Monday, August 29, 2011

SDM Alumni Companies in the News

By Lois Slavin, SDM Communications Director

Congrats to the following SDM alums whose companies have recently been covered by the press.

Steve Friedenthal's employer, A123 Systems, in The New York Times Business and Op-Ed sections. Steve, an SDM '04 alum, is Manager of Factory Automation Information Systems.

Sorin Grama and Promethean Power in Inc.

Mohammed Irfan and his start-up Faqden in Xconomy.

Keep up the great work!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Professor Richard Larson: Systems Thinking for Healthcare and Education

By Eric Smalley

Richard Larson
More than 25 percent of the United States' gross domestic product is generated by a pair of troubled sectors of society that are also complex systems: healthcare and education. Engineering Systems Division Professor Richard Larson has spent the bulk of his lengthy MIT career studying both.

Larson will bring his insights and perspective to the 2011 MIT SDM Conference on Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges in October with a presentation: "Samples of Systems Research in Healthcare and Education."

Healthcare and education are challenging because each is a highly nonlinear, probabilistic set of feedback loops and delays, Larson said. Anyone who claims that simply changing a given policy or altering a given equation will solve a problem in healthcare or education is mistaken, he said.

Larson observed that even when a change has initial positive results, it can produce long-term negative consequences that leave the system worse off than before. "There are no silver bullets," he said.

Larson brings an operations research approach — analyzing how organizations make decisions — to the study of large public and private sector services systems. He is founding director of MIT's Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals (CESF). "I'm an MIT lifer," said Larson. "I started at MIT 50 years ago as a freshman and have yet to leave."

Larson and his MIT colleagues are collaborating with the Harvard School of Public Health to study low-probability events that have potentially disastrous public health consequences.

While studying pandemic influenza they found that the number of people a newly sick person infects before going to bed is a product of human behavior rather than a property of the virus, said Larson. "It's linearly dependent on the number of face-to-face contacts you have every day and on hygienic behavior: how often you wash your hands with soap and water, whether you sneeze into your elbow or into the air," he said.

They're now conducting similar studies designed to uncover vulnerabilities in public water supplies and food supply chains.

A systems approach makes it easier to avoid reacting to crises, said Larson. "Our focus is keeping people healthy, rather than treating them when they're sick."

Education is an even bigger challenge, said Larson. Teachers still prepare for class using a labor-intensive craft industry model, like shoemakers in 1830. "It's not the fault of teachers; they have been put into a system that was designed this way."

At the same time "we have a one-size-fits-all" approach, so students go all at the same speed, said Larson. We need different speeds for the students and more support for teachers, he said.
Larson is leading three research projects in education:
  • Blended Learning Open Source Science or Math Studies (BLOSSOMS), a repository of freely available interactive videos for high school math and science classes
  • A collaboration with Ohio State University aimed at increasing participation from underserved, underrepresented populations in the life sciences at the doctoral and postdoctoral level
  • Guided Learning Pathways, a project that involves building learning software for K through 12 science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students
Larson concluded by referring to Einstein's famous quote: "Keep it simple, but not too simple!" He explained, "in education and healthcare, we need to keep our eyes on the big picture, and not get distracted by numerous details. It's the overall structure of these systems that drives their long-term performance. Simple idea to consider, but complex to implement!"

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

SDM Alum's Video Start-up 1Minute40Seconds Looks to Help People and Organizations Tell Engaging Stories

Blade Kotelly, who graduated from SDM this past June, has a cool start-up!

1Minute40Seconds aims to use a cutting-edge, web-based technology platform to help marketers and businesses tell their stories more effectively. The company was recently featured in this article in Xconomy Boston.

SDM Alumnus Speaks to US Senate Committee Field Hearing on Small Businesses and Entrepreneurship in the Growing Cybersecurity Field

From Lois Slavin, SDM Communications Director
US Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), left, with SDM alumnus
Dr. Charles Iheagwara. Senator Cardin chaired the
field hearing at which Dr. Iheagwara spoke.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Senate

SDM alum Charles Iheagwara, PhD, CISSP, PE, and chief marketing and business development officer at Unatek Inc., recently spoke on “The Role of Small Businesses in Strengthening Cybersecurity Efforts in the United States” at a US Senate Committee field hearing in Maryland.

Excerpts from testimony of SDM alumnus Dr. Charles Iheagwara
The growth of many medium and big-sized firms is made possible by the entrepreneurship of small businesses. Thousands of these companies have peaked in their organic growth but continue to grow from mergers and acquisitions of highly entrepreneurial small businesses. Therefore, there is no doubt that the entrepreneurship of small businesses is the fuel that propels growth, consolidation, and the expansion of services in organizations that have peaked in their organic growth. In the last 10 years, it is worthy to note that countless numbers of small businesses that are in the cybersecurity business have been acquired by large firms.

