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Student group helps blind boater sail independently

MIT News - Sun, 12/09/2018 - 00:00

This fall, a team of four students in MIT’s course 6.811 (Principles and Practices of Assistive Technology, or PPAT) designed a device that will help Pauline Dowell, a legally blind MIT employee, sail more independently.

PPAT is a collaboration between the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology and the departments of Mechanical Engineering and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. An upper-level class, it draws students from those majors and others, and each semester its students are partnered with clients with disabilities. The clients, like Dowell, have reached out to the instructors with a problem that they’ve encountered that could be solved with assistive technology. The students are charged with designing and creating a technology for their client over the course of a semester.

Dowell sailed on the Charles River for the first time when she was in college at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. She loved the freedom and excitement of the sport, and although she had limited vision even then, she sailed competitively. After college, Dowell’s vision started to deteriorate, and several years later she was legally blind. The adjustment was hard for her.

“I was sort of stepping back from the world,” she said. “As soon as work was over I'd go home. Because I didn't have a cane, I didn't know how to get around. I'd walk into things. I'd fall down stairs. Just going out was traumatic. So I’d stay home. A lot of blind people just stay home. They edit themselves out of life.”

Tell-tale signals

But Dowell’s story did not end there. She got out of her house and rediscovered her passion through a sailing club at the Carroll Center for the Blind, a school to help blind people adjust to life without sight. The sailing group makes it possible for blind people to sail on with the help of audio technology and sighted guides.

Many of the visual elements of sailing a boat — like the distance between buoys and the location of other boats — can be communicated through narration or other sounds. Some aspects of sailing, though, are not easily conveyed. For example, a telltale affixed to the side of a sail allows sighted sailors to adjust their sails to catch the wind. Although it is really nothing more than a piece of string, the direction the tell-tale is blowing conveys important information about how to make the most of the wind.

This was the challenge that Dowell brought to the students in MIT’s PPAT class: Could they create her a telltale that she could hear instead of see?

The instructors of the class matched Dowell with a group of seniors: Rebecca Agustin, Sandy Yang, Temitope “Tosin” Olabinjo, and Tiffany Xi. All come from different backgrounds. Yang studies neuroscience and has worked with Google Glass technology for children with autism. Xi is a mechanical engineering student and member of MIT’s sailing team. Olabinjo and Agustin are both electrical engineering and computer science students who have worked on projects for people with disabilities.

The group dove right in. They researched sailing and talked to Dowell and her sighted sailing guide, Kay Van Valkenburgh. They learned that when the sail is in its optimal position the telltale should flow straight back without wavering. After a couple of prototypes, the device they came up with is a sensor surrounding a piece of rope — the telltale itself — like a wide sheath. If the telltale flaps in the wind, it bumps up against the side of the device, triggering the sensor. When the sensor is activated, it sends a series of beeps to an earpiece that Dowell wears, transmitting important information about the position of the sail.

In early November, the students visited Dowell’s home (she lives on a sailboat) to test the device. They plan to finetune the device and make a few adjustments, such as making it waterproof, before handing it over to Dowell at the end of the semester.

Making people powerful

Team Pauline is one of seven teams in the PPAT class this fall. Other projects in the class include a device to help MIT employee Nico Lang, who describes herself as a little person, pour hot food from one container to another without burning herself. Another device is for a resident of the Boston Home who has MS. She requested a device to help her water plants without spilling too much water. The students will present their clients with the devices at an end-of-semester presentation on Dec. 12.

Seth Teller, an MIT professor and assistive technology researcher, started the PPAT class in 2011. He passed away in 2014.

“He was a sort of technological Renaissance man,” says Julie Greenberg, one of the lecturers for PPAT. “He was comfortable with software, robotics, all these things. I think it says something about Seth that it now takes a team of six to teach the same class.” The class is popular among undergraduates and is consistently made up of over 50 percent women, Greenberg says.

Yang said she enrolled because she liked the idea of using her skills to help someone feel more independent.

“The overarching goal of this class is to allow somebody to do something in a way that makes them feel powerful or useful or just have fun,” she says. “I just felt like that message was important.”

Tiffany Xi says the class has been a rewarding experience because it has given her a chance to apply her knowledge of mechanical engineering to real-world problems.

“A lot of stuff we work on in classes seems either very theoretical or very confined within our demographic,” she says. “It has been cool to interact with real-world people a little more and see how this affects their daily lives.”

Categories: In the News

Pack of end-of-year actions on street safety anticipates bike, pedestrian work in 2019

Cambridge Day - Sat, 12/08/2018 - 18:41
The city is touting a more comprehensive schedule of bike infrastructure rollouts early next year, but before that comes a policy order Monday and meetings Thursday and Dec. 18 as the state joins in with discussion of options for some of its own roadway in Cambridge.
Categories: In the News

With less money coming from Comcast fees, city looks at merging cable access channels

Cambridge Day - Sat, 12/08/2018 - 17:12
A current, 10-year licensing arrangement with Comcast ends June 2021, but officials began around a year ago to look at what comes afterward as money dries up from fees to be negotiated in the next contract.
Categories: In the News

Rep. Rogers held local Dec. 7 office hour; others are planned for two nearby towns

Cambridge Day - Sat, 12/08/2018 - 00:18
State Rep. Dave Rogers, a Democrat in the 24th Middlesex District made up of two precincts of Cambridge, five precincts of Arlington and all of Belmont, has three upcoming office hours.
Categories: In the News

Engineers produce smallest 3-D transistor yet

MIT News - Fri, 12/07/2018 - 16:52

Researchers from MIT and the University of Colorado have fabricated a 3-D transistor that’s less than half the size of today’s smallest commercial models. To do so, they developed a novel microfabrication technique that modifies semiconductor material atom by atom.

The inspiration behind the work was to keep up with Moore’s Law, an observation made in the 1960s that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles about every two years. To adhere to this “golden rule” of electronics, researchers are constantly finding ways to cram as many transistors as possible onto microchips. The newest trend is 3-D transistors that stand vertically, like fins, and measure about 7 nanometers across — tens of thousands of times thinner than a human hair. Tens of billions of these transistors can fit on a single microchip, which is about the size of a fingernail.

As described in a paper presented at this week’s IEEE International Electron Devices Meeting, the researchers modified a recently invented chemical-etching technique, called thermal atomic level etching (thermal ALE), to enable precision modification of semiconductor materials at the atomic level. Using that technique, the researchers fabricated 3-D transistors that are as narrow as 2.5 nanometers and more efficient than their commercial counterparts.

Similar atomic-level etching methods exist today, but the new technique is more precise and yields higher-quality transistors. Moreover, it repurposes a common microfabrication tool used for depositing atomic layers on materials, meaning it could be rapidly integrated. This could enable computer chips with far more transistors and greater performance, the researchers say.

