Alumni News Blog

  • Creating a New Food from Scratch

    Before Rob Rhinehart, CS 12, designed a completely new food source from scratch, he basically survived on two core food groups—red meat and pasta. “It wasn’t particularly healthy,” he says. “But I liked foods that packed calories, were easy to prepare and were affordable. Now I have a better version of that.”  That better version is Soylent, a powder that when mixed with water, comprises the elements of a complete and healthy adult diet replete with calories, protein, carbs, fiber, vitamins and even a little fat. The thick, beige-colored liquid with a mild taste (some have said it reminds them of pancake batter) might appear like a mere substitute for the fruits, vegetables and meat that we rely on. But Rhinehart is unfailingly clear: Soylent is food, albeit with a far more efficiently engineered approach.

    For Rhinehart, food—at least the version that most people recognize—has largely been a hindrance. After graduating from Tech, he moved to San Francisco upon landing a job developing wireless communications for startup Y Combinator. The inherent shortages of the entrepreneurial life (a fixed cash flow, never enough time to take care of all of daily necessities) began to take their toll. A self-defined minimalist, Rhinehart was inspired by his work but increasingly frustrated by how “the bottleneck” of eating kept interrupting the flow.

    “We could solve our engineering problems, optimize, and make a lot of our products and processes more efficient at work,” he says. “But food always got in the way.”

    When he tried to eat healthfully, food was time-consuming and expensive. When he cut corners for the sake of his energy and wallet, he’d end up chowing down on peanut butter sandwiches or cheeseburgers almost every day.

    Rhinehart wanted to eliminate the waste in this food bottleneck so he could get back to learning and working. He hated the menial tasks food required, like driving to the grocery store, standing in line, preparing food, then cleaning up afterwards.

    He could have avoided those chores by hiring someone else to do them for him. But Rhinehart began to consider the food issue as an engineering problem, which meant no outsourcing was needed. What if he could design an alternative way for human beings to get all the necessary nutrients? What if he could optimize how we can prepare and consume healthy food?

    To build the process of eating food into an effective, streamlined system, Rhinehart decided he needed to start from scratch. In the summer of 2012, inspired by a roommate who had studied biology, he says he noticed parallels between electronics hardware and human biology. Sure, the body was a “messy and noisy” system, but it was robust. If he could gather the right ingredients and transmit them to the body in an accessible, convenient way, he’d be on to something. He began looking at food the way a programmer would design software, by starting with the individual components.

    SoylentPouch

    Rhinehart researched the various nutrients the human body needed, ordered them online and tested the recipes on himself. “I hurt myself a little when I got some of the amounts wrong,” he says. “But I survived.”

    Rhinehart blogged about his project and shared the recipe-in-progress for Soylent on Reddit, a social networking website where community members post questions and trade tips.

    Comments soared. People launched their own trials based on his core formula, testing out unique recipes based on flavor or dietary preference.

    Rhinehart said that drinking Soylent every day had given him a better lifestyle—one of his own design, free from the constraints of standardized food consumption. He subsisted almost exclusively on Soylent alone for almost a year, and he says his health and energy improved dramatically. He was joined by a host of believers who discovered much the same benefits.

    By early 2013, his wireless communications startup was on the back burner and Rhinehart and his team relocated to Los Angeles. They brought Soylent to the crowd-funding site CrowdTilt in May, offering supply packages of the sustainable powder for one week, two weeks or one month for varying levels of donations. His total ask for just $100,000 more than succeeded—the campaign has raised a whopping $3 million by March 2014, funded by more than 20,000 backers.

    Along the way, Soylent gained an additional $1.5 million in a seed round of financing. He was officially in the food business now—Soylent is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. But the engineer soon found himself in a strange predicament, facing inquiries as to why he wanted to stick a fork in food.

    “We’re not targeting your dinner party,” Rhinehart says of the skeptics. Special nights out and birthday celebrations still have a place in his heart (and belly). “It’s important to realize though, those occasions are more about the people than the food. It’s the conversation, the camaraderie, that I see as the real pleasure.” But that $30 entrée many ooh and ahh over: “It’s just something that’s there.”

