Q&A: Running a company in an era of “crazy technological progress”

How do ongoing advances in technology affect business management? That’s the question the prolific writing duo of Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee pose in their new book, “Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing our Digital Future,” being published on June 27 by W.W. Norton. Brynjolfsson, the Schussel Family Professor of Management Science at the MIT Sloan School of Management and director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, and McAfee, co-director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy and a principal research scientist at MIT Sloan, also collaborated in 2014 on “The Second Machine Age,” another exploration of the changes digital innovation is bringing to the workplace. McAfee recently talked to MIT News about “Machine, Platform, Crowd.”

Q: What is your new book about?

A: “Machine, Platform, Crowd” is the answer to a question: How should I think differently about running my organization in this era of crazy technological progress? We need to rethink the balance between the work that we ask human minds to do in organizations, and the work we give to machines. We need to rethink whether you have a product orientation or a platform orientation. And we need to rethink the core of an organization, if there are literally these hundreds of millions of strangers out there across the internet who you can tap into.

Q: What’s different now compared to past moments of technological change?

A: Within the past five years, 10 years easily, at least two really fundamental things have happened. First of all, artifical intelligence started meeting its expectations and even exceeding them. We weren’t expecting that, and it’s pretty remarkable. The machines are much more capable. The second thing is, in the era of the smartphone, we have gone from a globe that was pretty disconnected, to having that same human population for the first time deeply interconnected through powerful devices, which are each about as powerful as all the computers collectively on campus when I was an undergraduate at MIT in the ’80s. Those are both legitimately new things.

Q: I know you’ve mentioned the rise of machines that can win at the game of Go as one instance of these advances. What are some of your favorite examples of machines, platforms, and crowds at work now?

A: Go is my favorite example of the power of machines, because it was so unanticipated that we would have a digital Go champion in 2016 or 2017. The insiders thought if that ever happened it would happen much, much farther out in the future.

In our section on products and platforms, we talk about companies like ClassPass, which is trying to build a purely digital platform; they don’t own any assets, but they’re trying to provide a virtual, very broad gym membership, or exercise membership [by offering rates for an array of memberships]. So they’re putting a platform over the industry of spinning, yoga, pilates, kickboxing, things like that. And if you had asked me just a little while ago for an industry that would not be greatly affected by the digital transformation, I might have said group exercise: You get in the gym with other people and sweat and have a workout. But after working on the book, I think that the exercise industry is going to be changed a lot by platforms.

Finally, we came across a very interesting company called Quantopia that is trying to be essentially a crowdsourced quantitative trading hedge fund. That may sound ludicrous, except, as the founder of the company has said, it is extremely unlikely that all the world’s top algorithmic traders are employed by the [relative] handful of companies that have dominated this industry. So to test that theory, they’ve been holding contests for algorithmic trading. It turns out, lo and behold, most of the people who win those contests are not insiders in the finance industry and have never even worked in finance. It tells me that if you can tap into the crowd and find the right brains, all over the world, and get them involved in what you’re doing, the results are potentially tremendous.

Q: What’s the reaction to these ideas when you give talks about them?

A: The reception to these ideas is all over the map. It goes from outright skepticism to something a little more subtle, which is, “This is great and interesting, but it doesn’t apply to me.” I’ve come across a lot of that.

Q: Do you get pushback about your interpretation of the pace of innovation itself?

A: Yeah, it’s super-interesting. Inside the academic community and among economists there is a huge debate about how much innovation we’re actually seeing. The skeptics say, “Where is the productivity growth, if there’s so much innovation going on?” Or they say, “We had amazing periods of innovation in the past. Are we sure this one measures up?” And those are important debates to have. But in every other community I try to be part of, and that includes investors, policymakers, entrepreneurs, and executives in mainstream incumbent companies, I don’t hear any of that debate, or very little. What I hear instead is: “There’s a lot coming at us, and we need to get on top of it and make it work for us.”

When people say there’s nothing new under the sun, I find that really valuable, because if all you do is talk to technologists, you just get caught up in the hype. It’s almost inevitable. So I really value those discussions. But when I talk to almost anybody else, it’s something close to a foregone conclusion that we’re living in this remarkable era, and I happen to believe that as well. Not only can we sequence the genome, we can edit it with precision. If that’s not a big deal, then I don’t [know what is]. We only mention CRISPR briefly in the book, but the period that we’re in is one to me of monumental progress and innovation.

STEX event showcases innovations in fitness technology and science

Many MIT-affiliated startups are innovating in the burgeoning fitness technology and science space, aiming to promote healthier lifestyles and help optimize athletic performance.

Novel products from these startups include a smart chair that fights back pain and diabetes, a sleeve that monitors muscle-movement data that users can share in the cloud, a wristband that tracks blood oxygen levels for greater performance, and even a so-called anti-aging pill.

A workshop hosted June 22 by the Industrial Liaison Program’s STEX (Startup Exchange) program brought together some of these MIT entrepreneurs and industry experts to showcase their innovations and foster connections that could lead to new business opportunities.

Held throughout the year, the three-hour STEX workshops include lightning presentations from MIT-affiliated startups; brief talks from academic innovators, industry experts, government representatives, and venture capitalists; startup presentation and demonstration sessions; and an interactive panel discussion.

At last week’s event, eight entrepreneurs pitched their fitness-tech products — several rooted in MIT research — to a crowd of around 80 entrepreneurs, researchers, and industry experts in the ILP’s headquarters on Main Street, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The academic keynote speaker was MIT Novartis Professor of Biology Leonard Guarente, who took the opportunity to demystify the science behind his startup Elysium Health’s “anti-aging pill,” which is made of compounds that aim to thwart age-related cell damage, which can lead to inflammatory and heart diseases, osteoporosis, and diabetes.

STEX events aim to stimulate discussion and build partnerships between MIT-affiliated startups and ILP-connected companies, which now number around 230. The series covers a broad range of topics: a recent workshop focused on energy storage, while upcoming events will focus on synthetic biology, robotics and drones, cancer therapies, renewable energy, world water issues, and 3-D printing.

“These are very exciting areas, and MIT has young and old startups in all of these spaces. We certainly have industry coming to campus interested in all of these technologies and products coming from them,” Trond Undheim, a senior industrial liaison officer and co-organizer of the event, said in his opening remarks.

Presenter Simon Hong, a researcher in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, and CEO of smart-chair startup Robilis, said last week’s STEX workshop provided “an opportunity to interact with potential stakeholders.”

