Prime ad space. In space. MIT students would put slogans on satellite to raise funds

By Jenn Abelson, Globe Staff  |  November 3, 2006

Now on sale: Ads in space.

In a novel bid to raise money to send a research satellite into space, a group of students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is offering companies and individuals a chance to put their advertisements into orbit around the Earth.

This week, MIT’s Mars Gravity Biosatellite Program launched a website, , and created a group on — “I’m Sending My Name into Space and You Should Too!” — that will sell space on the satellite where cosmic marketers can place their logos, slogans, photos, and other images.

The group needs about $30 million by 2010 to help finance the YNIS project, which is researching how mammals are affected by long-term exposure to Mars-like gravity.

To raise that kind of cash, the students decided, the sky is no longer the limit.

“We needed more funding and realized that we’re sending up this satellite into orbit with all this space on board used for nothing — so why not sell it to people who want to express a message?” said Thaddeus R.F. Fulford-Jones , a 24-year-old doctoral candidate at MIT who is working on the project. “It allows them to become part of the mission.”

To date, there have been few successful marketing efforts involving spaceflight, most memorably in 2000 when Pizza Hut placed a 30-foot logo on the side of a Russian spacecraft and then delivered vacuum-sealed pizza to the International Space Station a year later.

MIT’s project would be the first attempt to plaster an entire spacecraft with logos and messages. The fund-raiser is loosely modeled after The Million Dollar Homepage, a website developed last year by a 21-year-old student from England who successfully raised $1 million to pay for his education by selling a pixel’s worth of space for $1 on his website.

The effort gained worldwide media attention and some advertisers who bought space on the webpage reported significant increases in Internet traffic.

On the YNIS spacecraft, there are 121,866 square centimeters for sale inside and outside the satellite, which is about as tall as a washing machine and as long as a Ford Focus.

Prices range from $35 to $250 per square centimeter. There’s no limit on the size of the advertisement, but prices are expected to rise as demand increases. Sponsors will be listed on the website until 2011. In an added bonus, the purchase is tax deductible as a donation to support the construction of the spacecraft.

And like any real estate market, the YNIS spacecraft has better neighborhoods than others. The cheapest property is the “introductory” zone at edges of the satellite’s solar panels (It burns up in space, unfortunately.) while the more expensive “bronze” and “silver” zones on the exterior are photographed in orbit by cameras mounted on the solar panels. Anything smaller than one square centimeter would be too small to be seen by the cameras.

For the ultimate keepsake, there’s the “gold zone” in the interior of the capsule. Within five weeks of a successful landing in the Australian desert, donors will receive their piece of the spacecraft interior.

“It’s kind of like selling pieces of the Berlin Wall,” said Jamie Tedford , senior vice president of marketing and media innovation at Arnold Worldwide, a Boston advertising firm. “It’s a new media, in a way, and could be a good public branding opportunity.”

The students are hoping to raise at least $500,000 through ad sales by next year to complete the next round of design work . To date, they have received about $1.5 million from the for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, corporations, and universities sponsoring the project, including MIT and the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The mission will study the physiological effects, such as bone density and muscle mass loss, after a colony of mice on board the orbit spend about five weeks in an altered level of gravity.

The research will provide data on how mammals are affected by long-term exposure to lower gravity, a critical first step toward human missions to other planets, according to Rosamund Combs-Bachman, YNIS assistant program coordinator.

Mark Jones , president of Mead Web Design and Computing in Danvers, bought a square centimeter for $150 in the silver zone.

He is putting up the company’s logo on that piece and is already considering buying more space on the satellite.

“I don’t advertise much, and I thought this was pretty different,” Jones said. “The space project really caught my eye, and I think it will get a lot of attention.”

So far, Microsoft Research, a division of Microsoft Corp., which has been funding the project for several years, has the biggest property at 196 square centimeters — about the size of a CD case. YNIS hopes for even bigger sponsors, though the students caution there’s some risk with any space travel.