“We believe that this work will have great real-world impact,” says first author Wenjie Lu, a graduate student in MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories (MTL). “As Moore’s Law continues to scale down transistor sizes, it is harder to manufacture such nanoscale devices. To engineer smaller transistors, we need to be able to manipulate the materials with atomic-level precision.”

Joining Lu on the paper are: Jesus A. del Alamo, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and an MTL researcher who leads the Xtreme Transistors Group; recent MIT graduate Lisa Kong ’18; MIT postdoc Alon Vardi; and Jessica Murdzek, Jonas Gertsch, and Professor Steven George of the University of Colorado.

Atom by atom

Microfabrication involves deposition (growing film on a substrate) and etching (engraving patterns on the surface). To form transistors, the substrate surface gets exposed to light through photomasks with the shape and structure of the transistor. All material exposed to light can be etched away with chemicals, while material hidden behind the photomask remains.

The state-of-the-art techniques for microfabrication are known as atomic layer deposition (ALD) and atomic layer etching (ALE). In ALD, two chemicals are deposited onto the substrate surface and react with one another in a vacuum reactor to form a film of desired thickness, one atomic layer at a time.

Traditional ALE techniques use plasma with highly energetic ions that strip away individual atoms on the material’s surface. But these cause surface damage. These methods also expose material to air, where oxidization causes additional defects that hinder performance.

In 2016, the University of Colorado team invented thermal ALE, a technique that closely resembles ALD and relies on a chemical reaction called “ligand exchange.” In this process, an ion in one compound called a ligand — which binds to metal atoms — gets replaced by a ligand in a different compound. When the chemicals are purged away, the reaction causes the replacement ligands to strip away individual atoms from the surface. Still in its infancy, thermal ALE has, so far, only been used to etch oxides.

In this new work, the researchers modified thermal ALE to work on a semiconductor material, using the same reactor reserved for ALD. They used an alloyed semiconductor material, called indium gallium arsenide (or InGaAs), which is increasingly being lauded as a faster, more efficient alternative to silicon.

The researchers exposed the material to hydrogen fluoride, the compound used for the original thermal ALE work, which forms an atomic layer of metal fluoride on the surface. Then, they poured in an organic compound called dimethylaluminum chloride (DMAC). The ligand-exchange process occurs on the metal fluoride layer. When the DMAC is purged, individual atoms follow.

The technique is repeated over hundreds of cycles. In a separate reactor, the researchers then deposited the “gate,” the metallic element that controls the transistors to switch on or off.

In experiments, the researchers removed just .02 nanometers from the material’s surface at a time. “You’re kind of peeling an onion, layer by layer,” Lu says. “In each cycle, we can etch away just 2 percent of a nanometer of a material. That gives us super high accuracy and careful control of the process.”

Because the technique is so similar to ALD, “you can integrate this thermal ALE into the same reactor where you work on deposition,” del Alamo says. It just requires a “small redesign of the deposition tool to handle new gases to do deposition immediately after etching. … That’s very attractive to industry.”

Thinner, better “fins”

Using the technique, the researchers fabricated FinFETs, 3-D transistors used in many of today’s commercial electronic devices. FinFETs consist of a thin “fin” of silicon, standing vertically on a substrate. The gate is essentially wrapped around the fin. Because of their vertical shape, anywhere from 7 billion to 30 billion FinFETs can squeeze onto a chip. As of this year, Apple, Qualcomm, and other tech companies started using 7-nanometer FinFETs.

Most of the researchers’ FinFETs measured under 5 nanometers in width — a desired threshold across industry — and roughly 220 nanometers in height. Moreover, the technique limits the material’s exposure to oxygen-caused defects that render the transistors less efficient.

The device performed about 60 percent better than traditional FinFETs in “transconductance,” the researchers report. Transistors convert a small voltage input into a current delivered by the gate that switches the transistor on or off to process the 1s (on) and 0s (off) that drive computation. Transconductance measures how much energy it takes to convert that voltage.

Limiting defects also leads to a higher on-off contrast, the researchers say. Ideally, you want high current flowing when the transistors are on, to handle heavy computation, and nearly no current flowing when they’re off, to save energy. “That contrast is essential in making efficient logic switches and very efficient microprocessors,” del Alamo says. “So far, we have the best ratio [among FinFETs].”

Categories: In the News

Alumni team tops Collegiate Inventors Competition

MIT News - Fri, 12/07/2018 - 16:00

On a Friday in mid-November, recent mechanical engineering alumna Elizabeth Bianchini ’18 found herself on stage in front of a rather intimidating audience. She was presenting at the 2018 Collegiate Inventors Competition (CIC) in Virginia, hosted by the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

In the front row was an illustrious panel of judges, including the inventors of the digital camera, Post-It notes, and the pacemaker.

“The coolest part was presenting to some of the most creative minds of our lifetime,” Bianchini recalls. “They saw things that no one else saw until it was obvious how much their inventions changed the world.”

Bianchini presented on behalf of a team of alumni that also includes Kyler Kocher ‘18, Ann McInroy ‘18, and Sam Resnick ’18. The team is continuing work on Rhino, a rotary hammer accessory that could revolutionize the field of masonry. Based on Bianchini’s presentation, the Rhino team was awarded the undergraduate Gold award at the CIC.

“It was my first time presenting about Rhino myself,” she adds. “My excitement was hard to contain. I think my genuine enthusiasm for the product might have been part of why we did so well.”

Rhino was one of the eight products designed and developed by students in last year’s class 2.009 (Product Engineering Processes). The team’s win at the CIC was the culmination of over a year of work by dozens of student team members, faculty, teaching staff, and laboratory instructors.

A fraternity house in disrepair

The group of students who worked on Rhino in 2.009 didn’t have to look far for inspiration. The bricks on team member Sam Resnick’s fraternity house needed repair. Resnick took the lead in trying to find a mason to do the job. He was blown away by the cost and time associated with the project.

The more research Resnick did, the more he realized there was room for improvement. Bricks typically need to be repointed once every 20 years. Currently, the mortar between the bricks is removed using an angle grinder and chisel. Since the radius of grinder wheels is often larger than the vertical joints between bricks, accuracy is a concern and bricks often get damaged. Additionally, the process kicks up large clouds of silica dust, creating health concerns for masons.

After exploring a number of options for products to work on in 2.009, Resnick’s team – Team Orange – decided to tackle brick repointing.

“Brick repointing is everywhere — especially in a place like New England where almost every building you pass is brick, and often historic,” explains Bianchini.

To solve the problem, the team of students decided to focus their attention on rotary hammers as a replacement for grinders. Their research revealed that a rotary hammer can remove mortar in large chunks, nearly eliminating the harmful dust cloud that can envelope masons. It also enables greater speed — which can substantially minimize time and cost associated with brick repointing.

