News and Research
space conference

Commercial space: Can we privatize our way to the stars?

Barret Schlegelmilch (LGO ’18) and a team of LGOs in the MIT Sloan Astropreneurship and Space Industry Club, hosted the recent conference.
Read more

Lgo

Economic Tectonics Episode 5: Technology

Andrew McAfee (LGO ’90) – a tech optimist – explores how he thinks technology could change our economic futures for the better.

April 19, 2017 | More

A toolset for getting stuck conversations back on track

Jason Jay is an LGO thesis advisor, Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Director of the Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan.  Jason Jay explains how to rethink and reboot the conversations holding you back.

“Understand what the other person is for — not what they’re against,” suggests MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Jason Jay.

As anyone who’s argued with a colleague — or simply tried to persuade their spouse to unload the dishwasher —  knows, our worlds are rife with disagreements that go nowhere. MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Jason Jay calls these ruts “gridlock.”

Jay co-authored the upcoming book “Breaking Through Gridlock: The Power of Conversation in a Polarized World” to transform these disagreements into progress.

His book is based on conversation workshops focusing on social change, refined over the course of several years and run alongside co-author Gabriel Grant, a founder of the social-change-focused Byron Fellowship. Together, they’ve coached Fortune 500 companies, small businesses, and students on the power of authentic, effective dialogue.

Here, Jay, the director of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, explains how you can get yourself unstuck. “Breaking Through Gridlock” is out May 22.

Why do you use the term “gridlock” in the title, something that’s typically associated with traffic, not conversations?

Breaking through “gridlock” applies to when conversations get stuck. We offer a toolset for helping conversations get back into gear and back on track. The metaphor is really designed to capture what it feels like when we have an agenda that we’re trying to advance, whether it’s in our organization, community, family, or on the wider political stage, and we’re not getting where we want to go.

What types of “gridlock” exist in conversations?

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of getting stuck: One is that you’re avoiding a conversation, even though you want to advance an agenda, because it seems like your perspectives are too different, with too much potential conflict. The second kind is when it turns into a debate over who’s right, whose facts are right, and everyone is walking away entrenched in their own points of view. Therefore, you haven’t gotten where you want to go.

What’s usually at the root of conversational conflict?

Our book is organized around six steps. The first step is reflecting on your own internal monologue. What’s the baggage that you bring into a conversation? You could have the best talking points prepared, but if what’s going through your mind is, “I’m right, and they’re wrong,” it will bleed though. Often people think they’re being passionate and clear, but come off as arrogant and preachy.

The next step is to locate the bait. We fall into traps because there’s bait — there’s some benefit to being stuck. Why would you want to be stuck? Even when conversations get stuck, when we walk away, we get to feel right, righteous, and certain in our own perspective. We stay safe in our own unchallenged worldview. We retreat to a safe group of people who agree with us, and we can go back to preaching to the choir.

How can people break out of gridlock?

Dare to share. Get over “winning” and think about what you want out of the relationship. Focus on asking questions and understanding. If there’s a choice you don’t agree with, ask, “What inspires you to make that choice?” Understand it and acknowledge the differences. For example, my [conservative] cousin and I spend a good amount of conversation talking about where we get our news. Not in a tone of, “Your facts are wrong,” but recognizing we live in a culture where people live in bubbles, and we interact with people who only agree with us. So talk about values instead of facts; talk about personal values and perspectives, as opposed to just iterating talking points. All of that stuff creates space for difference.

Understand what the other person is for — not what they’re against. Say I’m an advocate for a renewable energy strategy, and I want my company to go carbon neutral.

If my CFO is pushing back because it’s too expensive, my tendency is to say, “He’s against it; I’m for it.” But what does he stand for? It’s wise allocation of company resources and economic sustainability of the company.

How do you reboot a conversation gone awry?

Two ways. An “apology” is where you say, “You know what? I’m responsible for your background conversation. I’ve come into your office five times now with ideas I was really passionate about but didn’t think through. I want to explore something new, a financially exciting approach to doing renewable energy. Here’s what it would look like, and I tried my best to run the numbers.”

Or use “contrast.” Say, “I’m passionate about what we do, and you might expect me to do such-and-such, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But that’s not what I’m doing today. I’m bringing you something that will save you money while moving you toward renewable energy, and I’d love to learn from your perspective, too.”

Which companies do a good job of communicating this way?

We really like Patagonia. They’re a leader in sustainability, but they don’t show up saying, “We’re the best.” It’s the opposite: They start a conversation about their footprint by saying, “Look how bad we are. These are all the ways we say we care, but we still have these challenges in our supply chains.” It’s this simultaneous ambition to make a difference with humility about where they are, and this has been very effective. They show up not as self-righteous and hot, but as, “We’re on this adventure together.”

What’s the goal of your work?

There’s a goal for the reader and a goal for our wider society. The goal for the reader is that we want to create stronger relationships and creative solutions to problems you care about, with people you didn’t think you could work with. If a lot of people do that, and if organizations do this, social and political movements — which are often characterized by people preaching to the choir or burning out due to conflict or lack of progress — will be transformed.

What was your most surprising takeaway from the book?

How dramatically people can turn around relationships. We share a story in the preface about a young woman who had tried to change her mother’s eating habits to address her obesity. The two hadn’t shared a meal in over a year because it had gotten so contentious. When she took a new approach that was more compassionate and helpful — where she ended up shopping and cooking with her mom — they had shared meals every night for two weeks when she reported back.

We also found that turning around a conversation gives people confidence to dive into bigger and higher-stakes contexts. One participant had to repair a friendship that had gotten frayed because of intense debate about climate change. After she had this experience, which included bringing her friend around on the issue, it gave her confidence to raise environmental issues with the Republican governor of her state — who now happens to be our vice president.

April 14, 2017 | More

Disorder can be good

A team under professor of aeronautics and astronautics and LGO thesis advisor Brian L. Wardle have found a tangible link between the random ordering of carbon atoms within a phenol-formaldehyde resin, which was “baked” at high temperatures, and the strength and density of the resulting graphite-like carbon material. Phenol-formaldehyde resin is a hydrocarbon commonly known as “SU-8” in the electronics industry. Additionally, by comparing the performance of the “baked” carbon material, the MIT researchers identified a “sweet spot” manufacturing temperature: 1,000 C (1,832 F).

“These materials we’re working with, which are commonly found in SU-8 and other hydrocarbons that can be hardened using ultraviolet [UV] light, are really promising for making strong and light lattices of beams and struts on the nanoscale, which only recently became possible due to advances in 3-D printing,” says MIT postdoc Itai Stein SM ’13, PhD ’16. “But up to now, nobody really knew what happens when you’re changing the manufacturing temperature, that is, how the structure affects the properties. There was a lot of work on structure and a lot of work on properties, but there was no connection between the two. … We hope that our study will help to shed some light on the governing physical mechanisms that are at play.”

Stein, who is the lead author of the paper published in Carbon, led a team under professor of aeronautics and astronautics Brian L. Wardle, consisting of MIT junior Chlöe V. Sackier, alumni Mackenzie E. Devoe ’15 and Hanna M. Vincent ’14, and undergraduate Summer Scholars Alexander J. Constable and Naomi Morales-Medina.

March 21, 2017 | More

MBAs in space: rocket science absorbs business school thinking

“I’m trying to get more technical and business education to transition into the space industry,” says Barret Schlegelmilch (LGO ’18), a former submarine officer in the US Navy, who is pursuing an MBA at the same time as a masters of science in astronautical and space engineering.

February 21, 2017 | More

Learning: the key to continuous improvement

Steven Spear is an LGO thesis advisor and Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Certain companies continually deliver more value to the market. They do so with greater speed and ease than their rivals, even when they lack the classic elements of strategic advantage: locked-in customers, dependent suppliers and barriers that keep competitors at bay. Absent such structural advantages, you would expect parity. There are, however, still those companies that regularly outscore the competition. Toyota, Intel, and Apple are among them, as are many lesser known but no less disproportionally successful ventures.

The source of uneven outcomes on otherwise level playing fields? Learning, at which the very best organizations excel. They are far faster and better at discovering what to do and how to do it, as well as at refreshing the set of problems to be solved and solutions to be delivered faster than the ecosystem can render their relevance obsolete.

For sure, learning is not simply training. Training involves accepted skills with an accepted application, and then using an accepted approach to deliver those skills to the organization. Learning, on the other hand, involves converting ignorance and a lack of capacity into knowledge, new skills and understanding. It requires recognizing what you do not know and finding new approaches to solve new problems. This, in turn, requires critical thinking and a willingness to challenge accepted practices, even when those practices are perceived as successful.

Challenge—even respectful challenge—is not a natural act. When something has worked well, complacency and inertia accumulate and interests get vested in sustaining what is familiar, even if it is not optimal. Challenging historical approaches goes along with challenging the emotions, status and prestige associated with those approaches. That is not typically welcome.

