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

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of the device in his campus apartment together with his wife, Rhonda. The two had been high school sweethearts, and Rhonda had gotten into MIT two years after Thomas did. It was 1993. (You can read more about Massie’s work and the field of haptics in an MIT master’s thesis by Kevin Bullis.)

There was enough outside interest in the device, dubbed the “Phantom,” that Massie had to figure out the business side of things. To sell the Phantom, Massie incorporated SensAble—originally called SensAble Devices—in Kentucky with his father’s help. Massie’s father was a beer distributor back home. So in the beginning, the “company” consisted of a phone in Kentucky that his dad would answer and say, “You want a keg? No, a robot?” jokes Aulet, who worked with Massie on product pricing and building out the business.

Massie’s skills as an inventor and engineer were no joke, however. Alex Slocum, a longtime professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, calls him “brilliant, driven,” and “honest.” Slocum was an organizer of the famous campus-wide robotics design competition, called 2.70 (after the MIT class number), which Massie won in 1992 by building a machine that harvested ping-pong balls. Massie also won the inaugural $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for inventiveness in 1995.

But the intellectual property that Massie created around haptics is his biggest technological achievement to date. He is a prolific inventor in that field, with 24 U.S. patents to his name. His seminal patent for a “force reflecting haptic interface,” co-written with Salisbury and issued in 1997 (U.S. Patent #5,625,576), is remarkable for its wide influence on subsequent inventions (see diagram, left). To date, that patent has been cited by 227 others, putting it at the “top of the class” for its time period, says Alex Butler, executive vice president at IPVision, a patent analysis firm that provided the accompanying graphics. (If you click on the image, you’ll get an interactive version that you can drill down into to see each patent’s owner, authors, and when it was filed and issued.) Butler adds that Massie’s two most influential patents were 14 to 15 times more highly cited than the median-ranked patent in the field.

What’s more, the list of companies that own intellectual property citing at least one Massie patent includes Google, Microsoft, Apple, Autodesk, and of course SensAble and Immersion, the West Coast firm that became SensAble’s main competitor (more on that below). Now, with its acquisition of SensAble, Geomagic has picked up most of the firm’s intellectual property; it remains to be seen what will be done with it.

But to this day, SensAble’s technology is used in a wide variety of industries to design cars, toys, shoes, jewelry, and other products; to simulate surgery for training purposes; and to do research in touch-based computer interfaces. One far-out application would be to use the system for remote surgery: a surgeon could potentially use a pair of tele-operated Phantom-like devices to treat a patient thousands of miles away, receiving touch feedback so he or she could feel what’s going on. Recent use cases also include using the system to touch and manipulate 3-D ultrasound data, and to design bone implants for injured soldiers.

“When I was in the AI Lab at MIT, that is not something I could have envisioned,” Massie told me last week. “It’s gratifying to see it’s being used for such things.”

The Rise and Fall of SensAble

To understand where Massie is today, you need to know his company’s full story. By the mid-to-late ’90s, SensAble Technologies was gaining steam. The startup’s early customers included General Electric, Mitsubishi, U.S. government labs and agencies, and university research groups. By 2000, the firm had 350-plus customers including Boeing, Hasbro, Disney, Shell, Motorola, and Mayo Clinic. It sold a 3-D modeling and design system, called FreeForm, that allowed people to design products by sculpting “virtual clay” that they could touch and manipulate “in” the computer. Massie’s force-feedback system was the underlying technology; the Phantom interface had evolved to include a stylus you could grasp, making it easier to use (see photo below).

Over the years, SensAble raised more than $40 million in venture capital ($32 million on Massie’s watch) from the likes of Advent International, Acer Technology Ventures, HLM Venture Partners, and North Bridge Venture Partners. The firm had between 60 and 70 employees at its peak and was written up by big media outlets. “The time at SensAble was the greatest time of my life. We were changing the world,” says Aulet, who now directs the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship (and is an Xconomist).

But things started to head south after the tech bubble burst. The company brought in new leadership. Aulet says SensAble could have been … 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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