nature-based solutions to global climate change, through research, education, and outreach efforts, the organizations announced today.

The collaboration brings together MIT’s technical, scientific, and engineering expertise with Conservation International’s expansive environmental programs, to look for ways that forests, coastal ecosystems, and urban areas can be managed to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change.

The collaboration launches today with a one-day hackathon at MIT that invites participants to team up on ideation and early-state design of nature-based, technologically savvy solutions to climate challenges in developing world communities. The collaboration will involve MIT students in CI’s international fieldwork and will initially include four joint research projects in which scientists will focus directly on climate challenges already having an impact in places such as the Philippines and the Amazon Basin.

The collaboration was established by MIT’s Office of the Vice President for Research and will be managed by MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI). ESI Director John E. Fernández, a professor of building technology in the Department of Architecture, says the collaboration is unique in its focus on “surprising, novel, and untested applications of science and engineering in the field of conservation.” MIT President L. Rafael Reif is also a member of CI’s board of directors

“We feel there is significant potential value in linking different disciplines and perspectives, for example engineering with ecology, while leveraging advances in big-data analysis, machine learning, and artificial intelligence to address the priorities and goals of conservation in ways that may not have been considered before this,” Fernández says.

“CI is thrilled to be part of this pioneering collaboration with the world’s premier scientific and engineering institute for research and learning,” says Daniela Raik, senior vice president and managing director at Conservation International. “Together we can design and implement innovative solutions to real-world challenges around the globe.”

MIT and CI began exploring a potential collaboration last year, with two key workshops held April 25 and July 26 that brought together MIT faculty and staff and the scientific leadership of Conservation International. At the meetings, participants discussed ways to use science and engineering to unlock the full potential of natural systems in storing climate-warming carbon emissions and helping communities adapt to climate change’s impacts, such as flooding and food insecurity.

“Nature plays a critical role in helping society offset the impacts of climate change,” says Raik. “For instance, tropical forests and other ecosystems can provide at least 30 percent of the mitigation needed to achieve the 2 or 1.5 degree [Celsius] targets that were set in the Paris Agreement last year.”

The groups agreed to focus their efforts on the interface between human activity and natural systems, as an important source of solutions to address climate change. CI has worked at this human-nature interface for decades, says Fernández, in multiple field offices that develop conservation plans in the context of local governmental, economic, social, and cultural systems.

“At the core of MIT’s climate action plan is the idea that we can have a much bigger real-world impact if we engage with other organizations, and this collaboration with Conservation International exemplifies that idea,” says Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research. “Together, our goal is to move from education and research to the implementation of solutions that harness nature to both mitigate climate change and help communities around the world prepare for its impacts.” 

The MIT-CI collaboration will include new educational and outreach activities. For MIT students, that could mean traveling to CI field sites in the Americas, Asia, Africa, and the Pacific Oceanscape to do hands-on work on local environmental projects alongside local stakeholders. A Student Action Corps will provide students with opportunities to engage public audiences on climate issues and solutions through blog posts, op-eds, and other digital and print communications.

Education and outreach activities will also include guest lectures at MIT by CI scientists as well as other shared teaching opportunities; postdoctoral fellowships; workshops for researchers from developing countries; class materials for K-12 students; crowdsourcing contests powered by MIT’s Climate CoLab platform; annual symposia; and a joint, web-based public portal on nature-based solutions to climate mitigation and adaptation.

The first research projects planned for the MIT-CI collaboration will pair ongoing CI field office work with extensions of studies already underway by MIT researchers. In one project, for instance, Heidi M. Nepf, the Donald and Martha Harleman Professor in the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, will work with CI scientists to further develop a model of mangrove strength and the effects of wave drag and turbulence on key plants. While mangrove forests could be used as important “green infrastructure” to protect coastal areas, governments and engineers have been slow to adopt their conservation and management without more data on how mangroves could best be deployed to protect communities from severe flooding and erosion.

The Nepf lab will develop and test its model through CI’s field offices in the Visayas region of the central Philippines, the site of severe damage by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. CI is already working with the national and local governments on mangrove forest restoration in the area.

"I am excited to work with Dr. Emily Pidgeon at CI, who is an international leader and advocate in coastal zone conservation for carbon mitigation and natural coastal defense,” Nepf says. “The MIT-CI collaboration will greatly expand the reach of my research with Dr. Maria Maza, facilitating better design of natural defense and more precise evaluation of carbon sequestration for proposed mangrove restoration projects.”

Altogether, planned MIT-CI research projects will involve numerous departments, labs, and programs at MIT, and will explore topics including the use of sensors to monitor natural resources; the social, economic, and environmental impact of climate adaptation efforts in developing countries; and how natural ecosystems provide for urban needs.

The new collaboration also supports MIT’s five-year Plan for Action on Climate Change, especially with regard to the plan’s goal of engaging with other organizations to advance research into solutions to mitigate and adapt to climate change, Fernández says. “We see this collaboration as a way to bring the deep expertise in engineering and other fields at MIT to opportunities for nature-based solutions to climate change that may not have been part of the MIT community’s focus before this.”

Jiwon Park: Reaching out to the world

Mon, 01/23/2017 - 00:00

As a high school student, Jiwon Park traveled weekly across her hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, to tutor Burmese refugees. They told her stories of escaping through the jungle and waiting in refugee camps.

“Doing that in high school really opened my eyes to the problems of people in my city,” says Park, an MIT senior. “Since then, I’ve been interested in finding a way to be most valuable to people in need around the world.”

A chemistry major, Park balances polymer research while leading social entrepreneurship and public health projects that have taken her to four different countries during her undergraduate years. “MIT has not only provided a very valuable classroom experience, but also given me all these other tools in research, technology innovations, and social entrepreneurship that I can take and [use to] help people in developing countries,” she says.

Globetrotting for good

As she settled in at MIT, Park began looking for concrete ways to help those most in need. One of her first steps was to join the MIT Global Poverty Initiative, a student-led organization that engages the MIT community to fight poverty.

Her first year with GPI found her working on the du’Anyam Project (Indonesian for “Mothers Weaving”), a social entrepreneurship project that seeks to alleviate poor maternal health and high rates of miscarriage in Indonesia. For financial reasons, women on remote islands perform heavy agricultural labor throughout their pregnancies. Park’s team proposed providing women with an alternative revenue by helping them leverage an existing skill — weaving wicker crafts out of pandan leaves.

After winning the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge in 2014 with this proposal, Park travelled to Bali on behalf of du’Anyam to meet with hotel executives to establish a business partnership for selling slippers and ornamental boxes, journeyed to Surabaya to explore manufacturing sources that could put finishing touches on the women’s products, and then flew by tiny propeller plane to the rural community of Flores to meet the 10 pilot participants.

Park has continued to serve as a student assistant and panelist for the IDEAS Global Challenges. “I get to read all the proposals and work with different students who are entering that year,” Park says. “It’s been a fun experience.”

After her freshman year, Park’s interest in public health led her to intern at the LV Prasad Eye Institute in Hyderabad, India, through MISTI-India. Her research focused on the effect of preoperative conditions on surgery outcomes in the context of clinics outside of major cities. Park observed cataract surgeries, LASIK surgeries, and cornea transplants, while also visiting rural eye clinics throughout the summer.

Before returning to the U.S., Park participated in two hackathons in India — once as a hacker and once as a mentor. At the Engineering the Eye Workshop Park worked with a team to develop a portable keratometer, a device that measures the curvature of eyes in order to detect disease. She then traveled to Nashik to join members of the MIT Media Lab and to mentor a team at the Kumbathon, a hackathon devoted to planning for the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage of 2015.

Last summer, an “eye-opening” internship at the World Bank through the MIT Washington D.C. Summer Internship Program crystallized some of these international experiences for Park, showing how her diverse projects could fit together. “It allowed me to integrate my interests in social entrepreneurship and international development and witness how policies are made at a high level,” she says.

Deep dive into research

Park conducts polymer research through a UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program) in the lab of Firmenich Career Development Associate Professor Jeremiah Johnson. Her focus has been on developing a synthesis strategy to introduce metal organic cages into polymers, and devising systems to use brush-arm star polymers for drug delivery — essentially creating a large molecule that delivers several drugs at once.

“If you can imagine a star, each arm has a different drug. We are loading multiple cancer drugs, [and testing] different combinations of different cancer drugs, and then controlling the release of those drugs in the body,” Park explains.

“I think [my work is] all very interconnected. Maybe my polymer research is not directly helping the people in the Philippines that I am working with, but I connect [my research to international projects] because of my mission to bring technology and science to developing countries. At MIT I consider my research a way to deep-dive into the actual science and technology — to be at the forefront of it — and then over the summers and the IAPs [Independent Activities Periods] I have travelled to different countries to witness the impact,” Park says.

Park is also an accomplished pianist. During her first and second years at MIT, she was chosen as an Emerson scholar, which provided an opportunity to take private music lessons with MIT faculty. She won the MIT Symphony Orchestra Concerto Competition her freshman year, and performed the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No. 2 with the symphony in the spring of 2014. Park is also an MIT Arts Scholar. Lately, she has set aside her music studies in order to focus on her international and research endeavors.

Coding mutual understanding

Park continued working with GPI throughout her time at MIT; this year, she is serving as co-president with fellow MIT student Amanda Wu. Her latest project has again brought her overseas, this time to the Philippines. In December of 2015, Park teamed up with her younger brother, Sang Jun Park, a sophomore at Columbia University, to launch a program there called CodePhil.

“The basic idea of CodePhil is to reach out to rural high school students in the Philippines and teach them coding. [We are] using coding as a way to empower these students, and expose them to new types of careers,” Park says.

After winning the U.S. Department of State Laura W. Bush Traveling Fellowship, Park, her brother, and three other students from MIT and Columbia travelled to Northern Samar, one of the most impoverished regions of the Philippines, to pilot their curriculum last summer. 