    Soylent is challenging the staple meals, the ones that Rhinehart says take up 40 to 80 percent of our dining life. He would like for us to trade hurried breakfasts scarfed down en route to work and stressed-out lunches inhaled pre-deadline for a subscription to Soylent. (Supplies start at $70 per month for 21-plus “meals”.) Staple meals are usually where people have the most problems, he says, in terms of maintaining a healthful diet. That’s where Soylent just makes sense.

    Naysayers don’t bother Rhinehart—he’s certain that food as a biotech venture will only increase as time goes on and our agricultural resources are exhausted. Perhaps his view is a natural perspective for someone who lingered in the sci-fi and philosophy sections of the library as a kid. Growing up in the Atlanta suburbs, Rhinehart read Make Room! Make Room!, the Harry Harrison novel about the dangers of population growth that inspired the Charlton Heston film Soylent Green.

    It’s important to note that Soylent Green changed the novel’s plot and theme considerably, with Heston’s character at the end of the movie realizing that the titular foodstuff created to feed people “is people!” Rhinehart has embraced that irony with his wry sense of humor and didn’t flinch from any confusion the name Soylent might create among those more familiar with the film than the book.

    Even when he was just 8 years old, Rhinehart says he deplored the food waste in dumpsters. As he got older, that disgust transferred to the massive amounts of land and labor swallowed up by the industrial food supply chain. “I guess I’ve always intuitively realized that it wasn’t going to scale all the way,” he says. “It’s too chaotic. That idea of having a cheap, essential staple called Soylent that the population lived on in the book, I guess that made a lot of sense to me.”

    Apparently, Soylent appeals to a diverse group of people, from consumers to potential business partners. Rhinehart won’t disclose the company’s earnings or how many customers they serve, but he says they’re profitable. Even the U.S. military and NASA have come calling, and partnerships with NGOs are in the works so Soylent can be used in an aid capacity to developing nations.

    But that’s all down the line. Today, Rhinehart continues to test product developments, study food science and and manage Soylent’s ever-volatile supply chain. He was worried that the food business would push him toward becoming a marketer rather than an engineer. However, he discovered that Soylent keeps him in a challenging design environment, where he gets to play with taste profiles and a complex e-commerce infrastructure.

    More than anything, he’s enjoying his freedom. Rhinehart says he hasn’t been to a grocery store in years and he never does the dishes. The contents of his fridge? Beer and Soylent. “I still eat regular food,” Rhinehart says. “I just eat the meals that I want to.”

    The best benefit of Soylent, Rhinehart says, is seeing how it impacts people’s lives in such a personal and profound way. He anticipates many more changes on the food landscape. And those skeptics—he thinks they should loosen up.

    “Food has always changed, and it’s going to continue to change,” Rhinehart says. “It’s not sacred.”

  • Flagging Down His Soccer Dreams

    Corey Rockwell, IE 98, attended this summer’s World Cup as a spectator—and that suited him just fine. Though he would have loved to officiate games at soccer’s biggest event, after 10 years working for Major League Soccer in the United States, he thought going as a fan would be far less stressful. Then he got to Brazil. 

    While Rockwell describes his World Cup experience as the trip of a lifetime, he also couldn’t have anticipated some of the situations he found himself in. On the day of the USA-Germany match, for instance, heavy flooding had washed out all the roads leading to the stadium, and taxis refused to drive them. To make it to the match, Rockwell and his friends had to take two trains and a bus, then they had to walk in a downpour for about two hours.

    Yes, he’s that passionate about soccer.

    Growing up, Rockwell played soccer constantly and followed its professional ranks as closely as he could living in the U.S. As a Tech freshman in 1992, he joined the Institute’s club soccer team. But soon, Rockwell realized he “needed to start paying for college” and also focus more on his engineering coursework.

    That’s when he turned to refereeing.

    While still in college, Rockwell began officiating at the collegiate level, eventually working his way up to refereeing ACC tournaments. By the time he earned his degree in 1998, Rockwell had officiated the NCAA men’s soccer Sweet 16 and began to see refereeing as more than a source of income.

    “It was a way to still participate in soccer, and a way to do it more fully than I ever imagined,” Rockwell says.

    Eventually, Rockwell began looking around for more officiating opportunities. As he neared the completion of his degree, Rockwell started transitioning from the college circuit to the USA Soccer FIFA system.