On its own, a rotary hammer would be difficult to control and too inaccurate for use in brick repointing. The team’s invention, Rhino, is an accessory that attaches to the rotary hammer, controls depth of cut, helps guide masons along the mortar joints between bricks, and provides an easy and adjustable interaction for the mason.

“This project was MIT from the very beginning. Their main motivator was a building right here on campus,” says Warren Seering, the Weber-Shaughness Professor of Mechanical Engineering and one of the 2.009 lab instructors assigned to the Rhino team. “It ties into one of the themes of 2.009, which is to encourage students to identify needs in the world around them.”

Presentation practice

In 2.009, large teams of 15-20 students work together to design and build a working prototype of a new product. Under the leadership of course instructor David Wallace, professor of mechanical engineering, a massive team of faculty, staff, alumni, and Boston area design professionals work to ensure students receive an authentic product design experience.

“A great thing about this class environment is that it’s as close as we can make it to one that students might be in a year from now at a company,” explains Seering. “It’s an excellent setting for active learning of best design practices.”

Part of the authentic design experience is learning to communicate or present about a product. The class culminates in a final presentation in early December where members from student teams present in front of an large, enthusiastic audience in Kresge Auditorium. When it was Rhino’s time to present, team members Hannah Rudoltz, Kyler Kocher, and Ann McInroy took to the stage.

“Presenting at 2.009 was one of the most exciting things I’ve done,” recalls McInroy. “There aren’t many other schools that celebrate engineering in the same way you would a sporting event.”

From the classroom to construction sites

After the confetti was swept away and the semester concluded, it was clear that Rhino was something worth pursuing.

Throughout the design and development process in 2.009, the Rhino team went beyond the walls of MIT and worked with local masons and unions to develop a product best suited to their needs. In spring of this year, a group of Rhino team members continued to work on the business case and perfect the design.

For Bianchini, continuing work on Rhino has helped her further hone non-technical skills that will be essential as she progresses in her career.

“Pushing Rhino beyond the classroom immersed me in the business and legal tasks that fill the gap between project and product,” she explains. “Now I am much more prepared to start my own venture later in my career.”

When it came time to present Rhino and their business case at CIC, over a year of hard work by countless individuals paid off. “Winning at CIC is really exciting because it shows that Rhino is a product that is valuable to a larger audience outside of MIT,” adds McInroy. “The fact we were able to be competitive in such a talented group of inventors is very validating.”

As work on Rhino continues to move forward, Bianchini, McInroy, Resnick, and Kocher will explore business options that can help take Rhino from an idea developed in a classroom to a viable product used at construction sites everywhere.   

Categories: In the News

More than 30 from MIT named to Forbes 30 Under 30 lists

MIT News - Fri, 12/07/2018 - 15:40

Forbes calls its 2019 30 Under 30 honorees “a collection of bold risk-takers who are putting a new twist on the old tools of the trade.” So it should come as no surprise that the MIT community is well represented among the 20 categories and 600-plus names.

Thirty-one MIT community members were named to this year’s list, including 25 alumni. Check out the MIT alumni, faculty, and students named to the 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 list below.

Visit the 30 Under 30 website for the full list. For more young innovators from MIT, learn about the community members who were named to the 30 Under 30 lists in 201820172016, and 2015.

Aziz Alghunaim ’15, MEng ’15, cofounder of Tarjimly, in the category of Social Entrepreneurs

Amine Anoun SM ’17, cofounder of Evisort, in the category of Law and Policy

Chris Boyce ’11, assistant professor of chemical engineering at Columbia University, in the category of Science

Sebastien Boyer SM ’16, cofounder of FarmWise, in the category of Manufacturing and Industry

Joy Buolamwini SM ’17, MIT graduate student in media arts and sciences and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, in the category of Enterprise Technology

Fei Chen PhD ’17, principal investigator at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, in the category of Healthcare

Tyler Clites PhD ’17, postdoc at MIT, in the category of Healthcare

Joshua Cohen ’12, graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, in the category of Healthcare

Carter Chang ’12, head of solar products strategic planning at Tesla, in the category of Energy

Connor Coley SM ’16, MIT graduate student in chemical engineering, in the category of Healthcare

Dianna Cowern ’11, founder of Physics Girl, in the category of Education

Cheryl Cui, 2017 graduate of the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Science and Technology and cofounder of Nest.Bio, in the category of Healthcare

Chris Davlantes ’15, founder of Reach Labs, in the category of Energy

Ross Finman SM ’13, augmented reality research lead at Niantic Labs, in the category of Games

Catherine Freije, researcher at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, in the category of Healthcare

Atif Javed ’15, cofounder of Tarjimly, in the category of Social Entrepreneurs

Joel Jean SM ’13, PhD ’17, cofounder of Swift Solar, in the category of Energy

Shri Ganeshram ’15, vice president of growth, analytics, and strategy at Eaze, in the category of consumer technology

Rebecca Hui MCP ’18, founder of Roots Studio, in the category of Social Entrepreneurs

Achuta Kadambi PhD ’18, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California at Los Angeles, in the category of Science

Sammy Khalifa ’12, cofounder of Vicarious Surgical, in the category of Manufacturing and Industry

Kishor Nayar SM ’14, founder of Rengen Technologies, in the category of Energy

Cameron Myhrvold, researcher at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, in the category of Healthcare

Xiaoyuan Ren SM ’16, SM ’17, founder of MyH2O, in the category of Social Entrepreneurs

Jeremy Rossmann ’13, cofounder of Make School, in the category of Education

Adam Sachs ’13, cofounder of Vicarious Surgical, in the category of Manufacturing and Industry

Kaitlyn Sadtler, MIT postdoc at the Koch Institute, in the category of Science

Raja Srinivas PhD ’17, cofounder of Asimov, in the category of Healthcare

Jonathan "Jonny" Sun, MIT graduate student (on leave) in urban studies and planning and illustrator and writer, in the category of Media

Scott Tan SM ’18, MIT graduate student in mechanical engineering, in the category of Science

Hyunwoo Yuk SM ’16, MIT graduate student in mechanical engineering, in the category of Science

Categories: In the News

3Q: Eric Alm on the mysteries of the microbiome

MIT News - Fri, 12/07/2018 - 14:45

Eric Alm is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and biological engineering at MIT and co-director of the Center for Microbiome Informatics and Therapeutics. He also serves on the board of directors for the non-profit stool bank, OpenBiome, and clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company Finch Therapeutics. His work focuses on understanding and engineering the human microbiome, which he defines as the microbes — bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and viruses — that live on and inside the human body. The microbiome plays a key role in human health and disease, and Alm and his colleagues strive to translate basic science discoveries rapidly into clinical settings, where they can contribute to better outcomes for patients.