The team spent three weeks teaching 75 high school students in the town of Lavezares how to code in Scratch, a free language and platform developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab. Next, students learned to apply their new coding skills by programing tiny, round programmable robots called Spheros.

Park met with mayor of Lavezares; partnered with the Rotary Club of Catarman, a larger, neighboring town; and spoke with a cultural ambassador at the U.S. Embassy in Manilla. She also signed a memorandum of understanding with the chair of the education department at the University of Eastern Philippines. Going forward, CodePhil plans to train college students at the university to teach CodePhil’s curriculum in high schools throughout the year as part of their extension programs, and to expand to more high schools. Park is in the process of making CodePhil a 501(c)(3) organization.

Beyond MIT

After graduating, Park plans to spend some time working in management consulting before pursuing a medical or MD/PhD degree.

“At MIT I have done so many different things, ranging from polymer research, to working with the government and international development organizations. I really like the diversity in experience, and I want to be able to continue that full time.”

She sees herself someday working at the interface of medicine and research or in the public sector — maybe at the World Bank or the World Health Organization — to influence health care policies with global impacts. 

John Kerry: Climate drive an urgent “race against time”

Mon, 01/09/2017 - 23:59

Voicing both concern and confidence, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in an address at MIT on Monday that the effort to limit climate change was a dire “race against time,” but one that could be successful due to the economic promise of renewable energy.

Amid record temperatures and rising sea levels that stem in large part from carbon emissions, Kerry stated, we must act quickly “to avoid the catastrophe we will inevitably see if we allow carbon emissions to go up, and up, and up.” Moreover, he added, “We need to speed it up dramatically because we are in a race against time.”

However, speaking before a capacity audience of about 250 people in MIT’s Samberg Conference Center, Kerry talked at greater length about the upsides of a prospective clean-energy revolution, referencing the falling prices of wind and solar power and observing that by making renewable energy a major growth industry, “we can put millions of people to work.”

The speech constituted one of the last major public statements Kerry is expected to make on climate change as Secretary of State before he leaves office with the change of administration later this month. Climate change efforts have been a key part of Kerry’s portfolio, and he highlighted the State Department’s recent work on the topic.

Kerry called the 2015 Paris Agreement, in which over 190 countries agreed to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and contended that the extensive bilateral U.S.-China climate negotiations, leading to a 2014 announcement of climate cooperation, “changed the whole playing field” by showing how committed the two countries were to an evolving approach on energy.

The Paris Agreement also signaled to entrepreneurs, innovators, and investors that the renewable energy sector would remain a growth industry, Kerry said, and he called on his audience to participate in the transformation of energy.

“Brilliant minds trained at MIT are behind some of the most transformative innovations in history,” Kerry said, suggesting the Institute’s students and entrepreneurs could help mitigate climate change while developing “the greatest economic opportunity the world has ever known.”

Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, introduced Kerry before his speech by noting that environmental protection has been a priority of his throughout his time in the Senate and at the State Department. "Today, it is starkly obvious that society must act quickly and boldly to minimize our emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere,” Zuber said. "Yet as Secretary Kerry knows well, acting against climate change is not only about avoiding potential catastrophe: It is also an economic imperative, and an incredible opportunity.”

“We know how to do these things”

As Kerry noted in his remarks, 2016 produced the highest average global temperatures ever recorded, while each of the last three decades have been, consecutively, the warmest ever recorded.

He also recounted a recent visit he made to the scientific stations of Antarctica, where he was given a vial of air containing over 401 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Many scientists have stated that limiting the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million is a necessity in order to prevent climate change from having its most drastic potential effects. 

“The natural world is changing in obvious and deeply troubling ways,” Kerry said.

Making the climate change problem all the more frustrating, Kerry added, is that we understand what will solve the problem: developing inexpensive, carbon-free sources of energy.

“We know how to do these things,” Kerry observed. As he detailed, the prices of large-scale wind and solar projects have in some places become competitive with coal, which is the least expensive form of fossil fuel energy in many regions. In some recent cases, contracts for large-scale renewables have been signed for prices as low as 3 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Solar energy costs have dropped by 62 percent since 2009, Kerry noted, while the number of solar-industry jobs has grown by over 20 percent in the U.S. in each of the last three years. He cited a World Bank study stating that every $1 million of investment in renewable energy yields as many jobs as the same amount of investment in fossil fuels.

This means that “market-based forces are already beginning to shift” in the direction of clean energy, Kerry said, while adding that as a matter of governance, “very few public policy choices present as much upside.”

MIT meetings

Before his speech, Kerry met with MIT President L. Rafael Reif; as Kerry related in his talk, the two discussed MIT initiatives on climate matters. After his speech, Kerry and Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken then met for a roundtable discussion with a group of about 20 MIT faculty and industry and government experts.

The roundtable dialogue, chaired by Zuber, focused on the future of employment in light of ongoing innovation and automation, areas of concern to the State Department given large-scale trends in employment and globalization. The MIT faculty and other business leaders discussed recent developments in artificial intelligence; ways in which employees can benefit from automation and technology rather than being displaced by them; and the prospects for job growth in advanced manufacturing.

Kerry has served as U.S. Secretary of State since early 2013, a time period spanning President Barack Obama’s second term in office. Previously, Kerry served nearly five full terms as a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, starting in 1984; he was previously elected as the state’s lieutenant governor, in 1982. In 2004, Kerry was the Democratic Party’s nominee for president.

In his public remarks, Kerry, the son of a diplomat, called the position of Secretary of State “about the best job anybody could imagine” and said he would remain engaged and active as a private citizen on many civic matters, including climate change.

“What we do right now, today, matters,” Kerry told the audience. “We don’t get a second chance on this one.”

How engineering students are seeking to solve major food and water security problems

Mon, 01/09/2017 - 15:45

Food and water are two necessities for survival, but what happens when a changing climate in key agricultural regions threatens crop production? Or when the quality of milk cannot be ensured as it is exchanged between producer and seller?

Seven MIT graduate students studying food and water security issues presented their research and preliminary findings on issues such as these during the MIT Water and Food Security Student Symposium held on Nov. 21. Hosted by the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) and the MIT Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS), the event brought together professors and students to discuss food and water challenges and opportunities to address these through research.

Chandra Madramootoo, CEE visiting professor and J-WAFS visiting scholar, curated the event and spoke briefly of the importance of water and food security. “The withdrawal of water varies in different parts of the world. Much larger amounts of water are withdrawn for agriculture compared to industry and domestic uses in South Asia, Middle East, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and East Asia Pacific. This puts stresses on water resources available for food production and our ability to achieve food security. It also puts stress on a very finite resource amongst the other economic and environmental sectors that are competing for that water supply,” Madramootoo highlighted in his opening remarks. 

During the event, each student presenter was tasked with conveying a broad overview of his or her research in a five minute presentation. There was a wide range of topics, but each student sought to solve a problem relating to food or water. Presentations addressed research as varied as understanding the impact of an environmental threat to agriculture to developing improved irrigation technology to help smallholder farmers around the world.

Understanding food and water through an environmental lens

Paige Midstokke, a master’s candidate in CEE and a Tata Fellow in Technology and Policy, kicked off the student component of the symposium. Through her research, Midstokke is seeking to improve the drought planning process by researching water security for the state of Maharashtra in India. Since most water planning and management is done at the district level, Midstokke is conducting a case study, focusing on the Aurangabad district.

For her thesis, Midstokke is developing a “vulnerability-scarcity index” that integrates socioeconomic data, pumping rates from observation wells, and geographic information system data. “If you work with the government of India, they have a ton of data and they are often willing to give it to you; you get to decide how to put it all together,” she said. Her index is intended to improve early indicators of drought and thus improve water scarcity planning at the district and local levels.

Anjuli Jain Figueroa, a PhD candidate in CEE, introduced her research by asking if the question of “sustainable agriculture” is an oxymoron. She noted that historically, increased food production has had negative environmental impacts. Her research, entitled “Sustainable agriculture – quantifying the trade-offs between food security and environmental impacts,” uses case studies from India to describe this trend.

During her presentation, Jain Figueroa provided an example of a trade-off she is studying, wherein profit increased for farmers, but there was an unforeseen negative impact. “We see this in a shift that happened with rice. India is growing a lot of rice but it has come at a cost; the cost was nutritional value. Even though families are making more money, the nutritional value for that household decreased. That’s one of the unintended consequences we’re only realizing now,” Jain Figueroa said. She is now working to solve problems like these in her thesis by using a systems approach to study how farmers could increase crop production to meet 2050 population needs, while limiting the negative environmental impacts.

Luke Schiferl, a PhD candidate in CEE, added a global perspective to food and water security. Schiferl looks at how air quality affects crop productivity on a global scale and how these effects can be quantified. In his research project “Contrasting particulate matter and ozone effects on crop production,” he uses crop production simulations and chemistry models to quantify the offsetting effects of ozone and particulate matter on crop productivity. This research can suggest how crop production losses can be properly mitigated by air quality improvements once the effects are understood.

“We can relate ozone and particulate matter effects with known relationships to crop production and basically plot the different effects,” he said. In the future, Schiferl hopes to apply similar research to simulate the effects water and nutrient restrictions have on these air quality effects and predicting crop productivity.

Creating tools and technology to solve food and water security issues

Four student contributors to the symposium presented on technological solutions to various environmental issues. Many of these innovative tools are already in use and tested, ready to make positive changes for food and water security around the world. 

Kevin Patrick Simon, a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering, lent the energy perspective to the water and agriculture discussion. Energy is needed to access water sources with pumps, but energy supply from electricity grids and water sources are distributed unequally across India. In rural India, small farmers still use diesel to run their water pumps. Unfortunately, the cost of diesel discourages year-round cultivation in favor of lower-paying jobs during the winter and dry season. Simon is seeking a solution with his research on “High efficiency, low-cost positive displacement pumps for solar irrigation.”