Based on neuroscience research, Robilis developed StandX, a chair with two automated moving halves, side by side. The halves alternate — one dropping down and the other staying straight — making the user sit down on one half while standing on the opposite leg. The frequent alternation prevents stress on the spine caused by sitting in one position for extended periods, and the chair’s design encourages proper posture. The movement also interrupts prolonged sitting, which is associated with diabetes.

During a startup demonstration session midway through the event, Hong’s station was crowded with attendees looking to try out the chair. In the end, he walked away with a few contacts interested in helping with production and in introducing him to potential investors. “I was quite satisfied with the event,” Hong told MIT News. “It is in a way a networking event, and good things tend to happen quite unexpectedly during many, many interactions with people.”

Apart from providing a venue to spread the word about his wearables, the event enabled Alessandro Babini MBA ’15, co-founder of Humon, to connect with larger organizations in the space. Humon, a wearable targeted at endurance athletes, attaches to a muscle, where it monitors blood oxygen levels by shining a light into the skin and analyzing changes in the light that indicate less or more oxygen.

“It was interesting to get an understanding about what big brands seek in partners, what they’re looking to invest in, and what they’re working on now,” Babini told MIT News. “Big corporations have a lot of customers and a big influence on where the market is going.”

Another interesting MIT spinout, figure8, presented a wearable that captures 3-D body movement that can be analyzed by the user or shared with an online community — like a “YouTube” of movement data.

The wearable is a small sleeve made from novel sensor-woven fabric that fits over the arm or leg to track joint and muscle movement. It lets users map the movement of muscle, bone, and ligaments. Put on a knee, for instance, the wearable can map individual ligaments, which is valuable for, say, monitoring the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). One application is in physical therapy, so athletes can track injuries as they heal.

Users can also map their movement to others. Dancers, for instance, can use the sensor to match their movements to those of others during training. The startup is also developing a platform that lets users upload and share that data in the cloud.

“Before YouTube, no one thought about video as something you can share, upload, and download as a commodity,” said co-founder and CEO Nan-Wei Gong, an MIT Media Lab researcher, during her presentation. “We’re trying to create a system for everyone to collect this motion [data] they can upload and download.”

Other startups that presented included: Kitchology, Fitnescity, Digital Nutrition, Food for Sleep, and SplitSage.

In his keynote, Guarente explained the science and history behind Elysium’s “anti-aging” pill, called Basis, which he himself has been taking for three years. He noted the pill doesn’t necessarily make people feel more youthful or healthier, especially if they’re already healthy. “You should just fall apart more slowly,” Guarente said to laughter from the audience.

Years ago, Guarente and other MIT researchers identified a group of genes called sirtuins that have been demonstrated to slow the aging process in microbes, fruit flies, and mice. For instance, calorie-restricted diets, long known to extend lifespans and prevent many diseases in mammals, is key in activating sirtuins. “It turns out there are compounds that can do the same thing,” Guarente said.

At MIT, the researchers discovered one of those compounds, which is abundant in blueberries. Later, they discovered that an enzyme called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) was also essential in carrying out the activity of sirtuins. But the enzyme deteriorated with age. “If there’s not enough NAD, you don’t activate sirtuins. Metabolism and DNA-repair goes awry, and a lot of things go wrong,” he said.

However, they soon found that in the NAD synthesis pathway, NAD’s immediate precursor, called nicotinamide riboside (NR), could be injected into an organism, where it would move efficiently into cells and be converted into NAD.

Basis is a combination of NR and the sirtuin-activating compound from blueberries.

Last year, Elysium conducted a 120-person trial. The results indicated that the pills were safe and led to an increase and sustainability of NAD levels. More trials are on the way, and the startup is growing its pipeline of products. It has not yet been shown whether Basis can extend life-span in humans.

“We could really make a difference in people’s health,” Guarente said at the conclusion of his talk. “And it would add to all the … medical devices and DNA analysis and motion sensors, so that people can begin to do what they want to do, which is to take charge of their health.”

The investor speaker was David T. Thibodeau, managing director of Wellvest Capital, an investment banking company specializing in healthy living and wellness. The industry speaker was Matthew Decker, global technical leader in the Comfort and Biophysics Group of W.L. Gore and Associates, the manufacturing company best known for Gore-Tex fabrics.

Panelists were Guarente, Decker, Thibodeau, and Josh Sarmir, co-founder and CEO of SplitSage, an MIT spinout that is developing an analytics platform that can detect “sweet spots” and “blind spots” in people’s fields of vision to aid in sports performance, online advertising, and work safety, among other applications.  

STEX has a growing database of roughly 1,200 MIT-affiliated startups. Last year, ILP created STEX25, an accelerator for 25 startups at any time that focuses on high-level, high-quality introductions. The first cohort of 14 startups have gone through the accelerator, gaining industry partnerships that have led to several pilot programs.

Illuminating the developing world’s “invisible” consumers

While on location in remote areas of Kenya, researching automation and home manufacturing for his doctoral dissertation, Kenfield Griffith PhD ’12 encountered a significant lack of data.

For example, information he needed about whether people had access to indoor plumbing was scarce or nonexistent — and conducting traditional surveys to gather the data would be arduous and time consuming. But nearly all rural Kenyans, he realized, had texting-capable cell phones.

Back in his MIT dorm room, Griffith built a platform that allowed users to easily create and send text message-based surveys, and monitor incoming results in real time on a web dashboard. Returning to Kenya, he amassed hundreds of participants to use the platform, and completed his research.

“I was getting interesting information that you couldn’t find anywhere else, from people who didn’t have a bathroom but had mobile phones,” Griffith says. “That was the epiphany for me, where I said, ‘This could be an opportunity to really understand consumers on the ground and create conversations at scale.’”

In 2012, Griffith commercialized the platform as mSurvey, which is now being used by companies to gain insights into the purchasing behavior of people living in previously hard-to-reach communities in Kenya, the Philippines, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and other locations in Africa and the Caribbean. In return for their feedback, participants receive mobile money.

Researchers are also using the platform for tracking and improving HIV medication adherence across Africa, monitoring pregnancy and abortion results of Kenyan women, and other studies. The City of San Francisco has started using the platform to improve services for people living with HIV and AIDS.

In March, mSurvey partnered with Kenya’s leading mobile provider, Safaricom, to launch Consumer Wallet, a platform that, for the first time, tracks consumer cash spending in Kenya. “Consumers in the most rural areas of Kenya, and other emerging markets, don’t really have a voice,” says Griffith, who studied design and computation in the Department of Architecture at MIT and is now CEO of mSurvey. “We’re capturing that invisible consumer.”