“We can’t guarantee everyone’s name will make it up there. Things happen in space. Rockets blow up, satellites go into the wrong orbit,” Fulford-Jones said. “But obviously, we’re doing our best to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Jenn Abelson can be reached at

© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

New center to focus on synthetic biology

August 3, 2006

Five MIT researchers are among the pioneers behind a new research center in synthetic biology, a precocious field whose primary long-term goal is to make it easier to design and build useful organisms.

Current work includes refining pieces of DNA into standard biological parts that researchers could then mix and match to produce novel biological systems — such as bacteria that synthesize rare cancer drugs — and also fostering the responsible development and application of next-generation biological technologies.

The Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC) is funded by a five-year, $17 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

In addition to MIT, participating universities are the University of California at Berkeley; Harvard University; University of California at San Francisco; and Prairie View A&M University. Matching funds from industry and these universities bring the total five-year commitment to $20 million, with NSF offering the possibility of a five-year extension of the grant. The center is managed via the California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research and directed by Professor Jay Keasling of UC Berkeley. The work of the center will be distributed, with major nodes in Cambridge and in San Francisco.

“SynBERC is the first time we’ve had long-term support to improve the technical foundations that underlie the engineering of biology,” said Andrew D. Endy, an assistant professor in MIT’s Division of Biological Engineering and a co-investigator in the new center.

SynBERC will build on 10 years of synthetic biology research. Most notably for MIT, the center will allow expanded support for the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, a worldwide resource started in 2003 to promote the framework of interchangeable biological parts, or BioBricks, pioneered by Thomas F. Knight Jr., another SynBERC investigator and senior research scientist in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

The registry aims to promote synthetic biology in the same way that the adoption of a uniform system of screw threads in the 1860s made it easier to build machines, and the simplification of integrated electronic circuit design in the 1970s paved the way for today’s microprocessors.

“Our view of engineering biology focuses on the abstraction and standardization of biological components. The registry is the field’s first catalog of standard biological parts,” said Randy Rettberg, a SynBERC investigator, director of the registry and principal research engineer in MIT’s Biological Engineering Division.

Rettberg will also help SynBERC’s educational efforts by continuing to lead iGEM — the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition.

“iGEM 2006 grew from a small short course that we first taught at MIT in January of 2003. This summer there are teams of students at 38 schools around the world competing to make the coolest synthetic biological systems, from bacteria that smell like fruit-stripe gum to yeast that count,” said Rettberg. Endy added, “iGEM also benefits from and feeds back into Course 20, MIT’s new major in biological engineering.”

SynBERC’s foundational research will be motivated by pressing biotechnology applications.

For example, Kristala Jones Prather, an assistant professor in MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering and SynBERC investigator, will lead a project to engineer microbes to produce vincristine and vinblastine — two drugs that are given as treatments for some types of cancer but that today must be extracted at high cost from Madagascar periwinkle plants.

Prather is also developing tools to facilitate the design and construction of novel biosynthetic routes to chemicals.

Another project led by Chris Voigt of UCSF will attempt to engineer bacteria with genetic sensors, logic and actuators such that the microbes can actively seek and destroy tumors.

Other key SynBERC work will examine the ethical, economic and biosecurity implications of synthetic biology and assess the effects of intellectual property and security regimes on the development of the field. Kenneth Oye, an associate professor of political science and engineering systems, will co-direct SynBERC’s societal research with Paul Rabinow, a philosopher and anthropologist at UC Berkeley.

This work will build on MIT’s Program on Emerging Technologies, an NSF-sponsored program led by Dean for Undergraduate Education Daniel Hastings and Professors Oye, Dava Newman and Merritt Roe Smith. It will also build on an ongoing study sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that is considering the impact of next-generation DNA synthesis technologies, and a series of topical conversations sponsored by MIT’s Technology and Culture Forum.


