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    Offering clean energy around the clock

    As remarkable as the rise of solar and wind farms has been over the last 20 years, achieving complete decarbonization is going to require a host of complementary technologies. That’s because renewables offer only intermittent power. They also can’t directly provide the high temperatures necessary for many industrial processes.

    Now, 247Solar is building high-temperature concentrated solar power systems that use overnight thermal energy storage to provide round-the-clock power and industrial-grade heat.

    The company’s modular systems can be used as standalone microgrids for communities or to provide power in remote places like mines and farms. They can also be used in conjunction with wind and conventional solar farms, giving customers 24/7 power from renewables and allowing them to offset use of the grid.

    “One of my motivations for working on this system was trying to solve the problem of intermittency,” 247Solar CEO Bruce Anderson ’69, SM ’73 says. “I just couldn’t see how we could get to zero emissions with solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind. Even with PV, wind, and batteries, we can’t get there, because there’s always bad weather, and current batteries aren’t economical over long periods. You have to have a solution that operates 24 hours a day.”

    The company’s system is inspired by the design of a high-temperature heat exchanger by the late MIT Professor Emeritus David Gordon Wilson, who co-founded the company with Anderson. The company integrates that heat exchanger into what Anderson describes as a conventional, jet-engine-like turbine, enabling the turbine to produce power by circulating ambient pressure hot air with no combustion or emissions — what the company calls a first in the industry.

    Here’s how the system works: Each 247Solar system uses a field of sun-tracking mirrors called heliostats to reflect sunlight to the top of a central tower. The tower features a proprietary solar receiver that heats air to around 1,000 Celsius at atmospheric pressure. The air is then used to drive 247Solar’s turbines and generate 400 kilowatts of electricity and 600 kilowatts of heat. Some of the hot air is also routed through a long-duration thermal energy storage system, where it heats solid materials that retain the heat. The stored heat is then used to drive the turbines when the sun stops shining.

    “We offer round-the-clock electricity, but we also offer a combined heat and power option, with the ability to take heat up to 970 Celsius for use in industrial processes,” Anderson says. “It’s a very flexible system.”

    The company’s first deployment will be with a large utility in India. If that goes well, 247Solar hopes to scale up rapidly with other utilities, corporations, and communities around the globe.

    A new approach to concentrated solar

    Anderson kept in touch with his MIT network after graduating in 1973. He served as the director of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP) between 1996 and 2000 and was elected as an alumni member of the MIT Corporation in 2013. The ILP connects companies with MIT’s network of students, faculty, and alumni to facilitate innovation, and the experience changed the course of Anderson’s career.

    “That was an extremely fascinating job, and from it two things happened,” Anderson says. “One is that I realized I was really an entrepreneur and was not well-suited to the university environment, and the other is that I was reminded of the countless amazing innovations coming out of MIT.”

    After leaving as director, Anderson began a startup incubator where he worked with MIT professors to start companies. Eventually, one of those professors was Wilson, who had invented the new heat exchanger and a ceramic turbine. Anderson and Wilson ended up putting together a small team to commercialize the technology in the early 2000s.

    Anderson had done his MIT master’s thesis on solar energy in the 1970s, and the team realized the heat exchanger made possible a novel approach to concentrated solar power. In 2010, they received a $6 million development grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. But their first solar receiver was damaged during shipping to a national laboratory for testing, and the company ran out of money.

    It wasn’t until 2015 that Anderson was able to raise money to get the company back off the ground. By that time, a new high-temperature metal alloy had been developed that Anderson swapped out for Wilson’s ceramic heat exchanger.

    The Covid-19 pandemic further slowed 247’s plans to build a demonstration facility at its test site in Arizona, but strong customer interest has kept the company busy. Concentrated solar power doesn’t work everywhere — Arizona’s clear sunshine is a better fit than Florida’s hazy skies, for example — but Anderson is currently in talks with communities in parts of the U.S., India, Africa, and Australia where the technology would be a good fit.

    These days, the company is increasingly proposing combining its systems with traditional solar PV, which lets customers reap the benefits of low-cost solar electricity during the day while using 247’s energy at night.

    “That way we can get at least 24, if not more, hours of energy from a sunny day,” Anderson says. “We’re really moving toward these hybrid systems, which work like a Prius: Sometimes you’re using one source of energy, sometimes you’re using the other.”

    The company also sells its HeatStorE thermal batteries as standalone systems. Instead of being heated by the solar system, the thermal storage is heated by circulating air through an electric coil that’s been heated by electricity, either from the grid, standalone PV, or wind. The heat can be stored for nine hours or more on a single charge and then dispatched as electricity plus industrial process heat at 250 Celsius, or as heat only, up to 970 Celsius.

    Anderson says 247’s thermal battery is about one-seventh the cost of lithium-ion batteries per kilowatt hour produced.

    Scaling a new model

    The company is keeping its system flexible for whatever path customers want to take to complete decarbonization.

    In addition to 247’s India project, the company is in advanced talks with off-grid communities in the Unites States and Egypt, mining operators around the world, and the government of a small country in Africa. Anderson says the company’s next customer will likely be an off-grid community in the U.S. that currently relies on diesel generators for power.

    The company has also partnered with a financial company that will allow it to access capital to fund its own projects and sell clean energy directly to customers, which Anderson says will help 247 grow faster than relying solely on selling entire systems to each customer.

    As it works to scale up its deployments, Anderson believes 247 offers a solution to help customers respond to increasing pressure from governments as well as community members.

    “Emerging economies in places like Africa don’t have any alternative to fossil fuels if they want 24/7 electricity,” Anderson says. “Our owning and operating costs are less than half that of diesel gen-sets. Customers today really want to stop producing emissions if they can, so you’ve got villages, mines, industries, and entire countries where the people inside are saying, ‘We can’t burn diesel anymore.’” More

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    Building a better indoor herb garden

    Randall Briggs ’09, SM ’18 didn’t set out to build indoor gardens when he arrived at MIT. The winner of the 2010 2.007 robot competition class, he was excited to work on designing fighter planes one day.