The central question to Simon’s research — “How can we enable people to have better access to water in order to irrigate their land?” — is addressed in part by solar irrigation. He explained the numerous benefits of solar irrigation, including its potential for cost-savings, independence from the electricity grid and environmental sustainability. “It gives small farmers an unprecedented amount of independence and an ability to draw income from their land,” he said.

Pulkit Shamshery, also a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering, is taking a different approach to irrigation by making drip irrigation systems more energy-efficient and more accessible to small farmers. Shamshery noted that 15 percent of India’s food production is dependent on over-exploited water resources; “there is an extreme need for more food with less water, and that’s the motivation for drip irrigation.” Advantages of drip irrigation are increased water savings and higher yields. Additionally, farmers can use less fertilizer by only applying it where it is needed. However, drip irrigation is typically a costly endeavor, which led Shamshery to his project “Low cost, energy-efficient drip irrigation system.”

Along with a research team, Shamshery looked at where the most pressure was being lost in irrigation systems when using them to retrieve water from surface sources, and then figured out how to reduce that pressure loss. The team created an off-grid product to make irrigation more efficient and available at a lower cost. Shamshery’s component is patent-pending and will be licensed, and the pressure loss results in a cut of cost of an off-grid drip system by 50 percent for an acre of land.

“In the United States you can buy milk off the shelf and not worry about any contamination, but that’s not true for developing countries,” said Pranay Jain, Legatum Fellow and PhD candidate in mechanical engineering. Jain highlighted the public health and economic consequences of milk contamination in India, noting that when people don’t trust the quality of milk that is sold to them, the milk industry suffers. 

Jain’s research project, “Milk quality analysis for villages in India,” addresses the question: “If milk changes hands so many times before it reaches the consumer, how can these buyers and sellers trust each other?” Jain’s solution was to create an affordable, portable instrument to quickly and accurately determine the quality of milk as it moves through the supply chain from farm to grocery store, and to help improve payment mechanisms. By testing the quality of milk on the spot, “the supply chain simplifies; more farmers opt to sell their milk to processing plants, these plants can get more milk, they will pay the farmer more accurately and both sides benefit.” The device is also powered by mobile phones and collects data; the data collected by the device will be saved in the cloud, allowing for researchers to observe trends and monitor the health of their livestock. 

In India, approximately one out of every five crates of produce is lost due to spoilage, but Kendall Nowocin, Legatum Fellow and PhD candidate in electrical engineering and computer science, is tackling that problem with CoolCrop, a storage apparatus for small farmers. The storage unit is about the size of a walk-in closet and extends the freshness of their produce.

CoolCrop is already being piloted through cooperatives involving non-governmental organizations, and their use is augmented with market analytics. Following supply-and-demand, farmers get the most value for their crops if they are in markets with fewer competitors. CoolCrop fills this void by providing market analytics to small farmers, so they know which markets will increase their profit. Explaining their business model, he said that they “can extract an initial profit that pays for the cold storage and increases the value for the farmer.” 

CEE Professor Dennis McLaughlin noted in the closing remarks that although most of the research shared at the symposium was centered on India, other developing areas around the world are dealing with similar issues.

The MIT Water and Food Security Student Symposium was the final component of a seminar series hosted by Chandra Madramootoo. Commenting that on the importance of water security, he said “I think it’s important when we think about water in the broader context, to think about the competition that’s placed between agricultural water and other sources of water. It’s this competing pressure for resources that we need to think about.”

Short-lived greenhouse gases cause centuries of sea-level rise

Mon, 01/09/2017 - 15:00

Even if there comes a day when the world completely stops emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, coastal regions and island nations will continue to experience rising sea levels for centuries afterward, according to a new study by researchers at MIT and Simon Fraser University.

In a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers report that warming from short-lived compounds — greenhouse gases such as methane, chlorofluorocarbons, or hydrofluorocarbons, that linger in the atmosphere for just a year to a few decades — can cause sea levels to rise for hundreds of years after the pollutants have been cleared from the atmosphere.

“If you think of countries like Tuvalu, which are barely above sea level, the question that is looming is how much we can emit before they are doomed. Are they already slated to go under, even if we stopped emitting everything tomorrow?” says co-author Susan Solomon, the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate Science at MIT. “It’s all the more reason why it’s important to understand how long climate changes will last, and how much more sea-level rise is already locked in.”

Solomon’s co-authors are lead author Kirsten Zickfeld of Simon Fraser University and Daniel Gilford, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

Short stay, long rise

Recent studies by many groups, including Solomon’s own, have shown that even if human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide were to stop entirely, their associated atmospheric warming and sea-level rise would continue for more than 1,000 years. These effects — essentially irreversible on human timescales — are due in part to carbon dioxide’s residence time: The greenhouse gas can stay in the atmosphere for centuries after it’s been emitted from smokestacks and tailpipes.

In contrast to carbon dioxide, other greenhouse gases such as methane and chlorofluorocarbons have much shorter lifetimes. However, previous studies have not specified what their long-term effects may be on sea-level rise. To answer this question, Solomon and her colleagues explored a number of climate scenarios using an Earth Systems Model of Intermediate Complexity, or EMIC, a computationally efficient climate model that simulates ocean and atmospheric circulation to project climate changes over decades, centuries, and millenia.

With the model, the team calculated both the average global temperature and sea-level rise, in response to anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, chlorofluorocarbons, and hydrofluorocarbons.

The researchers’ estimates for carbon dioxide agreed with others’ predictions and showed that, even if the world were to stop emitting carbon dioxide starting in 2050, up to 50 percent of the gas would remain in the atmosphere more than 750 years afterward. Even after carbon dioxide emissions cease, sea-level rise should continue to increase, measuring twice the level of 2050 estimates for 100 years, and four times that value for another 500 years.

The reason, Solomon says, is due to “ocean inertia”: As the world warms due to greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide included — waters heat up and expand, causing sea levels to rise. Removing the extra ocean heat caused by even short-lived gases, and consequently lowering sea levels, is an extremely slow process.

“As the heat goes into the ocean, it goes deeper and deeper, giving you continued thermal expansion,” Solomon explains. “Then it has to get transferred back to the atmosphere and emitted back into space to cool off, and that’s a very slow process of hundreds of years.”

Stemming tides

In one particular climate modeling scenario, the team evaluated sea level’s response to various methane emissions scenarios, in which the world would continue to emit the gas at current rates, until emissions end entirely in three different years: 2050, 2100, and 2150.

In all three scenarios, methane gas quickly cleared from the atmosphere, and its associated atmospheric warming decreased at a similar rate. However, methane continued to contribute to sea-level rise for centuries afterward. What’s more, they found that the longer the world waits to reduce methane emissions, the longer seas will stay elevated. 

“Amazingly, a gas with a 10-year lifetime can actually cause enduring sea-level changes,” Solomon says. “So you don’t just get to stop emitting and have everything go back to a preindustrial state. You are going to live with this for a very long time.”

The researchers found one silver lining in their analyses: Curious as to whether past regulations on pollutants have had a significant effect on sea-level rise, the team focused on perhaps the most successful global remediation effort to date — the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty ratified by 197 countries in 1989, that effectively curbed emissions of ozone-depleting compounds worldwide.   

Encouragingly, the researchers found that the Montreal Protocol, while designed to protect the ozone layer by phasing out pollutants such as chlorofluorocarbons — has also helped stem rising seas. If the Montreal Protocol had not been ratified, and countries had continued to emit chlorofluorocarbons to the atmosphere, the researchers found that by 2050, the world would have experienced up to an additional 6 inches of sea-level rise.

“Half a foot is pretty significant,” Solomon says. “It’s yet another tremendous reason why the Montreal Protocol has been a pretty good thing for the planet.”

In their paper’s conclusion, the researchers point out that efforts to curb global warming should not be expected to reverse high seas quickly, and that longer-term impacts from sea-level rise should be seriously considered: “The primary policy conclusion of this study is that the long-lasting nature of sea-level rise heightens the importance of earlier mitigation actions.”

This research was supported, in part, by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and NASA.

Reducing spoilage in food aid shipments

Fri, 01/06/2017 - 00:00

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) ships out food aid worth more than $1 billion every year — over a million tons of grains, soybeans, and other staples sent to dozens of countries around the world. Even though the agency estimates that only about 1 percent of that food is lost to spoilage, that’s still over 10 million dollars’ worth of food annually that never gets to needy people’s plates. And some within-nation food procurement suffers even higher losses.

Now, researchers are systematically exploring a variety of alternative packaging materials and containers to see which work best, and most cost-effectively, at reducing such losses.

For the past year, a research project run by the MIT Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation (CITE) has been studying possible solutions to the problem. They have made multimillion-dollar purchases of a milled corn and soybean product, split peas, and sorghum, and had them shipped to two African destinations, using several different types of packaging. They have carefully tracked and inspected the shipments to determine the effectiveness of the packaging, and identify any issues related to supply chains and handling processes along the way. Most of these shipments have now arrived in Africa.

Mark Brennan, an MIT PhD student and CITE researcher who has been managing the purchasing process, presented preliminary findings from the work at the TechCon conference at MIT and at the annual Production and Operations Management Society (POMS) and Humanitarian Technology (HumTech) conferences. Last year, he traveled with CITE researcher Prithvi Sundar to North Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas, as well as to Djibouti, Ethiopia, and South Africa to work with the packaging and commodity suppliers, transport firms, and warehouses involved in food aid supply chains.

Most current food aid shipments, Brennan says, “have been using the same packaging for decades,” mostly paper and woven polypropylene bags. The new experiment is designed to test a variety of options, including larger bags that may reduce unit costs, chemical compounds on bags that prevent insects from reproducing, and airtight liners to keep out moisture and insects. An initial set of test shipments involved about $1.5 million of food, using 11 different packaging products. The shipments totaled approximately 1,000 metric tons.

“The goal is to identify cost-effective packaging,” Brennan says. The shipments are being evaluated at various points to see the degree to which better packaging can reduce the need for fumigation of the product, which has both costs and potential health effects, and how much it can cut down on losses due to spoilage, insect infestation, mold, or spillage.