Instrumental in his startup’s success, Griffith says, was the funding he received from the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship, which offers resources to MIT students, faculty, and departments that are looking to improve the lives of people in the developing world. The center now lists mSurvey as a successful case study.

Conversations at scale

With mSurvey, users sign onto a web dashboard to create a survey conversation of multiple-choice and open-ended questions. They set the number of participants, and an algorithm randomly shoots off the surveys to the selected number from the “universe” of participants; in Kenya, that’s 21 million, or nearly half the population. To narrow down this list, users can also set parameters, such as age, gender, and location. By partnering with mobile-money providers, mSurvey sends small amounts of mobile money to all participants for completing all questions.

Companies might use the surveys to brand products. If a survey indicates that most people eat, say, yogurt because it tastes sweet and is healthy, the company may emphasize those descriptors in advertisement campaigns.

But an important perk of mSurvey is collecting data in real-time. Companies can view how advertisement campaigns are doing and potentially revise the campaign on the fly. Restaurants, banks, and coffee houses use mSurvey to get quick customer feedback and refine their offerings and services. Executives have been known to gather data on how a product is doing within hours before walking into board meeting, Griffith says.

“The platform gives companies the ability to have these conversations with customers in real time, at scale,” Griffith says.

As an entrepreneur himself, Griffith notes that the platform could also help fledgling entrepreneurs in Kenya and other emerging markets find out if locals can afford their products and services. “With entrepreneurs, time is of the essence. We don’t have three months to go through this elaborate surveying process. We want that information about the consumer now,” he says.

With Consumer Wallet, Griffith says, companies can now gain insight into Kenyan cash purchases to make better decisions about what products and services the people need and want. About 55 percent of Africa’s economy comprises cash purchases, he says. In the past, companies and researchers have tracked purchases by having people in developing countries keep records in journals.

“We’ve digitized that process,” Griffith says. “We’re talking to thousands of consumers to understand their spending habits day after day.”

The startup is now looking to expand Consumer Wallet across Africa. Collecting cash-spending data across the continent could lead to greater investments, Griffith says. By 2020, he says, consumer spending in Africa will be about $1.2 trillion, but investors need to know where that money goes.

“You don’t invest is something you don’t know,” Griffith says. “We’re proud, because we can create this visibility into this cash economy that wasn’t formalized before. Now we’ve formalized it using a mobile phone.”

Impact on health

What began as part of a doctoral dissertation has also returned to academia, for the benefit of public health. Researchers are using mSurvey to better connect with communities in Africa and here in the U.S. To conduct surveys, researchers generally recruit clinicians to conduct traditional surveys in the country of interest, which is time-consuming and can result in lack of data or incorrect analyses. On the other hand, mSurvey is quick, accurate, and well-regarded among participants.

Among notable mSurvey case study participants is Harvard Medical School, which has been using mSurvey for three years to monitor and improve adherence to an HIV-suppressing drug, called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), among “discordant” couples in Kenya and Uganda. Over nine months, the researchers enrolled nearly 400 HIV-negative partners who had HIV-positive partners, to receive daily surveys asking about their adherence and sexual behavior, with aims of quantifying their risk. A vast majority of participants reacted positively to mSurvey, and the researchers used the results to develop effective text-based intervention techniques to boost adherence.

A similar study — measuring PrEP and other medication adherence among discordant couples to ensure safer pregnancies — was conducted by the Washington University at Seattle, also with useful results.

In its effort to eliminate all new HIV infections by 2020, the San Francisco Department of Public Health is using mSurvey to help people living with HIV better engage with service programs. Clients receive daily surveys asking about their mental health, substance use, and support systems. They also have access to real-time, personalized support.

At the end of the day, Griffith says the platform’s value lies in its potential for scalable impact, whether for commercial or research purposes. “That impact could be quantified by more customers using a product. In the research sense, the medication is a product too. You want more people to have access to this medication,” he says. “Everyone wants to have impact.”

MIT’s first MicroMasters learners earn credentials

The first-ever cohort in MIT’s inaugural online MicroMasters program — consisting of more than 1,100 learners who completed all five of the online courses in supply chain management — has received its final MicroMasters certificates and will be honored at an online ceremony today.

Of those learners who opted to take the proctored comprehensive final exam, 622 achieved passing grades, automatically earning a chance to apply for a full master’s degree. Combining credit for the completed online coursework plus one semester of on-campus classes, this “hybrid” master’s is available at MIT or any of several partner institutions: University of Queensland, in Australia; Curtin University, in Australia; Rochester Institute of Technology, in Rochester, New York; and the Zaragoza Logistics Center, in Spain.

Given that the MicroMasters’ testing process and course standards are designed to be as demanding as those of on-campus MIT classes, the MicroMasters credential itself is also expected to provide those who earn it with opportunities for career advancement.

“When we first announced the MicroMasters, our goal was to offer serious learners anywhere a practical credential that does justice to their academic drive, ambition, and achievement,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “Thanks to the members of this remarkable first cohort — their commitment to learning, their sustained efforts and determination, and their inspiring success as MicroMasters pioneers — we have the confidence to continue to find creative ways to leverage MicroMasters programs to build pathways to a master’s degree.”

This initial MicroMasters program, offered through MIT’s top-ranked graduate program in supply chain management (SCM), was the first such MicroMasters program created through MITx. There are currently more than 5,000 additional learners in the supply chain management MicroMasters pipeline who have successfully completed at least one of the five required courses. Last December, MITx launched a second MicroMasters program in data, economics, and development policy, and others are under consideration. Additionally, more than 10 other universities now offer MicroMasters certificates through the edX online platform, which was co-developed five years ago by MIT and Harvard University.

The MicroMasters program in supply chain management has drawn more than 180,000 learners of all ages, from around the world, says Yossi Sheffi, director of MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics and director of the MIT supply chain management program, who taught some of the online classes. “Their enthusiasm and excitement were amazing,” he says of the MicroMasters participants, some of whom met him in person at the finals and described how the experience had already changed their lives.

More than 1,100 learners finished all five of the required courses, he says, and there was a great deal of interaction among them, the faculty, and an army of volunteer “community teaching assistants” who responded to all learners’ queries. The teaching team had decided that all such queries should be answered within an hour, so “The scale of it makes it very difficult,” says Sheffi, who is the Elisha Gray II Professor of Engineering at MIT. But the process worked, and participants around the world responded with enthusiasm. “The impact is enormous,” he adds.