    But in 2016, halfway through his studies for his master’s degree in mechanical engineering, Briggs’s father passed away unexpectedly. “It was a big blow to me. My motivation took a big hit, so it was hard for me to keep working on my research,” Briggs shares.

    Briggs ordered a home hydroponic garden in the hopes that growing herbs inside his apartment could bring him some positivity. “There is something healing about seeing something organic and beautiful grow and develop,” Briggs says.

    When the garden arrived, Briggs found that many aspects of the design fell short. The plants weren’t getting enough light because the LEDs were dispersing light throughout the room and not focusing it on the plants. “It’s just not very pleasing aesthetically when it’s, like, a fluorescent color of light, and it just fills your room,” Briggs says.

    He set forth to create a better indoor garden. Briggs turned his spare bedroom into a hydroponics lab, testing herbs growing under various lighting conditions and with different nutrient solutions. He read every book and article he could find on the subject. “The same seed pods that I had used in that cheap garden, when I moved them over to my garden, they grew way faster and way healthier and more fragrant and full of flavor,” he says.

    Working on this project became a daily source of joy for Briggs. “Every day when you come home, you want to see if it’s growing a little bit more or to see how they’re doing. I think that made me happy, too.”

    Briggs saw the potential for his garden to improve the well-being of others. “I thought if people had fresh herbs at home, they might be more inspired to cook for themselves instead of always just eating out, as it’s normally a lot healthier to cook your own food at home.”

    After much research and experimentation, GardenByte was born in 2017: a tabletop indoor herb garden that is nearly 3 feet wide with almost 2 feet of height for the plants to grow, which is quite a bit larger than most models on the market. With Briggs’s hydroponics technology, the plants grow three times faster than they would grow outdoors. His garden allows anyone to grow fresh herbs in a wide range of settings. And since plants have a longer shelf life than cut herbs, they also cut down on food waste.

    Briggs was determined to make something that grows plants well and is attractive in a variety of settings. The outer case is handcrafted from solid hardwood from a local Massachusetts lumber yard, ensuring both durability and a visually pleasing aesthetic that seamlessly integrates into any kitchen or restaurant setting. The light bar, crafted from a single piece of crystal-clear acrylic, maintains an unobtrusive and ethereal appearance. This choice complements the overall design while allowing the LED lights to emit a powerful simulation of full sunshine. To ensure a smooth transition from daytime growth to evening, four different types of LEDs were incorporated. Polymer lenses focus the light directly onto the plants, preventing any wastage or unnecessary light spillage in the room. A light and color sensor on top detect the lighting conditions in the room and automatically adjust the lighting in the garden to match, enhancing plant growth. The grid tray is designed to accommodate up to 39 plants at once, offering ample space for an array of herbs. To simplify plant care, the garden is connected to a mobile app that will allow you to care for your plants while you’re away.

    The herb garden contains computer numerical control (CNC) machined-aluminum parts, in contrast with the flimsier plastic most products use. The heat flow capacity of aluminum disperses the heat from all the LEDs and the aluminum grid tray helps keep it compact and thin but rigid, so users can lift the plants up without it bending.

    Briggs received his foundation in machining as an undergrad at the MIT Edgerton Center, where he was on the MIT Motorsports team and MIT Electric Vehicle Team. He learned how to use the CNC machines in the student machine shop at the Area 51 garage under the tutelage of Instructor Pat McAtamney and Briggs’s teammates.

    Building an electric motorcycle on the Electric Vehicle Team for the Isle of Man TT Race in 2011 helped prepare Briggs for creating a robust product for production. The race took place on city streets, raising the potential for deadly crashes. “When we were building that motorcycle, the head of our team, Lennon Rodgers, kept reiterating to us, ‘you got to think aircraft quality, like aircraft quality. This is actually a life-or-death project.’ Seeing the way that he led, and the way that he really set the bar for quality and for execution and kind of kept things moving, was really helpful for me.”

    “My hope in the future is to make a more mass-market version that’s a little bit cheaper and more available to everybody,” Briggs shares.

    The feedback from his first customers has all been positive. After delivering the product to a chef in Boston, Briggs says, “He told me that the whole first evening he was sitting at home with his boyfriend and he just kept staring at it, and he’s like, ‘it is so beautiful. It is so beautiful.’”

    “I feel like something that my dad taught me was that sometimes to do hard things, it does take hard work, and that it’s not always going to be exciting, necessarily,” Briggs shares. “It’s good to be inspired, it’s good to be passionate, but it’s not always going to get you through. And sometimes it’s just hard work that you got to press through the tough parts.” More

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    Putting public service into practice

    Salomé Otero ’23 doesn’t mince words about the social impact internship she had in 2022. “It was transformational for me,” she says.

    Otero, who majored in management with a concentration in education, always felt that education would play some role in her career path after MIT, but she wasn’t sure how. That all changed her junior year, when she got an email from the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center (PKG Center) about an internship at The Last Mile, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that provides education and technology training for justice-impacted individuals.

    Otero applied and was selected as a web curriculum and re-entry intern at The Last Mile the summer between her junior and senior year — an eye-opening experience that cemented her post-graduation plans. “You hear some amazing stories, like this person was incarcerated before the iPhone had come out. Now he’s a software developer,” she explains. “And for me, the idea of using computer science education for good appealed to me on many fronts. But even if I hadn’t gotten the opportunity to work at The Last Mile, the fact that I saw a job description for this role and learned that companies have the resources to make a difference … I didn’t know that there were people and organizations dedicating their time and energy into this.”

    She was so inspired that, when she returned for her senior year, Otero found work at two education labs at MIT, completed another social impact internship over Independent Activities Period (IAP) at G{Code}, an education nonprofit that provides computer science education to women and nonbinary people of color, and decided to apply to graduate school. “I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that I would not be pursuing a PhD in education policy right now if it weren’t for the PKG Center,” she says. She will begin her doctorate this fall.