    Corey Rockwell World Cup

    Rockwell takes in a game at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

    The switch was far from glamorous: traveling long hours to referee small tournaments in neighboring states, often for very little pay. And the work was year-round, while college soccer is structured in a less-demanding, three-month system. Even so, Rockwell loved the experience.

    Meanwhile, he landed a full-time job as an industrial engineer with the Clorox Company in Atlanta. The opportunities opening up in his career might have offered some incentive to focus on engineering alone, but Rockwell continued to chase his passion.

    It wasn’t until 2004—six years after graduating Tech—that Rockwell caught what he calls his “big break.” He was working a soccer tournament in Minnesota when someone within the professional refereeing system approached him with some good news.

    “I was told I had a chance to do Major League Soccer,” Rockwell says. “That’s when I started really concentrating, trying to make it to the next level.”

    Rockwell stuck to a strict workout regimen, and he continued burning his vacation days with Clorox to work various tournaments and matches across the country. The commitment paid off: In 2005, Rockwell qualified to be a MLS referee and he’s been officiating at that level ever since.

    As his soccer refereeing dreams took flight, Rockwell’s career at Clorox bloomed. He received a series of promotions that elevated him from engineering to management.

    Even as his day job responsibilities have increased, Rockwell maintains a busy schedule with MLS. He typically works MLS matches on three weekends out of every month during the season, with some Wednesday night matches mixed in. The engineer said the logistics can be tough, but he’s found a way to make it work.

    “I’m always honest about my schedule,” Rockwell says. “I can’t call in sick and show up on ESPN that night.”

    The physical demands of officiating have also increased as he’s moved up. According to Rockwell, all USA Soccer FIFA officials have to wear Polar brand sport watches that record their heart rate data and workout regimens. This data has to be downloaded and sent to FIFA on a regular basis to ensure officials remain in top shape. If officials fail to meet certain minimum standards, they are ineligible to officiate the matches.

    Rockwell doesn’t just meet the standards set by FIFA—he excels. In 2011, he was named the top assistant referee in Major League Soccer. His resume is strong enough that Rockwell could pursue eligibility to referee at a future World Cup, but the engineer says he’s unlikely to take that step.

    Just to be considered to officiate at a World Cup, referees must first endure intensive training and testing, as well as work various tournaments around the globe. Rockwell said he knows of one World Cup ref who had to go to Nigeria for five weeks to work at under-20 tournaments, and afterward had to complete a fitness test in Trinidad.

    “I don’t think my job would let me take off five weeks several times a year,” he says. “And in fairness, it isn’t something I’ve asked for, either.”

    While the World Cup is not on his radar, Rockwell still hopes to take part in the next World Cup qualifying process, which wouldn’t require the same training or time commitment as a full tournament.

    Regardless, Rockwell believes he’s in the perfect work environment to continue living his dream as a soccer official. Germany-based Henkel acquired Rockwell’s division from Clorox in 2003, and Rockwell currently works as the Regional Head of Corporate Audit for North and Latin America. Over the summer, everyone in Henkel’s U.S. offices was carefully watching each Germany match leading up to the team’s World Cup victory.

    “Luckily, a lot of the people I report to are soccer fans,” Rockwell says. “They encouraged us to watch the games when Germany was playing, even though many of us were rooting for Team USA.”

  • Designing Tiny Treatments
    for Big Cancer

    Since his arrival on campus in 2004, molecular biologist and Tech Professor John McDonald has been hard at work developing new solutions and strategies for targeting and treating cancer. Some of his latest research concerns the use of nanoparticles to seek out and deliver treatments to ovarian cancer cells without damaging the body’s healthy cells. Designing this technology has required collaboration between the McDonald Lab in the School of Biology and Andrew Lyon’s lab in the School of Chemistry.

    Your lab is designing treatment methods that deliver medications through nanoparticles. What exactly is a nanoparticle?
    Basically, they are synthetic particles that are smaller than viruses—there are all kinds of different nanoparticles. The kind we’re developing with the Lyon lab is a nano-hydrogel. They are 98 percent water, and I think of them sort of as microscopic sponges: When you put them in water they swell up and soak up the solution that’s around them. The therapeutic treatment we are using involves small regulatory RNAs [ribonucleic acid], and we use a technique called “breathing in,” because when the particles are exposed to the solution containing the therapeutic RNAs, they self-load the RNA into the particle.