Sheffi estimates that it would take roughly 350-580 years of teaching traditional MIT classes in supply chain management to teach a comparable number of students as were reached through the MicroMasters program. In the end, more than 750 learners chose the extra step of taking the in-person final exam, on which a passing grade could earn them a MicroMasters credential in supply chain management as well as the opportunity for a mixed online and residential master’s degree.

Those who passed can now qualify for a master’s program even if they lack many of the traditional application requirements, including GRE scores or even an undergraduate degree. Since their progress through the classes has been monitored and recorded, click by click, “We know about these students,” Sheffi says. “We don’t have to rely on a letter from a professor we don’t know.”

The fact that these learners have completed the five required classes “shows grit,” says Chris Caplice, director of the MicroMasters program in supply chain management and executive director of the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, who taught most of the classes. “They’ve spent a lot of time working on this to advance their careers.”

The participants spanned a wide range of nationalities, ages, and backgrounds. They ranged from supply-chain professionals with decades of experience who wanted to expand their skills, to a pair of 14-year-old twins looking toward future career possibilities. Those teaching the classes were surprised by the number and diversity of the participants.

Sanjay Sarma, vice president for open learning and the Fred Fort Flowers and Daniel Fort Flowers Professor in Mechanical Engineering, says “I’m over the moon” about the outcome of this first experiment with an MITx MicroMasters. “When you create a program like this, there’s a lot of guesswork — informed, but still guesswork. So I’m very pleased and pleasantly surprised” by the response. Clearly, he says, “there’s a huge unmet need here. These are not easy courses. It’s a lot of work, but people have taken the effort to do it.”

Paulina Gisbrecht, a logistics manager with a German power company who earned the MicroMasters certificate, says, “What we learned was on the one hand challenging and complex enough to reflect the real-world problems, but on the other hand still sufficiently simple to be understood well.”

“I’ve enjoyed being challenged academically in my own professional field,” says Bill Seliger, director of supply chain at LSC Communications in Chicago. “As a lifelong learner, a supply chain practitioner, and an educator, it’s been a honor and a pleasure to be able to take part in these classes.”

Michel Groenner, a senior logistics analyst at Votorantim Cimentos, in São Paulo, Brazil, plans to follow up the online learning with the full hybrid master’s program. He says, “I looked for this course to reinforce some concepts of SCM, and I ended up enjoying it so much that I am completing the credential. I plan to apply for the blended master’s degree in SCM. I was very impressed to see that the concepts covered in the course were extremely close to my daily life.”

The program has also reached many learners who would have been unlikely or unable ever to take part in a residential master’s program like MIT’s. Moses Mfune of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, says “I’m convinced beyond doubt that supply chain management could offer a very good reason for the poor state of economic performance in many African countries. Teaching SCM and making others understand the importance of SCM will not only be beneficial to individuals or small and medium enterprises, but to my country too.”

Sarma sees this project as a great example of MIT’s strengths: “We’re meritocratic; we search for merit and talent. Our exclusivity is our inclusivity, in that sense.” The MicroMasters program embodies that concept, providing multiple advantages, he says.

First, it makes the knowledge and learning associated with an MIT credential more broadly accessible than ever. It also provides a way of identifying talent, no matter where in the world it may be. And, it provides people who are already working in the field a way to hone their skills, without having to leave their jobs to do so.

For those who get admitted to the hybrid master’s program, the ability to transform the effort of a semester’s worth of online learning into a semester of credit toward a full MIT master’s, Sarma says, “helps to establish [the MicroMasters] as a credit equivalent. It is signaling that it’s good enough for us.”

The next course of the MicroMasters program in supply chain management starts on Sept. 13.

MIT President Reif attends White House technology meeting

MIT President L. Rafael Reif today attended a technology conference convened by the White House Office of American Innovation. The meeting included leading corporate CEOs and other technology leaders, brought together to advise the White House on how technology and data can be used to improve government operations and on how best to anticipate future technologies and their implications for the government and society.

The participants broke into small groups to discuss issues and then met with U.S. President Trump at the end of the day.

Reif attended two of the small group discussions — one titled “Analytics/Dashboard,” focused on how to use data and metrics to improve government services, personnel and technology; and one titled “Future Trends,” on how government can anticipate, integrate, and facilitate the development of emerging technologies, especially in fields such as machine learning and the internet of things (IoT).

“As U.S. government leaders seek to use innovative technology to better serve the American people, it’s vital to make sure that they receive expert advice, both about the best ways to use these technologies to serve the public, and about how to anticipate and address the complex implications of their use,” Reif says. “As an institution with a mission of national service, and as a pioneer in many of the technologies under discussion at the White House — from machine learning and AI to robotics and IoT — MIT has an important role to play at the center of this conversation.”

In support of MIT’s mission, President Reif has spoken in recent months, through letters to the MIT community and published opinion pieces, on the importance of continuing to attract global talent to the United States, sustaining federal financial support for advanced scientific research, and continuing global cooperation on climate change.   

Advanced Functional Fabrics of America opens headquarters steps from MIT campus

These are not your grandmother’s fibers and textiles. These are tomorrow’s functional fabrics — designed and prototyped in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and manufactured across a network of U.S. partners. This is the vision of the new headquarters for the Manufacturing USA institute called Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) that opened Monday at 12 Emily Street, steps away from the MIT campus. 

AFFOA headquarters represents a significant MIT investment in advanced manufacturing innovation. This facility includes a Fabric Discovery Center that provides end-to-end prototyping from fiber design to system integration of new textile-based products, and will be used for education and workforce development in the Cambridge and greater Boston community. AFFOA headquarters also includes startup incubation space for companies spun out from MIT and other partners who are innovating advanced fabrics and fibers for applications ranging from apparel and consumer electronics to automotive and medical devices.

MIT was a founding member of the AFFOA team that partnered with the Department of Defense in April 2016 to launch this new institute as a public-private partnership through an independent nonprofit also founded by MIT. AFFOA’s chief executive officer is Yoel Fink. Prior to his current role, Fink led the AFFOA proposal last year as professor of materials science and engineering and director of the Research Laboratory for Electronics at MIT, with his vision to create a “fabric revolution.” That revolution under Fink’s leadership was grounded in new fiber materials and textile manufacturing processes for fabrics that see, hear, sense, communicate, store and convert energy, and monitor health.

