Using Science to Disrupt Industry
A student with a dream, a faculty member who questions authority, and a serial entrepreneur join forces.
Nevada Sanchez grew up in New Mexico with dreams of someday starting a technology company. His parents, a florist and a drywaller, told him that the place to go to make that happen was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Years later Sanchez enrolled at MIT, and in 2011 with the support and encouragement of his physics professor, Max Tegmark, he fullfilled his dream.
Sanchez was just 23 years old when he cofounded Butterfly Network alongside serial entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg. At 26, he appeared on Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list for his contributions to science. His story is an easy-to-find example of the ways our graduates are spurring innovation and solving humanity’s greatest challenges, and is a true demonstration of how students, faculty, and friends of MIT can join forces to change our world in just a matter of years.
Butterfly Network is developing a new kind of medical imaging device described by MIT’s Technology Review as “a scanner the size of an iPhone that you could hold up to a person’s chest and see a vivid, moving, 3-D image of what’s inside…. The technology, which according to patent documents relies on a new kind of ultrasound chip, could eventually lead to new ways to destroy cancer cells with heat, or deliver information to brain cells.” The final product, Butterfly hopes, will be “nearly as cheap as a stethoscope” and will “make doctors 100 times as effective.” A portable, cheap, and high-quality ultrasound could make medicine’s most commonly used imaging technique accessible to more people, thereby having a significant impact on healthcare across the globe.
A New Way of Thinking
As an undergraduate, Sanchez enrolled in Professor Max Tegmark’s class on Special Relativity and was wowed by Tegmark’s work and his insights into Sanchez’s preconceptions about the world. Tegmark explained, “Special relativity is a great lesson in what I view as the core principle of science: Question authority, even when that authority is your own personal preconception as to how the world works. [For example], the idea that time flows at the same rate for all observers was so deeply engrained that it took the genius of Einstein to challenge it.” This philosophy, when applied to industry, can easily spur innovation. Shedding deeply engrained preconceptions and processes provides the opportunity to rethink traditional approaches. And, if nothing else, MIT students are taught how
to tackle hard problems.
Tegmark is a proponent of this approach and is using this philosophy to reimagine radioastronomy. It was during a presentation about the subject – about how radioastronomy would be completely different if it were completed from scratch – that he attracted the attention of Jonathan Rothberg, an entrepreneur whose experience with the semiconductor industry and understanding of biology and biotechnology has led him to a path of regularly disrupting healthcare with novel approaches that are often better, more efficient, and more cost-effective than what currently exists. Recognizing a kindred spirit, Rothberg approached Tegmark after his presentation and told him he agreed with his philosophy but couldn’t come up with a business plan to use Tegmark’s techniques in astronomy. However, Rothberg did see a way forward in medicine. He was (and is) passionate about developing technology for good causes and was eager to support a startup. What was missing, though, was someone with whom to cofound his next venture.
“Suddenly a lightbulb went off in my head, and I knew I had the perfect match,” said Tegmark. The person he referred to, of course, was Nevada Sanchez, who was so impressed with Professor Tegmark’s work that he stayed at MIT to finish his master’s in Tegmark’s laboratory. “Nevada wanted to defer his Ph.D. to support his family, and Facebook and Microsoft got into a bidding war over him. I felt that such a brilliant guy full of creative ideas would bring more good into the world if he started his own company where he was in charge rather than just a small cog in a big machine.” Tegmark made the introduction.
When asked about his decision to give up competitive job offers to instead found a startup, Sanchez shared his thought process: “I studied a lot of subjects at MIT, ranging from computer science and electrical engineering to physics and mathematics. This startup was a unique opportunity where I could exercise just about everything I learned at MIT. I had spent my whole life preparing for entrepreneurship and I had the perfect opportunity unfolding right in front of me.
“We knew that we could change the way that we image the human body in much the same way that Max’s lab was changing the way that we image the universe. Now we’re 3 years in, a year away from launch, and have $100 million to push us into production with a game changing product.”
The Origins of Innovation
Many people think of engineering or business school if their goal is to create game-changing technologies and products. Some even make the mistake of thinking that science has little impact on our daily lives and imagine scientists to be isolated in their laboratories, pursuing highly theoretical and arcane questions – particularly in the fields of physics and mathematics. Tegmark couldn’t disagree more: “We owe most of our technology and most of our GDP to physics research.”
He goes on to explain that, often, the research investments with the highest payoffs are ones that seemed most irrelevant to our everyday lives. “For example, the curiosity-driven quest to understand the fundamental building blocks of matter seemed to have little practical relevance, but gave us quantum mechanics, lasers, transistors, computers, and smartphones.”
So what, exactly, is the connection between basic research, innovation, and disruptive technology? According to Rothberg, basic research gives you the theoretical foundation to solve a problem, which is then realized as a new, disruptive technology which can then be brought to market. “If you are creating something that hasn’t been done before, it’s critical to go back to first principles and often take an approach not taken before. At 4Catalyzer [Rothberg’s startup accelerator], we are always doing something that has never been done before – something that often requires fundamental science. Peter Thiel calls this going from Zero to One. Engineering is great once you have something working – the engineers then make sure you can scale and manufacture the products.”
For Sanchez and the Butterfly Network, this means reinventing medical technology to replace $6 million of slow, imprecise equipment – an MRI machine and high intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) – with a semiconductor chip.
Now a graduate of MIT, where he triple-majored in physics, mathematics, and electrical engineering, Sanchez is doing just that. After turning down several competing offers from top technology companies, Sanchez seized an opportunity to play a role in revolutionizing the healthcare industry; in 2011, Butterfly Network was born.
Below: Concept drawings filed with the patent office by Butterfly Network show ideas for a small, 3-D ultrasound imaging device.