The 2007 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize


February 14, 2007

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February 15, 2007 If there’s an absolutely golden imprimatur for the person-most-likely-to-succeed, it’s the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. Jerome H. Lemelson, one of the world's most prolific inventors, and his wife Dorothy founded the Lemelson-MIT Program funded via his own private philanthropic Lemelson Foundation, the Student Prize recognizes outstanding inventors, encourages sustainable new solutions to real-world problems, and enables and inspires young people to pursue creative lives and careers through invention. Given that MIT attracts the very brightest students to begin with, the winner is usually a stellar high achiever and this year’s winner is already that. 2007 winner Nathan Ball's inventions include the Atlas Rope Ascender (see separate story) and a needle-free injection technology that will enable greater efficiencies in mass inoculations, both capable of saving many lives and both with many commercial applications. Last year’s winner Carl Dietrich is the CEO and CTO of his own flying car company Terrafugia. We’ve also written about Saul Griffith, the 2004 winner. All the winners and their exploits in this article.

"Ingenuity, creativity and passion seem to course through Nate's blood," said Merton Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, which sponsors the annual award. "His battery-powered rope ascender and needle-free injection technology both have life-saving capabilities and many commercial applications."

"Nate is also an inspiring and committed mentor for young inventors. This combination of attributes made him our top choice for this year’s $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize," Flemings added.

Apart from the stand-out ATLAS Powered Rope Ascender, Nate also worked on the needle-free injection technology developed at MIT's BioInstrumentation Laboratory. Under the direction of his advisors Ian W. Hunter and Andrew Taberner in the BioInstrumentation Laboratory, Ball was challenged to use the lab's novel Lorentz-force actuator to create a dual-action, rapid-fire delivery technology that increased drug volume delivery.

Within two months, he had not only come up with a solution to the problem, but had built and tested a prototype device.

"Nate's achievement is simply breathtaking and will have potentially a huge impact on drug delivery and, hence, healthcare," said Ball's advisor Professor Hunter.

Now awaiting livestock trials, Ball and his colleagues anticipate the needle-free injection technology having applications in animal husbandry. Beyond that, they hope the device may someday be employed for safe, inexpensive, mass inoculation of humans in developing and developed countries. Commercialization of the work is funded in part by partner Norwood Abbey, Inc. of Melbourne, Australia.

Ball's interest in invention does not stop with his own creations; he also dedicates himself to mentoring and advising aspiring inventors.

"Coming from a family of teachers and having such strong support from my parents, I felt it imperative to share that with other young inventors," he said. "My parents helped me find my passion early in life and instilled in me a way to maintain it. To help other young inventors discover science is amazing and watching their first moment of discovery is very rewarding."

Ball has been deeply involved as a technical advisor and co-host of "Design Squad," a new engineering-based reality show for kids ages 9-13 that will air nationally on PBS beginning in February 2007. He helped brainstorm and test challenge ideas that he said would "require clever problem solving, ingenuity, and some classic mess-making." Ball hopes that through this program, kids will be empowered to explore and embrace the elements of engineering that surround them each day.

In its ongoing effort to expand its reach and recognize outstanding up-and-coming inventors, the Lemelson-MIT Program is offering two new $30,000 Student Prizes this year.

Michael Callahan is the inaugural winner of the Lemelson-Illinois Student Prize at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is a graduate student in Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering who has invented a method to intercept neurological signals near the source of vocal production and convert the signals into speech. He hopes to make it possible for people with limited speech or movement abilities to communicate.

On February 16, the first recipient of the Lemelson-Rensselaer Student Prize at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute will be announced by Lemelson Foundation chair Dorothy Lemelson, Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson and Alan Cramb, dean of the School of Engineering. Details about the winner will be posted here.

The $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize is awarded annually to an MIT senior or graduate student who has created or improved a product or process, applied a technology in a new way, redesigned a system, or demonstrated remarkable inventiveness in other ways. A distinguished panel of MIT alumni and associates including scientists, technologists, engineers and entrepreneurs chooses the winner. David Berry, 2005 In pursuit of his M.D. from the Harvard-MIT Technology Program, 21st century medical pioneer David Berry’s research has concentrated on heparin. His patented protein dimeric FGF2 can limit the amount of brain tissue damaged from a stroke or improve a patient’s functional recovery time, pending when the treatment is given. Berry furthered his work with heparin to develop a polymer- heparin conjugate that attacks cancer cells without harming healthy cells. He is also developing a heparin surface coating to bind to and remove cancer cells (such as melanoma) missed during surgery. Saul Griffith, 2004

In an effort to create affordable technologies for developing countries, Saul Griffith has engineered a device to produce low-cost eyeglass lenses, plus an auto retinoscope, which determines lens prescriptions. Other inventions include an e-rope—specially braided to sense the strain of its load, and a tangible interface glove—which conveys the sense of touch via a computer. An Australian native, Griffith is co-creator of Howtoons—engaging cartoon science and engineering experiments for children about science and engineering. Griffith received his M.S. degree in mechanical engineering and his S.M. and Ph.D. media arts & sciences. James McLurkin, 2003

