June 6, 2016 | Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
Engineer and biochemist alumni reflect on the importance of mentors, teaching entrepreneurship, and finding an intellectual home at MIT.
Photo courtesy of Erika Ebbel Angle and Colin Angle.
Colin Angle, ’89, SM ’91 and Erika Ebbel Angle ’04 spoke with EECS about the mentors and experiences that have shaped their careers. Married since 2010, the couple is involved in a number of efforts aimed at sparking a love of science and research in the next generation of engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs.
Colin Angle is the cofounder, CEO, and chairman of iRobot, which builds robots for home vacuuming (the Roomba), and for industrial and military uses. He studied 6-1 (electrical engineering) as an MIT undergraduate, and holds an MS in computer science from MIT.
Erika Ebbel Angle is the CEO and co-founder of Ixcela, a biotechnology startup that analyzes gut microbiome health using a pinprick of blood. Personalized, actionable solutions, as well as unique supplements, are provided to improve gut imbalances (or dysbiosis). Angle is also the founder and executive director of Science from Scientists. She studied chemistry as an MIT undergrad and received a PhD in biochemistry from the Boston University School of Medicine. In 2004, she was named Miss Massachusetts, and she is the host of the Dr. Erika Show, an education science TV shows for children.
Q. What sort of research did you do as undergraduates?
Colin: UROP played a huge role in my life. Between junior and senior year, on a bit of a whim, I interviewed for a UROP position at Rodney Brooks’ robot lab. When I showed up there were 80 other students vying for the position. We were given a piece of paper and told to write down everything we had ever built. That was the interview. Ten minutes later probably a third of the people left. Twenty minutes later 80 percent of the people were gone. It might have been over an hour later I was still writing things on this piece of paper. For me it was this amazing realization that I might have found my place. I got the job, and my UROP project that summer was a small six-legged walking robot called Genghis. The creation of that robot began the partnership with Rod Brooks, which led to the formation of iRobot. I had always loved lab classes and building things, but working for Rod showed me that I could actually do this as more than a hobby. I also got access to using microprocessors for the first time. Also, I got access to different types of parts and motors that I’d only dreamed of being able to work with. This experience was my introduction to real research that I wouldn’t have had until I was a graduate student.
Erika: The UROP that stands out the most for me was with Steve Tannenbaum, a professor of biological engineering studying the chemistry of nitric oxide in the body and its role in inflammation and disease. He gave me really good life advice at a time when I was trying to decide what to do. I had a variety of different skills and I was trying to choose between them and figure out how to allocate my time. He told me that to succeed you have to be able to focus your time, and put real energy into the things that you want to build and watch grow. Everything of value takes time to grow and cultivate. That was a message that stuck with me. There’s still a rebellious side of me that is trying to do as much as it can possibly do, but within the context of, “if you don’t spend time on something it will never work out, because all things of value take time to build.” His advice also gave me good foundational knowledge. I was doing mass spectrometry work, which I then continued doing during my PhD.
Q. You’re supporters of EECS’s SuperUROP program, which gives undergrads the opportunity to do a yearlong UROP. Why is this sort of experience important?
Colin: If all you do at MIT is show up and take classes, you’ve only just scratched the surface of what faculty can teach you. UROP and SuperUROP are an opportunity to interact with a professor on a different level, work with that person, do research, and find out what they have to offer. We’re supportive of the SuperUROP program because it multiplies the value of going to MIT as an undergrad. There may have been other places I could have gone as an undergrad that would have given me a comparable education, but because of UROP and the opportunity it gave me to interact with Rod, my life has changed.
Erika: It’s also so important for students to try different things while they’re figuring out what they want to do for their careers. If you don’t have any research experience, it helps you to determine if it’s something that you want to do, while working with professors and getting their counsel and feedback. For me the UROP experience was an exploration of the various types of opportunities—different types of research, different types of people and personalities—that drove me to participate in it.
Q. Erika, your company Science from Scientists puts scientists into classrooms to teach science to 4th to 8th graders. Why is early science education and mentorship so important?
Erika: There are countless data sets that show that children decide what they want to do, or at least what they don’t want to do, by the time they’ve come through middle school. Those early formative years are so important because this is when self-discovery and confidence building occurs. If you don’t get to that child at a very early age, you may completely lose your opportunity to strike any sort of chord with them. Science from Scientists specifically targets elementary and middle school students with the goal of improving interest and aptitude in STEM. We send real, charismatic, fun, cool scientists into classrooms every other week for the entire year to teach curriculum-relevant material that’s hands-on, engaging, and exciting. We do this in collaboration with the classroom teachers, who may have limited backgrounds in STEM subject areas.
Q. What inspired you to pursue science?
Erika: I had a 6th grade teacher who was in fact my English teacher. She stayed with us when there was a long field trip that I couldn’t attend, and taught us everything from English to science. She had us reading books like Jurassic Park and Andromeda Strain and all sorts of other science books. Additionally we were doing basic science experiments that complemented our reading. It was because of that exposure that I became interested in science initially, and that got me involved in participating in science fairs. Once I started I was hooked. Along the way there were many others who worked with me. There was a director of a local public health laboratory who was my mentor for many years. Basically, any day I wanted to come and talk to him he was available in the late afternoons to help me and help me do my experiments. Mentorship is critical to inspiring students.
Colin: For me it was a lifelong love of building stuff. I was one of those kids where if you put me in front of a stream I would build a dam with a working gristmill. I just loved inventing. I went to MIT because I felt like it was a place where that type of attitude could find root. I would tell people, “I’m going to major in whatever lets me build the coolest stuff.” At iRobot, this love of building physical things extended to a love of building companies, and everything that’s required to take on even grander projects.
Q. You’re both founders of multiple companies. Why is entrepreneurship important, and where does it fit in an engineering education?
Colin: You actually get to build what you want to build! In all seriousness, entrepreneurship is not for everyone. It is very challenging. You have to be willing to put yourself out there, and put your finances and future at risk in a way that many people aren’t excited to do. It’s also a wonderfully empowering and exciting opportunity on which whole economies are built. However, we always have to remember that entrepreneurship isn’t what we do if we cant get any other job; it’s what we do if we truly have a deep-seated passion for it. That passion can be nurtured. That passion can be brought out in people who don’t necessarily come into it with the confidence or even an understanding of what entrepreneurship is, but it can never be forced, required, or expected.
Q. What advice do you have for people who are founding their own companies?
Erika: Entrepreneurship is not for everyone. I think there’s a romance about being an entrepreneur that quickly fades when you become one. The challenge is that many of the skills that you need you don’t necessarily learn at school. You don’t take a class in people management skills, or in what to do after you’ve tried everything and nothing works. Mentorship and building a support network are critical to success. It’s very hard starting a business alone as an undergrad. Even now, years after launching Science from Scientists and even Ixcela, I am still learning.
Colin: Don’t do it alone. Whether it’s a mentor group that you’re hooked up with, or if you have some friends with prior experience, I think that it’s critical that you have a support system where not everyone is soul-crushingly depressed on the same day.
Q. If you could enroll in MIT again for a second undergrad degree, what would you study?
Erika: On the second go-around, I would try something different. I would major in music. I would study something artistically oriented.
Colin: Computer science. There is so much happening in the world of computer science with the cloud, and the Internet of things, I would love to get a 6-3 degree.