Powering the Heart of a Robot

A NEF conversation with WiBotic CEO Ben Waters

Incubator labs are popping up at research universities across the U.S., including the University of Washington where collaborative innovation hub and tech incubator CoMotion is the centerpiece of the university’s innovation district. A shining star in CoMotion’s startup universe is WiBotic, maker of wireless charging solutions for robots and robot fleets (and recent recipient of $2.5M in investor funding). Led by CEO and electrical engineer Ben Waters and co-founder Joshua Smith, WiBotic is pioneering autonomously charging capabilities for aerial, aquatic and mobile robots. Waters sat down with NEF to share WiBotic’s origin story, how the company’s innovation is giving wireless charging power to swarms of robots, and how he balances roles of engineer and CEO.

Q. Why a ‘wireless charging solution’?

As an electrical engineering undergraduate major at Columbia, I attended a talk given by a professor who was working on wireless power – few companies were working on it at the time, but I thought it was really exciting. That summer I had an internship with an engineering consulting company that does big commercial building projects and they live and die by the national electric code. Learning about that line of work got me thinking: “Wow, if wireless power becomes this popular area, it’s going to impact a lot more than just how we charge devices. Because you’ll no longer plug in, everyone will be on wireless, both for power and data.”

Then I had an internship at Intel and they were very interested in wireless for phones and the wireless charging pad concept. But as we learned more about the core technology, we realized there were a lot of great things you can do to make it very flexible for devices that really need wireless charging.

I was excited about identifying real-world applications that needed this flexibility. A great opportunity came up to make implanted medical devices, such as Ventricular Assist Device heart pumps, lighter, more flexible, portable and accessible from far away. While pursuing my PhD at the University of Washington (UW), my research colleagues and I thought about commercializing that technology in the medical device industry, but realized it was a challenging business model at the time, so we continued the work in the research lab.

Nonetheless, we continued scratching our heads for other commercial applications that needed flexible wireless charging. If medical devices weren’t quite right, what is? Shortly thereafter, robotic companies came into the lab and saw we had a flexible, high-power charging system and asked us, “Does it work with robots?”

As we started thinking about robotics as an industry that would be applicable, we began understanding requirements of fully autonomous robotic systems – think underwater systems for defense, industrial surveillance, manufacturing, drones…

We discovered one of the biggest challenges to achieving autonomy and highly reliable systems that don’t require downtime, is power. The heart of a robot is its battery.

We set out to solve that problem and grew the company.

We discovered one of the biggest challenges to achieving autonomy and highly reliable systems that don’t require downtime, is power. The heart of a robot is its battery.

Q. Are you surprised by where you ended up, considering your early focus on medical devices?

Yes and no. The main reason I was interested in medical devices was a clear need for flexible wireless charging. It solved a problem that inhibited patient quality of life. But with robotics we feel the same motivation – there’s a real opportunity to facilitate the entire robotics market and allow those systems to grow and allow companies building them to focus on the application or service and rely on existing infrastructure to grow quickly.

Q. A lot of people can succeed in engineering or business, but the idea of someone being able to translate an innovation into something commercially viable – that’s rare. How are you making that happen?

There were a lot of influences in my life that gave me a great appreciation for the importance of teamwork and enabling others. I played a lot of sports growing up and learned what it meant to be on a team… you can’t win a game on your own. My mom worked in corporate HR for a long time and oversaw writing “great place to work” applications for a lot of big companies down in Silicon Valley. I had some internships with some of those companies and was amazed with how important culture is to the executives.

So instead of being entirely heads-down focused on my own thing in graduate school, I spent time figuring out how to mentor others and figured if I could help someone else find a topic they were excited about and make it their own, then the success of all the projects in the lab would be amplified. When I saw that first-hand, I thought, “Okay, there is really something to this whole culture of leadership and balancing the work you have as an engineer with work you have as facilitating the output of others.”

I talked to as many people as I could to find what I didn’t know, being curious and always putting myself in a place to keep the learning curve steep, not allowing myself to get comfortable with the things I know how to do, but pushing myself and knowing what’s important for the company as a whole, and what’s important for me to be doing.

Q. How do you stay technically sharp while leading the company?

Our growth and R&D comes from our ability to innovate and engineer quickly and purposefully. At first it was very difficult to balance engineering and the business side. I felt like we didn’t have a big team so I felt like a lot of responsibility for both fell on me. It was tempting to think, “I have the knowledge, I have to do it.”

Then it got hard to manage.

In May 2015, all in the same month, WiBotic moved into an office space, I wrote my dissertation and I got married. Probably could have planned that a bit better, but I realized I had to stop spending all my time engineering and I started considering who I needed to hire, and that was scary because you see the impact to the budget.

But I pursued hiring technically creative leaders who were good at product development and turning it into something customers asked for and needed. I could contribute to technical directions but when it came to how we productized it, they were able to drive forward a lot of things. That really helped me understand where I can contribute to the engineering side.

And on the business side, while I stepped away from implementation, I focused on facilitating their output, helping them be on the right path. Ultimately my job as CEO is to help the team be inspired and excited about what they’re working on. I need no personal recognition – it’s my job to focus on the team, our customers and the company’s growth.

Q. What role does CoMotion have in WiBotic’s success?

Innovation and inspiring people to be a part of startups comes from having people rooted in the universities providing guidance.

I grew up next to Stanford and if you go there, regardless of your major, you meet people and you start a company and that’s just what you do. They put you in touch with investors, mentors and advisors.

