From MIT Entrepreneur to Tea Party Leader: The Thomas Massie Story

Buried in the news of the past month, which was admittedly a busy one, was a press release headlined: “Geomagic Acquires Sensable 3D Design and Haptics Businesses.” As far as I can tell, no media outlets besides Xconomy picked up on this deal or its historical—and now, political—significance. Woe is them.

That’s because “Sensable” would be SensAble Technologies, the Woburn, MA-based maker of touch-based computer modeling and design systems. The venerable New England firm started back in 1993 and went on to pioneer all sorts of applications in 3-D modeling and haptics technology—a field of human-computer interfaces that involves touch feedback, sort of like the kind you feel in modern video-game controllers and smartphones.

After nearly 20 years, SensAble’s acquisition by North Carolina-based Geomagic—the price wasn’t disclosed, but was rumored to be just a few million dollars—is an unceremonious ending to one of the most intriguing companies of its era. [Disclosure: Xconomy CEO and Editor-in-chief Bob Buderi was an early investor in SensAble.]

Yet even more compelling than the company is its founder, a young engineering whiz from MIT named Thomas Massie. Over the years, that whiz kid developed many other passions besides building computer interfaces and running a tech company. Things like energy independence. The pursuit of individual liberty. Faith and family. And guns—lots of guns.

After leaving SensAble in 2003 (read on for what he says about that), Massie moved back to the heartland of his home state of Kentucky and spent a few years running a farm and building a solar-powered, off-the-grid house for his family. Then he got into politics. In 2010, he ran for the office of Judge-Executive of his rural county, and won in a landslide.

Now, in a stunning move to those who knew him in Boston, he is running for Congress in one of the most heated races around the country. He has been endorsed by U.S. Representative and presidential candidate Ron Paul (R-TX) and his son, Senator Rand Paul—both prominent figures in the conservative Tea Party movement. The Republican primary in Kentucky is next Tuesday, May 22, and as of last week polls showed Massie in the lead. Since the county is predominantly Republican, if he wins, he will be the presumptive favorite to represent Kentucky’s 4th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

That’s right, the boy-wonder genius from MIT—the founder of SensAble, a pioneer of haptics—is now a political hero of the Tea Party. And he wants to reform our government. An unlikely story? You be the judge.

Diversity Was a Catholic

Thomas Massie grew up in northeastern Kentucky, in a small town called Vanceburg, on the Ohio River. From a young age, he was interested in taking apart radios and vacuum cleaners, blowing things up with gunpowder, and building mechanical contraptions—everything from a self-watering flowerpot to a robot arm. He entered numerous science fairs and competitions from grade school through high school and often won, despite not having much in the way of resources. That changed when he got to MIT as a freshman in 1989 and was surrounded by world-class facilities (and fellow geeks).

“He was probably the first person from his ZIP code that ever went to MIT,” says Bill Aulet, a current MIT faculty member who helped lead SensAble Technologies as its president from 1996 to 2002. “He would say, ‘Diversity where I came from was a Catholic’—a Catholic, singular.”

As an undergrad, Massie worked in roboticist Kenneth Salisbury’s lab in the old Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. (Salisbury would move to Stanford University in 1999.) One of their later projects was to build a device that would simulate being able to touch and manipulate objects in the virtual world with your hand. It consisted of a computer-connected robot arm with a thimble on the end that you could stick your finger into; when you moved your finger, the computer sensed your precise motions through the movements of the robot arm, and then provided force feedback through the apparatus to simulate the feel of an object on the screen (a button, say). Massie built early versions … Next Page »

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Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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