Even though the percentages involved may not be that large, Brennan says, the amounts of food being shipped are so vast that any savings could be significant. “They lose an estimated 1 percent to spoilage and breakage,” he says, out of an estimated $1 billion to $2 billion in annual food aid shipments. “That’s a lot of money.” The potential for eliminating $10 million to $20 million in annual losses “could feed thousands of families in a time of need,” he says.

There’s no substitute for actually trying out the different packaging options under real-world conditions, he says. Already, they have found that some packaging types that seemed promising were limited by the capacity of the companies producing them. In other cases, a new kind of bag simply didn’t fit with the bagging equipment being used by some suppliers — limitations that would never be apparent just by looking at spec sheets.

The research has already led to the production and testing of some paper bags with the added chemical compound that prevents insects from reproducing, which had not been produced before, Brennan says. Like the others, the bag shows promise for providing better protection than existing options.

“With smarter packaging, we can change when, from where, and to whom we send food aid, making food assistance more equitable and affordable,” he says. And the implications reach beyond protecting what’s already being shipped, he says: Potentially, better packaging could make it feasible to send more different kinds of crops to more different parts of the world — shipments that would be too likely to spoil using existing methods. Alternatively, he notes, if the team does not find that new packaging improves outcomes in a cost-effective way, then this study may indicate that USAID’s current packaging practices are already cost-effective.

The project is part of the overall MIT CITE program, funded by USAID, which aims to evaluate a wide variety of development technologies using an interdisciplinary approach and a variety of quantitative and qualitative methods to better understand which technologies best serve families living in poverty.

Portuguese government and biotech representatives visit MIT

Wed, 01/04/2017 - 18:10

Robert Sherman, the U.S. Ambassador to Portugal, and Manuel Caldeira Cabral, the Portuguese Minister of Economy, traveled to Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Dec. 19 and 20 to discuss transatlantic synergies with Europe in the biotechnology sector. They were joined by a first-class group of representatives from Portuguese biotech companies and investors in a visit co-organized by AICEP-Portuguese Trade and Investment Agency, Portugal Ventures, the U.S. Embassy in Portugal, and the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, with the participation of the MIT Portugal Program.

The two-day visit started with an event entitled, “Portugal Day at MassBio,” at the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council (MassBio). At the gathering, Portuguese partners from startups in the life sciences sector — including FASTinov, Stemmatters, Gene PreDiT,  Immunethep, and doDOC — together with Portuguese and American investors, discussed how Portugal is developing a vibrant biotech industry and creating a successful startup ecosystem with partners around the globe. Elazer Edelman, from Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, was the keynote speaker at the event, presenting a superb overview of the efforts and work done in the European and American health care systems, their impact on age distribution, and the changes in the care delivery paradigm — focused on an aging population — that will require new medications, devices, and methods. Edelman highlighted improvements that the Portuguese scientific and entrepreneurial communities are making to adjust to this new paradigm. The event also featured Sherman; Caldeira Cabral; Robert Coughlin, president and CEO of MassBio; Bruce Tidor, director of the MIT Portugal Program; and José Velez Caroço, consul general of Portugal in Boston.

On the second day of the official visit, the group of entrepreneurs visited Sanofi Genzyme, a world-class pharmaceutical company with facilities in Allston. The group made a tour to the premises and interacted with different stakeholders in conversations about the dynamics of the U.S. market, while Sherman, Caldeira Cabral and Velez Caroço went to different labs at MIT. Their visit started at “Beaver Works” with Professor Douglas Hart, who is also the innovation and entrepreneurship faculty lead for the MIT Portugal Program. Joost Bonsen, lecturer in human dynamics at the MIT Media Lab, presented the evolution of MIT from its academic conception to an entrepreneurial institution.

The tour continued later at the lab of Institute Professor Robert Langer, where the delegation had the chance to discuss firsthand with researchers topics such as groundbreaking techniques for controlled drug release and nano-biomaterials. The next stop was at the MIT Stata Center, where the group joined researchers to design and develop robots for industrial, military, and space activities. The visit ended with a meeting hosted by the dean of the School of Engineering at MIT, Ian Waitz — bringing together the community of MIT Portugal faculty and PhD students currently staying at MIT. Attendees had the chance to share their experience of their time at MIT, as well as the evolution and impact of their research.

“Companies in Boston are strongly interested in investing in Portugal and this trip allowed us to demonstrate — right at the largest research centers in the health and biotechnology sector — the vitality of Portuguese startups in these areas,” said Caldeira Cabral. “This was also an opportunity to disclose the work in progress at Portuguese universities and hospitals, and to open a door for future collaborations and joint ventures to endorse knowledge and consequently transform it into innovative products and services.”

Solve launches new challenges on climate, education, and health care

Wed, 01/04/2017 - 10:50

Reducing carbon emissions. Preventing chronic diseases. Educating 50 million young refugees.

Ambitious thinkers and doers take note: Anyone with a bold idea for making progress on one of these daunting global problems has until Jan. 20, 2017 to submit their solution to Solve.

Solve, an initiative launched by the Office of the President, is actively soliciting applications from anyone with an innovative solution to these three challenges, with the potential to have a wide impact.

Solve is actively convening a community to support creative problem-solvers in their efforts to test, pilot, and implement their ideas in the realms of health care, education, climate and energy, and expanding economic opportunity.

But the first step is identifying brilliant new approaches to tackling thorny problems. Using its open innovation platform, Solve aims to crowdsource solutions from around the world, and from its own backyard in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Those who submit applications to the refugee education, carbon contribution, and chronic disease challenges will have their solutions reviewed by panels composed of expert judges from MIT and beyond. Ian Waitz, dean of the School of Engineering, serves as one of the judges in the carbon challenge.

“A student or anyone who has a pretty well-developed idea for a social venture or a technology, where the missing element is connecting up with a community of people deeply engaged with addressing that challenge, should consider applying to Solve,” he says.

Waitz says he and his fellow judges will be weighing proposals on a range of criteria, but especially feasibility. “We’ll be looking to see if the applicants are at a stage where bringing their idea to this community could be catalytic. We’d also like to see articulated the potential for some very well-defined forward steps on a specific problem, that would come out of this process of bringing all these committed people together.”

The finalists who advance will present their ideas at a pitch event, Solve at UN, hosted by the United Nations on March 7, 2017 in New York City. The winners in each category will then become “Solvers,” connected to a community of advisors and potential partners from across academia, industry, and the nonprofit sector convened by Solve around each challenge. These Solvers will be announced at the Solve at MIT flagship event to be held on the MIT campus from May 8 to 10, 2017.

“The real goal here is to create a marketplace bringing together people with the best solutions and cross-sector leaders with the resources to fund, pilot, and implement those solutions,” says Alex Amouyel, executive director of Solve.

Between the March and May events, the Solve team will work closely with the challenge winners to broker partnerships to turn their ideas into reality.

“Solve at MIT in May will be a chance for Solvers and Solve members to workshop and potentially announce their partnerships, which would allow Solvers’ ideas to be piloted and implemented,” Amouyel says.

These upcoming events follow a well-attended first-round pitch showcase in September, Solve at HUBweek. Kathryn Zaniboni, a full-time volunteer in a refugee camp in Bulgaria, was selected during the event as a finalist in the first phase of the refugee education challenge.

Her project “Team Up to Teach” aims to build an online platform that connects teachers with volunteers in refugee camps, to share best practices and provide learning opportunities for youth who lack access to conventional schools.

“It’s been an exciting experience for me,” Zaniboni says. “I’ve been given a wonderful opportunity to play this out and see where it goes. Beyond my day-to-day work in the refugee camps, I have a broader purpose on how to solve this problem of children being out of school. Solve has given me this validation that what I proposed is touching on something important.”

If she advances, Zaniboni says she looks forward to being introduced to mentors in the field of platform design, for example. But just participating in the process thus far has generated useful connections and productive conversations with other educators and organizations working with refugee communities.

“After the event in September, I walked away with a lot of enthusiasm, energy, and a big stack of business cards,” she says. “You’ve got to put your nose to the grindstone and ask a lot of different questions and talk to as many different people as you can.”

Kevin Kung was selected as a Solver in September in one of the carbon challenges. Kung, a PhD candidate in biological engineering at MIT, researches the thermochemical conversion of biomass. His project, Safi Sarvi, produces carbon-sequestering fertilizer made from organic waste, helping small farmers improve their crop yields while fighting climate change.

Kung says that participating in Solve came at the right time for his venture. He and his colleagues already had a proven technical solution that they were piloting in a community in Kenya, but they were thinking about how to move forward.

“We were in the stage where we were thinking of how to connect with some larger organizations,” he says. “How do we scale to help others, to become a sustainable business and have more impact?”

Kung says participating in September’s pitch event led to several conversations with audience members about possible partnerships, yielding prospects for grant funding and industry-specific collaborations on soil agronomy. “So far, the concrete benefits have mostly been in terms of the people we’ve met who are interested in working with us, to potentially replicate what we’ve done in other places.”

“Solve provided the ideal venue for us to communicate our vision and get feedback,” he says. “The judges were very well-informed and asked insightful questions that also helped us focus our technical solutions, and helped us verbalize our product’s benefits more effectively.”

Amouyel says the next round of Solve will provide Solvers with similar opportunities, plus an even wider range of connections. “By May we plan to have a full portfolio of Solve community members — leaders in their fields who will advise and support Solvers to implement their solutions in a variety of ways beyond just providing funding. That could be technical support, providing office space, or partnering on a long-term implementation strategy.”

Those interested in submitting solutions to Solve's refugee education, carbon contributions, and chronic diseases challenges can apply on its open innovation platform by Jan. 20, 2017 at, for a chance to be selected and pitch at the United Nations on March 7, 2017.

Top tweets of 2016

Fri, 12/30/2016 - 10:00

2016 was a remarkable year for MIT, which in the spring celebrated 100 years since its move from Boston to Cambridge, Massachusetts. The year was remarkable on Twitter as well, as MIT's followers more than doubled in number, with a current total of more than 611,000.

