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

5/17/12Follow @gthuang

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 »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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  • http://www.facebook.com/sdguero Ryan Bray

    I think I like this guy. :)

  • Sulfide Smolder

    can we drop romney for massie???? lets not waste the next four years

  • johnwerneken

    More power to him. Facts lend themselves to win-win solutions; ideology may be cheaper as a means of manipulating folks but the results are of a different quality. I’d rather be right than popular and I think such government as we need should be based on that principle.

  • Raymond Chuang

    I think Thomas Massie saw the following:

    1. Government has gotten TOO big with too much bureaucratic overlap, agency bloat and obsolete/unneeded regulations, all of which has resulted in record Federal deficit spending and regulations that are woefully anti-business for all the _wrong_ reasons.

    2. The American income tax system is a complicated, circa US$400 billion/year compliance cost mess that discourages savings and capital investment in the USA and is rife with corruption and serious issues with invasion of privacy (since IRS 1040 long form tax filings often require intimate details of your personal and business finances). Why do you think some economists estimate that over US$15 TRILLION in American-owned liquid assets are sitting in banks beyond US borders? (That explains why Apple has the majority of its circa US$100 billion in liquid assets sitting in foreign banks and the proliferation of “banks” in various Caribbean island nations.) Not to mention millions of jobs, thousands of factories and hundreds of corporate headquarters leaving the USA for tax avoidance reasons, too.

    This is the same problem that is plaguing most of the world’s national economies, especially Europe, where overly-generous government social services are on the verge of causing sovereign debt defaults in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy with dire consequences.

    The message of the Tea Party movement is totally correct: we need to “right size” government to be way more efficient so government budgets can be far smaller and massively overhaul the income tax system so it has way lower yearly compliance costs and encourages more savings and capital investment in the USA.

  • Bayesian Objectivity

    I’ve worked with his product.  I guarantee you 95% of his company’s revenue came from government spending.

  • alex

    He is an engineer who sees problems and fixes them–we need a LOT more engineers in Congress, because its clear politicians have had their chance and failed.

  • http://www.stumbleupon.com/stumbler/mhenriday/ M Henri Day

    The reigning model for engineers in government is the People’s Republic of China….

    Henri

    • Peakview28

      It would be Germany. Pretty well run for the most part, yes?

      • http://www.stumbleupon.com/stumbler/mhenriday/ M Henri Day

        Peakview28, you mean the place where government officials, up to and including the president, regularly have to resign when plagiarism in the PhD theses that others have written for them is uncovered ? But if you mean by «pretty well run» that Germany is better run than the United States, I quite agree – but please note that in Germany the percentage of union members in the labour market is about twice that of the United States, that regulations on the hiring and firing of workers there are far stricter, and government intervention in the economy far more frequent than in the US, while the amount of public moneys devoted to killing people abroad, aka «defense», much less, etc, etc. I believe this sort of thing is referred to as «socialism» in the United States. If, indeed, this is what Mr Massie has in mind, then by all means, the US Congress certainly needs more men and women like him, nicht wahr ?…

        Henri

  • anonymous coward

    I’m an engineer and I’m sorry to note that we’ve had 2 engineers as President.  Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter.

  • Albrecm

    He won!!

  • Suszlous

    this guy is overrated! he did not invent hapetic tech nor was he anywhere near genius! ky can keep him!

  • Suszlous

    the fact the company sold for a “FEW” accents on the word FEW million prove’s the point!

  • suzzs

    where’s me comment’s?

  • suzzy

    only from kentucky would you be considered a genius and god among politician’s just because your owned a small bit of a tech company that sold for only a FEW million !

  • suzzy

    kentucky set’s very low standard’s for it’s boy-wonder’s! haha the guy’s a fool ask any1 from mit that knew him