Genius Grant Winners Announced: Squid Labs Cofounder Gets $500K

Squid Labs’ Saul Griffith has been called lots of things in the 30 years he has been hacking technology – inventor, comic book mogul, engineer, entrepreneur, nanotechnologist. Now add “genius” to the list.

Griffith, a multi-talented scientist who co-founded the Squid Labs R&D facility and invented a desktop printer for eyeglasses for DIY tech tinkerers, is among 24 luminaries to be handed a MacArthur Fellowship – a $500,000 award for innovators that is more commonly referred to as the “genius grant.”

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has doled out some $350 million in the last three decades to help boundary-pushers in science and the arts push still farther.

Griffith, whom the foundation calls “a prodigy of invention in service of the world community” balks at such hyperbole, but is raring to invest the no-strings-attached cash in projects like CAD software for designing paper airplanes.

“It feels like a very unexpected gift,” Griffith tells Wired News. “I’ll now have resources to execute on things like that: projects with no apparent or immediate reason, just an inkling they would be fun, useful or good.”

Griffiths has launched a number of enterprises under the Squid Labs umbrella, including the Instructables site, a collaborative-design community ThinkCycle, a kids’ DIY tech comic How-Toons, a weight-detecting rope and the pull-cord power generator behind Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child.

“All of the other funding I have raised is earmarked for very specific projects,” he adds. “It will be lovely to have funding and resources that aren’t tethered to any particular goal.

Other recipients this year in the science and technology fields include:

  • Yoky Matsuoka, a University of Washington, Seattle, neuroroboticist who is developing prosthetic limbs that respond to brain impulses – just like the real thing.
  • My Hang Huynh, a Los Alamos National Laboratory chemist working to develop less volatile explosives by replacing the reactions usually dependent on toxic heavy metals with inorganic ones using azides and alkynes – making workers like miners less susceptible to accidental big bangs.
  • Cheryl Hayashi, a University of California, Riverside, biologist unpicking the properties of spider silk to help develop biodegradable fishing lines, stitches and protective cloth.
  • Paul Rothemund, a California Institute of Technology nanotechnologist who has previously used enzymes to convince DNA to perform mathematical calculations and whose recent “DNA origami” work forms geometrical patterns – and, maybe one day, faster computers – from the stuff of life.

Matsuoka, who confessed the “genius” tag is “a bit scary,” was so shocked to receive the MacArthur phone call, the foundation feared she might drop her newborn baby. They called her back a second time when her hands were free.

Matsuoka says she’s hoping to use the grant for a non-profit organization to help the disabled, developing technologies like a robotic stroke-rehabilitation machine.

“I’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in my academic research, buying equipment and development and so-forth, but that’s quite different from receiving half a million dollars to myself,” she says.

Dan Socolow, director of the MacArthur fellowship program, said the $500,000 gives recipients the luxury of time and an opportunity to follow hunches and passions. The foundation solicits nominations, but doesn’t tell candidates they are being considered for an award.

“We request many hundreds of nominations in as many fields as you can dream,” Socolow tells Wired News. “We go from astrophysics to fishing to farming to blacksmithing and everybody in between.”

Previous fellows include Tim Berners-Lee, string theory physicist Stephen Shenker and Julie Taymor, director of the Broadway version of The Lion King.