The role played by small businesses in strengthening cybersecurity efforts in the United States can be measured by several metrics and indicators. But by most accounts, the impact of small business contributions to the cybersecurity sector and the overall economy can be described in the broad terms of “talent,” “capacity creation,” “incubation,” “innovation,” and “niche services”—to mention but a few.

1. Talent.
Cybersecurity is a field that has become highly specialized. Like the medical profession where there are general practitioners and specialists, in the cybersecurity practice we have those that specialize in policy work, certification and accreditation, security engineering and architecture, analysts, etc. Small businesses with lower overhead structures are sometimes more capable of attracting and retaining niche talent.

2. Capacity creation. Many cybersecurity initiatives at the federal and state levels spur capacity creation of different business lines and activities. A case in point is the recent DFAR changes proposed by the DoD that will affect the entire DoD supply chain, which consist of mostly small businesses. Creating services that these small companies can use will become extremely important (and lucrative for the companies that do it).

3. Incubation (of technologies, business processes, and practices). Many cybersecurity technologies, business processes, and toolsets—to mention but a few—were incubated by one or a group of individuals working as small business entities that are engaged in cybersecurity practice or elsewhere. Such incubations eventually grow into products, solutions, and niche services that are launched into the marketplace by the big companies that acquired them.

In multiple instances, in one form or another, the concepts behind many cybersecurity defense arsenals originated from small businesses or individuals who are practicing as independent consultants.

4. Innovation. Small businesses are often executors of complex projects. As prime contractors, subcontractors, independent consultants, and employees, they are central to ideas generation. Through the many complex projects they work on they often discover areas of process, product, toolsets, business process, and technology that need improvement.

For example, as lead users of business toolsets, small businesses often recognize deficiencies and go on to improving or innovating the toolsets. They can be viewed as a poster child for the concept of “user innovation” as defined by MIT’s Eric von Hippel or “crowdsourcing” as coined by Jeff Howe in a June 2006 Wired magazine article about istockphoto (

In contrast to the traditional R&D model that characterizes big firms’ innovation machines, where billions of dollars are spent before anything meaningful comes out of the efforts, working on the front line, small businesses are better at collecting customer inputs to innovate, a move away from the traditional R&D to where users drive innovation.

Small business–driven innovation comes in different shades. In the 1990s, innovation by small businesses in the cybersecurity market space centered mostly on developing the technologies, quality control, and cost of addressing cyberspace threats. Today, in consonance with the nature of cybersecurity, which has become a constantly shifting target, small business-driven innovations now revolve around efficiency and rewiring for creativity and growth.   

For example, Sourcefire Inc., which developed one of the model intrusion detection systems, was until a few years ago a small cybersecurity firm. It created the “Snort,” which was a basic model for intrusion detection systems. Today, it is a publicly traded company with many leading-edge cybersecurity products.

In the ’90s, when the Snort was created, technology development was the main focus in the cybersecurity market. Today, innovation has moved beyond defining the technology onto some other forms of perfecting existing technologies and products, improving techno-economic efficiencies and the cost of operations among others. This is generally reflective of the trend across the industry, and the contributions by small businesses in different innovative endeavors are by no means small in comparison to those that originate with big-sized cybersecurity organizations. Throughout this arena, small businesses are innovating in terms of technology, business models, and more.

5. Niche services. Niche services are those services that require specialized expertise, setup, and organization to deliver. The expertise is largely acquired outside the bounds of any formal or organized training organization. The most recognized niche service in cybersecurity is ethical hacking services. Although many training institutions deliver some form of cybersecurity training with ethical hacking content, it is known that ethical hacking expertise is largely acquired through other means that are outside the confines of a trainer classroom.   

The most famous hacker, Kevin Mitnick, did not acquire his hacking skills in the classroom but rather through his extraordinary talent. Today, individuals with such talents have organized their practice around small business consultancies that provide their highly specialized services to hundreds of big businesses, the defense and intelligence establishments, and others that are in constant need of testing their information systems for proof of resistance to hackers.

Today’s burgeoning niche services have become business requirements arising from different needs. In some cases, the need arises unexpectedly where such services have not yet being incubated, matured, or fused into organizational business units and are outside the reach of the entity requiring immediately service. Organizing for service delivery then becomes a long-term project, and the immediate recourse is to small businesses that have the established capabilities to organize and deliver them. In cybersecurity field practice, we have seen countless such situations where the big companies working as prime contractors are not able to provide certain niche services but rely on small business subcontractors or independent consultants to provide them. Inherently, niche expertise is a mainstay in small business day-to-day existence.