From the perspectives of research, education, and entrepreneurship, MIT engagement in AFFOA draws from many strengths. These include the multifunctional drawn fibers developed by Fink and others to include electronic capabilities within fibers that include multiple materials and function as devices. That fiber concept developed at MIT has been applied to key challenges in the defense sector through MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology, commercialization through a startup called OmniGuide that is now OmniGuide Surgical for laser surgery devices, and extensions to several new areas including neural probes by Polina Anikeeva, MIT associate professor of materials science and engineering. Beyond these diverse uses of fiber devices, MIT faculty including Greg Rutledge, the Lamott du Pont Professor of Chemical Engineering, have also led innovation in predictive modeling and design of pure polymer fibers, fiber processing and characterization, and self-assembly of woven and nonwoven textiles for diverse applications and industries.

Rutledge coordinates MIT campus engagement in the AFFOA Institute, and notes that “MIT has a range of research and teaching talent that impacts manufacturing of fiber and textile-based products, from designing the fiber to leading the factories of the future. Many of our faculty also have longstanding collaborations with partners in defense and industry on these projects, including with Lincoln Laboratory and the Army’s Natick Soldier Research Design and Engineering Center, so MIT membership in AFFOA is an opportunity to strengthen and grow those networks.”

Faculty at MIT across several departments and schools have also created innovative new product concepts ranging from sweat-responsive sports apparel advanced by Professor Hiroshi Ishii’s group to design of self-folding strands of multi-material fibers by Professor Skylar Tibbits. Professors Neri Oxman and Craig Carter developed new modeling and materials fabrication capabilities that facilitated the first 3-D-printed dress featured at Paris Fashion Week in 2013. Innovations in functional fabric for health monitoring on projects including MIT and run using the Fabric Discovery Center could range from targeting human wellness to identifying flaws in the structural integrity of the built environment. In fact, many of these fiber and textile manufacturing technologies and products include active or passive sensing capabilities, highlighting the synergies of MIT participation in several manufacturing institutes that need or use this functionality. Those connections motivated the SENSE.nano symposium in May that launched the first center of excellence in the MIT.nano building that is nearing completion on campus.

“The proximity of AFFOA’s headquarters and this new Fabric Discovery Center to MIT’s campus is an important new way for MIT to connects our students and faculty with the national AFFOA network of industrial and academic partners,” says Maria Zuber, MIT vice president for research.

As the Manufacturing USA institutes include a strong focus on education and workforce development, AFFOA’s new Fabric Discovery Center can draw from national expertise as well as local strengths at MIT in project-based learning. For example, Alex Slocum, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, has led multiple design classes that have resulted in several startups in innovative fabrics and apparel, including Ministry of Supply, founded by four MIT alumni in 2012 and now located on Newbury Street in Boston. MIT professors Steven Eppinger and Maria Wang have offered a product design and development class jointly with the Rhode Island School of Design, geared toward MIT Sloan School of Management MBA students. Such efforts nucleated at MIT can now be expanded and piloted to benefit more members of AFFOA in the region and nationwide.

Seamlessly integrating hands-on and online learning, Professor John Hart leads the first manufacturing-focused massive open online course (MOOC) last year, as 2.008x (Fundamentals of Manufacturing Processes) now available on edX. MIT’s leadership in online platforms to enhance manual skill development can also benefit AFFOA, including use of MITx platforms to adapt and share key classes with four- and two-year colleges and companies that have joined AFFOA — as MITx is now implementing with AIM Photonics Academy, another Manufacturing USA institute focused on integrated photonics. Undergraduate research in wearable and equipment technology has also been fostered since 2011 by Annette (Peko) Hosoi, professor of mechanical engineering and founder of the Sports Technology and Education at MIT (STE@M) group that facilitates undergraduate research and visits to companies.

“MIT’s engagement in AFFOA will help speed adoption of new manufacturing technologies developed at MIT and elsewhere, and help prepare our region’s textile innovators to be able to both invent it here and make it here,” notes Professor Krystyn Van Vliet, director of manufacturing innovation for MIT’s Innovation Initiative.

In fact, MIT also offers unique, industry-partnered master’s degree programs that can connect fiber and textile supply chain leaders to AFFOA, including Leaders for Global Operations’ dual Engineering Masters and MBA, and MIT’s Masters of Engineering in Advanced Manufacturing and Design. Additionally, MIT’s Industrial Performance Center, led by Elisabeth Reynolds, and MIT Sloan’s Institute for Work and Employment Research, co-led by professors Thomas Kochan and Paul Osterman, offer valuable perspective on industry relations and policy issues impacting the manufacturing workforce including middle skills workers, small and medium manufacturers, and regional economies.

“Partnership with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as another key stakeholder in AFFOA’s impact on our local workforce, colleges, and companies has been a wonderful catalyst for strong and growing connections between MIT and other manufacturing innovators in the state,” notes Martin Schmidt, MIT provost. “As one of 10 Manufacturing USA institutes in which MIT participates, we look forward to leveraging the strengths of each Manufacturing USA institute including AFFOA, to maximize positive impact on the manufacturing workforce of the future.”

MIT is hosting an upcoming hackathon for Advanced Functional Fabrics for Challenging Environments at the MIT Media Lab from July 28-30, co-organized by MD5 and partnered with AFFOA.

AFFOA launches state-of-the-art facility for protoyping advanced fabrics

Just over a year after its funding award, a new center for the development and commercialization of advanced fabrics is officially opening its headquarters today in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and will be unveiling the first two advanced fabric products to be commercialized from the center’s work.

Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) is a public-private partnership, part of Manufacturing USA, that is working to develop and introduce U.S.-made high-tech fabrics that provide services such as health monitoring, communications, and dynamic design. In the process, AFFOA aims to facilitate economic growth through U.S. fiber and fabric manufacturing.

AFFOA’s national headquarters will open today, with an event featuring Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics James MacStravic, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, New Balance CEO Robert DeMartini, MIT President L. Rafael Reif, and AFFOA CEO Yoel Fink. Sample versions of one of the center’s new products, a programmable backpack made of advanced fabric produced in North and South Carolina, will be distributed to attendees at the opening.

AFFOA was created last year with over $300 million in funding from the U.S. and state governments and from academic and corporate partners, to help foster the creation of revolutionary new developments in fabric and fiber-based products. The institute seeks to create “fabrics that see, hear, sense, communicate, store and convert energy, regulate temperature, monitor health, and change color,” says Fink, a professor of materials science and engineering at MIT. In short, he says, AFFOA aims to catalyze the creation of a whole new industry that envisions “fabrics as the new software.”

Under Fink’s leadership, the independent, nonprofit organization has already created a network of more than 100 partners, including much of the fabric manufacturing base in the U.S. as well as startups and universities spread across 28 states.