For aspiring leaders to overcome inertia, as well as to realize and capitalize on the innate potential of those they wish to lead, they must embrace a two-pronged approach. First, they need to cultivate a sense of dissatisfaction with current practices, actively encourage paranoia about the status quo and incite a spirit of relentlessly seeking flaws. Second, they must make this constant challenge both respectful and safe, communicating the expectation that associates at all levels identify problems, try new approaches and evaluate those approaches based on both the results and the discipline and speed with which insights are generated.

This is a skunkworks approach, not a tactic isolated to a few top projects given to an elite group of researchers. It is everyone striving ahead on the work that is within their control and subject to their influence, so that both the pieces and the whole get better together.

Successful practitioners of high-velocity learning have made it a fundamental part of leadership to develop less-experienced associates’ ability to actively convert experiences into bona fide learning. A problem-solving/learning dynamic is broadly diffused throughout the enterprise. These organizations have expanded our typical concept of “the knowledge worker” from doctors, scientists and IT staff to the people wearing hard hats, coveralls and khakis.

Global manufacturer Alcoa enjoyed a profound transformation by embracing this approach. For example, when an Alcoa manager new to a recently acquired facility formed a quality and safety committee, he chose to depend on unionized workers. Previously, these employees expressed their insights by filing labor grievances, because more genteel methods of calling out issues were ignored and diminished.

This led the company to implement a system for all workers to easily document practices that led to injuries or beneficial outcomes. By changing practices based on workers’ insights, the risk of job injury collapsed from 2 percent to 0.07 percent. Costs dropped, and productivity soared. The company’s stock, a mainstay of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, starting tracking the NASDAQ—the domicile of dot.coms, high-techs and other ventures valued for what they know and what they are expected to invent.

Alcoa’s success reflects the essence of high-velocity learning: By motivating and enabling all employees to challenge the norm, organizations can realize competitive advantage.

Steven Spear is a Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and at the Engineering Systems Division at MIT.

February 9, 2017 | More

Featured video: MIT Hyperloop

A team of MIT students, including LGOs, are competing in the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition in California.

January 25, 2017 | More

MIT Students Tour Pratt & Whitney’s Columbus Facility

A group of more than 50 students and faculty members from MIT’s Leaders for Global Operations program toured the Columbus Engine Center on January 9 to experience what it’s like to work in a high-tech manufacturing business.

January 11, 2017 | More

Researchers design one of the strongest, lightest materials known

A team of researchers at MIT, including Markus Buehler, the head of MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) and LGO thesis advisor, has designed one of the strongest lightweight materials known, by compressing and fusing flakes of graphene, a two-dimensional form of carbon. The new material, a sponge-like configuration with a density of just 5 percent, can have a strength 10 times that of steel.

January 6, 2017 | More

From Teen Mom To 3 MIT Degrees

This Latina shares her secrets to making the most of your career with Women@Forbes. Noramay Cadena (LGO ’11) is a #bosslady in all aspects of her life.

November 17, 2016 | More

MIT program enrolls first student from the Philippines

The MIT Sloan School of Management recently announced that the first student from the Philippines, Dominique Rustia, matriculated into its prestigious Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) Program. In the MIT LGO program, Rustia will earn both an MBA from MIT Sloan and an SM from MIT’s School of Engineering.

November 5, 2016 | More

Sloan

Stock market’s real driver is not what you think – Daniel Greenwald

 What makes the stock market move over the long term? While stocks have historically delivered positive returns year-over-year on average, it is not clear why stock prices rise more rapidly in one period than in any other.

With my colleagues, Martin Lettau of the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business and Sydney Ludvigson of New York University, I set out to investigate what makes stocks move over time. What we found was surprising.

Despite the widespread belief that firm productivity is a key driver of stock market returns, our results indicate that fluctuations in productivity play only a small role. Far more influential over long periods is the economic redistribution between workers and shareholders — meaning how a company’s profits are divided between employees and investors.

Our first step in this research was to consider which factors might be responsible for movement in the stock market in aggregate. Each firm that is represented in the stock market index produces a stream of revenues. After paying a portion to workers, the rest is left over as profits that can be distributed to shareholders as dividends. The stock price will rise whenever the rewards to the shareholders increase, which can be caused by one of three separate forces:

  • Productivity: The firm becomes more productive, increasing its stream of revenues. This increases the size of both slices, including the shareholders’ slice.
  • Redistribution: The size of the pie remains fixed, but the firm pays a smaller share to the workers, increasing the shareholders’ slice.
  • Market confidence: Neither the size nor the division of the pie changes, but more risk-tolerant investors demand more stock despite there being no change in their current dividends.

Combining theoretical analysis with statistical estimation on macroeconomic and stock market data, we were able to determine the relative strengths of these three forces.

Here’s what we found: At short-term horizons of one-quarter to several years, market confidence shocks are dominant, explaining nearly all fluctuations. Essentially, short-run swings in stock prices are simply out of proportion to the movements in the underlying cash flows, ruling out the other two explanations.

But at longer horizons of a decade or more, we found that redistributions between workers and shareholders play an increasingly important role, explaining half of the variation in overall stock prices at a horizon of 25 years.

Daniel L. Greenwald is an Assistant Professor of Finance at the MIT Sloan School of Management. 

April 13, 2017 | More

Tell your boss the hard truth, especially if your boss is the president

Lt. Gen. Robert Van Antwerp on what he told George W. Bush about rebuilding after a hurricane. It’s a question that’s common — and crucial — when asking for feedback from a colleague or direct report. But when it comes from the president of the United States and you are the commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers following one of the five deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history, it can give you pause, said retired Lt. Gen. Robert “Van” Van Antwerp.

Van Antwerp was on Air Force One with President George W. Bush in 2007 when the president asked him that question as they were about to tour the Army Corps’ reconstruction efforts of the Louisiana Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina, which had occurred two years earlier.

“I knew that when he asked a question like that, he wanted the truth. And, I thought to myself, ‘This is going to be hard to do,” Van Antwerp said. But Van Antwerp gave his opinion, because he believed that when Bush promised to rebuild New Orleans “higher and better,” it committed the Army Corps of Engineers into a specific plan that might not have been the best one for rebuilding the area.

Van Antwerp, like many, was also concerned about rebuilding the homes in the city’s Ninth Ward and the debate has raged on. Van Antwerp said it would have been preferable to move everybody in the Ninth Ward to higher ground.

Since that time, the Corps has rebuilt the levees and flood walls, and installed new pumps and floodgates around a perimeter several hundred miles long, to the tune of $14 billion.

So, Van Antwerp told the president not to promise to build something “higher and better” again following a catastrophe. Two months later, as he and Bush flew into another domestic disaster zone, Bush looked at him before he got off the plane said, “Yeah, I got it. I’m not going to say that again,” according to Van Antwerp.

Learning from failures is something all leaders should do, and it means giving and receiving feedback that’s timely, specific, and actionable, Van Antwerp said.

“I know when I’ve opened myself to that feedback, it’s been the best way to grow,” he added.

Van Antwerp, who spoke on campus April 10, served as commanding general of the Corps from 2007 to 2011 and retired after 39 years of military service. His talk was sponsored by the MIT Sloan Veterans Association.

April 13, 2017 | More

How speeding up payments to small businesses creates jobs

Operating a small business, the backbone of the U.S. economy, has always been tough. But they’ve also been disproportionately hurt by the Great Recession, losing 40 percent more jobs than the rest of the private sector combined.

Interestingly, as my research with Harvard’s Ramana Nanda shows there’s a fairly straightforward way to support small businesses, make them more profitable and hire more: pay them faster.

A major source of financing

When a business is not paid for weeks after a sale, it is effectively providing short-term financing to its customers, something called “trade credit.” This is recorded in the balance sheet as accounts receivable.

Despite its economic importance, trade credit has received little attention in the academic literature so far, relative to other sources of financing, yet it is a major source of funding for the U.S. economy. The use of trade credit is recorded on companies’ accounting statements as “trade payables” in the liability section of the balance sheet. According to the Federal Fund Flows, trade payables amounted to US$2.1 trillion on nonfinancial companies’ balance sheets at the end of the third quarter of 2006, two times more than bank loans and three times as much as a short-term debt instrument known as commercial paper.

Read the Full Article at The Conversation

Jean-Noel Barrot is an Assistant Professor of Finance, MIT Sloan School of Management

April 12, 2017 | More

The evolutionary element of markets

Economists have been accused of “physics envy”, an obsession with constructing precise mathematical models instead of studying the real, messy, world. But a new book suggests that economists have been looking at the wrong science; they should have focused on biology.

The idea stems from the school of “behavioural economics” which observes that humans are not the kind of hyper-rational calculating machines that some models rely on them to be. As a result, markets are not always “efficient”—accurately pricing all the available information.

When Andrew Lo was a young academic, he presented a paper at a conference which showed that one of the key assumptions of the efficient market hypothesis was not borne out by the data. He was instantly told that he must have made a programming error; his results could not possibly be right.