    How can a nanoparticle deliver medication to a cancer cell?
    The next part of the design is functionalizing the particle. The particle has to be modified in such a way that it binds to the specific cells you want to target. The problem with chemotherapy is that it’s typically given systemically to all exposed cells, not just cancerous cells. In our case, we want to treat only the cancerous cells while leaving the healthy cells alone. This can be accomplished by identifying a surface feature that is unique to the cancer cell, and then engineering the nanoparticle to selectively attach to that feature.

    How can a nanoparticle identify a cancer cell in the body?
    Nanoparticles injected into the blood stream will circulate through the circulatory system looking for the targeted cancer cells. Once the nanoparticle encounters a cancer cell and attaches to the surface feature, the nanoparticle is taken up by the cell and the therapeutic treatment is slowly released. Nanoparticles have pores in them so that they will release the RNA payload at a controlled rate. In our pilot experiments, we have added a molecule to the nanoparticle that binds to a particular receptor protein that we know is highly expressed on the surface of ovarian cancer cells. In the future, nanoparticles will be designed to target other cell features unique to other types of cancer.

    Your therapeutic treatment uses RNA instead of a drug. What is the difference between the two?
    Think of the blueprint of the new Engineered Biosystems Building going up on campus. If you’re the guy building the foundation, you’re only interested in examining the section describing how to build the foundation. You don’t care how the roof is built. By analogy, DNA is carried in every cell in our body and is the blueprint of all cellular functions. But liver cells, for example, don’t care how to conduct brain cell functions so they transfer from the DNA blueprint the specific subset of information needed for liver cell function into a type of RNA called mRNA. This mRNA then serves as the template for synthesis of the proteins necessary for liver cell function. Take that concept and apply it to cancer. Cancer is a disease of misinformation. The cell is getting the wrong information—for example, it is being told to rapidly divide when it should remain quiescent. That misinformation could occur due to an error in the DNA blueprinting itself. We call such mistakes “mutations.” Alternatively, there could be a mistake in the flow of information from the DNA such that, for instance, mRNA is being produced when it should not be. The bottom line, in either case, is that abnormal kinds or levels of proteins are produced leading to formation of cancer cells. A new class of cancer drugs are currently being developed to target abnormal or abnormally expressed proteins in cancer cells. Many of these new targeted drugs show great promise but it is estimated that only 10 percent of proteins are “drugable” in this way. Thus, we are interested in developing therapies that can target abnormal or abnormally expressed genes on the mRNA rather than on the protein level. In theory all genes can be targeted on the mRNA level using small inhibitory RNAs. The problem is how do we deliver these inhibitory RNAs specifically to cancer cells? That leads us back to nanoparticles.

    What problems are posed by traditional, systemic cancer treatments?
    Ideally, we would prefer not to deliver inhibitory (or any) drug treatments systemically because of the unintended inhibitory effects they might have on normal healthy cells. In some cases these “negative side effects” can be quite severe or even lethal.

    You’ve been working with Andrew Lyon of the School of Chemistry to develop the nanoparticles. How collaborative has this design process been?
    Very collaborative. That’s the beauty of Georgia Tech: You have experts with the specialties you need right next door. I believe this kind of integrated approach will help Georgia Tech significantly contribute to cancer research in the future.

    How involved were you with the nanoparticle’s design?
    Dr. Lyon’s group had already developed the basic nanoparticle. A former post-doc in my lab, Erin Dickerson, a current research scientist, Roman Mezencev, and I discussed with Dr. Lyon various strategies to further engineer these particles to optimally deliver therapeutic RNAs to ovarian cancer cells.  My lab provides the biological knowledge and Dr. Lyon’s lab provides the technical expertise to move the project forward.

    What is the next step after designing the nanoparticle?
    The next question one asks is, “Does it work?” We first tested the ability of the nanoparticles to deliver the therapeutic RNAs to cancer cells grown in culture. This worked very well which led us to the next level—testing delivery and efficiency in animal models.