    Otero’s experience doesn’t surprise Jill Bassett, associate dean and director of the PKG Center. “MIT students are deeply concerned about the world’s most challenging problems,” she says. “And social impact internships are an incredible way for them to leverage their unique talents and skills to help create meaningful change while broadening their perspectives and discovering potential career paths.”

    “There’s a lot more out there”

    Founded 35 years ago, the PKG Center offers a robust portfolio of experiential learning programs broadly focused on four themes: climate change, health equity, racial justice, and tech for social good. The Center’s Social Impact Internship Program provides funded internships to students interested in working with government agencies, nonprofits, and social ventures. Students reap rich rewards from these experiences, including learning ways to make social change, informing their academic journey and career path, and gaining valuable professional skills.

    “It was a really good learning opportunity,” says Juliet Liao ’23, a graduate of MIT’s Naval ROTC program who commissioned as a submarine officer in June. She completed a social impact internship with the World Wildlife Fund, where she researched greenhouse gas emissions related to the salmon industry. “I haven’t had much exposure to what work outside of the Navy looks like and what I’m interested in working on. And I really liked the science-based approach to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.”

    Amina Abdalla, a rising junior in biological engineering, arrived at MIT with a strong interest in health care and determined to go to medical school. But her internship at MassHealth, the Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program provider for the state of Massachusetts, broadened her understanding of the complexity of the health care system and introduced her to many career options that she didn’t know existed.

    “They did coffee chats between interns and various people who work in MassHealth, such as doctors, lawyers, policy advocates, and consultants. There’s a lot more out there that one can do with the degree that they get and the knowledge they gain. It just depends on your interests, and I came away from that really excited,” she says. The experience inspired her to take a class in health policy before she graduates. “I know I want to be a doctor and I have a lot of interest in science in general, but if I could do some kind of public sector impact with that knowledge, I would definitely be interested in doing that.”

    Social impact internships also provide an opportunity for students to hone their analytical, technical, and people skills. Selma Sharaf ’22 worked on developing a first-ever climate action plan for Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, one of two all-women’s historically Black colleges and universities in the United States. She conducted research and stakeholder interviews with nonprofits; sustainability directors at similar colleges; local utility companies; and faculty, staff, and students at Bennett.

    “Our external outreach efforts with certain organizations allowed me to practice having conversations about energy justice and climate issues with people who aren’t already in this space. I learned how useful it can be to not only discuss the overall issues of climate change and carbon emissions, but to also zoom in on more relatable personal-level impacts,” she says. Sharaf is currently working in clean energy consulting and plans to pursue a master’s degree at Stanford University’s Atmosphere/Energy Program this fall.

    Working with “all stars”

    Organizations that partner with the PKG Center are often constrained by limited technical and financial resources. Since the program is funded by the PKG Center, these internships help expand their organizational capacity and broaden their impact; MIT students can take on projects that might not otherwise get done, and they also bring fresh skills and ideas to the organization — and the zeal to pursue those ideas.

    Emily Moberg ’11, PhD ’16 got involved with the social impact internship programs in 2020. Moberg, who is the director of Scope 3 Carbon Measurement and Mitigation at the World Wildlife Fund, has worked with 20 MIT students since then, including Liao. The body of work that Liao and several other interns completed has been published in the form of 10 briefs onmitigating greenhouse gas emissions from key commodities, such as soy, beef, coffee, and palm oil.

    “Social impact interns bring technical skills, deep curiosity, and tenacity,” Moberg says. “I’ve worked with students across many majors, including computer and materials science; all of them bring a new, fresh perspective to our problems and often sophisticated quantitative ability. Their presence often helps us to investigate new ideas or expand a project. In some cases, interns have proposed new projects and ideas themselves. The support from the PKG Center for us to host these interns has been critical, especially for these new explorations.”

    Anne Carrington Hayes, associate professor and executive director of the Global Leadership and Interdisciplinary Studies program at Bennett College, calls the MIT interns she’s worked with since 2021 “all stars.” The work Sharaf and three other students performed has culminated in a draft climate action plan that will inform campus renovations and other measures that will be implemented at the college in the coming years.

    “They have been foundational in helping me to research, frame, collect data, and engage with our students and the community around issues of environmental justice and sustainability, particularly from the lens of what would be impactful and meaningful for women of color at Bennett College,” she says.

    Balancing supply and demand

    Bassett says that the social impact internship program has grown exponentially in the past few years. Before the pandemic, the program served five students from summer 2019 to spring 2020; it now serves about 125 students per year. Over that time, funding has become a significant limiting factor; demand for internships was three times the number of available internships in summer 2022, and five times the supply during IAP 2023.

    “MIT students have no shortage of opportunities available to them in the private sector, yet students are seeking social impact internships because they want to apply their skills to issues that they care about,” says Julie Uva, the PKG Center’s program administrator for social impact internships and employment. “We want to ensure every student who wants a social impact internship can access that experience.”

    MIT has taken note of this financial shortfall: the Task Force 2021 report recommended fundraising to alleviate the under-supply of social impact experiential learning opportunities (ELOs), and MIT’s Fast Forward Climate Action Plan called on the Institute to make a climate or clean-energy ELOs available to every undergraduate who wants one. As a result, the Office of Experiential Learning is working with Resource Development to raise new funding to support many more opportunities, which would be available to students not only through the PKG Center but also other offices and programs, such as MIT D-Lab, Undergraduate Research Opportunity Programs, MISTI, and the Environmental Solutions Initiative, among others.

    That’s welcome news to Salomé Otero. She’s familiar with the Institute’s fundraising efforts, having worked as one of the Alumni Association’s Tech Callers. Now, as an alumna herself and a former social impact intern, she has an appreciation for the power of philanthropy.

    “MIT is ahead of the game compared to so many universities, in so many ways,” she says. “But if they want to continue to do that in the most impactful way possible, I think investing in ideas and missions like the PKG Center is the way to go. So when that call comes, I’ll tell whoever is working that night shift, ‘Yeah, I’ll donate to the PKG Center.’” More

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    Supporting sustainability, digital health, and the future of work

    The MIT and Accenture Convergence Initiative for Industry and Technology has selected three new research projects that will receive support from the initiative. The research projects aim to accelerate progress in meeting complex societal needs through new business convergence insights in technology and innovation.

