Masters of innovation: from Nanotech to advanced robotics, these digeratis are reshaping the world.
By The Editors
AFRICAN AMERICANS HAVE A LONG history of implementing technology as a vehicle to deliver innovation. Lewis Howard Latimer, a Union Navy veteran and the son of former slaves, was just 26 when he secured his first in a series of patents. Latimer, who helped to invent the water closet (a mobile bathroom from the time period) for railway cars, went on to design the carbon filaments that became a precursor to our present-day light bulb. With Latimer's often uncredited achievements as a mirror, our technologists have introduced innovations across numerous sectors to help transform the way we live. Technological innovation is part of our DNA, as the following stories attest.
When NASA needed help with its robot rovers on the planet Mars, the space agency turned to Ashitey Tribi-Ollenu to help navigate the twin robot geologists. Though rarely mentioned outright, food is sometimes a political weapon in developing countries, but Chicago native Malcolm Speller has been working for the past decade with food processing technologies that offer potentially sustainable solutions. Got voting irregularities? We might see fewer of those sooner than you think. Over at Auburn University, in Auburn, Alabama, Juan Gilbert, an associate professor in the computer science and software engineering department, has invented an interactive voting booth with both touch screen and voice interface capabilities and a video-enabled audit trail. In approximately eight years at Auburn, Gilbert has raised nearly $10 million in research funding.
You'd have to have your head buried deep in the sand to escape the impact of technology as an ever-growing component in our world. And just look at some of the industry surnames where we've become a presence: biotechnology, information technology, nanotechnology, fuel cell technology, and green technologies.
With help from a network of academics and industry insiders, BLACK ENTERPRISE went under the radar to uncover and assemble a collage of technology-focused visionaries. So what does it take to become a cutting-edge leader at the top of your respective field? Imagination. Opportunity. Hard work. This group doesn't always sit in the forefront--they maneuver past it to provide solutions to complex issues in areas such as science, security, education, sustainability, and business.
We took in a few more ideas from the accomplishments of some of our brightest innovators and their collective imprint on what looks like some bold steps toward the future. Over the next few pages, we present them to you.
PAULA THERESE HAMMOND
PROFESSOR OF CHEMICAL ENGINEERING
MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
It sounds like something the Dark Knight would wear--a specially constructed suit with electronics that detect: threats before they strike and can even defend its wearer from biological and chemical attacks. As fantastic as it may sound, this is real--and just part of Hammond's research.
Hammond's work for the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, a $10 million a year research project at MIT for the Army, looks to develop structured materials using nanotechnology to protect soldiers. "In my own research group, we've been working on reactive/protective coatings that can be put on the fibers of soldiers' uniforms that upon exposure to some of the chemical agents, absorb that chemical agent and react it down to products that are harmless." she says.
Hammond has also been instrumental in developing technologies that may find their way into the next generation of laptop computers and cell phones--and possibly even automobiles. Imagine a notebook or mobile phone that doesn't need to be charged, and instead of a battery has a small chemical engine that you just add a few drops of methanol to in order to keep it going. "We were able to improve the efficiency of methanol fuel cells by a factor of 40% to 50%, depending on the temperature you run them at."--Alan Hughes
PRESIDENT, CHAIRMAN & CEO
GENE NETWORK SCIENCES
According to Hill, it took 13 years and roughly $11 billion to complete the Human Genome Project, which identifies all the genes in human DNA. Now it costs less than $50,000 and takes three weeks. Within the next three years, Hill predicts that technology will make it doable in five minutes for less than $100.
Armed with that level of technology to map DNA, Massachusetts-based Gene Network Sciences has emerged at the forefront of the convergence of genomics and supercomputing. In short, the company's supercomputers use artificial intelligence and a map of human DNA to determine how a specific person will react to a specific drug. This enables pharmaceutical companies to more efficiently develop treatments to such diseases as cancer and heart disease, and it enables doctors to determine whether or not a certain patient will respond to a particular drug.
The company's clients include Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, and Biogen Idec. "The driving force for our technology and its application has to do with matching up the right drug to the right patient. We're all different with different DNA, so we all respond differently to different drugs," says Hill.--Alan Hughes
SENIOR SOFTWARE QUALITY ENGINEER
DRS TECHNOLOGIES INC.
"The coolest thing about what l do is that what I do really matters. It helps our military," says January. It may be cool stuff, but there's some serious tech behind the airborne instrumentation pods that mount on military aircraft and track a pilot's performance in air combat simulations.