Q. People are increasingly curious about the state of their microbiome. Could you tell us what a healthy microbiome looks like? Does the number of different types of bacteria species in the microbiome matter for health?

A. We don’t really know if diversity matters. If you’re very unhealthy, diversity in the microbiome can be very low as a result of an infection — where one particular bacterium takes over the gut and diversity goes down because you’ve been colonized by an infectious agent. But more might not necessarily be better if you’re within the range of diversity that is common among healthy people. So a diet or treatment of the microbiome may lead to increased diversity, but that does not mean it’s better or healthier for you. Diversity is not synonymous with healthy, but we don't have anything else that is synonymous with healthy either. Eating plenty of fiber and maintaining a varied diet is probably the best we can do for now until we have better science and knowledge about what healthy means.

Q. You cofounded the Global Microbiome Conservancy (GMbC) to identify and preserve gut bacteria from different peoples around the world. Could you tell us more about what you’re doing and why?

A. The microbiome is very homogenous in populations from industrialized nations that have access to antibiotics, processed foods, and modern sanitation. We have an extensive collection of over 7,000 different microbes that you’d find in folks from North America. But when we looked at the microbial species in people living in less developed nations, we discovered we hadn’t even scratched the surface in terms of microbial diversity, especially among people living "traditional," non-industrialized lifestyles. Those populations have a much greater microbial diversity than we see in North Americans, as well as very different organisms that might have totally different effects on host metabolism. This could be really important for health — not only in developing countries but maybe also for ourselves.

GMbC’s biobank now houses about 4,000 strains from non-industrialized communities in seven countries, and we’re actively sampling in many other locations. We’ve built a global network of about 70 scientists, anthropologists, and collaborators working with indigenous and other non-industrialized communities in about 35 countries. We get samples and bring them back to MIT where we isolate the bacteria and preserve it for future generations so this biodiversity is not lost. Right now the 7,000 strains that we derived from urban North American individuals includes only five previously unknown genera — but the 4,000 strains from the non-industrialized parts of Africa and the Arctic where we’ve sampled have already yielded 55 unknown genera.

Q. You’ve also helped people gain access to a procedure that involves transplanting stool from a healthy donor into the colon of a patient. Could you tell us more about the use of fecal transplants?

A. Clostridium difficile finection is the most common hospital acquired gut infection, and our interest in the disease came after reading a scientific paper that showed fecal transplants work were effective even in cases where standard antibiotic therapy had failed. Patients, however, could not get access to treatment at that time, because doctors didn’t have access to the material for fecal transplants. We knew how to do it in the lab, and in 2013, my graduate student Mark Smith started a non-profit stool bank called OpenBiome, and we treated our first patient later that year. We’ve treated about 40,000 people so far. We’re partnering with over 1,000 hospital networks across the U.S. to make sure everyone has safe access to this medical procedure.

The FDA does not currently allow large-scale treatment for indications other than C. diff. but clinical studies into other applications in various diseases exist. At the Center for Microbiome Informatics and Therapeutics at MIT, for instance, we’re involved in clinical studies that involve fecal transplants for patients with inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD. We look at various strains of bacteria and the immune response and even the metabolites in the blood to see how that changes in response to a fecal transplant. We’re also studying the effects of diet on the microbiome. For example, we know that microbes can metabolize fiber to short chain fatty acids like butyrate, which seems important in IBD. One of the interesting things we’ve found is that depending on the microbiome, different people require different fibers to make butyrate. Some individuals will take inulin and convert it into butyrate but not pectin and vice versa. We are working toward things like personalized fiber supplements for people with IBD.

Categories: In the News

City Council agenda

Cambridge Civic Journal - Fri, 12/07/2018 - 11:01

Dec 10, 2018
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Categories: In the News

MIT engineers repurpose wasp venom as an antibiotic drug

MIT News - Fri, 12/07/2018 - 04:59

The venom of insects such as wasps and bees is full of compounds that can kill bacteria. Unfortunately, many of these compounds are also toxic for humans, making it impossible to use them as antibiotic drugs.

After performing a systematic study of the antimicrobial properties of a toxin normally found in a South American wasp, researchers at MIT have now created variants of the peptide that are potent against bacteria but nontoxic to human cells.

In a study of mice, the researchers found that their strongest peptide could completely eliminate Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a strain of bacteria that causes respiratory and other infections and is resistant to most antibiotics.

“We’ve repurposed a toxic molecule into one that is a viable molecule to treat infections,” says Cesar de la Fuente-Nunez, an MIT postdoc. “By systematically analyzing the structure and function of these peptides, we’ve been able to tune their properties and activity.”

De la Fuente-Nunez is one of the senior authors of the paper, which appears in the Dec. 7 issue of the journal Nature Communications Biology. Timothy Lu, an MIT associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science and of biological engineering, and Vani Oliveira, an associate professor at the Federal University of ABC in Brazil, are also senior authors. The paper’s lead author is Marcelo Der Torossian Torres, a former visiting student at MIT.

Venomous variants

As part of their immune defenses, many organisms, including humans, produce peptides that can kill bacteria. To help fight the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, many scientists have been trying to adapt these peptides as potential new drugs.

The peptide that de la Fuente-Nunez and his colleagues focused on in this study was isolated from a wasp known as Polybia paulista. This peptide is small enough — only 12 amino acids — that the researchers believed it would be feasible to create some variants of the peptide and test them to see if they might become more potent against microbes and less harmful to humans.

“It’s a small enough peptide that you can try to mutate as many amino acid residues as possible to try to figure out how each building block is contributing to antimicrobial activity and toxicity,” de la Fuente-Nunez says.

Like many other antimicrobial peptides, this venom-derived peptide is believed to kill microbes by disrupting bacterial cell membranes. The peptide has an alpha helical structure, which is known to interact strongly with cell membranes.

In the first phase of their study, the researchers created a few dozen variants of the original peptide and then measured how those changes affected the peptides’ helical structure and their hydrophobicity, which also helps to determine how well the peptides interact with membranes. They then tested these peptides against seven strains of bacteria and two of fungus, making it possible to correlate their structure and physicochemical properties with their antimicrobial potency.

Based on the structure-function relationships they identified, the researchers then designed another few dozen peptides for further testing. They were able to identify optimal percentages of hydrophobic amino acids and positively charged amino acids, and they also identified a cluster of amino acids where any changes would impair the overall function of the molecule.

Fighting infection

To measure the peptides’ toxicity, the researchers exposed them to human embryonic kidney cells grown in a lab dish. They selected the most promising compounds to test in mice infected with Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a common source of respiratory and urinary tract infections, and found that several of the peptides could reduce the infection. One of them, given at a high dose, could eliminate it completely.

