Inside Otherlab's World of Flying Inventions and Elastic Machines

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Makani wind energy kite (Photo credit: Otherlab/Makani Technologies)

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It's no coincidence that some of the key figures at one of the nation's most innovative research and development laboratories were once kite surfers. They're anything but risk-averse, and have parlayed that trait into a slew of cutting-edge technologies at Otherlab, which operates out of a former pipe organ factory in San Francisco.

The lab was founded by Saul Griffith, an Australian native and MacArthur genius grant recipient who moved to the Bay Area with three other MIT engineers in 2004. They wanted to be close to world-class universities, plus they were looking for a good place to pursue their passion for kite surfing.

The MIT engineers formed Squid Labs, a design firm that worked on a pull cord generator and a machine capable of manufacturing eyeglasses at extremely low cost. Eventually, Squid Labs settled in what was once an air traffic control tower on the grounds of a shuttered Navy base in the East Bay. It was the birthplace of instructables.com (now owned by Autodesk), a website that today provides detailed, step-by-step instructions for DIYers. But it was originally created to share plans for making kite surfing gear.

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While at Squid Labs, Griffith and a wind surfer named Don Montague started Makani, a wind energy company that sends mobile generators aloft on an energy kite. One of the people hired at Makani, now a key team member at Otherlab, is New Zealand kite surfing pioneer Pete Lynn.

"Pete and I think up 95 percent of the ideas," said Griffith. "We stare at data, imagine the world we'd like to live in, and invent the thing that gets us there."

Griffith and Lynn's Invention Factory

Griffith and Lynn's inventions include computer-controlled tools, advances in solar-generated electricity, an exoskeleton system that aids athletes as well as seniors, and soft robots that can work at the bottom of the ocean.

Lynn's electric go-kart prototype

Lynn, whose business card says "Disruptive Technology Engineer," has done early stage physics analysis, prototyping, and testing for most of those projects. He comes from a family of kite surfing inventors, the son of New Zealand traction kite pioneer Peter Lynn, whose inflated, frameless "soft kites" have pulled vessels, sleds, and vehicles, including a buggy that set a world record for kite-powered travel in 2012 when it went 84mph in the California desert town of Ivanpah.

The younger Lynn is 45, the same age as Griffith.

"I don't think I had my first good idea until I was 30," said Lynn. "Once you have an idea it's probably another three to five years before you get funded."

Lynn did work on a high-efficiency heating and cooling device now in the works at Treau, a spin-off company still housed in the Otherlab building. Temporarily dubbed The Hangover, the creation may come to life as a window unit. Images of the device have not yet been made public.

Otherlab Co-founder Saul Griffith

Lynn is currently working on a hydrofoil system that will be used to farm kelp from the sea floor. Phase one of the project received $500,000 from ARPA-E MARINER, and additional funding will launch a large-scale demonstration in the Atlantic Ocean in conjunction with the University of New Hampshire. The idea is to pump ocean nutrients from as far down as 200 meters below the surface.

Besides pondering physics for projects at the bottom of the ocean, Lynn is focused on the sky. Lately, he's focusing on electric aircraft. "There's a hundred-odd companies in that space," he notes.

A prototype for an electric go-cart is in progress at the lab. It has motors on the wheels and will carry a driver a mere 4 inches off the ground at speeds between 30-50mph.

"It's going to be like a magic carpet," said Patti Lord, Otherlab's marketing director.

Otherlab's Companies and Creations

Griffith is obviously enamored with cycling as a means of urban transportation. Otherlab has built a prototype of an electric cargo tricycle with a sophisticated turning system designed for San Francisco's steep, winding streets. And visitors to Otherlab's headquarters can't help but notice a bicycle frame with four seats hanging on a wall. Griffith rides it with his wife and two kids.

"It's a tandem tandem," he quips.

Griffith's tandem-tandem bike

Lord said Otherlab is thinking about doing a Kickstarter for the electric go-cart. When the lab turned to the crowdfunding website to raise $50,000 for its desktop CNC machine, the money was raised in two days. A total of $300,000 came in and Othermill, which can be used to make everything from printed circuit boards to jewelry, was off and running. Eventually it was spun off as a separate company, which is something that happens often to Otherlab's inventions.

Another example is Kestrel Materials, which makes fabrics from nylon, polyester, and olefin that change shape and increase thickness in response to the cold. Then there's Fablight, a laser cutter and engraver that Griffith says could be used to make custom bike frames while you wait.

Kestrel Materials fabrics increase and decrease thickness in response to temperature change.