“AFFOA’s promise reflects the very best of MIT: It’s bold, innovative, and daring,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “It leverages and drives technology to solve complex problems, in service to society. And it draws its strength from a rich network of collaborators — across governments, universities, and industries. It has been inspiring to watch the partnership’s development this past year, and it will be exciting to witness the new frontiers and opportunities it will open.”

A “Moore’s Law” for fabrics

While products that attempt to incorporate electronic functions into fabrics have been conceptualized, most of these have involved attaching various types of patches to existing fabrics. The kinds of fabrics and fibers envisioned by — and already starting to emerge from — AFFOA will have these functions embedded within the fibers themselves.

Referring to the principle that describes the very rapid development of computer chip technology over the last few decades, Fink says AFFOA is dedicated to a “Moore’s Law for fibers” — that is, ensuring that there will be a recurring growth in fiber technology in this newly developing field.

A key element in the center’s approach is to develop the technology infrastructure for advanced, internet-connected fabric products that enable new business models for the fabric industry. With highly functional fabric systems, the ability to offer consumers “fabrics as a service” creates value in the textile industry — moving it from producing goods in a price-competitive market, to practicing recurring revenue models with rapid innovation cycles that are now characteristic of high-margin technology business sectors.

From idea to product

To enable rapid transition from idea to product, a high-tech national product-prototyping ecosystem called the Fabric Innovation Network (FIN) has been assembled. The FIN is made up of small, medium, and large manufacturers and academic centers that have production capabilities allocated to AFFOA projects, which rapidly execute prototypes and pilot manufacturing of advanced fabric products, decreasing time to market and accelerating product innovation. The product prototypes being rolled out today were executed through this network in a matter of weeks.

The new headquarters in Cambridge, which was renovated for this purpose with state and MIT funding, is called a Fabric Discovery Center (FDC). It was designed to support three main thrusts: a startup accelerator and incubator that provides space, tools, and guidance to new companies working to develop new advanced fabric-based products; a section devoted to education, offering students hands-on opportunities to explore this cutting-edge field and develop the skills to become part of it; and the world’s first end-to-end prototyping facility, with advanced computer-assisted design and fabrication tools, to help accelerate new advanced fabric ideas from the concept to functional products.

Plans are underway to form additional FDCs in other locations in the country, with the goal of facilitating local economic growth in communities through advanced fabric innovation. These centers will provide a variety of facilities and local services, and each will sponsor its own startup competitions — modeled after the successful annual MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition — to encourage teams to create and develop new product ideas and business models. They will provide prototyping capabilities, incubator space for startups, training, and funding opportunities.

AFFOA announced the first two such FDCs last month: One is based at the University of Massachuetts at Lowell and the other at Lincoln Laboratory in collaboration with the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center.

The FDCs will function as local chapters of AFFOA in their respective communities, aimed at combining intellectual-property expertise from universities, consumer insights, and funding from industry and government, and rapid product-prototyping through industrial partners and resources from public and private sectors. These efforts are expected to lower the barrier to commercialization in the advanced functional fabric space, enabling inventive companies to thrive in the same way that “app stores” enabled business software-based product innovation.

AFFOA and MIT

MIT’s engagement with AFFOA draws from many strengths, from research to education to entrepreneurship.

“MIT has a range of research and teaching talent that impacts manufacturing of fiber and textile-based products, from designing the fiber to leading the factories of the future,” says Greg Rutledge, coordinator of MIT’s engagement with AFFOA. The Lamott du Pont Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, Rutledge and his colleagues have been working to develop predictive modeling and design of polymer fibers and meshes, novel processing and characterization, and engineering of textiles for applications spanning from protective garments to water filtration.

“Many of our faculty also have longstanding collaborations with partners in defense and industry on these projects, including with Lincoln Laboratory and the Army’s Natick Soldier Research Design and Engineering Center, so MIT membership in AFFOA is an opportunity to strengthen and grow those networks,” Rutledge says.

Education and entrepreneurship are also key components of MIT’s connection to AFFOA. “The proximity of AFFOA’s headquarters and this new Fabric Discovery Center to MIT’s campus is an important new way for MIT to connect our students and faculty with the national AFFOA network of industrial and academic partners,” says Maria Zuber, MIT vice president for research.

Adds Professor Krystyn Van Vliet, director of manufacturing innovation for MIT’s Innovation Initiative, “MIT’s engagement in AFFOA will help speed adoption of new manufacturing technologies developed at MIT and elsewhere, and help prepare our region’s textile innovators to be able to both invent it here and make it here.”  

Ahead of the pack

While new products intended for the consumer market typically require years of work from concept to product, Fink says, “In its first year, AFFOA has already spurred the development of two commercial-ready product platforms, which will be unveiled at today’s event.” The first of these — already in limited production, with samples to be distributed to the roughly 300 people attending the unveiling — is a “programmable” backpack prototype produced by JanSport, an AFFOA member.

The backpack is made of a breakthrough fabric developed through AFFOA and manufactured in South Carolina by Inman Mills in collaboration with UniFi Yarns (North Carolina), Burlington Manufacturing Services (North Carolina), and Granitville Specialty Fabrics (South Carolina).

The unique fabric enables the wearer to “program” their pack through a smartphone app called “Looks,” to associate and share information that is context-dependent through their pack. The system can be harnessed to help students better connect on campuses, enable professionals to network effectively at conferences, increase access security in elementary schools, store memories and information, and even enable dynamic advertising and online purchases and commerce. Plus, it can be programmed to notify its owner if it gets lost.

“This product exemplifies a future where clothing and other fabric products will be seen no longer as commodity products but as a service, similar to the way software is developed and sold,” Fink says. This approach will make it possible “for fabrics to take on a new role in the world, one where we receive high value-added services from fabrics.” People often appreciate experiences and services more than goods, he added “and the economics follows.”

A second new product platform to be introduced at the grand opening celebration is a technology dubbed “Fabric LiFi,” which harnesses the potential of new LED-based lighting systems that are rapidly replacing incandescent and fluorescent lights due to their energy efficiency and longevity. These new lighting systems can be used to broadcast data to any receiver within view, at extremely high bandwidths.

This technology could be used to provide highly accurate tracking and navigation in indoor locations where GPS does not penetrate and where tracking can be crucial, such as guiding patients within a hospital. The product might also help theatergoers or sports fans learn details about the events as they view them. It might also form the basis for active safety clothing for cyclists to help prevent night-time accidents.