That’s what I think has been a big contribution of CoMotion over the last several years. They have technology managers sending emails to engineers and offering advice and support, and as students start to talk more about that in the labs and professors establish companies and you see people turning a research project into a company… that culture catches on and inspires other people to do more of the same.

When they’re driven by recognizing a problem and creating a solution that is more cost effective or safer or enabling something to be more reliable – those are businesses that I believe can succeed.

Q. What makes you optimistic about being an American engineer?

I’ve been very inspired by the entire process, including the amount of work and thought that went into our strategy and financing and the diligence our investors did on our company. If WiBotic reflects other American companies in terms of the way they go about it, I believe there will be a lot of great companies that start-up. When they’re driven by recognizing a problem and creating a solution that is more cost effective, safer or enables something to be more reliable – those are businesses that I believe can succeed.

Q. What else do you want us to know?

It’s been quite a journey for me in discovering that what may have brought success for the first month of the company to the first year to second year and beyond isn’t the thing that continues to bring success. There’s always a sense of situational thinking and understanding where you are. And that’s been the most exciting piece of leading a small company and working with smart people.


For more information on WiBotic, visit www.wibotic.com and follow on Twitter @WiBotic

To learn more about UW CoMotion, visit comotion.uw.edu and follow on Twitter @UWCoMotion

Building Bridges, Making a Difference

Avery Bang, Chief Executive Officer of Bridges to Prosperity, talks about the human element of engineering and building a bridge to the future where all people have access to opportunity.

Q. What or who inspired you to become an engineer?

My dad is a civil engineer and worked on civil works projects throughout his career, including bridges. Our typical family vacations were not what you would call “typical.” We all piled into our car and visited public works projects. It was great because as a young kid I got to see the underbelly of engineering and grew up having a strong appreciation for it. I saw how important engineering is for everything.

Q. How can engineering structures, like the bridges built by Bridges to Prosperity, change people’s lives?

The built environment is the single most important part of our daily lives – the way we get to and from places, where we sleep, how we learn – and its engineers who create this environment. In the developed world, the everyday contributions of engineers go unnoticed because a working infrastructure is already in place, but in developing countries, that’s not the case.

Working in a place like Haiti, everything so bare – you don’t live in a house with insulation and bedrooms or have roads that resemble anything we would be familiar with in the U.S. When you work in an environment where there is not a lot already in place, to have something new is really obvious. Something so simple as a bridge in these developing landscapes can be the single most important part of the infrastructure and gives you an appreciation for the difference engineering can make in peoples’ lives. You can provide isolated communities with access essential healthcare, education and economic opportunities.

When you see engineering in a place where it is noticed and appreciated and people show up to volunteer because they know it is going to make a difference, it makes engineering very human.

Q. You have a double-major in art and engineering. What role does creativity play in engineering?

Creativity is vital. In engineering, you are doing two things – identifying problems and solving them. Creativity is at the crux of problem solving. Finding solutions is impossible to do without employing creativity because you are trying to come up with answers no one has thought of before.

It is important for society to see engineers as creative and the work of engineers as purposeful. As soon as we shift that perception, we will draw greater numbers of talented, young people. For me, engineering is creative, it’s human. It has hardly anything to do with a calculator.

Finding solutions is impossible to do without employing creativity because you are trying to come up with answers no one has thought of before.

Q. What have you learned from your mistakes in working in various communities around the globe?

I think failure is an important part of any career. As an entrepreneur, I believe in fail often and fail fast. At Bridges to Prosperity, we’re also good about naming our failures publicly and trying to learn from them. Along the way, we’ve learned different aspects of keeping people safe and now we have solid standards in place. We also know there is no one-size-fits-all solution and our bridge designs need to be locally relevant. We’ve had the humility to say we don’t know everything and it’s actually helped us grow and learn faster. We would not be where we are today without recognizing our failure along the way. That’s how engineering works – you fail, you learn and then you improve!

Q. What advice do you have for other young engineers on finding their passion and purpose?

Have a long attention span because finding something purposeful takes time and commitment. It’s a marathon so don’t be afraid to spend a decade working your way up in one place and be persistent when you find a purpose. Any truly meaningful work is going to be hard. We need engineers who are willing to put in the time and who will think and dream big.


All photos credit Bridges to Prosperity.

Keeping the Conversations Going

Sharing some top tweets from the incredible response to Vanessa Miranda Nadal’s NEF Conversation last week. We’re glad you enjoyed it as much as we did. Hungry for more? Scroll down to check out Q&As with other incredible American engineers and engineering enthusiasts.

 

ENGINEER++: VANESSA ADRIANA NADAL

Most of us remember the careful consideration we applied to the consequential decision of declaring a major and pursuing a degree. Medicine or teaching? Computer science or history? Engineering or law?

Few of us arrived at “Both.”

One fine exception is Vanessa Adriana Nadal, a 2004 graduate of MIT’s department of chemical engineering and 2010 J.D. graduate of Fordham University School of Law. The daughter of a trained civil engineer father and photographer and interior designer mother, Nadal muses, “perhaps that’s why I’m so split between STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) and HASS (Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences)!”.

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Engineer++ | Vanessa Adriana Nadal

Most of us remember the careful consideration we applied to the consequential decision of declaring a major and pursuing a degree. Medicine or teaching? Computer science or history? Engineering or law?

Few of us arrived at “Both.”

One fine exception is Vanessa Adriana Nadal, a 2004 graduate of MIT’s department of chemical engineering and 2010 J.D. graduate of Fordham University School of Law. The daughter of a trained civil engineer father and photographer and interior designer mother, Nadal muses, “perhaps that’s why I’m so split between STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) and HASS (Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences)!”