Mr Lo, who is now a professor at MIT, has spent much of his career battling to steer economics away from such narrow-minded thinking. His grand idea is the “adaptive markets hypothesis”. The actions of individuals are driven by intellectual short cuts—rules of thumb that they use to make decisions. If those decisions turn out badly, they adapt their behaviour and come up with a new rule to follow.

The theory is bolstered by experiments that show how humans make decisions. Psychological quirks include an unwillingness to take losses and a tendency to make patterns out of random data. These traits may once have been useful in evolutionary terms (that rustle in the bushes might not be a predator, but better safe than sorry) but are less helpful when making financial decisions.

Research has also shown what happens inside our brains when we make decisions. Winning money has the same effect on a brain as a cocaine addict getting a fix, while losing money has the same effect on risk-averse people as a nasty smell or pictures of bodily mutilation. Furthermore, it seems that emotion plays a significant part in gauging risks, and not always a negative one, acting as a “reward-and-punishment system that allows the brain to select an advantageous behaviour”. If we do not fear the consequences of failure, we may act irresponsibly, just as small children need to learn to be wary of cars before crossing the road. Studies of people with brain damage show that “when the ability to experience emotions is removed, human behaviour becomes less rational.”

When we apply our behavioural quirks to the markets, the result is a kind of fast-track evolution in which investment strategies are tested in a fast-changing environment. Mr Lo describes the hedge-fund industry as the “Galapagos islands of finance”; many thousands have been set up but the extinction rate is very high.

The theory may also explain why the economy can see long periods of stability followed by sudden crisis. Mr Lo writes that “Economic expansions and contractions are the consequences of individuals and institutions adapting to changing financial environments, and bubbles and crashes are the result when the change occurs too quickly.”

The same process of adaptation occurs between the finance industry and its regulators, with the regulators always one evolutionary step behind the regulated. One answer, suggests Mr Lo, is to create a financial equivalent of America’s National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Because the NTSB is not itself a regulator, it feels able to criticise both transport companies and regulations; that makes its conclusions genuinely independent.

Mr Lo makes a convincing argument and he also uses the book to lay out some interesting ideas—such as a huge, diversified fund that would invest in a range of potential cancer treatments. But while readers may nod their heads in agreement with the author, it is not clear what they should do next. The adaptive-markets theory does not really produce any testable propositions, or market-beating strategies. And regulators might benefit from his suggestions on monitoring financial risk but might still struggle to know what to do in response. Perhaps that is the point; evolution doesn’t have an end game in mind.

April 12, 2017 | More

US money market reforms: the gain isn’t worth the pain

Next month the new rules of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) will become effective for money market funds (MM funds).

Most importantly, MM funds with any assets from institutional shareholders – e.g., corporations, pension plans and insurance companies – will no longer maintain a constant net asset value per share of $1. Instead, the net asset value of institutional MM funds will fluctuate on a daily basis – for example, 99.8 cents per share on one day, and $1.01 per share on the next.

The new SEC rules apply to institutional MM funds investing in short-term debt of cities and states – called “municipal” MM funds. The new rules also apply to institutional MM funds investing primarily in short-term debt of banks and top-rated companies – called “prime” MM funds.

However, the new rules do not apply to institutional “government “ funds — investing almost all their assets in short-term debt issued by the US Treasury or federal agencies, loans backed by such debt or cash.

The prospect of these SEC rules has already led to billions of institutional assets moving out of municipal MM funds and prime MM funds into government MM funds.

As a result, the interest rates on the short-term borrowings (90 days or less ) of most banks, top rated companies, state and city governments have risen sharply. Will these hikes in borrowing costs be outweighed by the putative benefits of these rules – reducing the potential for systemic risk from institutional MM funds?

Read the full post at Financial Times

Robert Pozen is a Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

April 10, 2017 | More

Transforming capitalism: 7 acupuncture points

After a year of disheartening setbacks, many activists and change-makers may feel that the critical goal of transforming capitalism is slipping out of reach. Yet, having just returned from a four-week trip to many sites and gatherings working on social, economic, and spiritual renewal, I feel that the opposite is true. There are more fascinating and eye-opening examples of this transformation emerging worldwide than ever before. But something is missing, something that contributes significantly to the sense that we’re heading in the wrong direction. Simply put, what’s missing is a systemic connection between all these initiatives—an enabling mechanism that allows us to not only connect the dots, but also to see ourselves, and the significance of our work, from the whole. Below, I take you on a tour through the landscape of some current initiatives, and at the end of this journey I propose how we might link up and support the larger landscape of economic transformation.

Transforming Capitalism

In previous columns I have described our current moment of crisis—specifically the rise of Trump, the far right, and populist strongmen—as the result of two factors: (1) the increasing rate of disruption and (2) the lack of a capacity to lean into these moments by letting go of the old and letting come new patterns and possibilities (a capacity I call presencing).

At the heart of our current predicament is a disconnect between the real-world challenges—the widening ecological, social, and spiritual divides—and the outdated economic models we use to respond to them. Closing that gap will require nothing less than a transformation of the economy. The transformation of our current mode of capitalism is the key to any sustainable strategy for social-ecological change. It is as true for the United States as it is for Europe, Asia, Africa, or Latin America.

So what have we learned, if anything, about transforming our economic order? Last week I attended a meeting convened by the DOEN foundation in Amsterdam that brought together key innovators in the field of forging a new economy. It was a wonderful microcosm of change-makers from many countries and sectors, each of whom is pioneering new pathways. This column is much inspired by that meeting.

The New Economy

The term “new economy” was frequently used during the heyday of the dot-com bubble. It suggested a new set of rules that would replace the traditional rules of the “old economy.” Today it no longer refers narrowly to digitization but more broadly to addressing the bigger social, environmental, and cultural-creative challenges of our time. So perhaps the term could be used more precisely to speak about transforming capitalism toward an economic system that generates well-being and prosperity for all—all beings, human and non-human, including current and future generations.

Read the full post at The Huffington Post.

Otto Scharmer is a Senior Lecturer at MIT, a Thousand Talents Program Professor at Tsinghua University, and co-founder of the Presencing Institute. 

April 7, 2017 | More

Can one 3-D printed pill replace a pile of vitamins?

Precision robotics allows for the controlled release of supplements in a single pill. 3-D precision robotics allow for the printing of personalized supplements.

MIT startup Multiply Labs is betting that personalized, 3-D printed supplements will appeal to people who want a boost in nutrition without having to swallow multiple pills every day.

Multiply Labs, cofounded by Fred Parietti, PhD ’16, Tiffany Kuo, MBA ’16, Alice Melocchi, and Joe Wilson, will introduce a manufacturing process later this year that uses 3-D robotics to make personalized pills. Customers can choose their own combination of vitamins, minerals, and other compounds like caffeine and omega-3, to be inserted into minuscule compartments within each pill. Those compartments will have varying thicknesses to control the release time of the components with the supplement, which is the size of a regular multivitamin.

For example, if caffeine is added to the supplement, its release will be delayed to later in the day, which is something a mass-produced pill cannot do, Kuo said.

2017-multiplylabs-team From left: Multiply Labs co-founders Joe Wilson, Alice Melocchi, Tiffany Kuo, and Fred Parietti

“Instead of taking a multivitamin, omega-3 capsule, and then coffee later in the day, we can place everything in one capsule,” Kuo said.

Consumers can determine their own nutritional needs, or specifically, what they are deficient in, by using the Multiply Labs online algorithm or after consulting with a physician or nutritionist.

MIT roots
The company, located in San Francisco, got its start at MIT when Parietti and Melocchi, who was a visiting student in the chemical engineering department, worked together on the technology, publishing research about their work in 2015. MIT Sloan students Kuo and Wilson joined the team to help commercialize and market the product. The MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund Program provided $5,000 in funding and another seed round of funding has followed, although the company won’t disclose investors yet.

The startup will launch this spring, and is taking pre-orders for the mail subscription-based service. Vitamins, minerals, and supplements are a $30 billion industry in the United States.

April 7, 2017 | More

Fighting online extremists with machine learning

Using networks and artificial intelligence to pre-emptively identify and shut down ISIS on Twitter. Fighters from the Islamic state group use Twitter and other social networks to recruit and communicate with followers.

After roughly 15 years in the Army, Christopher Marks enrolled as a PhD student at MIT. “He was interested in questions of national security,” said his adviser, Tauhid Zaman, the KDD Career Development Professor in Communications and Technology at MIT Sloan. The two of them began discussing lines of inquiry that best integrated Marks’ research ideas with Zaman’s expertise in social networks. “And then ISIS popped up.”

The Islamic state group’s dominance of national news, along with its heavy presence on Twitter, made it a natural subject of investigation. With input from Jytte Klausen, a specialist of western jihad at Brandeis University, Zaman and Marks started building a model to predict which users of Twitter likely belonged to the Islamic state group, also known as ISIS. “We wanted to know if you can look at an account and predict it is ISIS before they say anything,” Zaman said. “It was important to get to them before they tweeted anything, because, once they do, it’s usually something bad, like the address of a soldier.”

