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

5/17/12Follow @gthuang

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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 »

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