Followers were particularly moved by news of the first — and second — direct detection of gravitational waves with the LIGO experiment; an episode of "The Simpsons" predicting Professor Bengt Holmström's 2016 Nobel Prize in economics; tributes to Apollo pioneer and former MIT computer scientist Margaret Hamilton; and comments by actor Matt Damon, who gave the keynote at this year's Commencement ceremony. Tweets noting Square Root Day on April 4th, a supermoon setting over the MIT Dome, and the Institute's new accelerator, The Engine, also garnered high engagement.

Here are the top 16 @MIT tweets of 2016, measured in retweets and likes, in chronological order:

A monumental scientific feat

Groundbreaking physics: Scientists detect #gravitationalwaves using the @LIGO observatory

— MIT (@MIT) February 11, 2016 To Einstein, with love

Happy birthday, #AlbertEinstein! We got you a special gift this year: evidence of #gravitationalwaves. Photo: @Giphy

— MIT (@MIT) March 14, 2016 Celebrating Square Root Day

Happy #SquareRootDay! 4/4/16 is the fourth of nine Square Root Days this century. #MathMonday

— MIT (@MIT) April 4, 2016 Matt Damon's advice for the Class of 2016

Matt Damon: "Turn toward the problems that you see, and engage." #MIT2016

— MIT (@MIT) June 3, 2016 Space pirate in the movies, honorary MIT pirate in real life

Arrrr… Actor Matt Damon was awarded an honorary MIT Pirate Certificate at @mitcommencement! #MIT2016

— MIT (@MIT) June 3, 2016 Twice as nice: Detecting a second black hold merger

“We did it again!” For the second time, @LIGO has detected #gravitationalwaves.

— MIT (@MIT) June 15, 2016 Commemorating a return to Jupiter

An incredible feat of engineering... We're at #Jupiter once again! Congrats to all on the #Juno team.

— MIT (@MIT) July 5, 2016 Taking a stand against violence

“We cannot stand as observers and accept a future of escalating violence and divisiveness.”

— MIT (@MIT) July 11, 2016 Mini Margaret in celebration of her Apollo achievements

47 yrs ago today, MIT computer scientist Margaret Hamilton's code landed humans on the moon. #Apollo11

— MIT (@MIT) July 20, 2016 A discussion of "forbidden research" for social good

Symposium at the @medialab featuring @snowden, bunnie Huang addresses #hacktivism:

— MIT (@MIT) July 27, 2016 Lauding a pioneer of nanoscale engineering

MIT Prof. Paula Hammond engineered a new nanoparticle to treat cancer. #BlackWomenDidThat

— MIT (@MIT) July 29, 2016 Professor Holmström's Nobel Prize reaction

"I feel very lucky and grateful." —MIT Prof. Bengt Holmstrom of @MITEcon and @MITSloan on winning the Nobel in Economic Sciences #NobelPrize

— MIT (@MIT) October 10, 2016 Milhouse gets one right

Fun fact: @TheSimpsons' Milhouse once predicted MIT Prof. Holmström would win a #NobelPrize. Today, he was right!

— MIT (@MIT) October 10, 2016 Announcing a new accelerator from MIT

Introducing The Engine, from MIT. #MITBetterWorld #Innovation

— MIT (@MIT) October 26, 2016 Setting supermoon

Yesterday's #supermoon sets over MIT. Photo: @DanZDill

— MIT (@MIT) November 15, 2016 President Obama honors an MIT legend

Margaret Hamilton led the Apollo software team at MIT. Today, she's a #MedalofFreedom recipient. Congrats!

— MIT (@MIT) November 22, 2016

3Q: Charles Sodini on MIT’s Hong Kong Innovation Node

Tue, 12/13/2016 - 00:00

Last November, MIT announced the launch of its Hong Kong Innovation Node, a collaborative space that aims to connect the MIT community with resources — including advanced manufacturing capabilities — and other opportunities in Hong Kong and the neighboring Pearl River Delta. Since then, the Innovation Node has convened MIT students, faculty, and researchers to work on entrepreneurial and research projects alongside Hong Kong-based students and faculty, MIT alumni, entrepreneurs, and businesses. By combining resources and talent, the Innovation Node — in partnership with the MIT Innovation Initiative — aims to help students learn how to move ideas more rapidly from lab to market. 

Charles Sodini, the Clarence J. LeBel Professor in Electrical Engineering and faculty director of the node, spoke with MIT News about the Innovation Node’s activities since its launch.

Q. What has the Hong Kong Innovation Node accomplished to date?

A. The Innovation Node formally launched in June with MIT Kickstart, a technology-based entrepreneurship program involving 12 MIT students and 12 students from universities across Hong Kong. The immersive program challenged students to bring their ideas to impact by forming international teams, building rapid prototypes, and pitching their projects.  

Students participated in workshops led by industry experts, were coached by alumni mentors, and visited local startups and manufacturing facilities in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong in the Pearl River Delta. The program culminated in a final session where students presented their work and demonstrated their prototypes. This showcase was attended by over 100 people, including MIT alumni, senior government and academic officials, entrepreneurs, and industry leaders.

We’ve also made two great hires for the Innovation Node: Brian Yen as executive director, and Marina Chan as strategic development manager. In Brian, we have a veteran of startups in technologies including video games, electronic medical records, and scientific instruments. Since moving to Hong Kong in 2005, he has been a consultant to U.S. technology firms looking to invest or partner in China, as well as investors requiring in-depth analysis of Chinese tech firms. Marina began her career in the investment banking industry, before earning her master’s degree in education from Harvard University. Her passion for education led her to found Alpha Commons, an educational program that cultivates creativity in children through engagement with technology.  

Q. What’s been the response of those who have worked with or participated in the Innovation Node?

A. Student feedback from MIT Kickstart has been genuinely positive. A common theme is that the experience has been uniquely eye-opening: Participants learned about the complexity of large-scale manufacturing processes firsthand, driving home just how much it takes to bring a product from design to production — as well as the cultural nuances of doing business in China. Students reported a new appreciation for how advanced the technology has become, and for China’s position as a global player. Many came away with a better grasp that the potential of manufacturing in this region is huge, but requires understanding of the marketplace and what is important to the local consumer to be successful. The experience opened their eyes to the possibilities and value of international collaboration.

When collaborating with international peers, one participant mentioned how he was “blown away by people’s ambition, creativity, drive, passion and intelligence.” This is testimony to the enormous talent in both regions and the importance of creating such opportunities to bridge connections. Students who came through our program have continued to stay in touch with the node and with each other.

Beyond the program, the node has facilitated support for students via introductions to industry mentors, incubation programs, and Chinese companies specializing in low-volume manufacturing and prototyping. We found that students value these connections as they begin to seriously consider bringing their ideas to the next level. We want to be a key source of support for them as they navigate the Chinese hardware system startup ecosystem.

Q. What is the Innovation Node working on now? What are its next steps?

A. The node will launch its second program, the MIT Entrepreneurship and Maker Skills Integrator (MEMSI), in January. This two-week, fully immersive mini-accelerator for aspiring innovators will connect MIT students with their peers from universities in Hong Kong.

MEMSI is designed for students who want to build skills in entrepreneurship, hardware production, and product development for connected devices. Teams will work together to choose a customer problem to solve, understand customers’ needs, develop a solution, and build a prototype using advanced techniques; build skills that will help them build successful businesses later in life; and see mass production in real time during factory tours in Shenzhen, China. At the end of the two-week program, participants will present their business ideas and prototypes to a panel of entrepreneurs, investors, and industry leaders.

Finally, we’re searching for a permament home for the Innovation Node in Hong Kong, to create an engaging physical space for collaboration, connection, and making. We’re seeking an open working environment equipped with technology comparable to the maker equipment at MIT, and connected digitally to the MIT campus.

At home in Hong Kong

Tue, 12/13/2016 - 00:00

It’s nearly 8,000 miles from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Hong Kong, but the ties between MIT and this vibrant city are strong.

“The alumni scene in Hong Kong is thriving,” says Julian Lee ’97, former president of the MIT Club of Hong Kong, who estimates about 600 alumni live in the region. “We are very excited about the growing MIT presence here. It is re-energizing innovation.”

That’s saying something considering the region, and its startup scene, is already off-the-charts energetic. There are currently 1,600 startups in Hong Kong, a 50 percent increase since 2014. Innovative designs are often developed in Hong Kong and manufactured in China’s Pearl River Delta, in Shenzhen, which has transformed since 1980 from a fishing village of 30,000 to a city of nearly 11 million.

With that kind of draw, it only makes sense that the next MIT Better World Campaign event is coming to the region on Dec. 14. The event also comes on the heels of the recent launch of CoolThink@JC, an effort, powered by two MIT-developed technologies, Scratch and MIT App Inventor, to train local primary teachers and students throughout Hong Kong in computational thinking.

The vibrancy of the region played a decisive role in MIT’s decision, in keeping with the mission of the MIT Innovation Initiative, to announce an Innovation Node in Hong Kong last year. In June, during its inaugural program, Kickstart, alumni spent several evenings listening to students, freshly arrived from Cambridge, develop ideas. The recurring program, which resembles a one-week hackathon, involves MIT students teaming with peers from Hong Kong universities to build rapid prototypes. The Node’s newest program, the MIT Entrepreneurship and Maker Skills Integrator, will launch in January with content provided by the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and Project Manus, and more alumni mentors signed on.

For alumni, the distinctive MIT energy — the flash of ideas, the familiar meeting of minds — is more than welcome, says Lee. “We enjoy having a direct relationship with students. It reminds us of what we went through as kids at MIT,” he says. “We are able to to briefly live through that again with them. They are doing the same thing in a new era.”

Fast and faster

Nathan Monroe ’13, a graduate student in electrical engineering, jumped at the opportunity to take part in Kickstart. “Hong Kong is a hotbed for hardware system startups,” he says. His team created Interface, an interactive name badge that stores select personal information, scans the area for matches, and alerts wearers. “Alumni gave us a lot of good advice,” he says, praising the networking opportunities.