“After four days, that compound can completely clear the infection, and that was quite surprising and exciting because we don’t typically see that with other experimental antimicrobials or other antibiotics that we’ve tested in the past with this particular mouse model,” de la Fuente-Nunez says.

The researchers have begun creating additional variants that they hope will be able to clear infections at lower doses. De la Fuente-Nunez also plans to apply this approach to other types of naturally occurring antimicrobial peptides when he joins the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania next year. 

“I do think some of the principles that we’ve learned here can be applicable to other similar peptides that are derived from nature,” he says. “Things like helicity and hydrophobicity are very important for a lot of these molecules, and some of the rules that we’ve learned here can definitely be extrapolated.”

The research was funded, in part, by the Ramon Areces Foundation and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

Categories: In the News

Tear down Elizabeth Warren over a DNA test and play into hands of Russians, Republicans

Cambridge Day - Fri, 12/07/2018 - 03:27
The amount of damage the left is willing to do itself and the nation in the name of healing is as astonishing as the amount of division it sows in the name of inclusion.
Categories: In the News

Passions over most vulnerable students, race are big in revote of sports policy affecting few

Cambridge Day - Fri, 12/07/2018 - 01:09
A 5-1 vote came after a polite debate of heartfelt and even tear-filled personal stories from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School alumni, educators and people of color, with some of the speakers being all three. 
Categories: In the News

The privacy risks of compiling mobility data

MIT News - Fri, 12/07/2018 - 00:00

A new study by MIT researchers finds that the growing practice of compiling massive, anonymized datasets about people’s movement patterns is a double-edged sword: While it can provide deep insights into human behavior for research, it could also put people’s private data at risk.  

Companies, researchers, and other entities are beginning to collect, store, and process anonymized data that contains “location stamps” (geographical coordinates and time stamps) of users. Data can be grabbed from mobile phone records, credit card transactions, public transportation smart cards, Twitter accounts, and mobile apps. Merging those datasets could provide rich information about how humans travel, for instance, to optimize transportation and urban planning, among other things.

But with big data come big privacy issues: Location stamps are extremely specific to individuals and can be used for nefarious purposes. Recent research has shown that, given only a few randomly selected points in mobility datasets, someone could identify and learn sensitive information about individuals. With merged mobility datasets, this becomes even easier: An agent could potentially match users trajectories in anonymized data from one dataset, with deanonymized data in another, to unmask the anonymized data.

In a paper published today in IEEE Transactions on Big Data, the MIT researchers show how this can happen in the first-ever analysis of so-called user “matchability” in two large-scale datasets from Singapore, one from a mobile network operator and one from a local transportation system.

The researchers use a statistical model that tracks location stamps of users in both datasets and provides a probability that data points in both sets come from the same person. In experiments, the researchers found the model could match around 17 percent of individuals in one week’s worth of data, and more than 55 percent of individuals after one month of collected data. The work demonstrates an efficient, scalable way to match mobility trajectories in datasets, which can be a boon for research. But, the researchers warn, such processes can increase the possibility of deanonymizing real user data.

“As researchers, we believe that working with large-scale datasets can allow discovering unprecedented insights about human society and mobility, allowing us to plan cities better. Nevertheless, it is important to show if identification is possible, so people can be aware of potential risks of sharing mobility data,” says Daniel Kondor, a postdoc in the Future Urban Mobility Group at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology.

“In publishing the results — and, in particular, the consequences of deanonymizing data — we felt a bit like ‘white hat’ or ‘ethical’ hackers,” adds co-author Carlo Ratti, a professor of the practice in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab. “We felt that it was important to warn people about these new possibilities [of data merging] and [to consider] how we might regulate it.”

The co-authors of the study are Behrooz Hashemian, a postdoc at the Senseable City Lab, and Yves-Alexandre de Mondjoye of the Department of Computing and Data Science Institute of Imperial College London.

Eliminating false positives

To understand how matching location stamps and potential deanonymization works, consider this scenario: “I was at Sentosa Island in Singapore two days ago, came to the Dubai airport yesterday, and am on Jumeirah Beach in Dubai today. It’s highly unlikely another person’s trajectory looks exactly the same. In short, if someone has my anonymized credit card information, and perhaps my open location data from Twitter, they could then deanonymize my credit card data,” Ratti says.

Similar models exist to evaluate deanonymization in data. But those use computationally intensive approaches for re-identification, meaning to merge anonymous data with public data to identify specific individuals. These models have only worked on limited datasets. The MIT researchers instead used a simpler statistical approach — measuring the probability of false positives — to efficiently predict matchability among scores of users in massive datasets.

In their work, the researchers compiled two anonymized “low-density” datasets — a few records per day — about mobile phone use and personal transportation in Singapore, recorded over one week in 2011. The mobile data came from a large mobile network operator and comprised timestamps and geographic coordinates in more than 485 million records from over 2 million users. The transportation data contained over 70 million records with timestamps for individuals moving through the city.

The probability that a given user has records in both datasets will increase along with the size of the merged datasets, but so will the probability of false positives. The researchers’ model selects a user from one dataset and finds a user from the other dataset with a high number of matching location stamps. Simply put, as the number of matching points increases, the probability of a false-positive match decreases. After matching a certain number of points along a trajectory, the model rules out the possibility of the match being a false positive.

Focusing on typical users, they estimated a matchability success rate of 17 percent over a week of compiled data, and about 55 percent for four weeks. That estimate jumps to about 95 percent with data compiled over 11 weeks.

The researchers also estimated how much activity is needed to match most users over a week. Looking at users with between 30 and 49 personal transportation records, and around 1,000 mobile records, they estimated more than 90 percent success with a week of compiled data. Additionally, by combining the two datasets with GPS traces — regularly collected actively and passively by smartphone apps — the researchers estimated they could match 95 percent of individual trajectories, using less than one week of data.

Better privacy

With their study, the researchers hope to increase public awareness and promote tighter regulations for sharing consumer data. “All data with location stamps (which is most of today’s collected data) is potentially very sensitive and we should all make more informed decisions on who we share it with,” Ratti says. “We need to keep thinking about the challenges in processing large-scale data, about individuals, and the right way to provide adequate guarantees to preserve privacy.”

To that end, Ratti, Kondor, and other researchers have been working extensively on the ethical and moral issues of big data. In 2013, the Senseable City Lab at MIT launched an initiative called “Engaging Data,” which involves leaders from government, privacy rights groups, academia, and business, who study how mobility data can and should be used by today’s data-collecting firms.

“The world today is awash with big data,” Kondor says. “In 2015, mankind produced as much information as was created in all previous years of human civilization. Although data means a better knowledge of the urban environment, currently much of this wealth of information is held by just a few companies and public institutions that know a lot about us, while we know so little about them. We need to take care to avoid data monopolies and misuse.”

