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May 22, 2013

Renewed Robotics Investment Shows Wyss Courting Mother Nature

When it comes to the mechanical minions that we employ to scuttle around our environment and help us out in harsh environments or rescue scenarios, nobody provides more support in efficiency research than good old Mother Nature. A constant pool of easy research into highly evolved case studies in mechanical adaptability, nature is giving inspiration into more efficient robotic solutions than anything else. Take the fire ant as an example: the tiny tunnel-making pest is the model of new camera technology and is hoped to provide rescue solutions.

It’s an easy thing to understand, but another to bet money on it. Hansjörg Wyss has just done so twice, planting himself firmly in the legacy of bioengineering. The Swiss-born Harvard graduate seeded the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering in 2009 with $125 million, and in doing so launched the highly regarded university to the forefront of intellectual property generation in the field of bioengineering. The entrepreneur and philanthropist has recently donated the same amount of money for a second time, giving Harvard $125 million dollars of leverage in improving our lives.

The interdisciplinary institute employs a diverse team of physicists, biologists, engineers, chemists, clinicians and product development experts responsible for innovative solutions like the bee bot, a robot modeled after a fly, and the lung-on-a-chip, which can be applied in pharmaceutical testing situations in the place of animals.


The lung-on-a-chip, seen in development (image via Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering).

Other achievements hailing from the institute range from the novel, like SLIPS, a surface coating that repels almost anything, to the practical, like a 3D printed self-folding robot. All of the products are made with help from Wyss’ funding and inspiration from the natural world.

So what can we expect out of Harvard in the years following this second generation of investment from Hansjörg Wyss? Two products listed on the institute’s website are entering clinical trials that will benefit greatly from the new leverage. One is a vibrating insole that can regulate and correct balance issues in the elderly. The second shows just what this kind of inspiration and lofty goals money can buy: a cancer vaccine.

With an impeccable track record of one innovative breakthrough per month since the institute started, Wyss’ continued investment just goes to show how much he cares about his robotic brain-grandchildren, and the legacy he has created in such a broad area of engineering solutions with the help of the natural world.




Edited by Alisen Downey


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