NEF spoke with Nadal from her family’s current home in London (where her husband, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is filming “Mary Poppins Returns”) about what engineers and attorneys can learn from each other, and the cyclical beauty of art inspiring STEM inspiring art.

Read on to learn Nadal’s stew & biscuits metaphor for chemical engineering, why she’s passionate about dispelling the “math is hard” myth, and how she’s the one to thank for her husband’s perfected rap articulation of DNA.

Nadal listens to oral arguments at US Supreme Court, April 2016. Photo courtesy of Vanessa Adriana Nadal.

Q: In our discussions with engineers around the country, we hear a recurring theme: engineers don’t do a good job of telling their own story. At MIT and later in R&D at Johnson & Johnson, how did you explain your role as an engineer?

Math and science are so ubiquitous that people take them for granted. They are everywhere. And they are beautiful.

I’m always disheartened when people say that those subjects have little application to the real world. It’s true that you aren’t going to use logarithmic equations on a daily basis, but neither do Socrates, the Iliad, or the works of Michelangelo come up in daily conversation. I think it’s both humbling and inspirational to be able to appreciate the manifestations of our math and science knowledge in our natural world.

Accordingly, one of the huge challenges—and responsibilities—of scientists and engineers is to make our work relevant to others. Of course, engineering students have heavily-loaded majors, so there is understandably little room to incorporate enough humanities classes to turn them into great storytellers. Such is our plight.

But more than just sharing the joys of math and science with the world, good communications skills are necessary to continue being effective scientists and engineers.

After school, STEM students are often surprised by how much communication—or rather, translation—is necessary in their work lives. In our sleep, STEM students know the conversions between Metric and Imperial systems. We know what PVnRT stands for, the numerical equivalent of the R constant, and how the equation applies to every-day life. But most people don’t immerse themselves in science for four years. So once a STEM grad is the real world, she must explain in layman’s terms what she is working on and why it’s relevant to the listener. In academia, he must write grants to get funding. At a company, she must make PowerPoint presentations to her colleagues. MIT requires students to take a lot of humanities classes, which is great. Still, just as humanities school could better explain to students why STEM is important to, say, a fiction writer, tech schools could better explain why students need HASS in their work life.

One of the huge challenges—and responsibilities—of scientists and engineers is to make their work relevant to others.

Q: For our readers unfamiliar with chemical engineering, how do you describe it?

I still explain chemical engineering the same way I did 15 years ago: it is like cooking.

Say you’re famous for your stew with biscuits. They are, your friends say, “everything.” The stew is spicy, sweet, salty, and fragrant, and the biscuits, light and buttery. Usually you make enough for four people. Once, you made it for a dinner party of 20, where you just multiplied everything by five, but it was all wrong. The stew was too spicy from too much chili, and the bottom of your pot burned before the ingredients were cooked through. Your biscuits tasted a bit chalky from too much baking soda, and half of them didn’t rise because you couldn’t fit all the batter in the oven at once.

Now, your best friend wants you to make it for his wedding—300 people. Theoretically, if you knew the reaction rates of all the ingredients and the heat-mass transfer of your now enormous pot(s), you could figure out the right scale-up recipe with just pen and paper. That’s probably too much work for food, because in cooking, a little too much of one ingredient is not so dangerous (unless you’re Tita in Like Water for Chocolate). But these computations are exceptionally important for the pharmaceutical and energy industries, where a miscalculation can result in ineffective or, worse, toxic drugs, and explosions.

Ultimately, engineers and lawyers are probably a lot more similar than they expect. Both require superior critical thinking skills, and both benefit from compassionate story-telling.

Q: As you’ve been both a researcher and a litigator, what can engineers and attorneys learn from one another?

When I went to law school, I started explaining my jump from engineering to law by saying that “Laws are like an equation you apply to a particular story.” I stand by that characterization. Although in law the rules can be bent, and should be. Judges are given the discretion to be more forgiving than mother nature, so there are tiers of consequences for, say, throwing eggs at your teacher every Monday (whereas the consequence for the egg is always the same). Ultimately, engineers and lawyers are probably a lot more similar than they expect. Both require superior critical thinking skills, and both benefit from compassionate story-telling.

Q: We see young people on social media seeking your advice as they consider a career in engineering and/or law. Where do YOU go for career advice?

Well, I talk to everyone. And I have been lucky to have great bosses and colleagues along the way.

I find that people want to help you learn from their mistakes—and successes—if you’re willing to listen. For example, when I had a baby, partners I’d never worked for offered to talk to me about navigating big law as a new mom. I took them all up on it, even though it felt awkward to go into someone’s office cold, and we always found things to talk about. Sometimes their advice was just normalizing what was to come, so that when I cried at my desk one day, overwhelmed by being a new mother and full-time employee, I already knew I was probably not crazy, stupid, terrible at my job, etc., and I felt comfortable enough to go back to those partners. I was this close to quitting because I was overwhelmed. But they helped me figure out how to prioritize my work. If not for those conversations and actions, I might have stopped being a lawyer altogether. That’s one small example of how the advice of others changed (or continued) the course of my career.

Of course, many of my friends and family are hugely inspirational to me. My husband, Lin-Manuel, is one of the best examples. Always knowing his passions allowed him to get those 10,000 hours in early. I envy that certainty, because I still don’t know what I want to be. But what’s most inspirational about Lin-Manuel is that he continues to clock those thousands of hours in new areas every chance he gets. He works so hard, all the time, constantly eating up and digesting music, TV, film, theater, books, comedy, magazine, news, etc. And, somehow, in his genius, he remembers it all.

