Proving that technological entrepreneurship can have groundbreaking impact when inventive concepts stretch across disparate fields, renowned innovator, materials scientist and applied physicist Dr. John A. Rogers was announced today as recipient of the 2011 $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. Rogers' research has resulted in the creation of revolutionary products integral to human health, fiber optics, semiconductor manufacturing and solar power, with many currently in commercial use. Rogers will accept the prestigious prize and present his accomplishments to the public at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the Lemelson-MIT Program's fifth-annual EurekaFest, a multi-day celebration of the inventive spirit, June 15 – 18.
Rogers' interest in science and technology began during childhood, with a physicist father and an accomplished poet mother, both encouraging the importance of thinking imaginatively. His ongoing education and research further propelled this interdisciplinary path, with an approach to invention based on leveraging creative ideas, but pursuing them within the constraints of practical utility. His current work demonstrates expertise as an entrepreneurial innovator, bringing lab work to multi-industry marketplaces. He is Co-founder and Director of mc10, Inc. and Semprius, Inc., among various other companies.
Humanizing Electronics for Healthcare
Bridging the gap between biology and electronics, Rogers and colleagues launched mc10 in 2008 to address a fundamental challenge in the use of traditional silicon wafer-based electronics for surgical procedures – the devices are rigid, flat and therefore cannot match the soft contours of the human body. Rogers devised a way to transform these systems into soft, flexible devices with tissue-like characteristics that can be used in cardiology and neurology to make surgical diagnosis and treatment easier. Thin, silicon-based electronics and sensors laminate onto the surfaces of internal organs and fuse with their complex surfaces, providing a window into their operation. Doctors can leverage this type of high-resolution, high-performance technology to map vital organs, such as the heart or brain, leading to more effective identification and treatment of conditions such as cardiac arrhythmias and epilepsy. The 'stretchable' technology's broad use can also be applied to consumer health and fitness products. In 2010, mc10 announced its collaboration with Reebok Int. Ltd. to create an advanced line of athletic apparel and equipment currently under development.
Rogers has also applied his creative thinking and expertise in flexible electronics to build the first cameras similar in size and shape to the human eye. Using silicon light-detection electronics, his 'electric eye' cameras achieve excellent imaging characteristics even with the most basic, lowest cost types of lenses. The curvature in the detector – or 'artificial retina' – sharpens the focus of an entire image, compared to typical cameras that require sophisticated lenses to avoid distortion at the edges, and can be placed in locations where cameras have never been possible before.
Creating Economically Viable and Sustainable Solar Power
Recognizing sustainable energy as another dominant societal challenge, Rogers delved into photovoltaics, the direct conversion of light into electricity. To commercialize his technology, which makes solar power more economically viable in sunny, dry climates, Rogers co-founded Semprius in 2006. The company launched a partnership with Siemens to facilitate large scale deployment of Rogers' system, built from high-performance semiconductors in the form of tiny solar cells 'printed' onto low cost, thin plates of glass for substrates. Modules formed in this way are less expensive than any other current or projected technology for common fixed installations in utility-scale power generation. A first commercial system was delivered to Tuscon Electric Power Company in 2010. Independent estimates suggest that this solar technology can be cost competitive with coal in four to five years. The same approaches can be used to build solar modules on plastic rolls, clothing, transparent windows and many other surfaces, for additional application opportunities.
Colleague Ilesanmi Adesida, Dean and Willett Professor of Engineering at University of Illinois, described Rogers' ability to span across incongruent fields of work and position himself as a leading entrepreneur. "Rogers can move effortlessly from science to technology and to practical applications with a unique vision for the translation of science to products. His work exemplifies how to effectively bolster sciences and technology so the United States can successfully compete and prosper in the global community of the 21st century."
Leading the Way in Mentorship
Rogers' manages a large, interdisciplinary group of students at University of Illinois whose recent inventions range from implantable light emitting diode 'tattoos' to carbon nanotube radios. Many of these projects have resulted in startups of their own. In his role as a mentor, Rogers encourages future inventors to think ingeniously, find outstanding collaborators and be persistent and relentless in the pursuit of solutions to grand challenges for society.
"John Rogers takes the cross-section of scientific and technological development for practical application to a new level; the work is striking in its novelty and marketability," states Michael J. Cima, faculty director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. "His management of a team of young researchers focused on inventive work additionally establishes his ability to thrive as a role model, evidenced in the fact that every student to study in his group has gone on to pursue a creative technical career. This game-changing and inspiring type of inventor defines who we look to honor."
With more than 300 published papers, 80 patents or applications (50 of which are licensed or in active use) and a MacArthur Fellowship in 2009, Rogers is hailed as one of the most accomplished mid-career inventors in the country. He is currently Director of the National Science Foundation Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center as well as the Lee J. Flory-Founder Chair in Engineering Innovation at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he also holds joint appointments in the Departments of Materials Science and Engineering, Chemistry, Mechanical Science and Engineering, and Electrical and Computer Engineering.
"When he established this prize, my husband Jerome's vision was to celebrate visionaries working to improve the world through invention and innovation," said Dorothy Lemelson, chair of The Lemelson Foundation. "This year, we are proud to honor Dr. Rogers whose discoveries combine brilliance and practical applications to benefit humanity."