Categories: In the News

‘Roma’: Calling on the maid to be a mother when chaos strikes a family and ’70s Mexico

Cambridge Day - Thu, 12/06/2018 - 19:04
Alfonso Cuarón returns from the outer space of “Gravity” to Mexico – where be crafted his signature tale of taboo sex and betrayal, “Y Tu Mamá También” – to forge this semi-autobiographical dream cut with historical incident and unhappy reality.
Categories: In the News

Scene at MIT: Ridonkulous dancers

MIT News - Thu, 12/06/2018 - 15:20

Cue the hip-hop jams, smooth footwork, and energetic dance moves — this is MIT’s Ridonkulous!

Established in 2005, Ridonkulous is a co-ed competitive hip hop dance group that embraces urban dance culture and offers a powerful expression of passion, commitment, and teamwork on the dance floor.  

Bryan Chen, a senior in electrical engineering and computer science and co-captain and president of Ridonkulous, appreciates being part of this supportive dance community. “I enjoy being able to lead such a unique and diverse group of energetic people,” Chen says. “Although we are all MIT students, dance is an outlet for us where we can be carefree and have fun.”

In addition to the group’s performances and competitions, Ridonkulous host bi-weekly workshops ranging in a variety of dance styles taught by the nation’s top dance choreographers, including ones from the popular dance show competition, “So You Think You Can Dance!”

During the spring semester, Ridonkulous hosts MIT’s largest dance showcase called “Footwork” in Walker Memorial (Building 50). The annual show features phenomenal performances by collegiate dance teams from the Greater Boston community. “We wanted to be able to have these dancers express themselves on our stage,” Chen explains. “Keeping our teams in close contact with each other allows the dance community to grow and experience new things together.”

Submitted by: Kailey Tse-Harlow/Division of Student Life | Photo by: Nichole Clarke

Have a creative photo of campus life you'd like to share? Submit it to Scene at MIT.

Categories: In the News

Atoms stand in for electrons in system for probing high-temperature superconductors

MIT News - Thu, 12/06/2018 - 14:31

High-temperature superconductors have the potential to transform everything from electricity transmission and power generation to transportation.

The materials, in which electron pairs travel without friction — meaning no energy is lost as they move — could dramatically improve the energy efficiency of electrical systems.

Understanding how electrons move through these complex materials could ultimately help researchers design superconductors that operate at room temperature, dramatically expanding their use.

However, despite decades of research, little is known about the complex interplay between the spin and charge of electrons within superconducting materials such as cuprates, or materials containing copper.

Now, in a paper published today in the journal Science, researchers at MIT have unveiled a new system in which ultracold atoms are used as a model for electrons within superconducting materials.

The researchers, led by Martin Zwierlein, the Thomas A. Frank Professor of Physics at MIT, have used the system, which they describe as a “quantum emulator,” to realize the Fermi-Hubbard model of particles interacting within a lattice.

The Fermi-Hubbard model, which is believed to explain the basis for high-temperature superconductivity, is extremely simple to describe, and yet has so far proven impossible to solve, according to Zwierlein.

“The model is just atoms or electrons hopping around on a lattice, and then, when they’re on top of each other on the same lattice site, they can interact,” he says. “But even though this is the simplest model of electrons interacting within these materials, there is no computer in the world that can solve it.”

So instead, the researchers have built a physical emulator in which atoms act as stand-ins for the electrons.

To build their quantum emulator, the researchers used laser beams interfering with each other to produce a crystalline structure. They then confined around 400 atoms within this optical lattice, in a square box.

When they tilt the box by applying a magnetic field gradient, they are able to observe the atoms as they move, and measure their speed, giving them the conductivity of the material, Zwierlein says.

“It’s a wonderful platform. We can look at every single atom individually as it moves around, which is unique; we cannot do that with electrons,” he says. “With electrons you can only measure average quantities.”

The emulator allows the researchers to measure the transport, or motion, of the atoms’ spin, and how this is affected by the interaction between atoms within the material. Measuring the transport of spin has not been possible in cuprates until now, as efforts have been inhibited by impurities within the materials and other complications, Zwierlein says.

By measuring the motion of spin, the researchers were able to investigate how it differs from that of charge.

Since electrons carry both their charge and spin with them as they move through a material, the motion of the two properties should essentially be locked together, Zwierlein says.

However, the research demonstrates that this is not the case.

“We show that spins can diffuse much more slowly than charge in our system,” he says.

The researchers then studied how the strength of the interactions between atoms affects how well spin can flow, according to MIT graduate student Matthew Nichols, the lead author of the paper.

“We found that large interactions can limit the available mechanisms which allow spins to move in the system, so that spin flow slows down significantly as the interactions between atoms increase,” Nichols says.

When they compared their experimental measurements with state-of-the-art theoretical calculations performed on a classical computer, they found that the strong interactions present in the system made accurate numerical calculations very difficult.

“This demonstrated the strength of our ultracold atom system to simulate aspects of another quantum system, the cuprate materials, and to outperform what can be done with a classical computer,” Nichols says.

Transport properties in strongly correlated materials are generally very hard to calculate using classical computers, and some of the most interesting, and practically relevant, materials like high-temperature superconductors are still poorly understood, says Zoran Hadzibabic, a professor of physics at Cambridge University, who was not involved in the research.

“(The researchers) study spin transport, which is not just hard to calculate, but also even experimentally extremely hard to study in conventional strongly-correlated materials, and thus provide a unique insight into the differences between charge and spin transport,” Hadzibabic says.

Complementary to MIT’s work on spin transport, the transport of charge was measured by Professor Waseem Bakr’s group at Princeton University, elucidating in the same issue of Science how charge conductivity depends on temperature.

The MIT team hopes to carry out further experiments using the quantum emulator. For example, since the system allows the researchers to study the movement of individual atoms, they hope to investigate how the motion of each differs from that of the average, to study current “noise” on the atomic level.

“So far we have measured the average current, but what we would also like to do is look at the noise of the particles’ motion; some are a little bit faster than others, so there is a whole distribution that we can learn about,” Zwierlein says.

The researchers also hope to study how transport changes with dimensionality by going from a two-dimensional sheet of atoms to a one-dimensional wire.

Zwierlein’s team members consisted of MIT graduate students Lawrence Cheuk, Thomas Hartke, Melih Okan, Enrique Mendez, and postdoc Hao Zhang, all of whom are associated with the MIT-Harvard Center for Ultracold Atoms and the Research Laboratory of Electronics, as well as MIT professor of physics Senthil Todadri and Professor Ehsan Khatami from San Jose State University.