Exposure to the size and scale of manufacturing in the region is invaluable, he says. “Too many hardware system startups fail because it is massively difficult to go from a single prototype to hundreds of thousands,” he says. “You don’t learn that in school. You learn it on the ground.”

That rings true for recent mechanical engineering graduate Victoria Tam, whose Kickstart team created Steps, a wearable sensor for children with autism. She was intrigued by the speed at which workers put together parts along the conveyer belt in a Shenzhen factory.

“We hear about all these things in class but to see it happening in front of you makes such a big difference. It took our MIT knowledge to the next level,” she says, adding: “Everything moves a lot faster in China.”

Being in Hong Kong was eye-opening for students, says Node faculty director Charlie Sodini, the Clarence J. LeBel Professor of Electrical Engineering at MIT. “This is like a ‘wow experience’ for some of the MIT students,” he says. “The energy of the program reflects the energy of the city and the energy of the students.” Alumni, he says, focus that energy beautifully, describing MIT as “batting one thousand” when it comes to engaging them.

Making it happen

Many alumni describe the lively exchanges with students as refreshing. “As ever, there is an immense amount of intelligence and technical skills among the student community,” says Alexander Chan MBA ’04, who works in venture capital in Hong Kong. He says providing input about general management and product-market fit — “essentially whether people will buy their product” — was rewarding. “[The students] are learning how to bring a product to life.”

“All of the students are full of ideas,” says Louis Chong ’86 SM ’88, who works in the software technology field. “They can quickly converge those into viable products and prototype them in a very short time.” He says he was “happy to know them,” listen to their ideas, and provide technical and business feedback.

Davon Hui, a student participant from Hong Kong, says he likes MIT students and their “idiosyncratic talents.” He says they put “100 percent effort” into ideas, which in the case of his team, involved the design of a smart cap for toothbrushes. “We are pushing each other to the limit,” he says.

Students in Cambridge and Hong Kong are “pumped” about the Node’s plan to have in place soon a 5,000 square-foot maker and collaboration space, equipped with leading-edge technology and connected digitally to the MIT campus. “Complementary makerspaces at MIT and in Hong Kong — so we can design something here, 3-D print it, send the files over, and they have the identical equipment and can make the exact same thing — will be amazing,” says Monroe, of the Interface team. “The benefits for collaboration are huge.”

Meanwhile, MIT alumni have kept up and expanded their relationships with current students, offering mentoring and visits to their organizations apart from the program. Chong, who now serves as president of the MIT Club of Hong Kong, says the club is already planning more activities down the road. “We like to see MIT and Hong Kong students connect. It gets them to appreciate the creativity and the culture of each other. It also gives MIT students an opportunity to learn how Hong Kong and Shenzhen can play a role in their future plans.”

Study: Mobile-money services lift Kenyans out of poverty

Thu, 12/08/2016 - 14:00

Since 2008, MIT economist Tavneet Suri has studied the financial and social impacts of Kenyan mobile-money services, which allow users to store and exchange monetary values via mobile phone. Her work has shown that these services have helped Kenyans save more money and weather financial storms, among other benefits.

Now, Suri is co-author of a new paper showing that mobile-money services have had notable long-term effects on poverty reduction in Kenya — especially among female-headed households — and have inspired a surprising occupation shift among women.

Published in today’s issue of Science, the study estimates that, since 2008, access to mobile-money services increased daily per capita consumption levels of 194,000 — or 2 percent — of Kenyan households, lifting them out of extreme poverty (living on less than $1.25 per day).

But there’s an interesting gender effect: Female-headed households saw far greater increases in consumption than male-headed households. Moreover, mobile-money services have helped an estimated 185,000 women move from farming to business occupations.

“Previously, we’ve shown mobile money helps you with financial resilience. But no one has understood, if you improve resilience, what happens over the longer term. This is the first study that looks at long-term poverty reduction and at gender,” says Suri, an associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, who co-authored the paper with longtime collaborator William Jack, an economist at Georgetown University.

By 2015, more than 270 mobile-money services were operating in 93 countries, with an estimated 411 million accounts. The Kenyan study is important, Suri says, because it shows that mobile-money services aren’t just conveniences but do, in fact, have a positive impact on people’s livelihoods. “[That] can be useful for regulators trying to figure out if they want to allow it in their country, or whether someone wants to start a service in their country as an entrepreneur,” Suri says.

Measuring “agent density”

The study looks at M-PESA, the country’s most popular service, which launched in 2007 and has more than 25 million Kenyan users. There are more than 120,000 M-PESA agents scattered around the country, who handle deposits and withdrawals. 

In 2010, Suri and Jack co-authored a study that showed M-PESA helped users borrow, save, and pay for services more easily. A 2012 study by the pair showed M-PESA helped Kenyans manage financial uncertainties caused by crop failures, droughts, or health issues. The idea is the M-PESA users can use a wider network of support, and receive payments more quickly, during dire financial times.

This new paper is “the grand finale” of the researchers’ long-term examination of the impact of M-PESA in Kenya, Suri says. For this study, the researchers compiled surveys of 1,600 households across Kenya over the years, looking at, among other things, average daily per capita consumption — meaning total money spent by the individual and household — and occupational choices.  

Instead of looking at the number of individuals using M-PESA, the researchers measured the rise in the number of service agents within 1 kilometer around each household — or “agent density” — during early rollout of the mobile-money services. They then compared the consumption and occupation, and other outcomes, of households that saw relatively large increases of agent density, with those that saw no increases or much smaller ones, over the years.

Not surprisingly, households where agent density increased by five agents — the average in the sample — also saw a 6 percent increase in per capita consumption, enough to push 64 (or roughly 4 percent) of the sampled households above poverty levels. The World Bank defines spending less than $1.25 per day as “extreme poverty,” and spending less than $2 per day as “general poverty.” Mean daily per capita consumption among the sample was $2.50.

The impact was even more pronounced among female-headed households. When agent density rose — from zero to six agents over six years — these households saw a daily per capita consumption increase of about 18.5 percent. This level of agent density growth also reduced extreme poverty among female-headed households by 9.2 percent, and reduced households in general poverty by 8.6 percent.

Another surprising finding, Suri says, was that increases in agent density caused about 3 percent of women in both female- and male-headed households to take up business or retail occupations over farming. These occupations generally entailed single-person businesses based around producing and selling goods, which is made easier by mobile money, Suri says. “You used to grow vegetables, but now you take your vegetables to the market and sell them, or you open a little food cart or kiosk,” she says.

Using extrapolation methods on their data, the researchers estimate that the spread of mobile-money services has helped raise 194,000 Kenyan households out of extreme poverty, and induced 185,000 women to work in business or retail occupations over farming.

“Suri and Jack's results are provocative and enticing,” says Dean Karlan, a professor of economics at Yale University. “Provocative in that they find long-term impacts on poverty for women from an important, growing, and profitable business innovation, mobile money. Enticing in that they show us a clear base on which further innovation can and should expand, to find even better ways to use mobile money to target specific problems and make important impacts on issues of poverty around the world.”

Savings and independence

Exactly why M-PESA causes increases in per capita consumption and shifts in occupation remains unclear, Suri says. But the researchers have a few ideas, one being that more secure storing of money leads to better financial management and savings, especially among women: The study found that female-headed households that saw greater agent density also saw around a 22 percent rise in savings.

The researchers also think mobile money could give women in male-headed households, who are also usually secondary income earners, more financial independence, which could help them start their own businesses. “As a woman, sometimes you’re not able to save on your own, because cash gets used by the whole house. [Mobile money] allows you to keep separate cash and … manage a source of income on your own,” Suri says.

Moving forward, Suri and Jack now aim to conduct similar research on the impact of mobile-money services on poverty in Uganda, Tanzania, and Pakistan “to find out if this is just an effect for Kenya or more systematic across other countries,” Suri says.

The research was funded, in part, by Financial Sector Deepening Kenya and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In London, extending MIT’s entrepreneurial ecosystem

Mon, 12/05/2016 - 18:45

In Lagos, Nigeria, a man straddles a motorcycle. He speeds off into the sprawling network of streets in Africa’s largest city to deliver a package.

The biker is a delivery driver for MAX, a fledgling Nigerian startup that is trying to solve the problem of so-called “last-mile delivery.” How do you pick up and deliver packages or food in an efficient way in a city where many people don’t have an address?

MAX has built a mobile and web platform for deliveries, not unlike the system used by Uber and other on-demand services. It seeks goal-driven, customer service-oriented drivers, offers no-interest loans so drivers can own their motorcycles, provides a training program, and gives drivers a smartphone.

Then the drivers — 30 of them so far, all of whom are “champions” in MAX parlance — head out on deliveries. They geotag the location of customers using the company’s app, creating an address that can be used for future drop-offs.

“We are not the first company to try to tackle this problem in Lagos or on the continent,” says Adetayo Bamiduro­ MBA ’15, co-founder of MAX. “We’re the first company to think about it this way. The problem we’re solving requires a very detailed systematic approach. We’re not just building logistics. We’re not just building retail.”

“If you look at our systematic diagram, you can see how all of these factors together are driving the growth of the entire platform,” he said. “And that’s something you learn at MIT.”

Bamiduro believes he can expand MAX across Africa. He is building a retail component that will allow people to shop locally through the MAX app. MAX, of course, will then deliver the purchase.

This month, the young entrepreneur will travel to London to tell MAX’s story — how it was conceived, how it was built, how it can scale — and to meet with investors, government officials, entrepreneurs, and professors at an MIT conference on entrepreneurship and finance in the developing world.