Elizabeth A. Thomson
MIT News Office
Phone: 617-258-5402


Robotic bears can monitor sick kids – MIT’s device packed with sensors

By Christopher Rowland, Globe Staff  |  July 31, 2006

SIGGRAPH 2006: From idea to image
It’s an academic conference. It’s a digital art exhibit. It’s drawing 25,000 people to Boston this week to see how emerging technologies are being used to educate, entertain, and study everything from the sea floor to the human body.

In the future, a sick child may hug a teddy bear, and the bear may respond with a nuzzle.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab have produced a huggable robot bear that can serve as a “medical communicator” — cuddling for comfort, sensing the strength of a child’s squeeze, or summoning a nurse if the child seems afraid or agitated.

The stuffed bear and its inner workings will be on display at SIGGRAPH 2006’s Emerging Technologies exhibition, which also features such futuristic medical innovations as a high-resolution heart surgery simulator and a “forehead retina system” that helps blind people “see” by sending impulses to their skin.

“It’s cutting-edge, leading-edge technology,” said Tom Craven, chairman of the exhibition. “People are really pursuing this to better interface between us and machine.”

MIT’s stuffed bear is packed with electronic sensors and “sensitive skin” technology that can distinguish between petting, tickling, scratching, slapping, and, of course, hugging. The bear can nuzzle in response to a human touch and will be fitted with audio and video equipment to provide nurses or parents with real-time monitoring information.

The idea for the bear came from pet therapy, in which patients interact with friendly animals to improve their mood and help them recover from illness faster, said Walter Dan Stiehl, a researcher at the MIT Media Lab who helped develop it and wrote it up for his master’s thesis.

“We decided to use robots as pet surrogates,” said Stiehl, as he and his team worked last week to put finishing touches on the latest prototype. “If a young child is scared, and hugging it very tightly and rocking it back and forth, we can sense that and prompt someone to come into the room.”

Stiehl tested the concept using prototype teddy bears with sick children, a nursing home, and a hospice center in Scotland, which is home to a public economic development agency that is among those supporting the project. The team also has received two Microsoft iCampus grants, which are awarded to MIT researchers, of $25,000 each.

Computer scientists in Denmark developed the open-heart surgery simulator. The program takes detailed images produced by magnetic resonance imaging and creates a three-dimensional image of an individual’s heart. Surgeons can rehearse the operation on the image, using interactive tools that link to the computer images, before they make a single cut in the patient.

“We hope the surgeons can do a more efficient operation by moving the decision-making to the time before the surgery,” said Thomas Sangild Sorensen , a scientist at the Center for Advanced Visualization and Interaction at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.

The simulator is not yet in use. The development team is working toward a series of tests that could show doctors that it reduces complications during surgery, Sorensen said. In the tests to take place in London, images of the hearts of 30 patients with cardiac disease will be used to create models.

A barrier to its use so far has been the time it takes to create the three-dimensional images from the MRI data. If that time could be reduced from the current six hours or so to 15 minutes, he said, the system might become popular.

“We hope to make something that will at least inspire new tools to be built,” Sorensen said. “Some type of 3D modeling tool should be in place in all places that do cardiac surgery. It can help them significantly when they plan the procedure.”

The artificial retina system uses a pair of eyeglasses with a built-in camera, developed at the University of Tokyo. The camera collects images of the view ahead of the subject, and the outline of objects ahead is applied as a series of impulses transmitted via 512 electrodes to the skin of the forehead. The wearer looks like an NBA basketball player with a forehead sweatband.

The system is intended for people with visual impairments. Its developers said the device will be perfected for a blind marathon runner who is participating in the 2008 Beijing Paralympic games.

“It looks like you’re wearing a scarf,” said Craven, the chairman of SIGGRAPH 2006. “For people with sight, it’s like a third eye. You could even see behind you.”

Christopher Rowland can be reached at  

© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company