The research was funded, in part, by the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Office of Naval Research, the Army Research Office, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Categories: In the News

Make Shopping Secondhand Your First Priority, Cambridge Recycling Suggests

Scout Cambridge - Thu, 12/06/2018 - 13:46

Scout’s seasonal gift guide is already all about shopping locally, but what about shopping green? Cambridge Recycling just released a gift guide of its own—highlighting 24 local secondhand stores that sell a variety of items, ranging from books to cameras to vintage bikes and jewelry. The guide features furniture and home goods stores including Abodeon in […]

The post Make Shopping Secondhand Your First Priority, Cambridge Recycling Suggests appeared first on Scout Cambridge.

Categories: In the News

Zhengzhou: China's living laboratory for urbanization

MIT News - Thu, 12/06/2018 - 12:50

Zhengdong New District is a planned mixed-use new city in the northeast quadrant of Zhengzhou Municipality, the capital of China’s Henan Province. Construction started in 2001 for what is one of many planned urban communities seeded across China to help accommodate that country’s unprecedented rate of urbanization.

Today, the 150-square-kilometer Zhengdong New District is thriving, home to 320 financial institutions, 29 universities, a broad array of information and service industries, a high-speed rail station, and, most significantly, 1.5 million inhabitants. It is also, as of this month, the site of one of MIT’s ambitious and imaginative international projects: the Zhengzhou City Living Lab program.

“This is a unique opportunity for the School of Architecture and Planning, and for MIT,” says Siqi Zheng, an associate professor at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and the Center for Real Estate (CRE), and faculty director of the MIT China Future City Lab (MIT-CFC). CFC Lab is the first MIT-backed research and entrepreneurship lab that brings academia, entrepreneurs, government, and industries together on urban challenges in China.

“Unlike chemists or engineers, urban policy makers, planners, and developers can’t perform experiments in a physical laboratory,” says Zheng. “To apply our theories, policies, and technologies in China, we need to be there on the ground. We were looking for a city with an entrepreneurial spirit, one that is willing to work with us, to test out our new ideas. We’ve found that in Zhengzhou.”

“China is very important for MIT’s global strategy, and we want to strengthen our research ties there,” said Richard Lester, MIT associate provost for international activities. “The Zhengzhou City Living Lab program provides a wonderful opportunity for the faculty’s research and innovation activities to impact the city’s future sustainable development.” 

The lab was officially launched on Nov. 12 at the MIT China New City Forum, a satellite event of the MIT China Summit. As a key element of MIT-CFC, this living lab program is a collaboration between MIT and the municipal government of Zhengzhou.

“China’s urbanization has been extremely rapid,” says Zheng, noting the vast differences between one city and the next, with problems of pollution, energy, housing, and congestion.

“We couldn’t observe those issues at such a large scale in the West. China’s top-down governance also enables us to test our ideas, technologies, and policy designs there in real-time — whether in new city formation, the real estate market, urban transportation, energy and environment, or the innovation-driven entrepreneurial ecosystem,” says Zheng, whose local knowledge helped cement the arrangement between the municipality and MIT.

Hashim Sarkis, dean of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning says the agreement “is a testimony to Siqi’s clarity of mission and boldness of vision, and to the rigor and speculative thinking that CFC brings to the future of Chinese urbanization.”

Zhengzhou’s leaders are equally enthusiastic about the new venture with MIT.

“We are fortunate to have MIT join us to establish this Living Lab,” says Peng Wang, Deputy Mayor of Zhengzhou and Party Secretary of the Zhengdong New District, “Zhengzhou will serve as a testing ground for MIT’s research on forward-looking urbanism, cutting-edge technologies, and innovative social and public policies. Together we can demonstrate how these comprehensive strategies can benefit new city developments across China.”

China’s demographic shift has been both rapid and dramatic. Only 13 percent of China’s inhabitants lived in cities in 1950. That percentage is projected to exceed 60 percent by 2030. In many ways, Zhengdong New District’s life cycle was typical of the developments built to manage China’s metamorphosis: centralized coordination, rapid construction, relocation of key state-owned industries, a few years of silence, and finally, a boom.

Yet like that of China’s urbanization, most Zhengzhou’s history remains to be written.

“Chinese cities are in a transitional stage,” says Zhengzhen Tan, executive director of MIT-CFC. “For the first 30 years, the focus was on efficiency, on building the cities and facilities, and getting people to move there. Now, and for the next 30 years, the focus will be on quality of life, on making these urban centers socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable. This is where MIT can be particularly relevant in Chinese development.”

An urban planner trained in Shanghai and Singapore, Tan believes that China and its singular development experience can also be relevant to MIT.

“This has all taken place so quickly,” says Tan, who practiced in London and Vancouver before joining MIT two years ago. “There is very limited data and knowledge available on China’s urbanization and economic development, particularly in the West. This is an excellent opportunity for the West to sample a bit of Chinese wisdom, and to acquire practical knowledge and strategies that can benefit other emerging economies.”

MIT-CFC is not the first engagement among MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, DUSP, CRE, and China.

“We began our collaboration with China over 30 years ago, right when the country started to urbanize,” says Eran Ben-Joseph, head of DUSP. “Now, with the growing impact and importance of China, we want to be even more involved, both to help shape research, and to acquire and disseminate professional practices. Siqi’s new program is a remarkable initiative, which addresses urbanization from multiple perspectives — urban planning, policy, development, real estate, and environment. It can provide some very important lessons.”

Students and researchers at MIT will have additional opportunities to observe and help shape China’s urbanization. After visiting China this past July, five student urban innovation start-up teams have launched pilot projects in various Chinese cities.

“I think MIT-CFC will become a window onto China’s urbanization, for MIT, and for our school,” says Zheng. “And a window onto MIT for China.”

Categories: In the News

Leadership boot camp for inclusive African innovators

MIT News - Thu, 12/06/2018 - 12:30

In November, 17 leading entrepreneurs from Africa visited Cambridge for “MIT Legatum Leadership Forum – Zambezi Week 2018,” a four-day boot camp aimed at bolstering skills and amplifying impact. The forum, organized with support from the Mastercard Foundation, also gave the Institute’s experts a critical update on Africa’s fast-evolving entrepreneurial ecosystem from the perspective of leaders on the ground.

MIT has cultivated some of the world’s most prodigious entrepreneurs, a growing number of which are driven by their desire for impact and a more inclusive prosperity. For them, emerging markets like Africa can be the perfect ecosystem in which to launch an innovative venture that generates both profit and socioeconomic change.

This year’s forum participants, all African entrepreneurs, were selected for their achievements in inclusive innovation. All 10 finalists for the Zambezi Prize for Innovation in Financial Inclusion were invited to attend, as were the four Africa Winners in the MIT Inclusive Innovation Challenge (IIC). They joined MIT faculty, students, and alumni for interactive skills development, networking, cohort-building, panel discussions, and various opportunities to explore entrepreneurial resources and culture at MIT.