In English, this means that January works on developing and tweaking the software on a device that's used to determine if the fighter pilot is hitting his or her target--much like the combat simulation in the movie Top Gun. "I work on it from beginning to end. I'm looking at what it takes to design that system," says the Atmore, Alabama, native. "I look at how we control it; how we test it once it gets out into the field and the military starts to use it. We have engineers that go out into the field with them and make sure that our products are working properly, and they let me know how it's going. Any problem that may occur with that system with regards to the software, I get a report back on it to let me know whether or not we need to make a change."
January's employer, Parsippany, New Jersey-based DRS Technologies, is a supplier of integrated products, services, and support to military forces, intelligence agencies, and prime contractors worldwide.
SENIOR ROBOTICS ENGINEER
NASA JET PROPULSION LABORATORY
Not many people can use technology to solve a problem that's happening 100 million miles away. Tribi-Ollenu is one who can.
When one of the Mars rovers bad a failed actuator, Tribi-Ollenu was the lead engineer on the repair project. It took about five months to fix--after all, the equipment failure was on another planet. The issue was a broken wire. and under Tribi-Ollenu's leadership the team developed a work-around and got the rover mobile again.
An accomplished senior space-robotics engineer, the Ghana native was one of the first people (and the first black person) to drive the Mars Exploration Rovers and was a key member of the Phoenix Mars Lander team. He's as passionate about problem-solving as he is about the impact of the space program on terrestrial technology. "Most people don't realize that most of the advancement that's been made in medicine and things such as cell phone technology came about because of the exploration of space," he says, "You'll find that space exploration has provided for a lot of things that benefit society. That's why we're able to get very small cell phones. We push the envelope because to get something into space you need to package it very tightly."
Vice President & Chief Technology Officer
Barber holds patents for novel X-ray system designs and has been directly involved with many product advances in the field of diagnostic imaging. He led the team that eliminated the need for film in X-ray procedures by developing a digital flat panel detector that is now standard in mammography, cardiology, and radiographic procedures worldwide.
Innovation: Barber developed the company's first touch-screen interface for controlling X-ray systems.
Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering
Rochester Institute of Technology
Brown is developing more intelligent robotic orthotics that utilize human bio-physical and bio-physiological information to aid individuals with muscular atrophying diseases such as muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy.
Innovation: The technologies Brown's team are creating act much like an extra skeleton system also referred to as a "wearable robot," to help people with neuromuscular diseases and musculoskeletal injuries regain the use of their limbs.
Instrument Systems Branch Associate Head
Douglas is one of the lead developers of variable emittance coatings, two-phase systems, spacecraft and instrument thermal design and control, and instrument systems engineering. The technology her team develops makes sure the sensitive electronic equipment within a spacecraft will survive the unearthly heat and cold of outer space.
Innovation: Douglas led the concept development, design, integration, and testing of thermal control systems for research, weather, communication satellites, as well as the Hubbell Space Telescope.
CHINEDU U. ECHERUO
With the Internet as a platform, Echeruo, a Harvard University M.B.A. graduate, set up HopStop. com in 2005. The site offers integrated Web, SMS text message, and audio-based public transportation guides for travelers in several cities throughout the U.S. HopStop boasts 1.75 million visits and 10 million page views per month. In 2007 Echeruo raised approximately $5 million to launch Tripology.com, a online portal where travelers can connect with destination-specific travel agents.
Innovation: Echeruo is gearing up to invest in mobile technology in Nigeria.
Co-founder & CEO
Ejeckham's team developed the next generation of gallium nitride-on-diamond wafer, known as the Xero Wafer. The Xero Wafer is designed to withstand higher temperatures, and achieve greater power density and efficiency levels than traditional semiconductor wafers.
Innovation: Ejeckham and his team could change the way consumers and businesses use nearly every device from cell phones and PCs to biotech devices and radar, anything that requires a chip.
LIGATT Security and the Technology Crimes Institute
Evans developed the first wireless tracking device for computers, called eSnitch, which enables a person to track a stolen computer anywhere in the world. Evans also launched a popular caller ID spoofing service, SPOOFEM, allowing the user to place a call and have a different number display on the recipient's caller ID.
Innovation: Spoofing services have been upgraded, allowing users to send untraceable text messages to all the major cellular and paging carriers.