Otherlab also has a huge German knitting machine. The software was re-written so it can knit parts for a robot. An insole and fingers for one of the lab's soft robots were tacked to a nearby bulletin board. Another Otherlab spin-off, Breeze Automation, is working with the US Navy on a robot that can be deployed in the deep ocean. The Navy uses an off-the-shelf virtual reality headset to operate the robot at depths of 300 meters.

"I'm very glad that Otherlab exists and I wish we had 50 of them," said Jennifer Gerbi, associate director for technology at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

A small group within the US Department of Energy, ARPA-E funds research on new ways to generate, store, and use energy. ARPA-E invested in Otherlab projects that yielded a pneumatically actuated solar tracker for solar panels, and a fuel tank that resembles human intestines for hydrogen vehicles. Both projects are now free-standing companies.

Volute engineers hydrogen fuel tanks resembling human intestines.

Sunfolding, which makes the solar tracker, has left Otherlab and set up headquarters a little more than a mile away from Otherlab's headquarters in the Mission district of San Francisco. Griffith predicts Sunfolding's horizontal single-axis solar tracker will cut the cost of residential solar in the US in half. Volute, the company that makes the fuel tank for hydrogen vehicles, was acquired by Linamar, a Canadian automotive supplier.

Otherlab's exoskeleton system, made by a spin-off called Roam Robotics, is aimed at athletes, soldiers, and seniors. Another spin-off called Canvas is working on robots that can be used in building construction.

"We're doing what Google X pretends they do," said Griffith, who holds a PhD in nanotechnology from MIT and is listed as Otherlab's principal scientist.

The Roam Robotics exoskeleton is a mobility-enhancing wearable that can be used for action sports like skiing.

Google X, it turns out, invested millions of dollars in Makani, the wind energy company Griffith co-founded. Sometimes referred to as Google's skunkworks, Google X was created to develop radical new technologies for solving some of the world's most intractable problems. It eventually acquired Makani, which recently received an undisclosed investment from the Dutch energy giant Shell.

Griffith, who won his MacArthur genius grant for a STEM-focused comic book called Howtoons, is an outspoken critic of Silicon Valley and a passionate advocate of battling global warming via a Green New Deal. Several leading universities have asked Griffith to run their engineering departments, but he's declined. Otherlab recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, and Griffith estimates the lab has received between $50 and $70 million in federal research funds over the last 10 years.

Building Wiggly, Elastic Machines

What's the secret to Otherlab's high-tech innovation?

"We're good at controls and we build elastic machines better than anyone else," says Griffith. "We know how to make machines out of rubber and membranes and plastic. Pretty much any machine that is stiff and rigid can be replaced by a machine that's elastic and fluid. We have enough computation to design wiggly, elastic machines."

Sunfolding's pneumatically actuated solar tracker.

Those wiggly, elastic machines created by the "mischievous scientists and practical dreamers" at Otherlab prompted one tech consultant to describe the place as "a cross between Willy Wonka's chocolate factory and Geppetto's workshop."

"They're just super-creative," said Dane Boysen, an Alaska-based technology consultant and a former program manager at ARPA-E. "I'd love to replicate their business model but it really revolves around an iconic character. Saul is just an amazing guy."

"One of Saul's superpowers is getting people excited about projects," said Eric Wilhelm, one of the four MIT engineers who started Squid Labs and now serves as CEO of Safe Connect, a solar appliance start-up operating out of Otherlab's building. "Looking at the biggest problems is something he's really good at. He's pretty rigorous and he won't take stuff for granted."

Many think that Otherlab's success results from Griffith's recruitment of people who have both deep technical knowledge and an ability to learn on the fly.

"Half of them are staring at their monitors, just simulating the hell out of something and the other are hands-on, making all that colorful stuff, all the gizmology in the machine shop," says Tim Anderson, a friend from Griffith's MIT days who also settled in the Bay Area.

ARPA-E's Gerbi praises Griffith for not micro-managing his people. "I think that getting the right people and letting them have freedom is really a winning combination," she said.

Otherlab currently has 27 employees on the books. But according to marketing director Patti Lord, Otherlab and all its spin-off companies employ between 300 and 500 people.

Gerbi said there are smaller and less famous versions of Otherlab that attack just one problem with a similar culture, one that frowns on meetings and progress reports.

Asked how many meetings take place at Otherlab each week, Griffith responded: "We have one meeting a week. It's 40 hours long and divided into five days. You do work during the meeting."

This article originally appeared on PCMag.com.