The researchers collected Twitter data on approximately 5,000 “seed users” who were either known Islamic state group members or who were connected to known Islamic state group members. (They obtained the names of these users through news stories, blogs, and reports released by law enforcement agencies and think tanks.) The information they gathered included the basics of an account, like location, screen name, and profile picture, along with the account’s unique ID number; Zaman and Marks did the same for the friends and followers of each seed user, eventually creating a dataset of more than 1.3 million users.

Alongside this data collection, they continuously monitored Twitter over a few months to find which accounts were suspended or shut down — about 60,000 in total. (Twitter takes an active approach to silencing ISIS propaganda.) Putting these two pieces together, Zaman and Marks were able to train a machine-learning model that matched suspended accounts with the specifics of the profile, creating a system for identifying likely members of ISIS. “By doing that we got pretty good at predictive accuracy,” Zaman said. They reached a point where the model could detect more than half of known ISIS accounts simply by studying characteristics of the profile and patterns in its network.

As a follow-up, they tackled the problem of users who create new accounts when their old one has been suspended. Is there a good way, they wondered, to discover those doppelgängers?

“When someone comes back he might change his name and his picture, but he’ll generally hang around the same neighborhood,” Zaman said; that is, when someone who has had his account shut down returns to Twitter, he’ll likely reconnect with the same network. “So we built another machine learning model using all the features of an account to predict when a user might return, whom he’ll reconnect with, and the probability of that reconnection.” When somebody returned and created a recognizable network, Zaman and Marks’ algorithm then tested the similarity of the account name and profile picture against cancelled accounts to gauge the likelihood that the person under scrutiny had previously operated a suspended account.

In the end, the project provided “a coherent system to police these online ecosystems,” Zaman said. He noted that this isn’t a necessity in the case of Twitter: as a publicly held company, Twitter remains internally vigilant about curbing abuses of its platform. “Twitter naturally doesn’t want to be known as the social network for terrorism and ISIS,” he said. But if Islamic state group propagandists jump to other social networking sites, there is no guarantee that these companies will take it upon themselves to monitor their users; nor will companies necessarily share their data with external partners. These concerns highlight the value of the work: the model is agnostic to the kind of extremism under consideration — it needn’t be ISIS — as well as the social network being used.

“It could be anti-Semitic propaganda or online bullying,” Zaman said, and it could take place on any social network since the basic currency of these websites is followers. “You also don’t need the cooperation of the network to make this happen,” he said.

One concern raised by Zaman is that the technology itself is also agnostic. “In the ideal case, it’s used by benevolent governments to protect people from these kinds of violent groups,” he said. But it is easy to imagine an authoritarian government using the work to suppress dissent. “It’s a tool that we developed as scientists, but in the end it’s up to the people in positions of power to use it responsibly,” he said.

April 7, 2017 | More

How Ayush Agarwal picks startups

“If a pitch doesn’t make you feel greedy, something is wrong.” Ayush Agarwal has a long history of nurturing startups — from evaluating new companies for the Madrona Venture Group to leading a multibillion-dollar business unit for Google based on maps and local search ads. A Techstars and Y Combinator mentor, he is also an angel investor for several firms, including the interactive home company Caspar, and the South Asian dating site Dil Mil, as well as FundersClub, an investment platform for angel investors.

Today, Agarwal is head of enterprise products at Facebook, where he leads the development of new enterprise software. At an April 4 talk at MIT Sloan he shared seven tips — “my own, not those of my employer” — for choosing a successful startup investment:

Assess the total addressable market
“If the addressable market is not in the tens of billions of dollars, I would not bother because the probabilities are already stacked against you,” he said, noting that it’s also critical to study market structure.

Evaluate the team
In addition to relevant experience and broad-based skills, look for startup leaders who have unexpected insights. “You should hear two to three things that don’t make sense to you at first glance,” Agarwal said, because unusual insights can provide a competitive advantage.

Beware of trends
Hot topics don’t all translate into business success. “If mobile is hot and all companies are going after it and so are you, that’s not interesting anymore,” Agarwal said. “You don’t want buzzwords to be the key selling points of a company. Dig in and find out if they even need to be using ‘machine learning’ or if simple heuristics would do the job.” That said, people always like products that make their lives easier. “Laziness has been a trend since the dawn of time,” he said.

Look for “anti-data” ideas
Going “anti-data” means making counterintuitive business choices, Agarwal said. For example, just when everyone else was working to preserve customers’ photos forever — such as via searchable online storage — Snapchat made it big with disappearing photos. Consider why a particular entrepreneur is going anti-data, because the tactic just might pay off, Agarwal said.

Insist on a simple pitch
“The idea should be very, very simple to pitch,” Agarwal said. Even if the company’s product is difficult to build, an entrepreneur should be able to describe its “kernel of value” to an investor quickly and clearly. Agarwal told potential investors to assess the pitch: “If you don’t get it in 30 seconds, don’t bother.”

Forget “Zero to One”
In “Zero to One,” PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel argued that the best startups create entirely new markets, thereby taking a business from “zero to one.” Agarwal said he sees more opportunity in companies that focus on “one to 100”—taking on known problems in an existing market and meeting unmet needs. “Don’t solve for a problem that people don’t already think they have,” Agarwal said.

Greed is good
“If a pitch doesn’t make you feel greedy, something is wrong,” Agarwal said. An investor should be so convinced that the business is going to make it big that he or she is willing to fight other investors to be a part of it. “You have to — as an entrepreneur — make me, as an investor, feel greed,” he said.

Agarwal’s talk was hosted by the MIT Sloan Venture Capital and Private Equity Club.

April 7, 2017 | More

A deep look inside Apple Pay’s matchmaker economics

Standing on stage on September 9, 2014 at Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference (WWDC), Tim Cook announced, “We’ve created an entirely new payment process, and we called it Apple Pay.” Cook displayed a video of a woman who held her iPhone 6, the company’s upcoming upgrade, near a payment terminal.  She paid in the blink of any eye. “That’s it,” Cook said, exclaiming twice over “just how fast and just how easy” the new payment method was. An Apple press release claimed the new service would “transform mobile payments.”

Executives, investors, entrepreneurs, analysts, and the media had to assess whether this would be another Apple juggernaut. Would Apple Pay do to financial services what iTunes had done to music? Was the game over for the many other players—big ones like Google, and small ones like LevelUp—that had mobile payment solutions?  Should banks agree to pay Apple 15 basis points per transaction for allowing their customers to use their debit and credit cards with the new service?  And should retailers agree to take the new payment method?

The tech press called Apple Pay a revolution. So did the Financial Times.  PayPal went on deathwatch.  In an article called “Will Apple Pay Kill PayPal?” CNN reported, “Apple wants us to ditch our wallet and credit cards. Wall Street is nervous that consumers may dump online payment service PayPal too.” eBay’s shares—it owned PayPal then–fell 6 percent.

Read the full post at Harvard Business Review

Richard Schmalensee is the Howard W. Johnson Professor of Management Emeritus and Professor of Economics Emeritus.

April 5, 2017 | More

Engineering

Water, water everywhere … even in the air

Severe water shortages already affect many regions around the world, and are expected to get much worse as the population grows and the climate heats up. But a new technology developed by scientists at MIT and the University of California at Berkeley could provide a novel way of obtaining clean, fresh water almost anywhere on Earth, by drawing water directly from moisture in the air even in the driest of locations.

Technologies exist for extracting water from very moist air, such as “fog harvesting” systems that have been deployed in a number of coastal locations. And there are very expensive ways of removing moisture from drier air. But the new method is the first that has potential for widespread use in virtually any location, regardless of humidity levels, the researchers say. They have developed a completely passive system that is based on a foam-like material that draws moisture into its pores and is powered entirely by solar heat.

The findings are reported in the journal Science by a team including MIT associate professor of mechanical engineering Evelyn Wang, MIT postdoc Sameer Rao, graduate student Hyunho Kim, research scientists Sungwoo Yang and Shankar Narayanan (currently at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), and alumnus Ari Umans SM ’15. The Berkeley co-authors include graduate student Eugene Kapustin, project scientist Hiroyasu Furukawa, and professor of chemistry Omar Yaghi.

Fog harvesting, which is being used in many countries including Chile and Morocco, requires very moist air, with a relative humidity of 100 percent, explains Wang, who is the Gail E. Kendall Professor at MIT. But such water-saturated air is only common in very limited regions. Another method of obtaining water in dry regions is called dew harvesting, in which a surface is chilled so that water will condense on it, as it does on the outside of a cold glass on a hot summer day, but it “is extremely energy intensive” to keep the surface cool, she says, and even then the method may not work at a relative humidity lower than about 50 percent. The new system does not have these limitations.

For drier air than that, which is commonplace in arid regions around the world, no previous technology provided a practical way of getting water. “There are desert areas around the world with around 20 percent humidity,” where potable water is a pressing need, “but there really hasn’t been a technology available that could fill” that need, Wang says. The new system, by contrast, is “completely passive — all you need is sunlight,” with no need for an outside energy supply and no moving parts.