Q: You are clearly passionate about the arts – from the paintings you share on Twitter, to your interest in fashion, to the role of the performing arts and music in your family. In that context, how do you feel about STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Math) over STEM?

We recently visited Barcelona and saw architect Antoni Gaudi’s biggest achievement, the Sagrada Familia. I went because his buildings are like nothing you’ve ever seen before – surreal and gorgeous. But I was struck by his innovation: Gaudi was an architectural—that is, mathematical—genius who was formidably inspired by nature. The columns within the Sagrada Familia represent trees, so when you walk in it feels like a Redwood forest. Then, in the museum beneath the cathedral, an exhibit shows he was inspired by an oleander branch, in which the hollow center is a triangle on one side and a hexagon on the other. Those tree-columns are the branch’s inverse: the circumference starts as a triangle and then turn into a square, octagon, and back; and somehow this increases stability.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain – designed by architect Antoni Gaudi.

My husband, a composer and actor, and I, a math-loving lawyer, left the cathedral just buzzing. What an incredible illustration of how art inspires and enhances STEM and vice versa. It’s important.

If you don’t promote the arts and humanities in elementary and high school, then how are students going to know? I feel lucky that I went to a high school that focuses heavily on the arts. I find that art feeds me in a way that science and math don’t, so I continue to try to incorporate them into my life. The world is made of both and you can’t have one without the other, as Gaudi shows us. High school is where we should introduce students to the breadth of the world before they have to focus on what they want to spend their life doing.

Vanessa, age 2, with her father, trained civil engineer Frank Nadal. Photo courtesy of Vanessa Adriana Nadal.

Q: What are you most passionate about in terms of inspiring the next generation of engineers?

Every time I talk to girls who feel like they can’t do something with computers or science, it depresses me because when I was a kid, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t do those things. My dad likes to tinker with computers and he never taught my brother about it over me, or vice versa. It also makes me sad when people are “scared” of math because what’s there to be scared of? It feels like a bit of a learned attitude that’s societally acceptable; that sucks. People get frightened by the label, meanwhile they’re calculating tips or trying to figure out how to cook a portion of a recipe faster than I can. People do math all the time when they don’t think of it as MATH.

But this is an attitude that I think is changing. Today there’s so much advancement in science, technology, engineering and math, and it’s happening so quickly and it’s so clear that these are fields we need to encourage. So that’s good.

Q: How are you currently applying what you learned in engineering to your legal practice?

The analytical and critical-thinking skills you develop as an engineer are extremely helpful in a legal practice. Being logical is perhaps where attorneys are considered pedantic, but you really have to scrutinize every word in the contract or the way you describe something – the way you write a brief or form questions when you’re interviewing a witness. You have to know what the word means, what it will convey, what its implications are and how it’ll be received by the listener, whether the interviewee or the judge. Being very exact is necessary in both professions.

I’m currently consulting for several American companies and trying to figure out how to incorporate my interest in science and engineering back into my profession. We’ll see where it takes me. I’ve found that I’m more suited to being a lawyer than an engineer. I really enjoy writing, reading, being persuasive and telling stories – while at the same time being extremely analytical and logical. And yet, I find when I pick up the newspaper I will read a story from the Science Times before I read about a legal case. It’s what I find most interesting and that hasn’t waned over time, so I feel like I should find a way to make that leisure activity work for me.

Q: Is there a story you’d like to share from your engineering days? Something that other chemical engineering majors or professionals would read and go “Oh yeah.”

Here’s one that only recently came full circle. Once I taught a promising rapper how to pronounce “deoxyribonucleic acid.” Thirteen years later, he put that lesson to use in the song “Intro ADN” on Residente’s new album.

Q: Where do you see your unique career path leading you in the future?

That’s probably for you to know and me to find out.


Follow Vanessa on Twitter @VAMNit

Q&A with Rube Goldberg Toy Designer Todd Anderson and Jennifer George

Mention Rube Goldberg to almost anyone and you’re likely to be met with a smile and probably a story about how they loved learning about the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist best known for his complicated, zany invention cartoons.

Now, Rube Goldberg, Inc. (RGI) is making STEM fun on an expanded scale. In a partnership with Spin Master Corp., RGI is offering toys in an exclusive deal with Target. We had to get the story, so we talked to Todd Anderson, toy designer and brand manager at Spin Master and Jennifer George, RGI legacy director and Rube Goldberg’s granddaughter.

How are Rube Goldberg activity sets unique?

Todd Anderson (TA): We approached this with the aspects of humor and motion in mind. There’s always a task to complete, always in a humorous and complex way. Our toys have real personality and humor as opposed to just the linear aspect of other building kits.

Jennifer George (JG): We also approached the design so that there would actually be trial and error figured into the build; otherwise there is no learning curve. In that sense, the experience is more like that of a real engineer.

TA: When I talked to NPD (National Panel Diary), they classify a STEM toy “as one that possesses a variable that when changed produces a different outcome.” In our kits, changing one variable can produce many different outcomes.

JG: This humorous and whimsical approach to understanding STEM makes the Rube Goldberg play sets unique. Our mission was to get children to tinker, experiment, test and to actively engage them to problem solve. Trial and error untimely gets you to your end goal and success.

Our kits are not the easiest to build and that’s a good thing. You learn more when you fail than when you succeed.

Images courtesy of Spin Master.

What motivated RGI to move into the toy industry?

JG: Actually, Rube Goldberg has been in the toy industry since the 1960s, just without his name attached. Mousetrap, which is based on my grandfather’s cartoons, has sold almost 70 million units since its arrival on the market. There were also hobby kits and puzzles when my grandfather was alive. But when Target approached us to create a STEM-friendly toy, we jumped at the chance.