    Animal testing is currently underway. What obstacles stand in the way of making the treatment available to the public?
    There are a number of things the FDA requires before approving any treatment like this for use in humans. We first have to show that these particles are non-toxic in their own right. We have recently demonstrated that this is the case. Now we have to demonstrate efficacy, that is, we have to show that treatment with these particles lowers or reduces the burden of cancer in experimental animals. Once that is validated, one can apply for FDA approval for Phase I experimental trials in humans.

    Once the design for ovarian cancer treatment is released, what do you do? Start developing designs for other types of cancer?
    At that point, the technology development would be done and the technology would move into the commercial sector. That’s not my area of expertise so I would leave that to someone more qualified. My job as a scientist would be to develop new types of RNAs that might be even more effective in treating different cancers, while using the same or maybe an improved class of delivery vehicles. We continue to work with other Georgia Tech researchers to develop even better delivery systems, as well as new and imaginative cancer diagnostics and therapeutics. It’s all about continued integration and collaboration. That’s one of the great things about being a scientist at Georgia Tech.

  • Launching Pad

    If you fractured your femur, a doctor would likely insert a rod into your bone shaft to hold the bone together and help it heal. It’s an effective solution, but the process of inserting the screws to hold the bone and rod together is difficult. And because radiation is involved, it’s also somewhat risky. Or, at least, it used to be: In tandem with the medical company Smith and Nephew, a team of five Georgia Tech students last year—working together on their Senior Capstone Design Project—developed a simple, low-cost technique to help overcome these challenges.

    Thanks to the Capstone Design Project’s emphasis on real-world development, these students didn’t work on the problem in a vacuum. They talked to doctors, studied cadavers and tested numerous options. After zeroing in on the best solution, they built a successful prototype that required no radiation. The product and the technique they developed has the potential to benefit people who  often cannot afford expensive medical care. And although her team can’t discuss the project in depth—thanks to a nondisclosure agreement with Smith and Nephew—Elizabeth Morris, BME 14, says the company was “thrilled with their work.”

    Indeed, the Senior Capstone Design Project has been reimagined and overhauled over the past several years. Today’s projects give students a chance to build prototypes, tackle true-to-life challenges and work closely with industry partners and students from other majors. “Through the Capstone Design Project, we want to give students the resources—time, funding, space, support—to turn their inventions into real commercial devices,” says Bioengineering Associate Professor Craig Forest, ME 01, who helps direct the project curriculum.

    Once a project that could be completed with simply a series of academic papers, PowerPoints and poster sessions, the Senior Capstone Design Project garnered little student interest in the past. “For most students, it was just one more thing to check off their list before graduation,” admits Amit Jariwala, director of design and innovation for the School of Mechanical Engineering. “Now it’s a springboard for them to show employers what they’re truly capable of, or perhaps even an entry point into becoming entrepreneurs.”

    To boost student enthusiasm—and position graduates well for future jobs—Jariwala and Forest, with support from the administration and other faculty, began making systematic improvements. They created an Invention Studio for students to build prototypes and gave all teams budgets of $500 to make their project come alive. They invited industry sponsors to share some of their toughest problems and benefit from Tech’s student brainpower. And perhaps most important, they created a Capstone Design Expo at the end of each semester where students presented their projects to visitors, judges and potential future employers.

    The process is both demanding and inspiring. Students form a team—usually four to six students from a variety of disciplines ranging from engineering to business to public policy—and a project based on their own interests or industry requests. They conduct extensive market research and work closely with fellow students, faculty and industry experts to hone their projects.

    The teams find out quickly that the technical aspects of the projects aren’t the only challenges that they face. “Our team was comprised of people from not only different majors, but also backgrounds and cultures, and there were some communication issues” says Aditi Chandak, ME 14, whose Capstone Project aimed to reduce noise produced by tools in aircraft manufacturing. “But I think our diversity of experiences also allowed us to pursue many more ideas than we would have otherwise.”

    While many students are used to learning alone and being graded for individual performances, Capstone Design teams replicate the kind of collaboration that students will need to succeed in jobs after graduation, Jariwala says.

    Interest in the projects—and the Expo—has soared. Five years ago, the Expo consisted of fewer than 30 teams, all from the School of Mechanical Engineering. Last spring, the event attracted 170 teams that included students from nine different majors. More than 5,000 people, including dozens of industry recruiters, attended. The Expo was even covered by local television, radio and newspapers.