Imagine a future in which every home has an appliance that pulls all the water the household needs out of the air, even in dry or desert climates, using only the power of the sun.

Roxanne Makasdjian and Stephen McNally/UC Berkeley

In fact, the system doesn’t even require sunlight — all it needs is some source of heat, which could even be a wood fire. “There are a lot of places where there is biomass available to burn and where water is scarce,” Rao says.

The key to the new system lies in the porous material itself, which is part of a family of compounds known as metal-organic frameworks (MOFs). Invented by Yaghi two decades ago, these compounds form a kind of sponge-like configuration with large internal surface areas. By tuning the exact chemical composition of the MOF these surfaces can be made hydrophilic, or water-attracting. The team found that when this material is placed between a top surface that is painted black to absorb solar heat, and a lower surface that is kept at the same temperature as the outside air, water is released from the pores as vapor and is naturally driven by the temperature and concentration difference to drip down as liquid and collect on the cooler lower surface.

Tests showed that one kilogram (just over two pounds) of the material could collect about three quarts of fresh water per day, about enough to supply drinking water for one person, from very dry air with a humidity of just 20 percent. Such systems would only require attention a few times a day to collect the water, open the device to let in fresh air, and begin the next cycle.

What’s more, MOFs can be made by combining many different metals with any of hundreds of organic compounds, yielding a virtually limitless variety of different compositions, which can be “tuned” to meet a particular need. So far more than 20,000 varieties of MOFs have been made.

“By carefully designing this material, we can have surface properties that can absorb water very efficiently at 50 percent humidity, but with a different design, it can work at 30 percent,” says Kim. “By selecting the right materials, we can make it suitable for different conditions. Eventually we can harvest water from the entire spectrum” of water concentrations, he says.

Yaghi, who is the founding director of the Berkeley Global Science Institute, says “One vision for the future is to have water off-grid, where you have a device at home running on ambient solar for delivering water that satisfies the needs of a household. … To me, that will be made possible because of this experiment. I call it personalized water.”

While these initial experiments have proved that the concept can work, the team says there is more work to be done in refining the design and searching for even more effective varieties of MOFs. The present version can collect water up to about 25 percent of its own weight, but with further tuning they think that proportion could be at least doubled.

“Wow, that is an amazing technology,” says Yang Yang, a professor of engineering at the University of California at Los Angeles, who was not involved in this work. “It will have a tremendous scientific and technical impact on renewable and sustainable resources, such as water and solar energy.”

The work was supported in part by ARPA-E, a program of the U.S. Department of Energy.


April 14, 2017 | More

Mexico City “Better World” event showcases the MIT community in Latin America

The MIT Better World tour celebrated with more than 275 guests in Mexico City’s Four Seasons Hotel on March 23. The evening featured MIT alumni who have garnered international acclaim for their work, as well as rising stars from the faculty and student body. Venezuelan-born President L. Rafael Reif, speaking in his native Spanish, celebrated the deep connections between MIT and Mexico and shared a preview of the faculty and student speakers who would later share highlights of their work in innovative urban planning, disaster preparedness and community resilience in a time of global change, and groundbreaking satellite technologies. He underscored how their work reflects the three pillars of the MIT Campaign for a Better World — education, research, and innovation — all key for making a better world.

World-renowned cellist and MIT alumnus Carlos Prieto ’58 opened the program with a performance of the Bourrée from “Suite No. 3 in C major” by J. S. Bach. Prieto, who played first cello in the MIT Symphony Orchestra, earned an engineering degree and rose to become head of an iron and steel company in Mexico before returning to the cello. His artistic honors include the Order of Civil Merit from the King of Spain, and Mexico’s National Prize for Arts and Sciences. Next to speak was Pedro Aspe PhD ’78, who served as secretary of the treasury of Mexico and has played a central role in structural reforms such as NAFTA that have shaped modern Mexico. Aspe spoke of his enduring gratitude for MIT, where he earned a doctorate in economics, as well as his excitement about the MIT Better World campaign .

Carlos A. Sainz Caccia of Guadalajara, Mexico, gave remarks in both English and Spanish. Sainz is a master’s candidate in urban studies and planning at MIT, where he studies the intersections of public space, urban design, and public transit. He compared MIT’s Infinite Corridor to the Paseo de La Reforma in Mexico City, observing that each thoroughfare strengthens its environment by increasing connectivity: “The Infinite Corridor is a manifestation of what we do at MIT,” he said. “Crossing through buildings and through disciplines. I want to build cities this way.”

Assistant Professor Miho Mazereeuw’s work in emergency response planning has also benefited from the collaborative culture of MIT. In 1995, an earthquake struck her family’s home city of Kobe, Japan, causing loss of life and major disruption. She has since established MIT’s Urban Risk Lab where she is developing the Emergency Preparedness Hub to support effective community action following a disaster. Like Sainz, she identifies the connectivity at MIT as an essential asset: “I came to MIT because the work I do requires a community of people from many disciplines who are willing to collaborate and find solutions to complex problems that affect real people.”

Paulo Lozano SM ’98, PhD ’03, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, also studies space, albeit of a different kind and scale. As director of MIT’s Space Propulsion Laboratory, he is developing a new generation of tiny satellites powered by cutting-edge micropropulsion systems. As a child in Mexico City, he dreamt of space exploration, and remains inspired by its vast opportunities. Lozano spoke of MIT’s capacity to help realize “the democratization of space” by creating technologies that draw more ideas and creative individuals into the field. “At MIT,” he said, “this sense of democracy is visible everywhere; it is at the heart of our culture, and it drives our work.” Lozano was recently appointed faculty director of MIT-Mexico, part of the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives, which provides MIT students with hands-on, international learning opportunities.

President Reif concluded the program with thanks to all the speakers for their inspiration, and the active MIT community in Mexico City. He shared his vision for the MIT Campaign for a Better World and its three pillars, and reminded the audience that while the exciting future described by the evening’s speakers is quite possible, MIT needs “enthusiastic partners who share our vision” to realize those opportunities. “We invite you to join us in inventing the future,” he said.

On April 13, the Better World tour arrives in Washington at the Newseum, to a record-breaking number of registered guests. Visit betterworld.mit.edu/events to learn more.


April 12, 2017 | More

Study from MIT Energy Initiative will explore the future of transportation

Energy demand for transportation — which today accounts for approximately one-fifth of the world’s energy consumption — is expected to rise substantially as a growing middle class in emerging economies demands greater access. But how will such demand be addressed in the years ahead?

As part of MIT’s five-year Plan for Action on Climate Change, the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) has launched a major study — “Mobility of the Future” — to explore how consumers and markets will respond to potentially disruptive technologies, business models, and government policies. The scope of this study is ground transportation with an emphasis on the movement of people.

“It is well recognized that transportation is the most challenging economic sector to decarbonize,” says Robert Armstrong, director of MITEI and a professor of chemical engineering. “Our three-year ‘Mobility of the Future’ study is tackling complex questions of how technology advances, consumer choice, new business models, and government policies could change the trajectory of mobility to fundamentally alter the carbon intensity of the future transportation system.”

There are many potentially disruptive forces at work in the mobility space, all of which could shape the landscape. MITEI has organized a multidisciplinary team from across MIT to examine the complex interactions among these elements and their implications for the future.

The study team will explore the potential for widespread deployment of advanced powertrains, such as advanced internal combustion engines, hybrid-electric vehicles, all-electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles. The study will also examine the consequences of using electricity and fuels such as natural gas, e-fuels, biofuels, and hydrogen to power these vehicles.

Other areas of focus will include research into new mobility business models such as ride hailing and car sharing, and demographic changes such as greater urbanization and the growing middle class in many developing countries. Researchers will use agent-based modeling systems to examine how people travel in metropolitan areas and how these consumers’ mode choice decisions are influenced by congestion and government policies. These decisions depend on many factors including city characteristics, infrastructure, personal income, travel needs, and availability of options including personal car, bicycle, public transportation, and ride hailing services. The team will also gather data to better understand people’s attitudes regarding car ownership and usage, and how these attitudes vary across different cultures and age groups.

Researchers will also explore how various government policies — such as those regarding emissions controls and congestion mitigation — can impact prosperity, adoption of alternative modes of transportation, and emissions. The study will also address the important topic of vehicle automation, with a focus on how government policy affects the introduction and use of these technologies.

The study is supported by energy, automotive, and infrastructure companies that are providing industry perspectives on mobility problems that require solutions. Sponsors include Alfa, Bosch, BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Ferrovial, General Motors, Saudi Aramco, Statoil, and Toyota Mobility Foundation.

While there is a particular focus on the U.S., E.U., and China, data collection for the study is global in scope. Dalia Research, a Berlin-based mobile research company, is contributing to the study and has already completed surveys with 43,000 participants from across 50 countries to measure perceptions and attitudes toward vehicle technologies, mobility services, and regulations.