Tell us about how you tested the toys with real kids before you began marketing them. What did you learn from that process?

TA: We had access to panels and focus groups of kids; some of these were tested with kids of employees of Spin Master as take-home prototypes. This was very intentional testing. We found that these builds were not as simple as a typical construction or science kit and really require active thinking to get the sets to work and we embraced the difference. Our kits are not the easiest to build and that’s a good thing. You learn more when you fail than when you succeed. Every step is a task to complete, and this remains true to the spirit of all Rube Goldberg inventions.

JG: And if you get stuck, we launched a series of “How-to” videos on YouTube to support the consumer and make the overall experience as positive as possible.

TA: In one of our focus groups, a parent was quoted as saying “To my surprise, my son became quickly determined to do the project himself. He worked through the challenging phase and could really celebrate in the success.” This was great to see active engagement like that in our toys.

Images courtesy of Spin Master.

Which set is your favorite, and why?

JG: The Acrobat Challenge! It was the first one designed and the first prototype that I could have in my hands and build myself. But I’m also a big fan of the Speeding Car Challenge because it’s very satisfying when the car moves – and the chicken makes me smile.

TA: I also love the Speeding Car because of the finale. When the car zooms off, it’s a great sense of accomplishment.

Andy Weir: Mission Control

Ever since Andy Weir’s “The Martian” captured our imaginations as a novel and major motion picture, we’ve been hoping for more. Now, venturing onto the small screen, Weir’s got a TV show in the works. He graciously agreed to let us grill him for details.

Q. We’re excited to hear you’re working on a new show for CBS called “Mission Control.” Obviously, many of the details of the pilot are under wraps. What can you tell us about the show?

It takes place at the Mission Control Center in Houston. The main characters are the flight controllers and astronauts running a new (fictional) space station that is the first step toward a manned mission to Mars.

Q. You’ve toured NASA’s mission control in Houston. What was the most surprising thing you learned there that you didn’t know before?

I was impressed [with] how many women work there. The concept of science being an “old-boy” network was really put to lie. They’re very good about being a meritocracy.

Weir soaks up the experience of the Neutral Buoyancy Lab. Image Credit: NASA/James Blair and Lauren Harnett

Q. You’ve said that while many kids dream of being astronauts, you always dreamed of being in mission control. What was it about that role that fascinated you?

I just like the data… the details. That sort of thing always excited me.

Q. Is NASA supporting the new series? How are you achieving the same technical accuracy as you were known for in The Martian?

They’re not supporting it in any official capacity. But they’re certainly helpful in answering questions. I’m going for full technical accuracy – even more so than The Martian because this takes place modern-day.

Q. How is the process of creating a series different from (or the same as) a movie? I know you’re a big fan of Game of Thrones’ George R. R. Martin. Did he give you any advice about writing for TV?

Yes, he did. I asked him for any advice he had. TV is a different universe, for sure. Mainly because everything is a much larger commitment. For instance: casting. You’re not just saying “Hey, come film for a few weeks,” you’re saying, “Hey, come work for us permanently.” That’s a big difference to an actor and it affects everything.

Weir amuses JSC team members with the story behind his story, “The Martian.” Image Credit: NASA/James Blair and Lauren Harnett

Q. What is your role in scriptwriting, producing, and casting?

I wrote the pilot screenplay, then rewrote it with a group of writers, then rewrote it again with another writer. That’s how it goes.

Q. When will the Mission Control pilot begin production? When can we see it on air?

Shooting starts in March. If CBS picks up the show, it’ll probably air in the Fall.

Q. What else are you working on? Another novel? Another movie?

I’m working on my next novel now. It takes place in a city on the Moon. The main character is a woman who is a small-time criminal who gets in way over her head.

Engineer’s Dream Has Wings

Jeanne Deaver’s life was changed her senior year of high school when a teacher offered her advice on college choices. Today, the mechanical engineer and Alaska Airlines pilot credits mentors and teachers for pushing her toward her dreams, even when things seemed bleak. Now she does the same for the next generation of aspiring STEM students. She took time to share her fascinating story with us.

Q. What or who inspired you to pursue an engineering degree?

A. Growing up, my favorite subjects were math and science. Right before I started my senior year of high school, my family moved to South Dakota. I was still undecided about what college to attend or what kind of a career to pursue. Then one day after class, my math and physics teacher, Larry Hines, suggested that the local engineering university, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSM&T) might be a good fit for me. His suggestion shaped the course of my life. I attended and earned a BS in Mechanical Engineering.

Q. You’ve said flying is your dream job, but it wasn’t your first career. What did you do when you graduated from college and how did you make the transition?

A. Prior to graduation, I did a college internship at The Boeing Company in Seattle. During the internship program, engineers (from both Commercial and Defense & Space) met with us to discuss career opportunities available at Boeing. During one of these sessions, I learned that some of the Boeing pilots had originally began working at the company as engineers. I was hired into the internship program by a Chief Engineer named Marlene Nelson. One weekend during the summer, she took me up on my first flight in a small airplane. I was hooked! Additionally, I was introduced to Boeing Test Pilot Captain Suzanna Darcy-Hennemann, who inspired and encouraged me to look into pursuing flying as a career.

My final year at SDSM&T, I took flying lessons and earned my Private Pilot’s License. After graduation, I returned to Seattle for a full-time position at Boeing. My career started where my internship left off – in Payloads Engineering. During my time at Boeing, I also worked in Flight Test Instrumentation on basic certification for 737/757 and 777 aircraft. My final rotation at Boeing was in Service Engineering supporting narrow body customers (707/727/737/757) in Southeast Asia. I was really enjoying my engineering career, and I also really enjoyed flying as a hobby.

