MIT/WHOI Joint Program, Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering
Department: Applied Ocean Physics & Engineering
Advisor: John Leonard
Tackling a single world problem - say, illiteracy, health care or pollution - is usually enough to satisfy one person. Yet Timothy Prestero, a MIT/WHOI Joint Program student, formed a company to work on these issues and more than a dozen others.
Equal parts engineering firm, humanitarian group and college course, Prestero's company Design that Matters creates products to improve the lives of impoverished, ill or handicapped people. Engineering students at MIT design and prototype the products in cooperation with Design that Matters for credit toward their degrees.
Among his company's creations is a talking toy for children designed to aid in Native American language preservation. A machine that conducts vision tests then produces prescription eyeglasses for about $1 per pair. A "smart cane" for the blind that warns its user of a potential hazard lurking six feet away. And for premature babies, a low-cost, portable incubator that runs without electricity.
Inexpensive and easy to use
While the products may seem high tech and costly, the company's design standards dictate that the product is easy to use and fix, and inexpensive to manufacture. Some run on rechargeable batteries. Others are solar powered. People with minimal financial, medical and technical resources -- and in many cases, limited reading skills -- are the intended users.
"The goal isn't to create more problems for a community," said Prestero of the company's 20 prototype designs, many of which have been tested in communities in the United States, as well as Africa, Asia and Latin America. "We don't want our products to make waste or burden communities with expense. Because then they simply aren't going to use it."
Prestero, 33, graduated last year with degrees in Mechanical and Ocean Engineering and is currently on hiatus from his doctorate studies in the MIT/WHOI Joint Program. Though it may seem as if he is on a career trajectory away from oceanography, he said he reflects daily on lessons learned from his studies.
"It taught me about how to start thinking about huge, unsolved problems," he said. "Graduate research is all about building a methodical approach to solving tough problems. I learned how to formulate questions and arrive at the best answer."
"You can see his scientific training at work when he's on a project," said Neil Cantor, a MIT business school graduate who founded the company with Prestero. "He's certainly the type to think things through before arriving at the best answer."
The design process
For Prestero, the design starts when non-profit agencies, community members and local entrepreneurs let him know the needs of communities, such as the demand in developing countries and rural areas for incubators that run without electricity. Then MIT student engineers work with their professors to design the product over the course of one or more semesters.
Next, the product is produced as a prototype and tested with the people who will actually use it. In 2002, MIT students took a design mockup of the incubator to Sri Lanka for a design review with the group Doctors without Borders. Once the team has constructed a working model of the device, they plan return to South Asia to field test the design.
The final step, Prestero said, is connecting with an industrial partner to mass-produce and distribute the device. "Our goal is to go from problem identification to a commercial product in use by the community within three to five years," said Prestero.
Prestero, the son of a Navy officer, grew up in California, New England and Scotland. "Service is a family tradition. I wanted to do something useful with my career," he said of his decision to focus on non-profit work. He said he felt ill equipped to address real world problems after taking theoretical classes during his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at the University of California at Davis.
The gift of toilets
Even when he had the chance to help as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Ivory Coast, West Africa, he still felt stymied. Building latrines, for example, seemed to Prestero an easy way to make life easier for 1,100 children in a local school with no bathroom facilities.
"Here's this great opportunity to give children the gift of toilets," he recalled thinking at the time. Instead, after building the latrines, he became discouraged when he learned that local public works officials had stolen the original sewage funding to buy televisions and mopeds.
"It raised huge questions for me about why the world wasn't fair," he said. "Even after the Peace Corps I found myself asking, 'what can I do to help? I was not getting the answers I needed."
Accepted into the MIT/WHOI Joint Program, he studied autonomous ocean exploration in the Applied Ocean Physics & Engineering Department. During his coursework, he took a sustainable energy class at MIT that he said changed his life. "It was the first course to address the questions I was asking," he said. "What can groups do - at the individual, industry, and national levels - to create a sustainable society?"
A major push for Prestero in the next year is to introduce Design that Matters in at least five other universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. By 2008, he wants to be coordinating projects with 100 universities around the world.
"We've proven that the process works," he said of his company. "Over the next year, we'll be working hard to reach more schools and more students, and drive more of our designs across the finish line."
- Amy E. Nevala
Originally published: October 1, 2003