“The ‘Mobility of the Future’ study brings together academia and industry to identify the most compelling questions about the future of mobility and define scenarios that we will simulate with our modeling tools to understand the consequences,” says William H. Green, a professor of chemical engineering who is the study’s faculty chair. “The multi-disciplinary MIT team brings together all of the vital skills for this important study, including city and transportation planning, civil engineering, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, and economics. We look forward to sharing findings that we hope will inform industry, city planners, and government policies.”


April 11, 2017 | More

Three MIT engineering faculty win 2017 NSF CAREER Awards

Three MIT faculty members are among the 156 researchers from around the U.S. who were selected for the 2017 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) program.

Ruonan Han, the E. E. Landsman (1958) Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, will explore on-chip terahertz electronic frequency combs.

Luqiao Liu, the Robert Shillman Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, will explore spin-orbit interaction based spintronics with superconductors.

Amos Winter, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, will explore tuning passive prosthetic leg dynamics to create low-cost, robust devices that can replicate physiological gait in multiple activities of daily living.

“Resilient infrastructure, abundant food and water, affordable medical treatments, smart communities — these are engineering marvels that we all want to experience,” said Barry Johnson, acting National Science Foundation assistant director for engineering. “For each one of us, throughout our great nation, to reach the America of our dreams requires investment today in new generations of engineering researchers across the country.”

Supported by grants from the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Directorate, each researcher will set out with at least a $500,000 award and a plan to make advances in engineering. This year’s awardees hail from 88 institutions across 34 U.S. states.

April 10, 2017 | More

New technology can detect tiny ovarian tumors

Most ovarian cancer is diagnosed at such late stages that patients’ survival rates are poor. However, if the cancer is detected earlier, five-year survival rates can be greater than 90 percent.

Now, MIT engineers have developed a far more sensitive way to reveal ovarian tumors: In tests in mice, they were able to detect tumors composed of nodules smaller than 2 millimeters in diameter. In humans, that could translate to tumor detection about five months earlier than is possible with existing blood tests, the researchers say.

The new test makes use of a “synthetic biomarker” — a nanoparticle that interacts with tumor proteins to release fragments that can be detected in a patient’s urine sample. This kind of test can generate a much clearer signal than natural biomarkers found in very small quantities in the patient’s bloodstream.

“What we did in this paper is engineer our sensor to be about 15 times better than a previous version, and then compared it against a blood biomarker in a mouse model of ovarian cancer to show that we could beat it,” says Sangeeta Bhatia, the John and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, and the senior author of the study.

This approach could also be adapted to work with other cancers. In this paper, which appears in the April 10 issue of Nature Biomedical Engineering, the researchers showed they can detect colorectal tumors that metastasized to the liver.

The paper’s lead authors are postdoc Ester Kwon and graduate student Jaideep Dudani.

Synthetic biomarkers

Bhatia first reported the strategy of diagnosing cancer with synthetic biomarkers in 2012. This method measures the activity of protein-cutting enzymes called endoproteases, which are made by tumors to help recruit blood vessels and invade surrounding tissues so the cancer can grow and spread.

To detect this sort of enzyme, the researchers designed nanoparticles coated with small protein fragments called peptides that can be cleaved by particular proteases called MMPs. After being injected into a mouse, these particles passively collect at the tumor site. MMPs cleave the peptides to liberate tiny reporter fragments, which are then filtered out by the kidney and concentrated in the urine, where they can be detected using various methods, including a simple paper-based test.

In a paper published in 2015, the researchers created a mathematical model of this system, to understand several factors such as how the particles circulate in the body, how efficiently they encounter the protease, and at what rate the protease cleaves the peptides. This model showed that in order to detect tumors 5 millimeters in diameter or smaller in humans, the researchers would need to improve the system’s sensitivity by at least one order of magnitude.

In the current study, the researchers used two new strategies to boost the sensitivity of their detector. The first was to optimize the length of the polymer that tethers the peptides to the nanoparticle. For reasons not yet fully understood, when the tether is a particular length, specific proteases cleave peptides at a higher rate. This optimization also decreases the amount of background cleavage by a nontarget enzyme.

Second, the researchers added a targeting molecule known as a tumor-penetrating peptide to the nanoparticles, which causes them to accumulate at the tumor in greater numbers and results in boosting the number of cleaved peptides that end up secreted in the urine.

By combining these two refinements, the researchers were able to enhance the sensitivity of the sensor 15-fold, which they showed was enough to detect ovarian cancer composed of small tumors (2 millimeters in diameter) in mice. They also tested this approach in the liver, where they were able to detect tumors that originated in the colon. In humans, colon cancer often spreads to the liver and forms small tumors that are difficult to detect, similar to ovarian tumors.

“This is important work to validate novel strategies for the earlier detection of cancer that are not dependent on biomarkers made by cancer cells. [The method] instead forces the generation of artificial biomarkers at the tumor site, if any tumor indeed exists within the body,” says Sanjiv Sam Gambhir, chair of the department of radiology at Stanford University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study. “Such approaches should eventually help change the way in which we detect cancer.”

Earlier diagnosis

Currently, doctors can look for blood biomarkers produced by ovarian tumors, but these markers don’t accumulate in great enough concentrations to be detected until the tumors are about 1 centimeter in diameter, about eight to 10 years after they form. Another diagnostic tool, ultrasound imaging, is also limited to ovarian tumors that are 1 centimeter in diameter or larger.

Being able to detect a tumor five months earlier, which the MIT researchers believe their new technique could do, could make a significant difference for some patients.

In this paper, the researchers also showed that they could detect disease proteases in microarrays of many tumor cells taken from different cancer patients. This strategy could eventually help the researchers to determine which peptides to use for different types of cancer, and even for individual patients.

“Every patient’s tumor is different, and not every tumor will be amenable to targeting with the same molecule,” Bhatia says. “This is a tool that will help us to exploit the modularity of the technology and personalize formulations.”

The researchers are now further investigating the possibility of using this approach on other cancers, including prostate cancer, where it could be used to distinguish more aggressive tumors from those that grow much more slowly, Bhatia says.

The research was funded by the Koch Institute’s Marble Center for Cancer Nanomedicine, the Ludwig Center for Molecular Oncology, the Koch Institute Support Grant from the National Cancer Institute, the Core Center Grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.


April 10, 2017 | More

MIT receives $7.5 million to enhance structural biology research

MIT will receive a $2.5 million gift from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation to help develop a state-of-the-art cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-Em) center to be housed at the MIT.nano facility. In addition, the Institute also received an anonymous donation of $5 million to support the purchase of a synergistic high-resolution cryo-EM instrument.

Cryo-EM is fast outpacing traditional X-ray crystallography techniques for understanding large biological structures. In X-ray crystallography, X-rays are scattered through a crystallized protein, and the resulting diffraction pattern allows scientists to determine the position of atoms in a biomolecule. Though this technique has resulted in major scientific discoveries, including DNA’s double helix structure, it also has limitations.

Some marcomolecules and proteins don’t easily crystallize and, if the molecules can be crystallized, they are locked into a single conformation. With cryo-EM, researchers can look at protein structures in many different conformations and gain better insight into the protein’s mechanisms — leading to biomedical applications, such as more efficient drug development, or to increased understanding of chemotherapy efficacies.

By using cryo-EM techniques, researchers such as Thomas Schwartz, the Boris Magasanik Professor of Biology, can gain new insights into communication within the cell. Schwartz is particularly interested in a large protein assembly called the Nuclear Pore Complex (NPC), which mediates how signals and molecules traverse the nuclear envelope from nucleus to cytoplasm and back again.

“Cryo-EM allows us to not only see fragments and subcomplexes of the NPC, but also allows us to see their different conformations to understand how the complex may be carrying out its functions,” says Schwartz, adding that understanding the mechanism of the cellular machinery for nucleus-cytoplasm communication could allow development of treatments for when this communication malfunctions.

“This revolutionary technology will enable ground-breaking innovations and insights in structural biology and therefore affect many areas of human health and disease,” says Alan Grossman, the Praecis Professor and head of the Department of Biology.

The Beckman Foundation funding and the anonymous donation will allow for the purchase of the Talos Arctica and Titan Krios cryo-EM instruments, which will enhance several core facilities already present on the MIT campus, including traditional electron microscopy laboratories, the Department of Biology’s X-ray crystallography facilities, and the Francis Bitter Magnet Laboratory, which uses nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy.

“Coupled with other emerging imaging and characterization tools, the cryo-EM instruments will provide a synergy across many research areas within MIT.nano and beyond,” says Vladimir Bulović, faculty head of the MIT.nano facility, a professor of electrical engineering, and the Fariborz Maseeh Chair in Emerging Technology. “The Beckman grant helps us clear that final hurdle in solidifying our nanoscale bio-imaging facilities and provide the research capabilities to turn scientific discoveries into breakthrough technologies.”