    Established in MIT’s School of Engineering and now in its third year, the MIT and Accenture Convergence Initiative is furthering its mission to bring together technological experts from across business and academia to share insights and learn from one another. Recently, Thomas W. Malone, the Patrick J. McGovern (1959) Professor of Management, joined the initiative as its first-ever faculty lead. The research projects relate to three of the initiative’s key focus areas: sustainability, digital health, and the future of work.

    “The solutions these research teams are developing have the potential to have tremendous impact,” says Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “They embody the initiative’s focus on advancing data-driven research that addresses technology and industry convergence.”

    “The convergence of science and technology driven by advancements in generative AI, digital twins, quantum computing, and other technologies makes this an especially exciting time for Accenture and MIT to be undertaking this joint research,” says Kenneth Munie, senior managing director at Accenture Strategy, Life Sciences. “Our three new research projects focusing on sustainability, digital health, and the future of work have the potential to help guide and shape future innovations that will benefit the way we work and live.”

    The MIT and Accenture Convergence Initiative charter project researchers are described below.

    Accelerating the journey to net zero with industrial clusters

    Jessika Trancik is a professor at the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). Trancik’s research examines the dynamic costs, performance, and environmental impacts of energy systems to inform climate policy and accelerate beneficial and equitable technology innovation. Trancik’s project aims to identify how industrial clusters can enable companies to derive greater value from decarbonization, potentially making companies more willing to invest in the clean energy transition.

    To meet the ambitious climate goals that have been set by countries around the world, rising greenhouse gas emissions trends must be rapidly reversed. Industrial clusters — geographically co-located or otherwise-aligned groups of companies representing one or more industries — account for a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions globally. With major energy consumers “clustered” in proximity, industrial clusters provide a potential platform to scale low-carbon solutions by enabling the aggregation of demand and the coordinated investment in physical energy supply infrastructure.

    In addition to Trancik, the research team working on this project will include Aliza Khurram, a postdoc in IDSS; Micah Ziegler, an IDSS research scientist; Melissa Stark, global energy transition services lead at Accenture; Laura Sanderfer, strategy consulting manager at Accenture; and Maria De Miguel, strategy senior analyst at Accenture.

    Eliminating childhood obesity

    Anette “Peko” Hosoi is the Neil and Jane Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering. A common theme in her work is the fundamental study of shape, kinematic, and rheological optimization of biological systems with applications to the emergent field of soft robotics. Her project will use both data from existing studies and synthetic data to create a return-on-investment (ROI) calculator for childhood obesity interventions so that companies can identify earlier returns on their investment beyond reduced health-care costs.

    Childhood obesity is too prevalent to be solved by a single company, industry, drug, application, or program. In addition to the physical and emotional impact on children, society bears a cost through excess health care spending, lost workforce productivity, poor school performance, and increased family trauma. Meaningful solutions require multiple organizations, representing different parts of society, working together with a common understanding of the problem, the economic benefits, and the return on investment. ROI is particularly difficult to defend for any single organization because investment and return can be separated by many years and involve asymmetric investments, returns, and allocation of risk. Hosoi’s project will consider the incentives for a particular entity to invest in programs in order to reduce childhood obesity.

    Hosoi will be joined by graduate students Pragya Neupane and Rachael Kha, both of IDSS, as well a team from Accenture that includes Kenneth Munie, senior managing director at Accenture Strategy, Life Sciences; Kaveh Safavi, senior managing director in Accenture Health Industry; and Elizabeth Naik, global health and public service research lead.

    Generating innovative organizational configurations and algorithms for dealing with the problem of post-pandemic employment

    Thomas Malone is the Patrick J. McGovern (1959) Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence. His research focuses on how new organizations can be designed to take advantage of the possibilities provided by information technology. Malone will be joined in this project by John Horton, the Richard S. Leghorn (1939) Career Development Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, whose research focuses on the intersection of labor economics, market design, and information systems. Malone and Horton’s project will look to reshape the future of work with the help of lessons learned in the wake of the pandemic.

    The Covid-19 pandemic has been a major disrupter of work and employment, and it is not at all obvious how governments, businesses, and other organizations should manage the transition to a desirable state of employment as the pandemic recedes. Using natural language processing algorithms such as GPT-4, this project will look to identify new ways that companies can use AI to better match applicants to necessary jobs, create new types of jobs, assess skill training needed, and identify interventions to help include women and other groups whose employment was disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

    In addition to Malone and Horton, the research team will include Rob Laubacher, associate director and research scientist at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, and Kathleen Kennedy, executive director at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence and senior director at MIT Horizon. The team will also include Nitu Nivedita, managing director of artificial intelligence at Accenture, and Thomas Hancock, data science senior manager at Accenture. More

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    MIT speaker series taps into students’ passion for entrepreneurship and social impact.

    Last summer, leaders of MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service (VMS) noticed a growing trend in entrepreneur applications to the program: An increasing number of aspiring founders were expressing a passion for social impact.

    VMS, which connects students and alumni with teams of mentors, hosts bootcamps, holds expert office hours, and offers an annual Demo Day, did not previously have offerings to help founders focused on this type of impact, so its leaders decided to pilot an Impact Speaker Series.

    The series, which featured experienced early-stage entrepreneurs from the MIT community and took place throughout the year, was a smashing success. In total, more than 1,200 MIT community members registered across eight events, including students at all stages of their education as well as alumni interested in making a positive impact on the world through entrepreneurship.

    “We felt an intense desire from attendees to explore entrepreneurship as a path to solve our most pressing problems,” VMS mentor and series co-Lead Paul Bosco says. “The degree to which students identified with challenges such as climate, health, sustainability, and education, rather than their major, was striking. Our goal was to help them see a path as first-time founders.”