    The teams competed for a top prize of $3,000, but the potential impact is far greater than the one-time financial reward. Chandak’s work with aircrafts, for example, helped her land a full-time position with Boeing Commercial Airlines. Another team, which developed a machine to help basketball players take practice shots more efficiently, has submitted a provisional patent application and has attracted investor interest.

    Though the results have been significant already, Jariwala and Forest agree that there are even bigger possibilities down the road. Forest wants students from every major in the school to participate, and he hopes to increase collaboration between students campus wide. He’s ready to add larger spaces for a machine shop that’s currently bursting at the seams. And he wants to increase the number of industry sponsors. “We want to turbocharge these activities,” he says. “We want to be the national leader in entrepreneurial and invention activity.”

    This story is the first in a four-part series on Georgia Tech’s Capstone
    Design Project.

  • Living in Net Zero

    Take a walk around a home-improvement store, and you’ll see plenty of product tags advertising ways you can reduce spending on your utility bills—and your carbon footprint. But going green and saving a bit of money by using Energy Star appliances, smart thermostats or compact fluorescent light bulbs is just a drop in the proverbial bucket.

    What if your house or apartment could produce enough energy to balance out the amount it consumes?

    It’s called net-zero energy design, and it’s a growing movement in architecture. A net-zero building is not only specially engineered to maximize energy savings, but also generates its own renewable energy—through methods such as solar panels—to cancel out the consumption of electricity and gas.

    “It’s very easy to be energy efficient these days,” says Michael Gamble, M Arch 91, associate professor of architecture at Tech. “However, I would say there’s sort of an 80/20 rule. It’s the 80 percent effort to achieve energy efficiency that’s pretty easy and inexpensive. The last 20 percent of working toward net-zero energy consumption—or even positive energy generation—is where it gets much more challenging.”

    Gamble is working with fellow Tech professors Godfried Augenbroe, Daniel Castro, Russell Gentry, Jason Brown and recent alumnus Stephen Taul, M Arch 12, M CRP 12, to lead a group of graduate architecture students on a three-year project to design, build and eventually occupy a net-zero energy apartment building near campus.

    Gamble says Tech students certainly aren’t the only ones attempting to create net-zero energy buildings today. But what makes this project unique is that they are tailoring their designs specifically to the challenges of modern, urban life in Atlanta.

    Like other major cities around the country, Atlanta’s in-town neighborhoods are booming as more people, especially young people, move into the core of the city to be closer to jobs and entertainment and reduce their dependence on a car to get around. However, traditional single-family houses aren’t very practical for city life, where land is at a premium. As cities grow, the price of real estate rises too, making it harder for people to afford single-family houses.

    “For the city to be affordable, there’s no escaping higher density,” Gamble says. “In most instances, that affordability is going to be achieved not through single-family houses, but through multi-family housing.”

    And that’s the real ambition of the studio: to intersect affordability and energy balance, he says. “We’re trying to help our students understand all the forces in play around the debates and be savvy designers in the process.”

    There are several ways to approach net-zero energy building. In Atlanta, the most practical tools for generating renewable energy are solar panels—thanks to its very sunny climate—and ground-source heat pumps. These pumps use the constant temperature of the earth as a bank, taking heat from the ground when it’s cold, or storing heat in the ground when it’s hot.

    Smart, energy-conserving design is also critical to success, whether it’s building placement, systems efficiency or overall insulation and sealing. “The first line of defense in any efficient building or net-zero energy building is a well-insulated building envelope,” Gamble says.

    The students’ early work has captured the attention of the international architecture and design communities. This past year, their models and drawings have been featured in several exhibits, including the Museum of Design Atlanta’s “Design for Social Impact.” Gamble says Georgia Tech was one of few universities invited to present student work at the “Dwell on Design” exhibit in Los Angeles this summer. And in the fall, the students will take their work on the road again to present it in New York.

    At the end of the three-year project, students will participate in building a 12- to 20-unit building based on their designs. Though no site has been selected yet, Gamble hopes that it will be built near Georgia Tech’s campus.

    Once completed, the plan is for students to live in it and test its performance first hand. Individual living habits introduce a lot of unexpected variables into the net-zero energy equation, Gamble says. “It can be difficult to ensure a home actually achieves the net-zero energy balance it was designed for.”