Pilots who are building their time and “paying their dues” do not make a lot of money. Leaving a promising and profitable career to take a step into the unknown was not easy. I had very little time to doubt my decision though because I had so much encouragement. Every time I saw Captain Suzanna or Marlene, they would ask how much flight time I had and what I planned to do next. At the age of 28, it was time to make the transition. My husband Darren (also a Boeing engineer and incredibly supportive of my career change) was working on a project in Phoenix. I took a leave of absence from my engineering job and met him in the desert. Because of the optimal weather, I quickly finished my training and began flight instructing. When Darren’s project ended, we returned to Seattle and I instructed at Galvin Flying Service. The tragic events on 9/11 significantly reduced the need for pilots at the airlines. I was discouraged, but fortunately, I saw Captain Suzanna at an event at the Museum of Flight. She told me to keep going because this was just a temporary setback. I took her advice, instructed a couple more years at Galvin and became Chief Flight Instructor. When the economy improved, I flew Embraer Brasilias and Canadair Regional Jets at SkyWest Airlines. And finally, in the summer of 2012, I started my dream job of flying Boeing 737s for the hometown favorite… Alaska Airlines!

“This generation has a lot more opportunities to pursue STEM careers. But they must be made aware of their options to know that they exist. That is why it is important for all of us, as professionals, to look back and offer a hand up to the generation behind us. I give back as a mentor … and by taking the opportunity to show my workplace to every enthusiastic child who is on my flight.”

Q. How does having an engineering degree and your previous experience at Boeing help you as a pilot?

A. In the modern age of flying, the systems on airplanes are very complex. Understanding how each system functions is an integral part of being a safe pilot. It is so important, that airlines will allocate approximately two weeks of the curriculum to focus on aircraft systems. Many people say that learning a new airplane is like drinking from a firehose. Luckily for me, most of this information was obtained while working on the 737NGs at Boeing. I used the time in ground school to refresh, fill in the gaps, and then focus on other aspects of flying the airplane safely.

An engineering degree is also a safety net. The airline industry is cyclical, and pilots are required to pass a medical examination as often as every 6 months. A well-educated pilot with an engineering degree will have more options if they lose their medical or are furloughed than someone who just obtained a basic degree to meet the requirement for the job.

In my short time at Alaska Airlines, I have been surprised to learn how many of my pilot co-workers have an engineering degree. Becoming an airline pilot is a difficult process. But I believe that the difficult curriculum in an engineering program fully prepares a person for this task. Additionally, a few of my college classmates have continued their education after engineering and pursued careers in patent law, bio-engineering, and finance. I believe the engineering degree was as helpful for them in their new careers as it was for me becoming a pilot.

Q. Please tell us about the importance of mentoring in your life and why it is important for professionals in STEM-related fields to reach out to the next generation.

A. When I was a little girl growing up in western Nebraska, there were very few women in STEM. There were even fewer flying Boeing airplanes at a major airline. I believe the reason I was successful is because of my mentors who provided the guidance and encouragement necessary to help me stay focused. Their words helped shape my inner dialog when things became difficult. I am so thankful to all of them for helping me succeed.

This generation has a lot more opportunities to pursue STEM careers. But they must be made aware of their options to know that they exist. That is why it is important for all of us, as professionals, to look back and offer a hand up to the generation behind us. I give back as a mentor at Raisbeck Aviation High School, through Amelia’s Aero Club at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, and by taking the opportunity to show my workplace to every enthusiastic child who is on my flight.

Engineering happiness

Preston Altree works at the intersection of engineering and art, bringing robots, animatronics and all kinds of magical creations to life.

Altree is a Props and Puppet Lead Technician for Cirque du Soleil, where he leads the props team in constructing, maintaining, and running props elements. During his time as a Freelance Art Technician at The Character Shop, he built WALL-E and showcased him in “Droid Alley” at Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con.

Preston graduated from Loyola Marymount University in 2014 with a degree in Film and Television Production. His studies focused on special effects and producing, interning in New Regency Productions‘ Story Department and completing visual effects sequences at Cantina Creative.

His work can be seen in feature films like “Blue Mountain State: The Rise of Thadland,” TV commercials, and hundreds of Dave & Buster’s restaurants around the country.

What was it like to work at The Character Shop?

It was incredible. My boss, Rick Lazzarini, is a living legend who has worked on everything from Aliens to Spaceballs. It was a dream come true to learn from him and the rest of his amazing team.

How did you approach the design and build for WALL-E? How long did it take from idea to completion?

I had two amazing mentors, Michael McMaster and Mike Senna (pictured with Preston below), who had both built their own animatronic WALL-Es. I knew from their experiences that this would be exceptionally difficult. Pixar never released official blueprints for WALL-E and since he didn’t exist outside a computer, the only way to make my own would be to compare his size to that of known objects in the film (e.g. a Rubik’s Cube, a cooler, a boot). From this, I found his scale changes throughout the film. After discussing this with my mentors, I decided on a size that was roughly 3/4 scale (so he could fit out the door to my apartment). All in all, it took me a year and four months from concept to completion.

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When you talk to people about your creations, what are they most interested to learn about?

