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 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 profitable, and that it had “good margins but not software margins.” Its archrival, Immersion, went public in late 1999, leaving SensAble a bit in the lurch. “We’re an East Coast company—we wanted a good, solid business before going public,” Aulet says.

Meanwhile, Massie was starting to feel like his work was winding down at the company. “At some point, SensAble, I think, became a market application exercise,” he says. “What I brought to the company, more than anything, was the mechanical invention, and then seeing the birth of the software that went with it.” He was also thinking about the next phase for him and his family. “I thought at some point in my life, after taking some time to farm and build my house and raise my kids, that I would go back into sort of an ‘ideas factory’ company, that I would start something like that,” Massie says. “The venture capitalists really wanted us to focus on a single idea. They don’t really like an ideas factory.”

In 2002-2003, Massie was working to take SensAble’s products down-market to consumers. While he doesn’t say so outright, it sounds like this strategy—or at least the pace he wanted to set—was not supported by the company’s board of directors, who would have needed to see a worthy low-end market to justify cutting into high-end revenues. (Interestingly, his consumer strategy might have been ahead of its time; these days the market for personalized product creation might make a low-end Phantom system quite fashionable.)

“At the end, it became obvious that the company could finally function without me,” Massie says. Plus, he had probably had enough of the business world and the Northeast (he enjoyed living in New Hampshire but says “it was just too cold”). He wanted to get back to his roots. Whatever the exact reasons, he left SensAble and New England in 2003, after 10 years on the job.

A Snake Under Every Rock

That year, Massie and his family moved back to Lewis County, Kentucky, which he calls “the freest place in the world.” They bought 1,200 acres of land, and Massie ran a farm and began building a house. But not just an ordinary house. It stands 46 feet tall, is made of timber from the trees on his property and stones from his creek, and is reinforced with steel “so termites can’t get to it,” he says. The Massies draw water from their own well. The house generates all its own electricity from an array of solar panels. “It’s designed for two generations of neglect. Our house will withstand that,” Massie says.

“If there was a nuclear bomb, that’s where you want to be,” Aulet adds.

Living off-the-grid was a major lifestyle choice, and it speaks to Massie’s deep-rooted beliefs. “A large part of it is just avoiding the moral encumbrances that come from hooking up that wire,” he says. “When I first sprung this idea on [Rhonda], she said, ‘You can build whatever kind of house you want, but if you expect me to live in it, it better have air conditioning.’ So that doubled the size of the solar array. That was our engineering constraint. It was kind of like 2.70—I understood it.” (And to help plan the construction of the house, Massie used the Phantom 3-D system he’d invented to create a miniature model of his farm.)

Their house might sound like something out of Doomsday Preppers, the reality show about survivalists preparing for Armageddon. But Massie and his family just wanted to keep to themselves and be left alone. “I raise grass-fed cattle. But it’s a job, I wish it were more profitable. My hobbies are my kids and running the farm. And firearms,” he says, with a hint of boyish mischief. “We conduct ballistic experiments regularly on our farm.”

As Massie writes on his political website, “I’m a decade-long concealed carry permit holder and Class III firearms collector. When I was twelve years old, my father bought me my first gun, an H&R .410 shotgun. In the course of hunting in the woods of Kentucky, he taught me the great responsibility that comes with ownership of a firearm. Now that I am a father of four, I enjoy teaching these same lessons to my children through hunting and target practice.”

But Massie could only keep to himself and his family for so long. One day (as he related in a talk last year), he saw in the local paper that the county was planning to implement a new property tax—in part to build a federal conservation office in the area. Massie was outraged, and he wrote a letter to the editor to protest the tax. He urged readers who agreed with him to show up at the fiscal court meeting (like a town hall) and be heard. A crowd of 200 people responded to the call, and they successfully squelched the tax plan.

That scene would repeat itself as the county attempted to pass new zoning laws and an occupation tax. Massie wrote more letters and went to more meetings, drawing more crowds. “There was no Tea Party when I started getting involved,” he says. “They called it ‘Thomas’s angry mob.’ We would show up at these fiscal court meetings. We backed them down every time they tried to do something.”

People started telling Massie he should run for office. So in 2010, he ran for Judge-Executive of Lewis County—a position that is the executive and legislative head of the county government. He says he was swept up in “a wave of enthusiasm” over Rand Paul’s Senate campaign out of Kentucky. Massie ended up beating the incumbent by a 2-1 margin in the Republican primary, and won the general election 3-1 over the Democratic candidate (which is typical for that county).