University of Michigan
Gallimore's research enables spacecrafts to travel five to 10 times faster, using electronic propulsion rather than conventional rocket propulsion. Other applications for his work include propulsion for commercial and military satellites. This technology helps reduce the cost of satellites by saving fuel and reducing spacecraft weight.
Innovation: Gallimore's work contributed to the performance improvement of Hall thrusters, which are used to launch commercial and military satellites.
Gilbert is the inventor of Applications Quest, a data mining software tool that allows the use of race, ethnicity, gender. etc. to be considered in admissions, employee hiring, or any other application processing area so that no preference is given to race or gender.
Innovation: Gilbert is also the inventor of an electronic voting system, Prime III, which enables people with physical disabilities or visual or hearing impairments to vote using touch and/or voice commands.
LONNIE G. JOHNSON
Johnson Research and Development Co. Inc.
Johnson, probably best known for inventing the uberpopular Super Soaker, is now focused on developing the next generation of rechargeable batteries. Through Johnson Electrical Mechanical Systems, Johnson will develop and introduce the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter, an electric heat engine powered by converted energy streams derived from solar energy and waste heat produced by the industrial process.
Innovation: Johnson holds more than 100 patents with 20 additional patents pending.
PAUL O. JUDGE
Chief Technology Officer, Co-founder
In 2007, Judge helped to launch PureWire, an Atlanta-based provider of Web securities solutions. A former IBM and NASA employee, Judge was also the chief technology officer and network security architect developing key security algorithms for the firm CipherTrust, which was sold to Secure Computing in 2006 for $273 million.
Innovation: Judge already holds six patents. He has 20 additional patents pending.
Director, Pervasive Parallelism Laboratory
In addition to teaching computer architecture, programming, and digital design courses at Stanford, Olukotun's research focuses on creating and designing computer chip multiprocessors to help enable the next stage of parallel computing so that computers can process and transfer larger pieces of information at much higher rates.
Innovation: Olukotun also leads Stanford's Hydra chip project, which is designed to help introduce the next stage of micro-architecture in microprocessor computing chips.
Smith is the lead biologist on a cell technology program exploring new techniques and technology to efficiently harvest stem cells. This will minimize (and potentially bypass) the use of animal products by enabling the production of many therapeutic doses from each donor sample.
Innovation: Smith has several patents, and one pending that covers instrumentation to be used by the pharmaceutical and biotech sectors for real-time quality control as well as more rapid production of protein-based drugs.
Founder & Chief Executive Officer
AmniFPS International L.L.C.
Speller, a food engineer, launched AmniFPS from a Website in 1998. Today he leads the company's effort to help businesses--primarily in emerging markets--enhance the productivity and profitability of their food processing operations through a combination of technology tool& He is also helping an architectural and engineering design firm develop a bio-farming strategy.
Innovation: Speller is preparing to launch AmniFPS International LLC. in Nigeria, with plans to develop liquid sweeteners processed from cassava.
Professor, Chemical Engineering
University of Michigan
Thompson's research focuses on uncovering new methods of delivering energy and fuel conversions. With his team of researchers, Thompson creates nanoscale (with dimensions measured in nanometers) structures to improve the development and efficiency of micro-fuel cells, which can be used as wireless portable sources of energy for items such as sensors, potential ear implant devices, and pacemakers.
Innovation: Thompson, also developed hydrogen-powered fuel cells to help meet the automotive industry's demands for sources of alternative energy.
Professor, Dept. of Biological and Environment Engineering
Walker is a leader in biofuels and industrial biotechnology. This area is expected to contribute new technologies that will efficiently liberate sugars in grass and trees and convert them into ethanol--a fuel alternative to gasoline. Currently corn is used because of its higher sugar content.
Innovation: Through Walkers work, trees and grass have the potential to become an economically viable fuel alternative, since they're less expensive to grow compared with corn, which requires large amounts of fertilizer.
Senior Software Architect
Wesley helps develop social software product offerings within IBM's Lotus Software Division, which is responsible for the company's Enterprise 2.0 and Social Networking Product Suite. These products provide business professionals with seamless integration between enterprise security and Web2.0networkingtechnologies.
Innovation: In 2007, Wesley received the Golden Torch Award from the National Society of Black Engineers for his efforts in information technology.
--Additional reporting by LaToya M. Smith, Lois Barrett & Anthony Calypso