    Now VMS is riding the momentum from the speaker series by rolling out more support services for impact-driven students, including hosting additional events, adding experienced impact entrepreneurs and social enterprise experts to its network of mentors, and connecting with more funders and executives with experience leading organizations focused on impact.

    Ultimately, VMS believes these new efforts will bolster MIT’s broader mission of translating science and innovation from its labs and classrooms into positive advances around the world.

    “Our pivot to strengthen support for founders with a passion for impact is absolutely aligned with the mission of MIT,” Bosco says. “Pursuing research and ideas with a passion for world-changing impact has always been in the DNA of MIT. A new generation of entrepreneurs is challenging us to help them hone their skills and lead organizations to build a better world.”

    Striking a chord

    Each one of VMS’ events had a different theme, from addressing general founder challenges, like first time pre-seed or nondilutive fundraising to building startup ventures in sectors like climate, health care, and education. One panel focused on helping entrepreneurs find their personal paths to success and impact, featuring founders leading impactful companies at different stages of development. Another panel discussion, titled Funding Your Path to Impact and Success, featured investors and directors of programs funding ventures delivering impact.

    “I want to encourage founders to consider driving toward a new ‘unicorn success’ model, where success is not measured in $1-billion-dollar valuations, but is based on world-changing carbon reductions, water cleanliness, lives saved, students inspired, etc.,” Ela Mirowski, a program director with the National Science Foundation, told the audience at one event.

    In total, the events featured 24 expert speakers, early-stage founders, and funders. Impact driven businesses, speakers emphasized, can take many forms. Bosco, who moderated one of the panels, says he’s heard from students and alumni interested in starting for-profit companies focused on profit and impact, what he called “dual bottom lines,” as well as students interested in starting public benefit companies, social enterprises, and traditional nonprofit organizations.

    “VMS is getting better at tapping into the different types of entrepreneurs at different stages of their journeys,” says Akshit Singla SM ’22. “It’s exactly what’s needed, and I know that because there was a huge waitlist for these events.”

    Zahra Kanji, who attended VMS’s most recent event in May and is currently director of MIT Hacking Medicine, sees the speaker series as a natural response to evolving student needs.

    “For students, I think the focus has changed a lot over the years,” Kanji said. “There used to be a lot more interest in entrepreneurship with making money as the final goal, and now it’s turned into more of a triple goal, like a public benefit corporation or something that has more impact. So, hearing key lessons learned from experts is really important — these aren’t answers you can get in a textbook.”

    Listening to the community

    Many of next year’s VMS events will be similar to the events that most resonated with the MIT community this year. VMS will also be adding an event on entrepreneurship in artificial intelligence and computing for impact. VMS is hoping to continue expanding student connections to recent founders, or what Bosco refers to as “near-peer founders,” that can relate more closely with first-time founders navigating the current startup environment.

    “Given that many new entrepreneurs are shifting to focus on impact, we need to evolve,” says VMS mentor Matt Cherian SM ’11. “I’m glad students are starting to think differently, and I’m really glad VMS is making this programming to help people think in this new way.”

    “The most notable aspect of our series was the commitment of students, including undergrads, graduates, and postdocs, pursuing their passion for impact through entrepreneurship,” Bosco says. “Many students we met exploring entrepreneurship for impact have exceptional job offers from top employers, or if they are alums they’re leaving significant positions to pursue a greater purpose in their lives. It is profoundly inspiring and an honor to help each of these founders.” More

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    MIT engineering students take on the heat of Miami

    Think back to the last time you had to wait for a bus. How miserable were you? If you were in Boston, your experience might have included punishing wind and icy sleet — or, more recently, a punch of pollen straight to the sinuses. But in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, where the effects of climate change are both drastic and intensifying, commuters have to contend with an entirely different set of challenges: blistering temperatures and scorching humidity, making long stints waiting in the sun nearly unbearable.

    One of Miami’s most urgent transportation needs is shared by car-clogged Boston: coaxing citizens to use the municipal bus network, rather than the emissions-heavy individual vehicles currently contributing to climate change. But buses can be a tough sell in a sunny city where humidity hovers between 60 and 80 percent year-round. 

    Enter MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and the MIT Priscilla King Gray (PKG) Public Service Center. The result of close collaboration between the two organizations, class 6.900 (Engineering For Impact) challenges EECS students to apply their engineering savvy to real-world problems beyond the MIT campus.

    This spring semester, the real-world problem was heat. 

    Miami-Dade County Department of Transportation and Public Works Chief Innovation Officer Carlos Cruz-Casas explains: “We often talk about the city we want to live in, about how the proper mix of public transportation, on-demand transit, and other mobility solutions, such as e-bikes and e-scooters, could help our community live a car-light life. However, none of this will be achievable if the riders are not comfortable when doing so.” 

    “When people think of South Florida and climate change, they often think of sea level rise,” says Juan Felipe Visser, deputy director of equity and engagement within the Office of the Mayor in Miami-Dade. “But heat really is the silent killer. So the focus of this class, on heat at bus stops, is very apt.” With little tree cover to give relief at some of the hottest stops, Miami-Dade commuters cluster in tiny patches of shade behind bus stops, sometimes giving up when the heat becomes unbearable. 

    A more conventional electrical engineering course might use temperature monitoring as an abstract example, building sample monitors in isolation and grading them as a merely academic exercise. But Professor Joel Volman, EECS faculty head of electrical engineering, and Joe Steinmeyer, senior lecturer in EECS, had something more impactful in mind.

    “Miami-Dade has a large population of people who are living in poverty, undocumented, or who are otherwise marginalized,” says Voldman. “Waiting, sometimes for a very long time, in scorching heat for the bus is just one aspect of how a city population can be underserved, but by measuring patterns in how many people are waiting for a bus, how long they wait, and in what conditions, we can begin to see where services are not keeping up with demand.”

    Only after that gap is quantified can the work of city and transportation planners begin, Cruz-Casas explains: “We needed to quantify the time riders are exposed to extreme heat and prioritize improvements, including on-time performance improvements, increasing service frequency, or looking to enhance the tree canopy near the bus stop.” 

