Innovation & Design

The Ever Inventive Saul Griffith


The engineer, entrepreneur, and MacArthur Fellow is on a mission to stop global warming—with a little help from Google

Saul Griffith first garnered attention as a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab in 2002, when he developed a machine that could mold prescription eyeglass lenses on demand for just a few dollars a pop. The technology is now being developed by Optiopia, a company he co-founded to serve the estimated 2 billion people around the world who don't have access to professional eye care.

But Griffith didn't stop there: Since earning his PhD in 2004 the inventor and entrepreneur has launched or helped to launch no fewer than seven companies, has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and in 2007, at the age of 33, won a "genius grant" of $500,000 from the MacArthur Foundation. "Saul is a brilliant engineer," says Peter Diamandis, chief executive of the X Prize Foundation, who has tapped Griffith as an adviser. "He is grounded in reality but has the breadth of vision to help design and implement the future."

While most scientists go deep but narrow, focusing on one subject or problem, Griffith is ecumenical, following his curiosity and his conscience wherever they take him, and then digging deep into the issues that grab him. After graduating from MIT, he moved to San Francisco and co-founded Squid Labs, with the aim of doing consulting and contract work that would finance the internal technology projects. Ultimately, Griffith and his three co-founders decided that the world didn't like incubators, so they shuttered Squid Labs and spun the most-promising projects into free-standing companies.

They staffed the startups by tapping their network for technically skilled people and funded them with a mix of angel money, venture capital, and grants (Thanks John D and Catherine T!). Those companies include Howtoons, a popular series of comic books that teach kids about science; Instructables, an open-source Web site of do-it-yourself projects with almost 900,000 unique users; and Potenco, a startup developing ways to charge electronic devices using human power. "I need to be thinking about a few things at once," Griffith confesses. "I think it actually helps because you're cross-fertilizing yourself."

"A Fertile Environment"

Griffith is a product of his childhood in Sydney, Australia. His father is a textile engineer and his mother is an artist, and he and his sister grew up making toys and printing presses for his mother in his dad's home workshop. (Griffith's sister went on to found Griffin Kiteboarding, a leading maker of kites and other gear for the extreme sport, and Griffith has helped with design and development.) "It was an incredibly fertile environment," he says, then adds with a laugh: "When I left Sydney to come to the Media Lab my father was worried. 'What if MIT doesn't have a lab as good as ours?' he asked me."

Griffith's current lab—a 20,000-sq.-ft. space in an old air traffic control tower in Alameda, Calif.—is a tinkerer's paradise, complete with laser cutter, CNC machine, 12-ton press, and one of every hand tool and screw. (See Griffith's video tour of the studio here). And it's close enough to San Francisco Bay that Griffith and his decidedly unnerdy crew can go kiteboarding in the afternoons.

These days Griffith, who is married to an American woman and lives near San Francisco, has turned much of his attention to global warming and the need for radical changes in the way we consume and generate energy. Last year, he co-developed WattzOn, a personal Web-based energy audit that people can use to calculate their energy consumption. And in 2006 he founded Makani Power, an innovative wind-power startup, also in Alameda. It's a promising direction: In the U.S., energy generated from wind increased 40% in 2007 and another 50% in 2008, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

High-Altitude Energy

But Griffith and his staff of 30 engineers believe that wind can play a much bigger role in the energy revolution if they can harness the more powerful winds 1,000 to 3,000 feet up, which contain more energy per square foot than any other renewable source. They are developing wing-shaped kites to do just that. "Conventional turbines only work up to 200 feet, but capturing a small fraction of the global wind energy at higher altitudes could be sufficient to supply the current energy needs of the globe," says Griffith.

Capturing energy from high-altitude wind is far from easy. The biggest challenge is efficiently transmitting that electricity back to Earth. But Griffith, who has raised $15 million from Google.org and others for the venture, is confident, both about Makani's ability to develop a cost-effective new wind power technology and about the broader potential for meeting the challenge of climate change.

"Saul combines a scientist's notion of what's possible, with a low tolerance for conventional wisdom," says Andrew Zolli, a futurist and curator of the Pop!Tech conference, an annual conference about technology and ideas and one of several high-profile events where Griffith has spoken. "Give that man a lever long enough and he'll change the world—or the lever."


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