Massachusetts Institute of Technology doctoral candidate Saul Griffith, whose inventions include a "desktop printer" for low-cost eyeglass lenses, received the prestigious $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for inventiveness during a ceremony this morning at MIT.
Merton Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, which sponsors the annual award, cited Griffith's innovative device for manufacturing low-cost eyeglass lenses and his work creating comic strips that inspire children to learn about science and engineering as important reasons he was chosen this year.
"Saul tackles some very challenging real-world problems, yet at the same time there is a wonderful sense of playfulness and simplicity to his work," Flemings said. "His low-cost vision-testing and lens-manufacturing inventions could dramatically improve life for billions of people in developing countries who cannot access, nor afford, prescription glasses."
"It's sometimes easier for engineers and scientists to work on the next generation of computer chips or the next PDA, but there are some beautiful problems that a lot of people don't go after because it's hard to get support and funding and it's incredibly hard to be successful," Griffith said. "It would be nice if my work inspired others to address some of these problems and make them more acceptable."
Griffith's advances in low-cost lenses sprung from his interests in rapid prototyping technologies and efficient manufacturing. Using a process dubbed programmable molding, he created a portable device similar to a desktop printer that can produce any prescription lens from a single-mold surface in five to 10 minutes.
The device casts the lenses by applying pressure and constraints to a programmable membrane, which becomes the mold surface when under pressure. The current device uses car window tinting film for the membrane and a reservoir of baby oil for applying the correct pressure. A large range of lens types, covering the majority of prescriptions, can be cast from two such mold surfaces.
Traditional lens manufacturing systems require expensive molds for each lens type. In remote rural areas, it is cost-prohibitive to maintain a library of thousands of lenses for relatively small populations of people. The traditional process not only comes with enormous inventory and handling costs, but also can result in excessive waste. Griffith's patent-pending device essentially eliminates these problems.
But efficient lens manufacturing is only half the issue. Proper diagnosis of vision problems is the other half. Current automatic diagnostic technologies are expensive, fragile and error-prone. Because they rely on a patient looking at electronically generated images a few inches away from his or her face, they can lead to incorrect diagnoses. Plus, highly skilled people are required to operate these machines.
To resolve this problem, Griffith has created a prototype device to test the human eye. Patients need only wear the device, which looks like an oversized pair of goggles, and look at the world around them. An electronic sensor superimposed on the goggles monitors the lens in the wearer's eye and adjusts the device's lens to cancel the refractive errors, thus determining the correct prescription.
In 2001, Griffith and colleague Neil Houghton won the Harvard Business School Social Enterprise Business Plan Contest for the concept. They have since started a company called Low Cost Eyeglasses (www.lowcosteyeglasses.net) to manufacture and market the product.
ABOUT THE $30,000 LEMELSON-MIT STUDENT PRIZE
The $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize is awarded annually to an MIT senior or graduate student who has created or improved a product or process, applied a technology in a new way, redesigned a system, or has demonstrated remarkable inventiveness in other ways. A distinguished panel of scientists, technologists, engineers and entrepreneurs selects the winner. This is the 10th year the Lemelson-MIT Program has given the award.
ABOUT THE LEMELSON-MIT PROGRAM
The Lemelson-MIT Program aims to raise the stature of inventors and provide resources and inspiration to make invention and innovation more accessible to today's youth. It accomplishes this mission through outreach activities and annual awards, including the world's largest prize for invention - the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize.
The Lemelson-MIT Program was founded in 1994 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by Jerome H. Lemelson, one of the world's most prolific inventors, and his wife, Dorothy. It is funded by The Lemelson Foundation, a private philanthropy committed to honoring the contributions of inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs, and to inspiring ingenuity in others. More information on the Lemelson-MIT Program is online at http://web.mit.edu/invent.