Showcasing innovation-driven enterprises

The Dec. 13 conference is hosted by the MIT Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship, where Bamiduro was a fellow in 2014-2015. Along with a Dec. 2 startup showcase by the MIT Startup Exchange and the MIT Industrial Liaison Program, it brackets a series of MIT gatherings in London this month. Together, the events demonstrate the facets of an innovation ecosystem unique to MIT, one where theory meets practice, where innovation-driven entrepreneurs are bringing new technologies from labs to markets, and where, very often, the drive for positive social impact is woven into companies’ operations from the outset.

The sort of ecosystem where a company like MAX is born.

“The theme that is embedded into the [Legatum] conference, that is very MIT, is this idea of MIT producing innovation-driven enterprises. Those lead to both social and economic impact around the world,” says Georgina Campbell Flatter, executive director of the Legatum Center. “Innovation-driven enterprises tend to lead to businesses that will scale. You can reach global markets eventually. You can provide thousands of jobs. Take Adetayo, he’s touching thousands of people’s lives through his business.”

In London, MIT will showcase this approach in five gatherings. Taken together, this series of unique offerings demonstrates how MIT functions not simply as a collection of individual units, centers, programs, and events, but as a facilitator and leader in global innovation and impact.

Dec. 2: MIT Startup Showcase London

More than a dozen MIT-affiliated startups will present at this event connecting industry leaders with innovative startups in enterprise information technology, data analytics, automation, security, and more. The showcase will include a keynote talk on innovation through analytics from MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Dimitris Bertsimas, who will also join a panel on managing innovation.

This is the third event of its kind for MIT Startup Exchange, which is led by former MIT Sloan lecturer Trond Undheim. The group chose London because it is a “global innovation capitol,” Undheim says.

Startups presenting “Lightning Talks” at the showcase all feature a technology innovation at their center. Tulip Interfaces, for example, is an internet of things platform company for the manufacturing sector. Luminoso is an artificial intelligence-equipped “deep analytics” company that helps clients like Autodesk and Sprint gain insight into customer sentiment and feedback.

Unlike startup incubators and accelerators, the MIT Startup Exchange does not mentor new entrepreneurs or teach them how to execute on a business plan. Instead, it connects mature startups with industry leaders for strategic partnerships, product development collaborations, new business lines, and new customers.

The Dec. 2 startup showcase is “focused on technology, but also on … interaction in the innovation community,” Undheim says.

Dec. 7-8: MIT Sloan Executive Board Meeting

Each of MIT Sloan’s four executive boards is led by a distinguished alumnus and composed of business, government, and academic leaders. The boards form a communication channel between the school and alumni and the wider world, both informing the work of the school and bringing new MIT research and discoveries from campus to the global community.

At this event, a meeting for the European, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Executive Board, members will hear from MIT Sloan Dean David Schmittlein on the state of the school, receive an update about the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, learn about new work from the school’s research centers, and join finance professors Antoinette Schoar and David Thesmar for a conversation about the Brexit decision by United Kingdom voters to leave the European Union.                 

Dec. 7-9: Visionary Investing Workshop

Part of MIT Sloan’s new Family Leaders with Purpose program, this workshop will help members of affluent families develop their skills around investing for both profit and purpose, regardless of where they are in their journey or their level of financial acumen. Family leaders cultivate and sharpen their own vision for doing good in a real-world interactive environment by accessing proprietary MIT tools, frameworks, and faculty.

SP Kothari is the program’s faculty director, supported by program co-heads David Shrier and Heidi Pickett.

“MIT Sloan is responding to feedback we’re getting directly from these families,” Kothari says. “They have a passion for solving some the world’s toughest problems. What they’re seeking are the tools and skills to find and evaluate viable opportunities, and to craft an action plan that multiple generations can rally around. MIT has a unique capability set in finance, innovation, and impact.”

The immersive three-day workshop includes MIT Sloan faculty presentations on the implications of Brexit on the U.K. financial sector, managing a portfolio in uncertain times, and managing for impact. A well-received feature of the workshop, which has been held three times before, is a forum for participants to interact with guest CEOs of startups, engaging in a series of hands-on learning sessions incorporating frameworks and tools to evaluate the enterprises.

Participants are typically capable of investing a minimum of $10 million in direct deals each year, and attendees are expected from across Europe, Asia, and North America. Pickett said a goal of the program is to build a global community of like-minded families investing for profit and purpose in fields such as health, energy, environment, water, education, agriculture, finance, and real estate.

Dec. 12: MIT Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program reunion

From Morocco, Al Madinah, Nova Scotia, Iceland, Singapore, and elsewhere, teams of government officials, investors, entrepreneurs, academics, and business leaders will meet to discuss how they are building local entrepreneurial ecosystems.

The gathering brings together participants in the MIT Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program, a two-year global executive education initiative designed to facilitate economic growth, social progress, and job creation in regions worldwide.

The program, known as MIT REAP, is in its fourth year. Nearly 30 teams from around the world have participated. Now, MIT is launching a Global Innovation Network, a group for MIT REAP alumni to network and facilitate connections, conversation, and support between the teams.

“We used to think of REAP as this two-year long program, but actually participants enjoy it so much they want to continue the relationship,” says Phil Budden, an MIT Sloan senior lecturer who teaches in the program and is its diplomatic adviser.

The afternoon meeting will include updates on MIT entrepreneurship activity, including MIT’s new technology and science incubator, called The Engine, and a new entrepreneurship and innovation minor, as well as updates from six of the teams on their work in the program, says Sarah Jane Maxted, executive director of the program.

“It will be a success if we give them a chance to share their experiences,” says Professor Fiona Murray, associate dean for innovation and co-director of the MIT Innovation Initiative. “For teams that are much further along — because they are now four years into this whole experience of developing and accelerating their ecosystems — we give them a chance to share with teams that joined REAP more recently. We'll know it's successful when we're really building those bridges across cohorts.”

Dec. 13: Accelerating Developing World Growth Through Entrepreneurship and Finance

“We don’t just want to have a conversation focused on U.S. investors and U.S. alumni,” says the Legatum Center’s Flatter.

So Flatter, MAX’s Bamiduro, and many others in the MIT, global investing, and developing world entrepreneurship communities will meet in London, due to its greater proximity to Africa and other developing world regions. As with the MIT Startup Exchange conference, entrepreneurs will be at the center of every discussion, presenting TED-style “Vision Talks” and joining investors and academics for panels covering seed stage capital, crowdfunding, and philanthropic capital, among other topics.

“Having that entrepreneur perspective just brings a different lens to the problem,” Flatter says. “When you bring together governments and corporations, and they have a conversation about entrepreneurship, they’re often talking about what they think is best based on secondary data. Don’t get me wrong — they’re often working on great things and working for a great cause. But when the entrepreneur is in the room, the conversation tends to be different. I think MIT brings that.”

The goal of the conference is to facilitate a conversation about funding mechanisms while showcasing and celebrating the entrepreneurs working in the developing world, Flatter says. Those funding mechanisms include equity crowdfunding, programming-related investments, grants and fellowships, and prize money from entrepreneurship competitions.

“Our mission is to foster broad-based prosperity around the world through entrepreneurship,” Flatter says. “One of the sticking points for early-stage entrepreneurs is how to raise the capital they need, and in the developing world it’s harder to raise capital because people are less willing to take risks. Traditional VCs and angels don’t tend to invest in emerging economies, but there are new funding mechanisms that our students and our alumni have found to be helpful.”

Entrepreneurs working in the developing world also face a unique set of ethical choices, as there can be few, if any, regulations governing minimum wage or health care coverage. In the way they structure their business operations, startup founders can choose to make a broader impact beyond simply offering a job or a needed service.

In providing drivers with no-interest loans to buy a motorcycle, for example, MAX is empowering the employees it relies on, Flatter says. Another MIT alumnus-founded startup appearing at the conference, Soko, relies on a “virtual factory” of independent jewelry makers around the developing world who retain 25 to 35 percent of the revenue generated when their products are sold to major retailers.

“At the core they are well-run businesses, for-profit businesses, but because of the principled entrepreneur leaders at the top they make business choices that are also ethical and ultimately have impact,” Flatter says.

A bias for action

Murray says the flurry of MIT innovation events in the city is distinguished by the way it brings so many different people together.

“These events engage all the key ecosystem stakeholders,” she explains. “And I think that's something that MIT over the years has done extremely well. I'm not sure it has always been conscious about it. I think it has become more conscious. But now, in a sense, we're taking those same conversations [we host in Cambridge] to a different part of the world and saying ‘We want to have this conversation with you — risk capital providers, large corporations, policymakers, particularly focused on development, innovation, and entrepreneurship.’”

And the conversation won’t end in December. On January 13, MIT President L. Rafael Reif will visit London as part of MIT’s MIT Better World campaign, to discuss his vision for MIT’s future and for the MIT community worldwide. It’s a fitting follow-up to a series of events that demonstrates MIT’s singular impact on global innovation.

For his part, MAX’s Adetayo Bamiduro is looking forward to meeting other members of the MIT innovation ecosystem when he visits London for the Legatum Center event. He said his company would not exist today without his Legatum fellowship, which comes with $50,000 in tuition and a stipend and $10,000 in travel and prototyping grants.

“The cushion of the scholarship is a huge motivating factor for taking the plunge right out of school,” he says. “The entire MIT entrepreneurship ecosystem is very strong, it’s very powerful. The MIT environment is unique because you have management and execution skills that you learn. But you also learn engineering skills. We had the capability to build the system ourselves.”

“The MIT slogan — mind and hand — has really distinguished us,” Bamiduro said. And that ethos — the movement from idea to action, and from classrooms and labs into the world — is what MIT’s packed London agenda is all about.

For Bamiduro and his co-founder Chinedu Azodoh MFin ’15, that means not just having a new idea, and not just building MAX’s digital platform and executing its business plan. It also means learning to ride motorcycles, zipping into Lagos’ busy streets to make deliveries when needed.

That man hopping on a motorcycle to deliver a package to one of MAX’s customers? That’s the CEO.

How online tools and open innovation can support implementation of Paris Agreement goals

Tue, 11/29/2016 - 15:50

An MIT research initiative is harnessing the power of crowds and online collaborative tools in support of fulfilling global Paris Agreement climate goals.