“While the expense can make acquiring this technology via federal grants prohibitive, we as a private foundation are in a unique position to support major infrastructure investments to enable broader deployment of this new tool and increase access for young scientists to this exciting field of study,” says Anne Hultgren, executive director of the Beckman Foundation.

Some of these researchers include Gabriela Schlau-Cohen, an assistant professor of chemistry and a 2016 recipient of the Beckman Young Investigator award.

“This new facility will be transformative for the research programs of many faculty in the biology and chemistry departments, in particular for junior faculty with burgeoning research groups,” says Timothy Jamison, the Robert R. Taylor Professor of Chemistry and head of the Department of Chemistry.

The Beckman Foundation made similar instrumentation grants to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, University of Utah, and University of Washington School of Medicine.

April 4, 2017 | More

Tim Berners-Lee wins $1 million Turing Award

MIT Professor Tim Berners-Lee, the researcher who invented the World Wide Web and is one of the world’s most influential voices for online privacy and government transparency, has won the most prestigious honor in computer science, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) A.M. Turing Award. Often referred to as “the Nobel Prize of computing,” the award comes with a $1 million prize provided by Google.

In its announcement today, ACM cited Berners-Lee for “inventing the World Wide Web, the first web browser, and the fundamental protocols and algorithms allowing the web to scale.” This year marks the 50th anniversary of the award.

A principal investigator at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) with a joint appointment in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Berners-Lee conceived of the web in 1989 at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) as a way to allow scientists around the world to share information with each other on the internet. He introduced a naming scheme (URIs), a communications protocol (HTTP), and a language for creating webpages (HTML). His open-source approach to coding the first browser and server is often credited with helping catalyzing the web’s rapid growth.

“I’m humbled to receive the namesake award of a computing pioneer who showed that what a programmer could do with a computer is limited only by the programmer themselves,” says Berners-Lee, the 3COM Founders Professor of Engineering at MIT. “It is an honor to receive an award like the Turing that has been bestowed to some of the most brilliant minds in the world.”

Berners-Lee is founder and director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which sets technical standards for web development, as well as the World Wide Web Foundation, which aims to establish the open web as a public good and a basic right. He also holds a professorship at Oxford University.

As director of CSAIL’s Decentralized Information Group, Berners-Lee has developed data systems and privacy-minded protocols such as “HTTP with Accountability” (HTTPA), which monitors the transmission of private data and enables people to examine how their information is being used. He also leads Solid (“social linked data”), a project to re-decentralize the web that allows people to control their own data and make it available only to desired applications.

“Tim Berners-Lee’s career — as brilliant and bold as they come — exemplifies MIT’s passion for using technology to make a better world,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “Today we celebrate the transcendent impact Tim has had on all of our lives, and congratulate him on this wonderful and richly deserved award.”

While Berners-Lee was initially drawn to programming through his interest in math, there was also a familial connection: His parents met while working on the Ferranti Mark 1, the world’s first commercial general-purpose computer. Years later, he wrote a program called Enquire to track connections between different ideas and projects, indirectly inspiring what later became the web.

“Tim’s innovative and visionary work has transformed virtually every aspect our lives, from communications and entertainment to shopping and business,” says CSAIL Director Daniela Rus. “His work has had a profound impact on people across the world, and all of us at CSAIL are so very proud of him for being recognized with the highest honor in computer science.”

Berners-Lee has received multiple accolades for his technical contributions, from being knighted by Queen Elizabeth to being named one of TIME magazine’s “100 Most Important People of the 20th Century.” He will formally receive the Turing Award during the ACM’s annual banquet June 24 in San Francisco.

Past Turing Award recipients who have taught at MIT include Michael Stonebraker (2014), Shafi Goldwasser and Silvio Micali (2013), Barbara Liskov (2008), Ronald Rivest (2002), Butler Lampson (1992), Fernando Corbato (1990), John McCarthy (1971) and Marvin Minsky (1969).


April 4, 2017 | More

Method may help myeloma patients avoid painful biopsies

Multiple myeloma is a cancer of the plasma cells, which are white blood cells produced in bone marrow that churn out antibodies to help fight infection. When plasma cells become cancerous, they produce abnormal proteins, and the cells can build up in bone marrow, ultimately seeping into the bloodstream.

The disease is typically diagnosed through a bone marrow biopsy, in which a needle is inserted near a patient’s hip bone to suck out a sample of bone marrow — a painful process for many patients. Clinicians can then isolate and analyze the plasma cells in the bone marrow sample to determine if they are cancerous.

There is currently no way to easily detect plasma cells that have escaped into the bloodstream. Circulating plasma cells are not normally found in healthy people, and the ability to detect these cells in blood could enable doctors to diagnose and track the progression of multiple myeloma.

Now engineers at MIT have devised a microfluidic technique to capture and count circulating plasma cells from small samples of blood. The technique, which relies on conventional blood draws, may provide patients with a less painful test for multiple myeloma.

“Procedures of the traditional tissue biopsy are painful, associated with complications such as potential infections, and often available only in central hospitals which require patients to travel long distances,” says former MIT postdoc Mohammad Qasaimeh. “Capturing plasma cells from blood samples can serve as a liquid biopsy, which can be performed in clinics as often as required, and serve as a diagnostic and prognostic test during and after chemotherapy treatment. Moreover, captured cells can be used for drug testing and thus serve as a tool for personalized medicine.”

Qasaimeh and his colleagues have published their results today in the journal Scientific Reports. His co-authors include Rohit Karnik, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering; Yichao Wu and Suman Bose, both former students; Jeffrey Karp, an associate professor in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology; and Rao Prabhala, an instructor in medicine at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School.

A herringbone trap

The group’s technique builds on a microfluidic design that was previously developed by George Whitesides, a professor of chemistry at Harvard University. Whitesides and his colleagues fabricated a small microchip, the channel of which they etched with repeating, V-shaped grooves, similar to a herringbone pattern. The grooves cause any fluid flowing through the microchip to swirl about in eddies, rather passing straight through. The cells within the fluid therefore have a higher chance of making contact with the floor of the device, as first shown by Memhmet Toner at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Researchers including Karnik have since reproduced this microfluidic design, coating the microchip’s floor with certain molecules to attract cells of interest.

In its latest work, Karnik’s team used the microfluidic herringbone design to capture circulating plasma cells. They coated the channels of a microchip, about the size of a glass slide, with CD138, an antibody that is also expressed on the membranes of plasma cells. The team then flowed small, 1-milliliter samples of blood through the device. The herringbone grooves circulated the blood in the microfluidic channels, where the antibodies, acting as tiny Velcro pads, grabbed onto any passing plasma cells while letting the rest of the blood flow out of the device.

Once the cells were isolated in the microchip, the researchers could count the cells, as well determine the kinds of antibodies that each cell secretes.

“With the ease of a blood draw”

The researchers tested the device using blood samples from healthy donors as well as patients with the disease. After counting the number of cells captured in each sample, they observed very low numbers of circulating plasma cells in healthy samples — about two to five cells per milliliter of blood — versus substantially higher counts in patients diagnosed with multiple myeloma, of about 45 to 184 cells per milliliter.

The team also analyzed the captured plasma cells to determine the type of antibodies they produced. Plasma cells can generate one of two kinds of antibodies, known as kappa- and lambda-type. In addition to conducting bone marrow biopsies, clinicians can analyze blood samples for the ratio of these two antibodies, which can be an indicator of how the disease is progressing.

Karnik and his colleagues determined the ratio of plasma cells producing kappa- and lambda-type antibodies, and compared them to conventional blood tests for the same antibodies, for both healthy subjects and patients with multiple myeloma. Encouragingly, they found both sets of results matched, validating the microfluidic device’s accuracy.

Surprisingly, the team noted that patients who were in remission exhibited higher counts of circulating plasma cells than healthy donors. These same patients had shown normal ratios of antibodies in conventional blood tests. Karnik says that the group’s new device may reveal more subtle information about a patient’s state, even in remission.

“When patients go into remission, their antibody levels can look normal,” Karnik says. “But we detect a level of circulating plasma cells that is above the baseline. It’s hard to tell whether these cells are cancerous, but at least this technique is giving us more information. With the ease of a blood draw, this may enable us to track cancer in a much better way.”

Karnik adds that in the future, researchers may use the group’s design to perform genetic tests on the captured cells, or to look for mutations in the cells that may further characterize the disease.

“We can capture and stain these cells in the device, which opens the possibility of studying whether there are new mutations in the cells,” Karnik says. “With cancers like multiple myeloma, even for patients in remission, cancer can recur. Detecting the level or mutation of plasma cells in blood might provide an early detection method for these patients.”

This research was supported, in part, by the National Institutes of Health and the Al Jalila Foundation.

April 4, 2017 | More

Multi-university effort will advance materials, define the future of mobility

Three MIT-affiliated research teams will receive about $10M in funding as part of a $35M materials science discovery program launched by the Toyota Research Institute (TRI). Provided over four years, the support to MIT researchers will be primarily directed at scientific discoveries and advancing a technology that underpins the future of mobility and autonomous systems: energy storage.