    Quantifying that time — and the subjective experience of the wait — proved tricky, however. With over 7,500 bus stops along 101 bus routes, Miami-Dade’s transportation network presents a considerable data-collection challenge. A network of physical temperature monitors could be useful, but only if it were carefully calibrated to meet the budgetary, environmental, privacy, and implementation requirements of the city. But how do you work with city officials — not to mention all of bus-riding Miami — from over 2,000 miles away? 

    This is where the PKG Center comes in. “We are a hub and a connector and facilitator of best practices,” explains Jill Bassett, associate dean and director of the center, who worked with Voldman and Steinmeyer to find a municipal partner organization for the course. “We bring knowledge of current pedagogy around community-engaged learning, which includes: help with framing a partnership that centers community-identified concerns and is mutually beneficial; identifying and learning from a community partner; talking through ways to build in opportunities for student learners to reflect on power dynamics, reciprocity, systems thinking, long-term planning, continuity, ethics, all the types of things that come up with this kind of shared project.”

    Through a series of brainstorming conversations, Bassett helped Voldman and Steinmeyer structure a well-defined project plan, as Cruz-Casas weighed in on the county’s needed technical specifications (including affordability, privacy protection, and implementability).

    “This course brings together a lot of subject area experts,” says Voldman. “We brought in guest lecturers, including Abby Berenson from the Sloan Leadership Center, to talk about working in teams; engineers from BOSE to talk about product design, certification, and environmental resistance; the co-founder and head of engineering from MIT spinout Butlr to talk about their low-power occupancy sensor; Tony Hu from MIT IDM [Integrated Design and Management] to talk about industrial design; and Katrina LaCurts from EECS to talk about communications and networking.”

    With the support of two generous donations and a gift of software from Altium, 6.900 developed into a hands-on exercise in hardware/software product development with a tangible goal in sight: build a better bus monitor.

    The challenges involved in this undertaking became apparent as soon as the 6.900 students began designing their monitors. “The most challenging requirement to meet was that the monitor be able to count how many people were waiting — and for how long they’d been standing there — while still maintaining privacy,” says Fabian Velazquez ’23 a recent EECS graduate. The task was complicated by commuters’ natural tendency to stand where the shade goes — whether beneath a tree or awning or snaking against a nearby wall in a line — rather than directly next to the bus sign or inside the bus shelter. “Accurately measuring people count with a camera — the most straightforward choice — is already quite difficult since you have to incorporate machine learning to identify which objects in frame are people. Maintaining privacy added an extra layer of constraint … since there is no guarantee the collected data wouldn’t be vulnerable.”

    As the groups weighed various privacy-preserving options, including lidar, radar, and thermal imaging, the class realized that Wi-Fi “sniffers,” which count the number of Wi-Fi enabled signals in the immediate area, were their best option to count waiting passengers. “We were all excited and ready for this amazing, answer-to-all-our-problems radar sensor to count people,” says Velasquez. “That component was extremely complex, however, and the complexity would have ultimately made my team use a lot of time and resources to integrate with our system. We also had a short time-to-market for this system we developed. We made the trade-off of complexity for robustness.” 

    The weather also posed its own set of challenges. “Environmental conditions were big factors on the structure and design of our devices,” says Yong Yan (Crystal) Liang, a rising junior majoring in EECS. “We incorporated humidity and temperature sensors into our data to show the weather at individual stops. Additionally, we also considered how our enclosure may be affected by extreme heat or potential hurricanes.”

    The heat variable proved problematic in multiple ways. “People detection was especially difficult, for in the Miami heat, thermal cameras may not be able to distinguish human body temperature from the surrounding air temperature, and the glare of the sun off of other surfaces in the area makes most forms of imaging very buggy,” says Katherine Mohr ’23. “My team had considered using mmWave sensors to get around these constraints, but we found the processing to be too difficult, and (like the rest of the class), we decided to only move forward with Wi-Fi/BLE [Bluetooth Low Energy] sniffers.”

    The most valuable component of the new class may well have been the students’ exposure to real-world hardware/software engineering product development, where limitations on time and budget always exist, and where client requests must be carefully considered.  “Having an actual client to work with forced us to learn how to turn their wants into more specific technical specifications,” says Mohr. “We chose deliverables each week to complete by Friday, prioritizing tasks which would get us to a minimum viable product, as well as tasks that would require extra manufacturing time, like designing the printed-circuit board and enclosure.”

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    Joel Voldman, who co-designed 6.900 (Engineering For Impact) with Joe Steinmeyer and MIT’s Priscilla King Gray (PKG) Public Service Center, describes how the course allowed students help develop systems for the public good. Voldman is the winner of the 2023 Teaching with Digital Technology Award, which is co-sponsored by MIT Open Learning and the Office of the Vice Chancellor. Video: MIT Open Learning

    Crystal Liang counted her conversations with city representatives as among her most valuable 6.900 experiences. “We generated a lot of questions and were able to communicate with the community leaders of this project from Miami-Dade, who made time to answer all of them and gave us ideas from the goals they were trying to achieve,” she reports. “This project gave me a new perspective on problem-solving because it taught me to see things from the community members’ point of view.” Some of those community leaders, including Marta Viciedo, co-founder of Transit Alliance Miami, joined the class’s final session on May 16 to review the students’ proposed solutions. 

    The students’ thoughtful approach paid off when it was time to present the heat monitors to the class’s client. In a group conference call with Miami-Dade officials toward the end of the semester, the student teams shared their findings and the prototypes they’d created, along with videos of the devices at work. Juan Felipe Visser was among those in attendance. “This is a lot of work,” he told the students following their presentation. “So first of all, thank you for doing that, and for presenting to us. I love the concept. I took the bus this morning, as I do every morning, and was battered by the sun and the heat. So I personally appreciated the focus.” 