“The week was a power MBA essentially, designed for African innovation-driven startups,” said Emmanuel Luthuli, cofounder of LanteOTC, an investment crowdfunding platform for small-medium businesses. “We discovered that many of the challenges we face are not unique to South Africa, as we first thought. There’s value in stepping out of your environment to meet with other small businesses going through the same issues, and to getting exposed to the standards and thinking of a world class facility like MIT.”

“We’re honored to gather so many of Africa’s rising stars here,” said Fiona Murray, associate dean for innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “We’re going to learn a lot from these entrepreneurs about the opportunities and challenges in Africa. The innovativeness they exhibit in solving complex challenges like financial inclusion, technology access, and job creation is not just inspiring, it’s profoundly educational.”

Participants also spoke with investors, media experts, and corporate stakeholders. These included: Deborah Drake, vice president of the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion; Jake Bright, contributor to TechCrunch and author of “The Next Africa;” Chris Lwanga, senior director of Software Partnerships at Microsoft; and Mark Wensley, associate director for Next Generation Technology and Market Linkage at Mastercard Foundation.

Ventures invited to the forum were Recycle Points (Nigeria), Apollo Agriculture (Kenya), Bidhaa Sasa (Kenya), FarmDrive (Kenya), Farmerline (Ghana), LanteOTC (South Africa), MaTontine (Senegal), OZÉ (Ghana), Tulaa (Kenya), Wala (South Africa), WeFarm (Kenya), Solar Freeze (Kenya), and Lynk (Kenya).

The forum was hosted by the MIT Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship, a hub dedicated to attracting and cultivating principled, innovative entrepreneurs launching ventures in the developing world. Their portfolio includes not only events, seed grants, and fellowships for MIT students but also global programs, like the forum and the Zambezi Prize, designed to engage and expand the center’s network beyond students and alumni.

Both the forum and the Zambezi Prize are core components of the MIT-Africa initiative, an Institute-wide commitment to coordinate and expand MIT connections with the continent.

Georgina Campbell Flatter, executive director for the Legatum Center, said connecting the forum to the Zambezi Prize leverages a unique educational opportunity.

“We created a prize that doesn’t just culminate in a one-time celebration of entrepreneurship, but serves as the launchpad for a longer educational journey,” Flatter said. “Once the prize has gathered together a diverse group of extraordinary entrepreneurs, we can deliver education that will amplify their impact, and fold them into our knowledge-building community.”

As for the center’s educational goals during the four-day forum, Flatter said: “Whether we’re working with MIT students or global prize winners, whether it’s a one-year fellowship or a four-day boot camp, our goal is always the same: Equip entrepreneurial leaders with a mindset, skillset, and community that maximizes their capacity for impact.”

In the near term, this meant giving forum participants the tools to help them succeed in their current venture. But the Legatum Center believes in cultivating entrepreneurs, Flatter said, not just their ventures, because the impact an entrepreneur makes is best measured over the course of his or her lifetime. “Whether they continue to scale their current venture, move on to launch new ventures, or transition into other stakeholder roles such as investors, policymakers, NGO executives, or academics, they will understand the power of principled entrepreneurial leadership to affect great change, and use their talent and influence to shape ecosystems accordingly.”

The first day of the forum focused primarily on cohort building and skills development, with interactive sessions on topics like team selection, strategies for growth, and board management. Anjali Sastry, senior lecturer at MIT Sloan and Faculty Advisor for the Legatum Center, said she was surprised to learn that most of the participants had not yet established boards of directors, but instead were getting by as long as possible with informal advisory groups.

“Their reasons were understandable, and actually, delaying board appointment is common practice in Africa, but we were able to discuss at length the various ways this might be putting their venture at risk. It was a great value-add for them,” Sastry said.

The second and third days emphasized opportunities to explore the resources and culture at MIT. This included tours of the MIT Sloan campus and the MIT Media Lab as well as attending several classes such as the Impact Ventures class, during which forum participants joined Legatum Fellows for various team exercises. “It was a helpful session for all but especially for the fellows, whose ventures are at an earlier stage of development,” Sastry said. “Forum participants shared about various challenges they were navigating at present, challenges that our fellows will soon have to face also.”

For Chioma Ukonu and Mazi Ukonu, cofounders of RecyclePoints, the forum’s highlight was being invited by MIT Lecturer Joost Bonsen to present in his Development Ventures class about their venture, which incentivizes recycling in Nigeria by rewarding collectors with points redeemable for household items and cash. “We got feedback that could really change how we engage with a particular segment of subscribers in our recycling model,” Ukonu said.

When it came to Africa’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, participants often reaffirmed impressions that presenters and organizers had coming in. Occasionally, however, they offered highly contrasting perspectives, said Ali Diallo, the Legatum Center’s Global Programs Manager. “In one presentation, for instance, we were touting the success of the microloan model in Africa, and one of the forum participants interjected with a very sound argument for why microloans sometimes do more harm than good in the community.” Diallo said this was jarring at first, but a good sign overall. “We always tell our entrepreneurs to challenge their assumptions, and we aim to challenge ours as well.”

Discussions around investing also proved valuable for both sides, Diallo said. A common predicament for emerging market ventures, even those with high potential, is finding the right investor fit. Traditional investors, for instance, often have short-term financial goals that don’t match well with a venture’s impact-oriented goals, but even the newer breed of social impact investors can be challenging, since they often have short-term impact goals that don’t align with a venture’s long-term financial strategy (e.g. if the venture must focus in the short term on higher-income customers before scaling to serve the poorer customers who will benefit most). Such ventures, though they exhibit both financial and impact potential, are caught between a rock and a hard place raising capital.

“If we’re going to empower these change-makers, we need a new VC model,” Diallo said. “These are the kinds of issues we need to raise to stakeholders at the highest levels. What we learn from forum participants now will inform those discussions.”

Forum participants spent their final day at the AI and the Future of Work Congress. Later that evening, at the IIC Global Gala, two ventures headed by forum invitees, WeFarm and Solar Freeze, won grand prizes of $250,000 each.

As the forum wound down, Flatter said, many discussions centered around strategies for staying connected with the Legatum Center, with MIT, and with each other. “For sure, we’ll be seeking them out for mentoring and speaking engagements, both here and in Africa. We’re also preparing case studies on several of them,” she said. “Something that really energized participants was the prospect of hosting MIT students as interns, so we’ll be strategizing about that too.”

Flatter emphasized that the conclusion of the forum would not mark the end of the Legatum Center’s engagement with these entrepreneurial leaders, nor would that engagement be limited to their current startup. Legagum is the Latin word for legacy.

“More than any single venture they create, the cumulative impact they have over their lifetime will become their legacy,” Flatter said. “We are here to help them build that legacy. That’s what inspires us.”

Categories: In the News