MIT’s Martin Bazant, joined by colleagues at Stanford University and Purdue University, will lead an effort to develop a novel, data-driven design of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. These energy storage workhorses, used in cellphones and hybrid cars, are practical, but complicated due to the fundamental complexity of their electrochemistry. Leveraging a nanoscale visualization technique that revealed, for the first time, how Li-ion particles charge and discharge in real time, in good agreement with his theoretical predictions, Bazant will use machine learning to develop a scalable predictive modeling framework for rechargeable batteries.

“By applying machine learning methods to these videos of the inner workings of rechargeable batteries — using each pixel and each frame as a measurement — we can tease out models that better fit the experimental data,” says Bazant, the E. G. Roos (1944) Professor of Chemical Engineering and a professor of mathematics. “The approach has the potential to unify energy materials design by connecting atomistic with macroscopic properties and advance electrochemical materials more generally.”

In addition to Bazant’s endeavor, which also includes collaborator Richard Braatz, the Edwin R. Gilliland Professor, two other MIT-affiliated projects will receive support from TRI. Jeffrey Grossman, the Morton and Claire Goulder and Family Professor in Environmental Systems, and Yang Shao-Horn, the W.M. Keck Professor of Energy, will lead the largest funded project focused on the design principles of polymer stability and conductivity for lithium batteries. The team also includes Jeremiah A. Johnson, the Firmenich Career Development Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry, and Adam Willard, assistant professor in chemistry, as well as machine learning and optimization expert Suvrit Sra, principal research scientist in the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS) in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Sra is excited about the research because it “brings together diverse expertise and offers a remarkable opportunity to develop machine learning models tuned to the problem, as well as large-scale discrete probability and optimization algorithms, topics that lie at the heart of my research.” The long-term impact that machine learning, and more, broadly artificial intelligence techniques, will have on materials discovery, he adds, extends well beyond this one project. Sra expects that in addition to accelerating materials discovery the methods he develops will lead to fundamental progress in machine learning too.

In addition to these lithium battery projects, Yuriy Román, associate professor of chemical engineering, will serve as co-lead investigator with Shao-Horn to explore the design principles of nanostructured, non-precious-metal-containing catalysts for oxygen reduction and evolution. Leveraging a novel synthesis route to create nanostructured catalysts with minute precious metals developed in the Roman lab, Roman and Shao-Horn will develop a predictive framework for catalytic activity. The researchers aim to identify new classes of stable, highly active electrocatalysts — essential components in renewable energy technologies like fuel cells, metal-air batteries and solar fuels — that are less expensive to produce and commercialize.

While backed by a company known primarily for its cars, TRI’s priorities are expansive, including artificial intelligence and computer science, home robotics and assistive technologies, and materials design and discovery.

Bazant has been impressed by the flexibility TRI provides and by their comfort with backing fundamental science, practical application, as well as blue-sky ideas. “It’s an unusual institute in terms of funding, unlike most government and industry avenues. We can set up teams that are not too big and more nimble, and each year we can revise our plan rather than be focused on a specific technology,” he says.

Not bound to the typical “trial and error approach to product development and commercialization,” Bazant and other faculty can focus on theory and simulation using data or explore the basic design principles of materials. In his case, that means the possibility of contributing to the design of a future hybrid car as well as advancing machine learning techniques for materials that go well beyond batteries.

“I’m confident we will push boundaries in basic scientific discoveries, nanomaterials, catalysis, and energy systems that go beyond just new innovation a few years down the road,” adds Shao-Horn. All of the research findings supported by TRI will remain open and publishable in scientific journals.

“Accelerating the pace of materials discovery will help lay the groundwork for the future of clean energy and bring us even closer to achieving Toyota’s vision of reducing global average new-vehicle CO2 emissions by 90 percent by 2050,” said TRI Chief Science Officer Eric Krotkov in a prior press release.

These grants in materials discovery build upon earlier support provided to MIT researchers. In the fall of 2015, TRI announced $50 million in research funding, half of which went to MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) to fund a center dedicated to developing autonomous vehicles technologies to improve safety. Moreover, the Institute’s presence is felt deeply throughout TRI. John Leonard, the Samuel C. Collins Professor of Mechanical and Ocean Engineering, heads up their autonomy effort; Russ Tedrake, associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, leads simulation and control; and Gill Pratt ’89, CEO of TRI, was former director of the MIT Leg Lab.

April 3, 2017 | More

Researchers “iron out” graphene’s wrinkles

From an electron’s point of view, graphene must be a hair-raising thrill ride. For years, scientists have observed that electrons can blitz through graphene at velocities approaching the speed of light, far faster than they can travel through silicon and other semiconducting materials.

Graphene, therefore, has been touted as a promising successor to silicon, with the potential to enable faster, more efficient electronic and photonic devices.

But manufacturing pristine graphene — a single, perfectly flat, ultrathin sheet of carbon atoms, precisely aligned and linked together like chickenwire — is extremely difficult. Conventional fabrication processes often generate wrinkles, which can derail an electron’s bullet-train journey, significantly limiting graphene’s electrical performance.

Now engineers at MIT have found a way to make graphene with fewer wrinkles, and to iron out the wrinkles that do appear. After fabricating and then flattening out the graphene, the researchers tested its electrical conductivity. They found each wafer exhibited uniform performance, meaning that electrons flowed freely across each wafer, at similar speeds, even across previously wrinkled regions.

In a paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers report that their techniques successfully produce wafer-scale, “single-domain” graphene — single layers of graphene that are uniform in both atomic arrangement and electronic performance.

“For graphene to play as a main semiconductor material for industry, it has to be single-domain, so that if you make millions of devices on it, the performance of the devices is the same in any location,” says Jeehwan Kim, the Class of 1947 Career Development Assistant Professor in the departments of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering at MIT. “Now we can really produce single-domain graphene at wafer scale.”

Kim’s co-authors include Sanghoon Bae, Samuel Cruz, and Yunjo Kim from MIT, along with researchers from IBM, the University of California at Los Angeles, and Kyungpook National University in South Korea.

A patchwork of wrinkles

The most common way to make graphene involves chemical vapor deposition, or CVD, a process in which carbon atoms are deposited onto a crystalline substrate such as copper foil. Once the copper foil is evenly coated with a single layer of carbon atoms, scientists submerge the entire thing in acid to etch away the copper. What remains is a single sheet of graphene, which researchers then pull out from the acid.

The CVD process can produce relatively large, macroscropic wrinkles in graphene, due to the roughness of the underlying copper itself and the process of pulling the graphene out from the acid. The alignment of carbon atoms is not uniform across the graphene, creating a “polycrystalline” state in which graphene resembles an uneven, patchwork terrain, preventing electrons from flowing at uniform rates.

In 2013, while working at IBM, Kim and his colleagues developed a method to fabricate wafers of single-crystalline graphene, in which the orientation of carbon atoms is exactly the same throughout a wafer.

Rather than using CVD, his team produced single-crystalline graphene from a silicon carbide wafer with an atomically smooth surface, albeit with tiny, step-like wrinkles on the order of several nanometers. They then used a thin sheet of nickel to peel off the topmost graphene from the silicon carbide wafer, in a process called layer-resolved graphene transfer.

Ironing charges

In their new paper, Kim and his colleagues discovered that the layer-resolved graphene transfer irons out the steps and tiny wrinkles in silicon carbide-fabricated graphene. Before transferring the layer of graphene onto a silicon wafer, the team oxidized the silicon, creating a layer of silicon dioxide that naturally exhibits electrostatic charges. When the researchers then deposited the graphene, the silicon dioxide effectively pulled graphene’s carbon atoms down onto the wafer, flattening out its steps and wrinkles.

Kim says this ironing method would not work on CVD-fabricated graphene, as the wrinkles generated through CVD are much larger, on the order of several microns.

“The CVD process creates wrinkles that are too high to be ironed out,” Kim notes. “For silicon carbide graphene, the wrinkles are just a few nanometers high, short enough to be flattened out.”

To test whether the flattened, single-crystalline graphene wafers were single-domain, the researchers fabricated tiny transistors on multiple sites on each wafer, including across previously wrinkled regions.

“We measured electron mobility throughout the wafers, and their performance was comparable,” Kim says. “What’s more, this mobility in ironed graphene is two times faster. So now we really have single-domain graphene, and its electrical quality is much higher [than graphene-attached silicon carbide].”

Kim says that while there are still challenges to adapting graphene for use in electronics, the group’s results give researchers a blueprint for how to reliably manufacture pristine, single-domain, wrinkle-free graphene at wafer scale.

“If you want to make any electronic device using graphene, you need to work with single-domain graphene,” Kim says. “There’s still a long way to go to make an operational transistor out of graphene. But we can now show the community guidelines for how you can make single-crystalline, single-domain graphene.”

April 3, 2017 | More