Given the above, it could be argued that the key means in cybersecurity development strategy is to focus on the strengths and core competencies of small businesses that will enhance the overall security posture of our nation. There will be much value in examining ways to strengthen cybersecurity efforts in the United States—especially examination of the dynamic that drives innovation and spurs growth in small businesses with good track records and viable potentials. This could very well be the spark that unleashes the innovative fire in small businesses engaged in cybersecurity practice.

Despite the very strong and positive contributions of small businesses in strengthening cybersecurity efforts in the United States, there are still obstacles in realizing the full potential of small business entrepreneurship. Like individual entrepreneurs and big businesses, they require government support.

With a supportive environment and a fully committed program, both legislative and otherwise, small businesses can continue to grow, expand, and drive cybersecurity efforts toward new heights. Such a program should provide high-quality initiatives that are supported by a legislative mandate and should stipulate a certain percentage of small business share of all federal contracts awarded for cybersecurity. Low-interest loans to support innovation or niche projects will strengthen the managerial skills of prospective and current small businesses and assist them in selling their products and services to the government. The program should also facilitate access to information, counseling, and new cyber research initiatives.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Julian Goldman, MD: Systems Thinking and More Efficient Healthcare

By Cody Ned Romano

To illustrate one of the healthcare industry's most vexing problems, Dr. Julian Goldman describes the hypothetical case of a nurse administering medication to his or her patient. After slipping a needle into the patient's arm, the nurse warns him that the medication may trigger a sharp decrease in blood pressure — then reassures the patient that if his vital signs change, a monitoring machine will produce a loud beep to alert hospital staff.

Dr. Goldman, an anesthesiologist and the medical director for biomedical engineering at Partners HealthCare, believes there might be a better way. "What if, instead, the vitals machine sent a signal to the fusion pump, automatically causing it to stop pumping medication before the sharp decrease in blood pressure?"

Dr. Goldman is developing this kind of life-saving technology: smarter, safer devices that can exchange information seamlessly across networks. In his October 25th keynote presentation on Day 2 of the MIT SDM Conference on Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges, Goldman will discuss some of the specific technological solutions that he and his team have created. In fact, Partners HealthCare is one of only three organizations in the United States that has created custom medical devices and registered them with the Food and Drug Administration.

Initially, Goldman's impetus to build safer medical devices was personal. During the mid-1980s, while training at the University of Colorado in Denver to become an anesthesiologist, he realized that doctors of his specialty faced many risks and pressures when performing procedures. "The field relied heavily on the vigilance of individuals," Goldman said. "That's a heavy load to put on one person: to never make mistakes and never miss anything."

A self-taught computer programmer, Goldman suspected that software could offset some of surgery's most serious risks. Alongside his training in anesthesiology, the doctor pursued a research fellowship in medical device informatics, exploring ways in which artificial intelligence could help monitor patients and assist doctors in making critical decisions. One application he developed, for example, made detailed observations about patients' kidney health using information about the pH levels of their blood.

Later in his career, once Goldman completed his training and began to work as a clinical anesthesiologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital in 2002, he recognized that developing better technology was only one facet of the problem — delivering improved medical devices to patients' bedsides also meant addressing a range of technical, managerial, medical, social, and political challenges. "Identifying a problem in healthcare, and thinking that one has a solution, is different than actually solving the problem," Dr. Goldman said. "I've begun to appreciate just how hard it is, and how long it can take, to alter the system, because it is so complex."

One political hurdle is the industry's lack of regulatory standards. Without adequate guidelines, many medical device companies design and manufacture products that are not interoperable — that is, they're incapable of interacting and exchanging useful information. Even if engineers succeed in extracting useful data from one machine, such as a patient's record or vital signs, they can't always ensure that another device will be able to interpret it. As a way of encouraging manufacturers to build standardized devices, Goldman chairs the ISO Technical Committee 121, an international standards organization, and belongs to several other groups dedicated to forming medical standards.

From a social standpoint, advancing interoperable technology will require doctors and engineers to collaborate in fundamentally new ways. "Engineers are like soldiers: if you give them the right tools, they'll confront serious problems very quickly," Goldman said. "Doctors, on the other hand, are interested in understanding all aspects of the problem, then brainstorming to discover new solutions." A member of both clans, Goldman proudly points out that the dichotomy is fading; he cites as evidence MIT's involvement in a consortium dedicating to improving healthcare: "The Institute has been extremely helpful to Partners HealthCare in advancing our projects and supporting our overall mission."

Despite complex technical and sociopolitical challenges, Dr. Goldman is confident that interoperable technology, which he dubs "plug-and-play," can rapidly alter the healthcare industry. He notes, for example, that USB Flash Drives, which can be used to swiftly transfer files between computers, faced similar interoperability problems less than 10 years ago.

"Medical devices are where the rubber meets the road, so to speak," Goldman explained, "where systems theories actually touch the patients. If we're going to build a more efficient healthcare system, there's an urgent need for us to consider all components of care from a systems-thinking perspective."