The system could also deliver digital content to users through this lighting link, without affecting people’s perception of the quality of the light. For example, two people sitting next to each other at a sporting event could receive detailed commentary in real time, in two different languages, or oriented to fans of opposing teams, through optical fiber sensors built into a baseball cap. The same technology could enable soldiers or emergency responders to get data and imagery from a drone hovering overhead.

All these new developments, Fink says, represent “a major change in how we view fabrics and how the world is going to interact with fabrics.” And with the introduction of these first two products based on research from the new partnership, what had been a dream and a vision of a whole new kind of technology “is finally actually turning into something tangible,” he says.

Design innovations for improved life in cities

What do portable desks for children in developing countries, 3-D models of underutilized Boston real estate, and devices that track opioids in city sewers have in common? They are among the products or services developed by the first cohort of teams participating in DesignX, MIT’s newest innovation accelerator.

Established within the School of Architecture and Planning last fall, DesignX has been working to unleash the capacity of students and recent graduates to create innovative solutions to pressing urban problems.

“Too often in our school, great ideas are left behind at the end of the academic program as students go on to work as planners or junior architects,” says DesignX director Gilad Rosenzweig. “We are providing a bridge to apply some of those ideas to the big problems that all of our cities face.”

Each team chosen for the annual program receives $15,000 along with mentorship from industry entrepreneurs, who guide them through the steps of customer development, product design, and business planning. The first eight teams recently presented their ideas for transforming the built environment at a range of scales during a lively “pitch and demo” event at MIT.

The accelerator began as a collaboration between Rosenzweig; Dennis Frenchman, the Class of 1922 Professor of Urban Design and Planning; MIT Real Estate Innovation Lab Director Andrea Chegut; and urban design doctoral student Matthew Claudel, who came together to infuse the school with a more robust culture of entrepreneurship.

“That culture was always here, but it needed a place to crystallize around,” says Frenchman. “It’s important that we have these efforts that focus not only on the technology but also on the social implications of how we can improve quality of life through design.”

The projects are truly cross-disciplinary, incorporating “everything from how you might develop a space to furniture,” says Frenchman. The full list:

  • Biobot Labs, whose pitch at the event garnered the $5,000 audience-choice award, places networks of sensors in city sewers; using DNA sequencing and metabolomics, to the company analyzes and maps the health and wellbeing of a community, with a focus on mitigating the opioid epidemic.
  • BitSence uses sensors and data analytics to help people who manage spaces better understand how their spaces are used.
  • Hosta is an application that turns pictures and videos of living spaces into a 3-D space management platform that simplifies the home renovation process.
  • Kumej is a light, collapsible desk designed to enable underprivileged students in India to carry and create their own comfortable learning surface, typically at the construction site where their parents work.
  • Learning Beautiful creates tactile, Montessori-inspired learning materials to teach computational thinking to young children, without the use of computer screens.
  • Mediate is a cloud-based system for collaboration in virtual reality by architects, designers, and their clients.
  • Nesterly seeks to solve the dual problems of housing affordability and aging-in-place with a platform that allows older homeowners to rent rooms at affordable rates in exchange for tasks around the home.
  • Placeful is a platform that integrates design, spatial computation, and real estate development to reveal the untapped capacity of properties across a city.

The varied projects are united in the goal of tackling a real-world problem. “With all of our teams, we are asking how is this really going to make a positive impact,” says Rosenzweig. “There is definitely a bigger collective outcome rather than just a personal outcome for a product or service.”

Unique among innovation accelerators, DesignX has as its core an academic course that gives it structure and rigor, allowing students to earn credit as they are pursuing their entrepreneurial vision. “The mentors were top-notch,” says BitSence’s Ammar El Seed, SM ’16. “They helped us with everything from storytelling to financing to negotiation.”

Many of the students in the program were able to link the project to their thesis, and since DesignX runs for the calendar year, they will be able to benefit from guidance as they launch their ventures post-graduation.

While most of the teams came in with projects already under way, DesignX also spurred ideas that wouldn’t have been developed otherwise. “As a woman, I never felt really invited into the entrepreneurial ecosystem,” says Nesterly’s Noelle Marcus, a master’s of city planning (MCP) student. “It gave me the confidence to go out and develop an idea.”

“Many older people feel overwhelmed with keeping up their homes,” says team member and MCP student Dennis Harvey. “At the same time, there is a deeper problem many communities such as Boston face in providing affordable housing for students.”   

DesignX enabled the Nesterly team to survey students and retirees to make sure that there was demand for the idea of a platform connecting students and empty nesters, and design the interface in a way that would be useful for both groups.

The company has since received $5,000 from MIT’s Sandbox Innovation Fund and $7,500 from the IDEAS Global Challenge, as well as being a semifinalist in the prestigious $100K Entrepreneurship Competition.

They also won a grand prize in the community resiliency category in the Big Apps NYC competition and were accepted to the MassChallenge startup accelerator. “It’s been this incredible experience for all of us,” Marcus says. 

Tim Cook to MIT grads: “How will you serve humanity?”

Tim Cook, the renowned CEO of Apple, spoke to MIT’s Class of 2017 on a beautiful sunny morning in the Institute’s Killian Court, urging the graduates to search for a direction and purpose that extends beyond their own lives.

Cook, who took over the reins at Apple after the death of company co-founder Steve Jobs, described his own years-long search for such a purpose, that culminated when he first met Jobs and went to work for the company. “Before that moment,” he said, “I had never met a leader with such passion, or encountered a company with such a clear and compelling purpose — to serve humanity.”

Speaking to the approximately 1,066 undergraduates and 1,818 graduate students receiving their degrees today, Cook said, “When you work toward something greater than yourself, you find meaning, you find purpose. So the question I hope you will carry forward from here is, how will you serve humanity?”

Speaking of the ground-breaking research that continues to emerge from MIT, Cook said, “Thanks to discoveries made right here, billions of people are leading healthier, more productive, more fulfilling lives. And if we are ever going to solve some of the hardest problems still facing the world today — everything from cancer, to climate change, to educational inequality — then technology will help us to do it.”

But, he stressed, that’s not the whole answer: “Technology alone isn’t the solution. Sometimes, it’s even part of the problem.” Describing his meeting last year with Pope Francis, which he described as the most incredible meeting of his life, he recalled the pope’s admonition: “Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely.”

For technology to do great things, he said, “takes all of us. It takes our values, and our commitment to our family, our neighbors, our communities. Our love of beauty and belief that all our fates are interconnected. Our decency. Our kindness.”

He added that “when you keep people at the center of what you do, it can have enormous impact. … That responsibility is immense, but so is the opportunity. … As you go forward today, use your minds and hands — and hearts — to build something bigger than yourselves.”