But things have not gone smoothly for Massie in office—and that’s just how he wants it. “When you’re stalking waste within a government office, it’s like every rock that you turn over has a snake under it,” he says. Massie has been targeting waste, fraud, and abuse, starting with questioning electric bills, phone bills, contracts, and fees for things that don’t apply anymore. Like the county being charged rental fees for property that had long been sold, paying for phone lines that had been disconnected for years, or buying stuff from a magistrate’s store. He has upset a lot of entrenched powers, but has gained support from the masses for it. And he says that in his first nine months in office, he cut enough waste to pay his own salary for three years.

Interestingly, Massie also was inspired to run for office by something he heard during his MIT days. John Sununu, the former New Hampshire governor and White House Chief of Staff for George Bush, Sr., came to campus to speak (he’s an MIT alum). “He implored us as engineers to get involved in politics. Maybe that stuck in my brain for 20 years and popped out recently,” says Massie.

Massie recalls Sununu saying, “We need more engineers and fewer lawyers” in politics. As Massie explains, “Lawyers are taught to take a position, whether it’s right or wrong ideologically, and defend it—to go collect facts to support it. Whereas engineers are taught the inverse of that, they’re taught to collect facts and then come up with an answer based on the facts. He said, ‘That’s the kind of thought process we need more of in government.’ On the stump, that’s what I’m trying to convey, that we need more problem solvers in Washington, DC.”

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Tax Reform

At a Tea Party rally in Kentucky last year, Massie told the crowd, “Even a bad day on the farm is better than a good day in the rat race.” That was after an ice storm destroyed his five-mile cattle fence, and he had to chase cows all over the county (and then rebuild the fence). But now he’s in the biggest rat race of his life, fending off opponents who are “spewing venom and untruths” in their negative ad campaigns, he says. So why do it?

Massie says when he and his wife left New England, “we knew at some point we would get involved again. We thought we would re-engage in the private sector and start another company. But we decided, whatever we did, we were going to do for Kentucky,” Massie adds, “I really never dreamed of getting into politics. But, let’s just say, I’m ready for it. I’ve had a lot of time to think.”

As for his political platform, Massie calls himself a “Constitutional conservative,” and he identifies with the Tea Party—at least the members in his home state, whom he says “defy the stereotype in the media.” As he explains, “In northern Kentucky, Tea Parties focus on fiscal responsibility and constitutionally limited government. All of the other stuff around the edges—that maybe some Tea Party folks are for and some are against—don’t get rolled up into the agenda.”

His political views didn’t appear out of thin air either. Back at MIT, when Massie and his wife were running SensAble in its early days, he was told they owed the IRS $40,000 in taxes, plus quarterly estimated taxes, off a profit of around $120,000. “Mind you, we’re still wearing the same sneakers we showed up as freshmen with. We probably didn’t have $5,000 of operating capital sitting in the bank account,” he says. “I was trying to grow the company by bootstrapping. But what I realized is the tax code punishes bootstrappers.”

So now Massie would support what he calls “quicker, if not instant, amortization of capital equipment investments. Instead of tying up all that capital in a company that’s trying to grow, let them take that depreciation right now.” He says he’d also support changes to the federal tax structure that encourage business owners to repatriate capital to the United States.

Another Massie target is the FDA’s long approval process, particularly for medical device innovators. “We need to reform the FDA,” Massie says. “You know it’s pretty bad when the people who have to deal with the FDA say, ‘Why can’t you be more like the Patent Office?’”

It’s hard to argue with that, but Massie is a conspicuous outsider to the political system. (He certainly comes across as down-to-earth and open, especially for a politician.) Not surprisingly, he and his supporters see that as a major strength as he goes up against establishment Republicans in the primary election. “Look at the 55 delegates who wrote our Constitution,” he says. “There were farmers, there were businesspeople, there were inventors. They had some contextual knowledge outside of government. I think what that gives you is common sense, and I think that’s what we’re lacking in Washington, DC.”

In his official endorsement, Republican Congressman Ron Paul wrote that Massie “has been part of our Revolution for years. His political beliefs and personal principles led him to a strong adherence to liberty, and he has worked to show his family, neighbors, and friends the path to freedom.” Paul continued: “Thomas Massie has the principles and guts to stand up to Big Government as I have.” And just this week his son, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, endorsed Massie as well.

So the stage is set for the Republican congressional primary in Kentucky next Tuesday, after which we’ll find out whether the MIT whiz and legendary entrepreneur and inventor can raise his political game to the next level.

Just one last comment from Massie, as he winds down his campaign with a Tea Party speech tonight in Dry Ridge, KY, to be followed by rallies over the weekend: “I don’t play things I can’t win.”

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 or call him at 617-252-7323. 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