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Meet the Maker

Mon, 12/30/2013 - 10:43am
Rob Matheson, MIT

It’s a dream of many hobbyists: turning their leisure pursuits into a lucrative business. That’s what happened for MIT alumna Limor Fried ’03, MEng ’05, whose pastime — tinkering with electronics — not only gave rise to a profitable company, but also positioned her as a leader of a technology revolution.

Since childhood, Fried has built, tweaked and otherwise modified (or “hacked”) electronic devices, sometimes creating her own unique gadgets. Eventually, at MIT and beyond, she would sell these products — while freely sharing their design plans online — through her startup, Adafruit Industries.

Now, following that formula, Adafruit has become a multimillion-dollar company that’s been called a leader in the open-source hardware industry. And Fried, now Adafruit’s CEO, is lauded as a pioneer of the “maker movement,” a rising culture emphasizing do-it-yourself technology that has proved to be a profitable niche.

In January, Fried — known by her online pseudonym “Ladyada,” after a 19th-century female mathematician — was named “Entrepreneur of the Year” by Entrepreneur magazine. Last year, she was the first female engineer featured on the cover of Wired, and was included on Fast Company’s “Most Influential Women in Technology” list. In 2009, she was awarded a Pioneer Award by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights group.

“There are many amazing people working hard and inspiring the maker movement every single day,” Fried says of her tech-celebrity status. “We all have our roles and little parts we can do to make the world a better place through learning and sharing.”

Adafruit primarily sells “kits” of build-your-own electronic devices, complete with open-source licenses, encouraging customers to modify the final products. But its primary focus is on teaching the world engineering, Fried says — “an educational company that just happens to have a gift shop at the end,” as she puts it.

While flattered by the publicity, Fried hopes her fame across makerdom will help promote science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education — and show that there’s a way to combine a passion for engineering with entrepreneurship.

“I think this represents opportunity for more makers and hackers to see it’s possible to be a good cause and a good business,” she says. “Anyone who wants to help teach people electronics and make things can make a business out of it.”

Powering through with MIT

Eight years ago, Fried was still an MIT graduate student, wading through the uncertainty of designing her first Adafruit products. By day, she was a student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; by night, she was a hopeful entrepreneur.

“I would spend a few hours doing classwork, and then at night work on projects and kits that would inspire Adafruit,” she says.

But MIT — with its emphasis on diligence and experimentation — became a safe haven. “MIT is a great place to come face-to-face with what you know and what you don’t know, and to power through the discomfort of not knowing 100 percent of what you’re doing,” she says.

Many of her experiments took place in MITERS, a student-run lab stocked with electrical engineering equipment and “a great resource for creative engineering,” Fried says.

There, she developed some of her early commercial devices — such the MiniPOV, whose LED display makes words appear to be floating in air, and the Minty MP3 player, which fits inside an Altoids tin. (A version of the latter, the MintyBoost Kit — an Altoids tin-based charger for portable devices — is now Adafruit’s best-seller, with more than 50,000 units sold.)

Fried provided the design plans for these devices through her personal website and, in 2005, began selling preassembled kits to a steady influx of customers — laying the foundation for Adafruit, which Fried would officially open a year later in New York.

Adafruit now operates out of a new, 12,000-square-foot industrial space in Lower Manhattan, ships hundreds of products per day, and has more than 50 employees. Last year, the company sold about $10 million worth of its famed do-it-yourself kits.

Looking back, Fried says the competitive, entrepreneurial ecosystem at MIT helped inspire her to launch her business. “The entrepreneurial culture is strong at MIT,” she says, “and when I saw how many of my friends were starting companies out of college it made me think, ‘Hey, if they can do it, I can do it too. Let’s do this thing!’ I think that’s part of the healthy competition that MIT is known for.”

Creating a culture of makers

As a maker-movement pioneer, Fried says she hopes to inspire a “culture of makers” by sparking people’s interest in building not only their own electronics, but also their own tech startups. “Adafruit not only wants to make more makers, we want to help inspire people to make businesses — and make even more makers,” she says.

Apart from selling kits, original devices and providing hundreds of guides online, Adafruit works around the world with schools, teachers, libraries and hackerspaces — community technology labs — to promote STEM education, designing curricula in circuitry and electronics, among other initiatives.

The company has released an online children’s show called “A is for Ampere.” On a weekly Saturday night program, “Ask an Engineer,” anyone can ask Fried questions online or show off their original devices.

One of Fried’s favorite stories, from a young viewer of “Ask an Engineer,” illuminates what she sees as the growing diversity of engineering. “A parent emailed us after watching the show with his daughter,” she says. “I had another engineer on the show with me — my friend Amanda — and this parent’s daughter asked, ‘Dad, are there boy engineers too?’”

Ultimately, Fried says, her mission is inspiring everyone to be makers and entrepreneurs. “If there’s one thing I’d like to see from this,” she says, “it would be for some kid to say, ‘I could do that,’ and start the journey to becoming an engineer and entrepreneur.”

For more information visit www.mit.edu.

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