MIT President L. Rafael Reif, in his charge to the students, echoed those sentiments and compared the graduation of this class to one of Apple’s famed product launches: “Today, I am the one presiding over the release of a mind-blowing new product. This product is a limited edition — and it’s extremely personalized. In fact, it comes in more than 2,700 varieties.”

Reif continued, “The operating system for our latest product is amazing! It has unmatched processing ability and built-in memory. I know, because we have tested it and retested it, over and over and over!” And, he added, “I am very proud to tell you that the product we launch today has an unlimited capacity to augment reality to make a better world.”

“I see a planet that urgently needs everything you have to offer,” he said. “So now, go out there. Join the world. Find your calling. Solve the unsolvable. Invent the future. Take the high road. And you will continue to make your family, including your MIT family, proud.”

Arolyn Conwill, president of MIT’s Graduate Student Council, said, “The world is full of enormous challenges — climate change, data security, public health, to name a few. And these challenges are complex. Our ability to solve these problems is determined by both our technological capabilities as well as our ability to implement policies that maximize the impact of our work.”

“For example,” she said, “even the most significant scientific advances in medicine will only be felt by those who have access to health care. Our success depends on our ability to build collaborations across disciplines and to build coalitions that include innovators, policy makers, and diverse members of our global community.” Through a combination of extraordinary talent and luck, she said, MIT’s graduates “are well-positioned to influence their disciplines and influence the world. And it’s up to us to decide how to use that influence.”

Conwill added, “I hope that we not only advance more sustainable ways to use our planet’s resources, but that we also work to shepherd these technologies into the mainstream. … I hope that we not only cure cancer, but that we also work to ensure that all people have access to affordable and comprehensive health care.”

Liana Ilutzi, president of the Class of 2017, described sage words she had received about responding to adversity: “You can run from it, or face it head on. If MIT has taught us anything, it has taught us that we cannot run from a challenge, or from adversity.” Though many challenges will come, she said, “we are equipped with the tools to handle every single one of them.” And beyond the technological solutions, she said, “when we use empathy, our skill set is beyond powerful.”

She said “we are at our best when we dig deep to go beyond our own emotions, and connect with others. … When adversity confronts you, whether it’s a conflict at work, a family illness, or just a bad day, who will you be? … MIT is all about resiliency, but empathy is its accelerator.” As the graduates go about their lives, she said, “people will lean on us, work with us, and depend on us to change the world, and I know that we are up for the challenge!”

Ilutzi then presented the traditional senior class gift to MIT, which included contributions from 64 percent of the class members, for a total donation of $17,750. She concluded, “Class of 2017, this has been a wild ride, but this is just the beginning!”

At hooding ceremony, Lisa Su urges MIT’s new PhDs to “dream big” and “change the world”

Lisa Su ’90 SM ’91 PhD ’94, the president and CEO of Advanced Micro Devices, urged MIT’s new doctoral graduates to “dream big” and “work hard every day to solve the world’s toughest problems,” in her commencement address today at the Institute’s 2017 Investiture of Doctoral Hoods.

The festive, colorful ceremony featured new graduates earning doctoral degrees this academic year, and was held in the Johnson Athletics Center before a large audience of friends and family.

MIT professors, clad in the multihued robes representing the universities from which they received their doctorates (including MIT), draped doctoral hoods over students from 26 departments, programs, and centers at the Institute.

“I encourage each of you to dream big and believe you can change the world, have the courage to take risks and enthusiastically learn from mistakes, and work hard every day to solve the world’s toughest problems,” Su said. “I think if you do that, I’m pretty sure you will make everybody very proud, and you will be incredibly lucky throughout your career.”

In outlining her own experiences in technology and business, which have taken her from the Institute’s laboratories to the executive suite, Su observed that MIT has been a central influence on her own life and career.

“The MIT PhD degree truly shaped who I am in so many ways, both personally and professionally,” Su said.

Su came to the U.S. from Taiwan at age 2 and grew up in New York City. As an undergraduate at MIT, she developed a deep interest in semiconductors; as a graduate student, she received a master’s degree in management and a doctorate focused on research in silicon-on-insulator technology.

Su quipped that when she entered MIT’s doctoral program, at the urging of her parents, she was “too young at the time to know any better.” However, she wound up thriving in a challenging academic environment.

“MIT is pure, and it’s really hard,” Su said. “MIT taught me how to think and solve really hard problems.”  

Recalling the many ways her technical education encouraged her to pursue a career in management, Su recounted, “I thought I could make better business decisions because I understood the technology.” 

Su began her career at Texas Instruments. She spent 13 years working at IBM, rising to the level of vice president of the Semiconductor Research and Development Center. She then worked in multiple executive roles at Freescale Semiconductor, Inc. She joined Advanced Micro Devices in 2012 as a senior vice president and general manager for global business units, and served as chief operating officer before becoming the CEO.

Su was named one of the Top 50 World’s Greatest Leaders by Fortune in 2017, and has been named a Top Semiconductor CEO by Instiututional Investor in both 2016 and 2017. She was also cited as one of MIT Technology Review’s Top 100 Young Innovators in 2002. She serves on the board of directors for Analog Devices, the Global Semiconductor Alliance, and the U.S. Semiconductor Industry Association.

MIT Chancellor and Ford Professor of Engineering Cynthia Barnhart SM ’86 PhD ’88, who annually presides over the hooding ceremony, introduced Su while giving welcoming remarks

Barnhart said she was “thrilled” to have Su addressing the graduates, and offered her own congratulations to the newly minted doctoral graduates.

“Earning a doctoral degree from MIT is no small feat,” Barnhart told the assembled graduates. “You have every reason to be proud, to be relieved, and to be filled with hope for what the future holds.”

2017 marks the third year that MIT’s doctoral hooding ceremony has featured a keynote speaker, who is chosen with input from MIT faculty and doctoral students.

Academic regalia dates to at least the 15th century, but American universities only adopted formal codes for graduation gowns and hoods in 1893.

MIT doctoral degree robes have had their current design since 1995. MIT features a silver-gray robe with a cardinal red velvet front panel, as well cardinal red velvet bars on the sleeves. Additional color markings denote whether graduates have received a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or a Doctor of Science (ScD) degree.

The actual doctoral hoods are part of the doctoral robe ensemble. After the remarks by Barnhart and Su, all doctoral graduates had their names announced as they walked across the stage, then individually had the hoods draped on their ensembles by their department or program heads.

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