MIT’s Climate CoLab, founded and directed by Professor Thomas Malone of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, presented its work and innovative approach in a series of events earlier this month at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties in Marrakech, Morocco (COP22). Climate CoLab’s team was on the ground in Marrakech to strengthen and build new collaborations with the international community in support of the 2015 Paris international climate agreement, and to showcase the role crowds and online collaborative tools can play in supporting implementation of the Paris Agreement goals. Of the project, Malone said: “It’s now possible to harness the collective intelligence of thousands of people, all over the world, at a scale, and with a degree of collaboration, that was never possible before in human history."

Amid notable milestones in international climate cooperation this fall — including the early legal entry into force of the Paris Agreement, a recent international accord on reducing global hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and another on reducing emissions from the aviation sector, COP22 was still awash with reminders of the stark scientific realities that further near-term action is needed to combat the most dangerous impacts of climate change. Among them, a new United Nations' Environmental Program 2016 Emissions Gap Report, released immediately prior to COP22, projected that 25 percent greater global emissions cuts are needed prior to 2030. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently urged the global community, “We are still in a race against time. We need to transition to a low-emissions and climate-resilient future.”

Climate CoLab is pioneering a crowd-based methodology to help meet this challenge. The project was highlighted during several events at COP22, including two official UN side events, and a featured interview with the UNFCCC Climate Change Studio.What if we could harness all of the ingenuity and intelligence of everybody that’s [at COP22], and also everybody that couldn’t be here today, to continuously work together on climate change solutions? What could be possible?” said Laur Hesse Fisher, Climate CoLab project manager, during the interview. “New digital collaboration tools enable that,” she continued.

On Monday, Nov. 14, Climate CoLab co-hosted an official side event with collaborator Climate Interactive and the Abibimman Foundation, entitled “Meeting the Paris Goals through Decision-Maker Tools and Climate Education.” Panelist Andrew Jones, Climate Interactive’s co-director, started the session with the premise that we need large-scale engagement in order to adequately address this challenge: We don’t need 10,000 experts, we need 1 billion amateurs doing all they can, effectively, to make change.”

The role of non-state actors and open transparent stakeholder engagement processes were featured throughout COP22. On Nov. 15, Hesse Fisher joined a panel of collaborators from various international organizations, including Climate Policy Institute, Climate-KIC, the Global Environmental Facility, ICLEI, and many others, organized by the Cities Climate Finance Leadership Alliance. Addressing an audience of government officials, academics, non-profit advocates, and others, the panelists discussed the role of innovation platforms and tools in helping finance climate action.

Additionally, building on last year’s launch of a partnership with the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Resilience Initiative: Absorb, Anticipate, Reshape (A2R), Climate CoLab was featured in an A2R brochure distributed at A2R Initiative COP22 events, for its new contest on “Anticipating Climate Hazards,” which seeks proposals on early warning systems and climate preparedness responses. Of the collaboration, Malone said, “To contend with the most pressing impacts of climate change, it is clear that now more than ever before, we need ideas and contributions of as many people as possible to address climate change.”

As focus turns to accelerating countries’ implementation of their emissions reductions targets and adaptation strategies put forward under the Paris Agreement — also known as “nationally-determined contributions” or “NDCs” — Climate CoLab is exploring how this online collaborative approach of stakeholder engagement and expert-validated climate planning including assessment could prove valuable to countries. Building on themes of open engagement and enhancing transparency, Malone remarked, “We believe it’s possible to open up the national and international climate planning processes to anyone around the world who wants to participate.” As Fisher said, this approach provides “new ways that the world can work together.”

Climate models may be overestimating the cooling effect of wildfire aerosols

Tue, 11/29/2016 - 15:20

Whether intentionally set to consume agricultural waste or naturally ignited in forests or peatlands, open-burning fires impact the global climate system in two ways which, to some extent, cancel each other out. On one hand, they generate a significant fraction of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, which drive up the average global surface temperature. On the other hand, they produce atmospheric aerosols, organic carbon, black carbon, and sulfate-bearing particulates that can lower that temperature either directly, by reflecting sunlight skyward, or indirectly, by increasing the reflectivity of clouds. Because wildfire aerosols play a key role in determining the future of the planet’s temperature and precipitation patterns, it’s crucial that today’s climate models — upon which energy and climate policymaking depend — accurately represent their impact on the climate system.

But a new study in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics by researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change shows that at least one widely-used climate model is overestimating the cooling effect of these aerosol emissions by as much as 23 percent.

“This overestimation could lead to errors in projections of surface temperature and rainfall, both globally and regionally,“ says Chien Wang, a senior research scientist at MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and the Joint Program, who co-authored the paper with two members of his group: lead author and research scientist Benjamin S. Grandey and postdoc Hsiang-He Lee of the Center for Environmental Sensing and Modeling at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology. “We hope our findings will reduce such errors in climate modeling.”

To make long-term global projections, most climate models represent atmospheric wildfire aerosol emissions by using monthly measures of emissions at different locations around the globe, and then averaging those emissions over multiple years — before estimating their effect on solar radiation at each location over the multi-year period. Questioning the accuracy of this conventional approach, the researchers proposed a revised representation of wildfire aerosol emissions in which the radiative effect associated with each monthly measure of emissions is first calculated, before averaging over the multi-year period. The revised approach would account for year-to-year variability in the aerosols’ radiative effect, which is missing in the conventional representation.

Using a global aerosol-climate model — the Community Earth System Model (CESM) — and the Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED4.0s), the researchers compared both modeling approaches over a 10-year period. The comparison showed that wildfire emissions are responsible for a global mean net radiative effect of about -1.26 watts per square meter for the conventional approach, and about -1.02 watts per square meter for the revised approach. The conventional climate modeling approach systematically overestimated the strength of the net radiative effect of wildfire aerosols — by 23 percent globally and by higher levels (58 percent over Australia and New Zealand; 43 percent over Boreal Asia, where wildfires are commonplace) regionally.

The researchers attribute this systematic overestimation to the non-linear influence of the aerosols on clouds, due largely to interactions between organic carbon aerosols and clouds. Organic carbon aerosols initially boost the reflectivity (and thus cooling effect) of clouds, but as concentrations increase over a particular geographic location, the rate of increase in cloud reflectivity (and cooling effect) slows down considerably. By incorrectly assuming that the indirect cooling effect of aerosol emissions increases linearly with their concentration, conventional approaches overestimate that effect in climate models.

Representing the year-to-year variability in the cooling effect of wildfire aerosols in climate models could improve our understanding of the climate system and the overall accuracy of global and regional climate projections.

“Hopefully what we’ve found here will be taken into account in future climate modeling studies, which could help improve decision-making regarding climate mitigation and adaptation,” says Grandey.

The research team recommends further research to test the robustness of their method by using different climate models and wildfire emissions data sets, improve the scientific understanding of the mechanisms behind the results, and explore in greater depth the impact of year-to-year variation in aerosol emissions on different aspects of climate change.

The research was funded by the Singapore National Research Foundation through the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology's Center for Environmental Sensing and Modeling, as well as by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Manuel Heitor, Portuguese minister for science, technology, and higher education, visits MIT

Fri, 11/18/2016 - 11:15

Manuel Heitor, the Portuguese Minister for Science, Technology, and Higher Education, recently visited MIT, where he met with students and faculty affiliated with the MIT Portugal Program. The visit was his first stop on a five-day official trip to the United States, with the objective of ensuring the continuity of relations with key academic and scientific partners and to reinforcing the continuity of the scientific and technological cooperation that has marked the relationship between Portugal and the U.S. in recent decades.  

At MIT, Heitor was accompanied by Paulo Ferrão, president of the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT); António Cunha, the president of the Portuguese Council of Rectors; José Velez Caroço, the consul general of Portugal; and both MIT Portugal directors, Bruce Tidor and Pedro Arezes.

During this visit, the Portuguese delegation had the opportunity to discuss emergent scientific areas and their potential interactions with the Portuguese Scientific and Technological System. In a meeting hosted by the MIT Portugal Program, it was emphasize how areas including aeronautics, atmospheric chemistry, ocean engineering, renewable energy, sensing systems, and ocean modeling, among others, could be relevant in the context of a collaboration between MIT and the planned Atlantic International Research (AIR) Center.

The AIR Center, as an integrative and distributed research platform, has the potential to provide a shared and international environment to support and foster new climate, earth, space and marine research activities, benefiting decision makers, public users, universities and industry, as well as contributing to the retention of highly skilled human resources and to regional growth. In particular, the AIR Center may provide a unique opportunity to drive multilateral cooperation in complex systems engineering and science through an integrative approach to climate and energy, earth, space, and ocean research and development in the Atlantic.

Heitor is now closing the first phase of an assessment for a sound scientific agenda that will bring together private and public partners around the AIR Center. To the FCT President Paulo Ferrão, the assessment of new ideas and scientific alliances is very important for addressing global international challenges. António Cunha, president of the Portuguese Council of Rectors, also highlighted the enormous opportunity that this represents for collaborations between MIT and Portuguese universities.

Heitor also took the opportunity to interact with students and the Portuguese scientific community at MIT, and to discuss the strategic pillars for the evolution of the MIT Portugal Program that is now in the fourth year of its second phase. The MIT Portugal Program, an FCT initiative launched in 2006 and renewed in 2013 for an additional 5-year period, has been a strategic partnership between Portuguese universities and MIT with the goal of strengthening  Portugal’s knowledge base and international competitiveness through a strategic investment in people, knowledge, and ideas in innovative technology sectors. In 10 years, 3,110 candidates have applied to the MIT Portugal doctoral programs, 958 master's and PhDs students have registered at Portuguese universities, and 429 PhD and master's students have graduated. The program also funded 23 projects through FCT and is currently running three large-scale testbed projects — led by Portuguese and MIT researchers — and five seed projects of exploratory nature at MIT.