Most people are astounded that WALL-E looks so much like the robot from the movie. WALL-E has such specific parts and colors that make him instantly recognizable: the solar charge panel, the glowing red light, and of course his beaten-up trash compactor door with “WALL-E” printed on it. Matching all of these required countless viewings of the film and hours of research online. A fun part of his construction was learning that the iconic WALL-E yellow is nothing more than striping paint (the yellow lines you see on roads). This makes perfect sense from a storytelling perspective, because a robot in industrial environments like WALL-E would obviously be painted with the same industrial colors we see today.

For all of us who wish we had your job, what skills and training did you need?

More than anything, it’s important to do your research and, in the end, experiment. I learned so much by just trying out different things such as paint combinations and materials for WALL-E’s tread system. Many times, these didn’t work at all, but it pointed me in the right direction.

YouTube is your friend too, because if you don’t know how to do something, chances are there’s a YouTube video to walk you through it.

Anything else?

I was inspired to build WALL-E after seeing a video of Johnny Depp and Stephen Graham dressed as their characters from Pirates of the Caribbean visiting the kids at Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital. WALL-E was similarly constructed to bring to local charities, schools, and Children’s Hospitals here in Los Angeles. I think it’s incredibly important to do what you love but more importantly, share that love with others. I’m not as interested in inspiring the next group of WALL-E builders as I am making the lives and memories of others brighter through what I’m able to put together with just some wood, fiberglass and paint.

See Preston and WALL-E in action here.

 

photos from Preston Altree

A Conversation with Jennifer George

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Q. People know Rube Goldberg as a cartoonist who was trained as an engineer and, for many, the guy we learned about in elementary school who inspired those fun projects to accomplish a simple task with as many steps as possible. But he’s more than that to you. Tell us what he was like as a grandfather.
A. People expect me to describe my grandfather as a nutty-professor with closets filled with bowling balls and palm trees and parrots, but he was actually just what I imagine most grandfathers are like, although he did like to be the center of attention. When I was very little my parents used to tell me I would run from him crying because apparently he didn’t realize how strong his hands were and when he would reach for me to pull me on his knee, his grasp was too strong. As I got older he was more fun to be with and we would draw together, sit in his workroom and sculpt with clay, as he was a sculptor later in life. He taught me how to make paper balloons. He taught me how to shake hands. He told me to look people in the eye and with a firm grip shake their hand and let them know they’re meeting someone. He always smoked a cigar, wore suspenders and a bow tie and he wore shoes when he went swimming. I understood that he was an artist, but it wasn’t until the Smithsonian exhibit in 1970, a retrospective of his work, that I truly understood the scope of what he had accomplished.

Q. Rube Goldberg drew 50,000+ cartoons, but it’s said he never made any of those overly complicated contraptions featured in many of them. Did your grandfather tinker and build as so many engineers do? 
A. According to an interview that I heard of Rube and my grandmother Irma, my grandmother said Rube was hopeless around the house and he couldn’t even change a lightbulb. I think all of his tinkering took place in his mind then made its way into his drawings. In fact, I remember spending afternoons at the beach house when I as a kid trying to put together model toy kits (that you can even still today find on Ebay) from his drawings and neither he nor I could build them.

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Q. Your grandfather won the Pulitzer Prize for his political cartoons, but he also encouraged his sons – your dad and uncle – to change their surnames. Can you tell us about that? 
A. Rube was drawing political cartoons during WWII and obviously his last name was a beacon for anti-Semitism. There were apparently threats on the family, and Rube, a non-religious Jew, was very protective of his sons and preserving their anonymity both as the sons of a famous cartoonist and the religion implied by their last name. My father’s older brother Tom, when he was 18 went off to college with a new last name and became Thomas George and my father two years later, in order to keep some family continuity, chose the same last name; he became George W. George. People would joke when they met him that his parents must have had a great sense of humor, little did they know!

Q. What do you think your grandfather would say about current technology, particularly the consumerization of tech? 
A. I am certain he would have thought it would be a boon for chiropractors, massage therapists and neck tie manufacturers as everyone walks around with their heads down!

Q. How do you work to keep your grandfather’s legacy alive? 
A. My father founded Rube Goldberg Inc. almost 30 years ago as a way to preserve and license Rube’s work and a means through which to organize, manage, and grow the competitions. A decade ago, when my father died, the mantle of all this landed in my lap. My father had always wanted to get me involved, but I was very reluctant and had my own career (as a fashion designer) not to mention raising two children of my own that took priority. But when he died, I inherited the Abrams book deal as my father had agreed to do a coffee table book on the work of this father. I wanted to honor my father’s wishes to have this book published and instinctively, I knew it would be the foundation upon which I would build whatever was to become of Rube’s legacy. After immersing myself in the archive, ideas began to flow: a feature film, a toy line, an amusement park ride, from board games to digital games, books and calendars, apparel and home accessories, the sky’s the limit! That’s the for-profit branding side, but my heart sits squarely with the kids and the competitions. In 2015, we were finally designated a 501c3 non-profit as STEM education is our priority.

jennifer-george-rube-goldberg-quoteQ. What’s your favorite part of the contests RGI holds for students each year? 
A. Meeting the kids and seeing how they solve the annual task. I usually at some point get choked up and start crying, and it’s not because the machine doesn’t work!