    Cruz-Casas agreed: “I am pleasantly surprised by the diverse approach the students are taking. We presented a challenge, and they have responded to it and managed to think beyond the problem at hand. I’m very optimistic about how the outcomes of this project will have a long-lasting impact for our community. At a minimum, I’m thinking that the more awareness we raise about this topic, the more opportunities we have to have the brightest minds seeking for a solution.”

    The creators of 6.900 agree, and hope that their class helps more MIT engineers to broaden their perspective on the meaning and application of their work. 

    “We are really excited about students applying their skills within a real-world, complex environment that will impact real people,” says Bassett. “We are excited that they are learning that it’s not just the design of technology that matters, but that climate; environment and built environment; and issues around socioeconomics, race, and equity, all come into play. There are layers and layers to the creation and deployment of technology in a demographically diverse multilingual community that is at the epicenter of climate change.” More

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    Will the charging networks arrive in time?

    For many owners of electric vehicles (EVs), or for prospective EV owners, a thorny problem is where to charge them. Even as legacy automakers increasingly invest in manufacturing more all-electric cars and trucks, there is not a dense network of charging stations serving many types of vehicles, which would make EVs more convenient to use.

    “We’re going to have the ability to produce and deliver millions of EVs,” said MIT Professor Charles Fine at the final session this semester of the MIT Mobility Forum. “It’s not clear we’re going to have the ability to charge them. That’s a huge, huge mismatch.”

    Indeed, making EV charging stations as ubiquitous as gas stations could spur a major transition within the entire U.S. vehicle fleet. While the automaker Tesla has built a network of almost 2,000 charging stations across the U.S., and might make some interoperable with other makes of vehicles, independent companies trying to develop a business out of it are still trying to gain significant traction.

    “They don’t have a business model that works yet,” said Fine, the Chrysler Leaders for Global Operations Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, speaking of startup firms. “They haven’t figured out their supply chains. They haven’t figured out the customer value proposition. They haven’t figured out their technology standards. It’s a very, very immature domain.”

    The May 12 event drew nearly 250 people as well as an online audience. The MIT Mobility Forum is a weekly set of talks and discussions during the academic year, ranging widely across the field of transportation and design. It is hosted by the MIT Mobility Initiative, which works to advance sustainable, accessible, and safe forms of transportation.

    Fine is a prominent expert in the areas of operations strategy, entrepreneurship, and supply chain management. He has been at MIT Sloan for over 30 years; from 2015 to 2022, he also served as the founding president, dean, and CEO of the Asia School of Business in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a collaboration between MIT Sloan and Bank Negara Malaysia. Fine is also author of “Faster, Smarter, Greener: The Future of the Car and Urban Mobility” (MIT Press, 2017).

    In Fine’s remarks, he discussed the growth stages of startup companies, highlighting three phases where firms try to “nail it, scale it, and sail it” — that is, figure out the concept and workability of their enterprise, try to expand it, and then operate as a larger company. The charging-business startups are still somewhere within the first of these phases.

    At the same time, the established automakers have announced major investments in EVs — a collective $860 billion over the next decade, Fine noted. Among others, Ford says it will invest $50 billion in EV production by 2026; General Motors plans to spend $35 billion on EVs by 2025; and Toyota has announced it will invest $35 billion in EV manufacturing by 2030.

    With all these vehicles potentially coming to market, Fine suggested, the crux of the issue is a kind of “chicken and egg” problem between EVs and the network needed to support them.

    “If you’re a startup company in the charging business, if there aren’t many EVs out there, you’re not going to be making much money, and that doesn’t give you the capital to continue to invest and grow,” Fine said. “So, they need to wait until they have revenue before they can grow further. On the other hand, why should anybody buy an electric car if they don’t think they’re going to be able to charge it?”

    Those living in single-family homes can install chargers. But many others are not in that situation, Fine noted: “For people who don’t have fixed parking spaces and have to rely on the public network, there is this chicken-and-egg problem. They can’t buy an EV unless they know how they’re going to be able to charge it, and charging companies can’t build out their networks unless they know how they’re going to get their revenue.”

    The event featured a question-and-answer session and audience discussion, with a range of questions, and comments from some industry veterans, including Robin Chase SM ’86, the co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar. She expressed some optimism that startup charging companies will be able to get traction in the nascent market before long.

    “The right companies can learn very fast,” Chase said. “There’s no reason why they can’t correct those scaling problems in short-ish order.”

    In answer to other audience questions, Fine noted some of the challenges that will have to be addressed by independent charging firms, such as unified standards and interoperability among automakers and charging stations.

    “For a driver to have to have six different apps, or [their] car doesn’t fit in the plug here or there, or my software doesn’t talk to my credit card … connectivity, standards, technical issues need to be worked out as well,” Fine said.

    There are also varying regulatory issues, including grid policies and what consumers can be billed for, which have to be worked out on a state-by-state basis, meaning that even modest-size startups will have to have knowledgeable and productive legal departments.

    All of which makes it possible, as Fine suggested, that the large legacy automakers will start investing more heavily in the charging business in the near future. Mercedes, he noted, just announced in January that it is entering into a partnership with charging firms ChargePoint and MN8 Energy to develop about 400 charging stations across North America by 2027. By necessity, others might have to follow suit if they want to protect their massive planned investments in the EV sector.

    “I’m not in the business of telling [automakers] what to do, but I do think they have a lot at risk,” Fine said. “They’re spending billions and billions of dollars to produce these cars, and I don’t think they can afford an epic failure [if] people don’t buy them because there’s no charging infrastructure. If they’re waiting for the startups to build out rapidly, then they may be waiting longer than they hope to wait.” More

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    Engaging enterprises with the climate crisis

    Almost every large corporation is committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 but lacks a roadmap to get there, says John Sterman, professor of management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, co-director of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, and leader of its Climate Pathways Project. Sterman and colleagues offer a suite of well-honed strategies to smooth this journey, including a free global climate policy simulator called En-ROADS deployed in workshops that have educated more than 230,000 people, including thousands of senior elected officials and leaders in business and civil society around the world. 