Using Mother Nature as a model for robotics, MIT computer science graduate student James McLurkin has programmed swarm microrobots to perform cooperative, real-world tasks similar to the behavior of bees. Initiated through a team he managed at iRobot, the swarm could potentially be used for detecting land mines or exploring Mars. While an undergrad, McLurkin invented twelve cubic-inch robotic ants—the world’s smallest self-contained autonomous robots based on the characteristics of an ant colony. He holds his M.S. in electrical engineering. Andrew Heafitz, 2002

Andrew Heaftiz’ aptitude for low-cost designs has spawned innovations such as a kerosene-liquid oxygen rocket engine (created with the MIT Rocket Team) and a gas tank leak detection device for developing countries. He illustrates an affinity for aerial photography in inventions like his balsa wood camera shutter for a model rocket and remote balloon photography system. In 2001, Heafitz (S.M., mechanical engineering) started TacShot, Inc. to produce his new aerial surveillance system that uses a soda can-sized rocket engine to transmit video footage. Brian Hubert, 2001

Modern-day Renaissance man Brian Hubert developed the world’s first nano-assembly machine, capable of picking up and assembling thousands of atoms of almost any material at one time. Hubert holds patents for a low-cost plastic memory chip and a superconductor fabrication machine. Other inventions include stock analysis software, a hip joint replacement implant and a dynaplanar volumetric display system that projects 3-D images. Hubert, who has his S.M. and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, is also a concert pianist and architectural designer. Amy Smith, 2000

Designing low-tech devices with appropriate technologies, Amy Smith has benefited societies in many developing countries with devices such as her low-cost screenless grain hammermill and clamp to regulate the flow of intravenous fluids. Smith, who earned her S.M. in mechanical engineering, has also invented a phase-change laboratory incubator and a phase-change microscope slide warmer used to diagnose tuberculosis. An MIT Edgerton Center instructor and MacArthur Fellow, Smith is also a co-organizer of the MIT IDEAS (Innovation, Development, Enterprise, Action and Service) Competition to promote student inventiveness for community needs. Daniel DiLorenzo, 1999

Advancing neuroscience via electrical engineering, Daniel DiLorenzo has developed a functional electrical stimulation (FES) device to restore gait to paraplegic patients, and has created neuroelectrical implants to provide sensory feedback in prosthetic limbs. DiLorenzo bears patents for closed-loop neuromodulation; a method to control brain swelling during brain surgery; a method to treat Parkinson’s Disease; and a Sleep Dry System to train children with bed-wetting problems. He has received his M.B.A. and M.D., and also earned his Ph.D. in electrical engineering. He currently serves as CEO of BioNeuronics, which he founded in 2005. Akhil Madhani, 1998

Akhil Madhani, who holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, has implemented robotics in a vast array of areas. His tele-operated “Black Falcon” manipulates bodily tissue and can sew and tie off sutures during minimally invasive surgery. “The Talon,” which he constructed for a NASA program, is a robotic wrist system for remote autonomous exploration. His “WAM” is a robotic arm capable of catch and retrieval movements. Now a Disney Imagineer, Madhani creates the illusion of life in robotics, such as Lucky the dinosaur, for Disney’s theme parks. Nathan Kane, 1997

From modernizing an antiquated bellows design to co-creating a football embedded with a T.V. remote control, Nathan Kane is credited with a breadth of innovations (many co-invented). Among them are: the HydroRailTM modular hydrostatic bearing for machine tools, Project-a- Sketch TM opaque children’s projector and an air supply mask with a self-retracting hose. Kane (Ph.D., mechanical engineering,) has received patents for his low-distortion bellow folds designs for industrial machines, created through computer analyzed fold patterns. David Levy, 1996

Independent inventor David Levy’s inventions span many fields, from medicine to telecommunications. His patents include an “Improved Vascular Splicing Method” to seal blood vessels quickly during surgery; the WedgieTM bicycle seat lock—to prevent bicycle theft; Peelables®, layered self-adhering labels; and the Pass-ITTM TV remote (co-invented). Levy (Ph.D., mechanical engineering) established TH, Inc. (1989) to license his patents and started Digit Wireless, LLC (2000) to develop his FastapTM Keypad, the world’s smallest keypad. Thomas Massie, 1995

While an MIT student, Thomas Massie began SensAble Technologies in 1993 to market the PHANTOM—a haptic computer interface, which allows a user to "feel" and “manipulate” objects on a screen. Co-invented with Dr. Kenneth Salisbury (MIT), the PHANTOM aids in creating virtual models for a variety of applications. Massie, who received his S.M. in mechanical engineering, is also credited with an automatic plant watering tool and an Andean weaving machine.

About the Author
Mike Hanlon Mike grew up thinking he would become a mathematician, accidentally started motorcycle racing, got a job writing road tests for a motorcycle magazine while at university, and became a writer. As a travelling photojournalist during his early career, his work was published in a dozen languages across 20+ countries. He went on to edit or manage over 50 print publications, with target audiences ranging from pensioners to plumbers, many different sports, many car and motorcycle magazines, with many more in the fields of communication - narrow subject magazines on topics such as advertising, marketing, visual communications, design, presentation and direct marketing. Then came the internet and Mike managed internet projects for Australia's largest multimedia company, (Australia's largest Telco), (Australia's largest employment site),,, and a dozen other internet start-ups before founding Gizmag in 2002. Now he writes and thinks. All articles by Mike Hanlon
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