Q. NEF focuses on three challenges facing American engineering – the 3Cs – capacity, capability and competitiveness. Capacity is the challenge of making sure we have enough qualified engineers to fill the jobs of today and tomorrow. How do you see competitions like the Rube Goldberg contests playing into solving that challenge? 
A. We reach kids before they even know that they’re studying science and engineering, technology, or math. Our slogan is STEM starts here and it’s true. Little kids in elementary school learn about physics, engineering, timing, addition/subtraction, literally piecing together a Rube Goldberg Machine and it begins the conversation. A little girl who has no idea she likes science, or thinks that science is just for boys, has fun building a Rube Goldberg Machine and learns that’s what science is. Our competitions at every age, elementary through college, pose the same problem to all. We inspire kids to look around them and use everyday objects to solve a simple problem. But we also ask them to create a story around the task; we ask them to be funny and add narrative, connecting STEM education with literacy and storytelling. Rube Goldberg Machines are a teaching tool that also levels the playing field; you don’t need anything but a pile of junk and a great imagination to build an award winning Rube Goldberg Machine. I always say a Rube Goldberg Machine should come from landfill and not contribute to it.

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Jennifer George photo courtesy of Rube Goldberg, Inc.
Contest photos courtesy of RGMC.
Rube Goldberg machine illustrations by Vic Parker.

Building the Future

building-the-future-headhsot-quoteErica Stanley is a software architect and engineer and the founder and director of the Atlanta network of Women Who Code. We asked her what she sees happening in tech and how engineers can help America stay competitive in the global economy.

 


 

Q) You’re an IoT expert. As we see more consumer acceptance and integration of connected things in the home – thermostats, alarm systems and refrigerators – how do you think the Internet of Things will impact technology and society over the next several years?
A) As we continue to build up the Internet of Things, incorporating more connected devices and apps, I believe we’re moving toward our own digital ecosystem–an ecosystem that’s always aware and ready to respond to subtle changes in our environment. For instance, we might have temperature settings that follow us from our home to car to our office and seats, whether in our car, home or office, that respond to our personal posture needs.

I think the technology will evolve in a few different ways. I think our interaction with devices will change from mostly touch-based systems to more organic interaction like voice and gesture control. Big data coupled with machine learning will begin to drive the predictive nature of many of our devices. This means a lot of the actions we now complete through some direct interaction will soon be handled automatically, as the devices in our ecosystem learn more about us. Traditionally, the skill set for hardware and software engineers has been very different. They typically worked separately, on completely different teams. But soon, I think we will start to see more hybrid software/ hardware engineers and technical leaders. We’ll start to see hardware and software engineers collaborating more closely together as the hardware and software requirements for connected devices become more intertwined.

Socially, with so much of our personal information being gathered, the expectations around personal privacy will change. Also, I believe that IoT has the ability to empower us physically, to allow us to take more control of our physical health and capabilities. We’ve already started to see this trend in fitness devices and apps. But I expect to see us control other aspects of our health with connected devices. For instance, there are several devices in the works that will help continuously monitor and communicate blood sugar changes. This has obvious implications for diabetics and pre-diabetics, but also athletes and anyone who is concerned with physical performance and weight loss. I think there are also opportunities to enhance physical capabilities with connected devices, bringing new opportunities to the physically disabled.

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Q) How do you approach developing a new app or software solution?
A) I like to incorporate elements of design thinking from the very beginning and I typically take an agile approach to building the solution. If the project is for a client, I like to work very closely with the client and the team (developers, designers, UX, BAs, PMs, etc.) together so that the entire team understands the problem, understands any tradeoffs and can collaborate on the solution. Then we go through a few rounds of rapid prototyping, whether it’s a wireframe, comps or a clickable prototype and work through them iteratively with the client.

If it is more a personal entrepreneurial venture, we would start with customer discovery to make sure we understand the customer and the market, then begin a process that more closely resembles a design sprint to determine what our Minimum Viable Product (MVP) should include.

The end result from either process is a vetted prototype that we can use to begin developing a roadmap through user story mapping. Once we have detailed user stories and other artifacts like acceptance criteria, we work the plan, building the solution one sprint at a time. We use the retrospective of each sprint as an opportunity to engage the client and revisit our goals to make sure we’re building the right solution at each iteration.

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Q) Why is it important for engineers to take the time to mentor the next generation?
A) I can speak from personal experience as mentoring has played a huge role in the course of my career. I was interested in technology early, but growing up, I had no idea how to turn it into a career, or even if I wanted to turn it into a career. Mentors definitely helped me map my career in tech. This mentor relationship is going to be even more important to the next generation of engineers, because we have so many people entering tech from non-traditional means. We see many people opting to forego university education and instead picking up technical skills via code schools and boot camps. Without the guidance, mentoring and community building that takes place for university students, these new developers can easily become isolated, discouraged and confused about their goals in tech. It will take established engineers working with these new developers to build the base of tech talent needed to keep us competitive in this ever growing technical landscape.

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Q) Tell us how groups like Women Who Code and 100 Girls of Code are important to everyone in the STEM fields, not just women and girls.
A) At Women Who Code we work to help women excel in technical careers. At 100 Girls of Code, our goal is to introduce girls ages 8-18 to technology in new and creative ways. These organizations, and organizations like them, provide the network, the support and resources for members of marginalized groups to find their place in tech. We should all want more diverse teams in tech, because diverse teams build better products. They’re more collaborative and innovative. They also have the benefit of finding unique problems to solve and creative ways to solve them, as a result of having more varied perspectives at the table.

Also, we are starting to see shortage of skilled engineers. By 2020, we will have 1.6 million more tech jobs than computer science graduates. We’ll have to do things differently to fill this need. That includes finding ways to appeal to women and minorities, to bring more people, perspective, and ideas to tech. That includes growing and mentoring engineers that may have taken a non-traditional path into tech. Working with Women Who Code has allowed me to work closely with local companies and organizations, engaging the Atlanta tech community in changing our approach to diversity and inclusion.

 

Photo credit: LYNSEY WEATHERSPOON PHOTOGRAPHY