    Running on ordinary laptops, En-ROADS examines how we can reduce carbon emissions to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius, Sterman says. Users, expert or not, can easily explore how dozens of policies, such as pricing carbon and electrifying vehicles, can affect hundreds of factors such as temperature, energy prices, and sea level rise. 

    En-ROADs and related work on climate change are just one thread in Sterman’s decades of research to integrate environmental sustainability with business decisions. 

    “There’s a fundamental alignment between a healthy environment, a healthy society, and a healthy economy,” he says. “Destroy the environment and you destroy the economy and society. Likewise, hungry, ill-housed, insecure people, lacking decent jobs and equity in opportunity, will catch the last fish and cut the last tree, destroying the environment and society. Unfortunately, a lot of businesses still see the issue as a trade-off — if we focus on the environment, it will hurt our bottom line; if we improve working conditions, it will raise our labor costs. That turns out not to be true in many, many cases. But how can we help people understand that fundamental alignment? That’s where simulation models can play a big role.”

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    Learning with management flight simulators 

    “My original field is system dynamics, a method for understanding the complex systems in which we’re embedded—whether those are organizations, companies, markets, society as a whole, or the climate system” Sterman says. “You can build these wonderful, complex simulation models that offer important insights and insight into high-leverage policies so that organizations can make significant improvements.” 

    “But those models don’t do any good at all unless the folks in those organizations can learn for themselves about what those high-leverage opportunities are,” he emphasizes. “You can show people the best scientific evidence, the best data, and it’s not necessarily going to change their minds about what they ought to be doing. You’ve got to create a process that helps smart but busy people learn how they can improve their organizations.” 

    Sterman and his colleagues pioneered management flight simulators — which, like aircraft flight simulators, offer an environment in which you can make decisions, seeing what works and what doesn’t, at low cost with no risk. 

    “People learn best from experience and experiment,” he points out. “But in many of the most important settings that we face today, experience comes too late to be useful, and experiments are impossible. In such settings, simulation becomes the only way people can learn for themselves and gain the confidence to change their behavior in the real world.” 

    “You can’t learn to fly a new jetliner by watching someone else; to learn, one must be at the controls,” Sterman emphasizes. “People don’t change deeply embedded beliefs and behaviors just because somebody tells them that what they’re doing is harmful and there are better options. People have to learn for themselves.”

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    Learning the business of sustainability 

    His longstanding “laboratory for sustainable business” course lets MIT Sloan School students learn the state of the art in sustainability challenges — not just climate change but microplastics, water shortages, toxins in our food and air, and other crises. As part of the course, students work in teams with organizations on real sustainability challenges. “We’ve had a very wide range of companies and other organizations participate, and many of them come back year after year,” Sterman says. 

    MIT Sloan also offers executive education in sustainability, in both open enrollment and customized programs. “We’ve had all kinds of folks, from all over the world and every industry” he says. 

    In his opening class for executive MBAs, he polls attendees to ask if sustainability is a material issue for their companies, and how actively those companies are addressing that issue. Almost all of the attendees agree that sustainability is a key issue, but nearly all say their companies are not doing enough, with many saying they “comply with all applicable laws and regulations.” 

    “So there’s a huge disconnect,” Sterman points out. “How do you close that gap? How do you take action? How do you break the idea that if you take action to be more sustainable it will hurt your business, when in fact it’s almost always the other way around? And then how can you make the change happen, so that what you’re doing will get implemented and stick?” 

    Simulating policies for sustainability 

    Management flight simulators that offer active learning can provide crucial guidance. In the case of climate change, En-ROADs presents a straightforward interface that lets users adjust sliders to experiment with actions to try to bring down carbon emissions. “Should we have a price on carbon?” Sterman asks. “Should we promote renewables? Should we work on methane? Stop deforestation? You can try anything you want. You get immediate feedback on the likely consequences of your decisions. Often people are surprised as favorite policies — say, planting trees — have only minor impact on global warming. (In the case of trees, because it takes so long for the trees to grow).”

    One En-ROADS alumnus works for a pharmaceutical company that set a target of zero net emissions by mid-century. But, as often observed, measures proposed at the senior corporate level were often resisted by the operating units. The alumnus attacked the problem by bringing workshops with simulations and other sustainability tools to front-line employees in a manufacturing plant he knew well. He asked these employees how they thought they could reduce carbon emissions and what they needed to do so. 

    “It turns out that they had a long list of opportunities to reduce the emissions from this plant,” Sterman says. “But they didn’t have any support to get it done. He helped their ideas get that support, get the resources, come up with ways to monitor their progress, and ways to look for quick wins. It’s been highly successful.” 

    En-ROADS helps people understand that process improvement activity takes resources; you might need to take some equipment offline temporarily, for example, to upgrade or improve it. “There’s a little bit of a worse-before-better trade-off,” he says. “You need to be prepared. The active learning, the use of the simulators, helps people prepare for that journey and overcome the barriers that they will face.” 

    Interactive workshops with En-ROADS and other sustainability tools also brought change to another large corporation, HSBC Bank U.S.A. Like many other financial institutions, HSBC has committed to significantly cut its emissions, but many employees and executives didn’t understand why or what that would entail. For instance, would the bank give up potential business in carbon-intensive industries? 

    Brought to more than 1,000 employees, the En-ROADS workshops let employees surface concerns they might have about continuing to be successful while addressing climate concerns. “It turns out in many cases, there isn’t that much of a trade-off,” Sterman remarks. “Fossil energy projects, for example, are extremely risky. And there are opportunities to improve margins in other businesses where you can help cut their carbon footprint.” 

    The free version of En-ROADS generally satisfies the needs of most organizations, but Sterman and his partners also can augment the model or develop customized workshops to address specific concerns. 

    People who take the workshops emerge with a greater understanding of climate change and its effects, and a deeper knowledge of the high-leverage opportunities to cut emissions. “Even more importantly, they come out with a greater sense of urgency,” he says. “But they also come out with an understanding that it’s not too late. Time is short, but what we do can still make a difference.”  More