New centers will enlist software engineers for science

The University of Washington and three other universities have kicked off an effort to beef up the software engineering resources available to researchers, backed by a $40 million commitment from Schmidt Futures.

The philanthropic organization founded by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy Schmidt, announced the establishment of the Virtual Institute for Scientific Software this week. The institute’s four inaugural centers will be housed at UW, the University of Cambridge, Georgia Tech and Johns Hopkins University.

Each of the centers will be awarded $2 million a year for the next five years to bring on software engineers and computational scientists who can help address the increasingly complex, data-centric challenges that face researchers today.


First Mode’s chief scientist spans the spectrum

Lots of tech startups have a chief executive officer and a chief technology officer, and some have a chief operating officer and a chief financial officer as well. But how many have a chief scientist?

First Mode, for one. The Seattle-based creative engineering company recently named its first chief scientist (and its first COO). Both were internal promotions, with co-founder Rhae Adams becoming chief operating officer and planetary scientist Elizabeth Frank becoming chief scientist.

Many of the projects First Mode has worked on over the three years of its existence have to do with planetary exploration. For example, the company’s engineers have provided support for NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars in February; and for the Psyche probe that’s due for launch to a metal-rich asteroid next year.

But other projects are much closer to home: First Mode is building a hydrogen-fueled power system for the massive trucks that Anglo American uses to haul ore out of its mines, and it’s designing a power module for the world’s first zero-emission race truck in Mexico’s Baja 1000 endurance race.

Those Earth-based engineering challenges represent a brave new world for Frank, who was part of the science team for NASA’s Messenger mission to Mercury and came to the Seattle area in 2016 to work at Planetary Resources, the asteroid mining company that fizzled out just as First Mode was forming.

First Mode has grown rapidly, despite the COVID pandemic. Two years ago, just before the virus took hold in the U.S., the company had 28 full-time employees. Today it has more than 150 employees, including more than two dozen at its Australian facility in Perth. First Mode is planning to add 170 more jobs in 2022.

Some of those jobs will be on the chief scientist’s team in Seattle. But Frank’s duties extend far beyond the Emerald City. She’s also the chair of the Commercial Advisory Board for NASA’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group, and the co-author of a white paper for the National Academy of Science’s decadal survey that delved into the role of commercial space ventures in planetary exploration.

“I would like to see NASA have smaller missions, so that it’s OK for some number of those missions to fail in a way that allows technology to move forward,” she said.

The way Frank sees it, failure should be more of an option.


First Mode gets $8.5M boost from mining partnership

Seattle-based First Mode says it’s partnering with the global mining company Anglo American in a multi-year joint development deal that includes an $8.5 million investment in First Mode.

The newly announced deal builds on the engineering company’s previous work on a hydrogen fuel-cell power plant for Anglo American’s monster ore-hauling truck.

Anglo American is one of the world’s largest mining companies, with a portfolio that includes platinum-group metals, copper and iron ore, and diamond mines. Its operations are spread out from South Africa to Western Australia.

Mining isn’t exactly an environmentally friendly industry, but Anglo American is pursuing an initiative called FutureSmart Mining that’s aimed at reducing its environmental footprint. The hydrogen-powered vehicle that First Mode is working on could become one of the largest zero-emissions vehicles on Earth.

First Mode was founded in 2018 by veterans of Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining venture that fizzled out. Much of First Mode’s work has to do with supporting space projects such as NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars and the Psyche mission to a metal-rich asteroid. But the partnership with Anglo American signals that First Mode is serious about addressing earthly engineering challenges as well.


Veteran asteroid miners launch First Mode

First Mode lab
A wide-angle view provides an unusual perspective of First Mode’s new lab space. (First Mode Photo)

Planetary Resources was assimilated into the ConsenSys blockchain venture months ago, but a troop of engineers who used to work for the asteroid mining company is seeking out new frontiers with a new company called First Mode.

And this time, asteroids aren’t the final frontier.

“First Mode is working with industries on and off the planet to do design and creative engineering work, but also to build hardware and build solutions that get deployed around the solar system as well as a lot of harsh and challenging environments here on planet Earth,” Rhae Adams, vice president of strategy and business development, told GeekWire.

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Plasmonic modulator could lead to new chips

Electro-optic modulator
Artist’s rendering shows an electro-optic modulator. (VCU Illustration / Nathaniel Kinsey)

Researchers have created a miniaturized device that can transform electronic signals into optical signals with low signal loss. They say the electro-optic modulator could make it easier to merge electronic and photonic circuitry on a single chip. The hybrid technology behind the modulator, known as plasmonics, promises to rev up data processing speeds.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.


UW’s nano institute is open for business

Nano institute opening
Among the dignitaries cutting the ribbon for the University of Washington’s Institute for Nano-Engineered Systems are institute director Karl Böhringer; Nena Golubovic, physical sciences director for IP Group; Mike Bragg, dean of the UW College of Engineering; and Jevne Micheau-Cunningham, the institute’s deputy director. (UW Photo / Kathryn Sauber)

University of Washington officials used a scaled-up scissors this week for a ribbon-cutting ceremony that celebrated scaled-down science: the opening of the Institute for Nano-Engineered Systems, or NanoES.

The institute, housed in the $87.8 million Nano Engineering and Sciences Building, will focus on nanoscale frontiers in energy, materials science, computation and medicine.

“The University of Washington is well-known for its expertise in nanoscale materials, processing, physics and biology — as well as its cutting-edge nanofabrication, characterization and testing facilities,” Karl Böhringer, the institute’s director, said in UW’s account of the Dec. 4 opening reception. “NanoES will build on these strengths, bringing together people, tools and opportunities to develop nanoscale devices and systems.”

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Six tips for fostering women in engineering

Woman engineer
Women engineers don’t need to join the “bro club.” (© Chombosan via Fotolia)

BELLEVUE, Wash. — The title of the panel was “Women in Hardware,” but the focus turned out to be more about the organizational software to support women at startups.

Five women engineers shared tips for getting ahead in a traditionally male-dominated field during today’s panel, conducted at One Bellevue Center as part of Techstars Startup Week Seattle.

The first tip is to embrace the engineer label, even if you don’t have an engineering degree.

“Being an engineer is just something I did not know I could become,” said Clarissa San Diego, the founder of Seattle-based Makerologist.

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Junior engineers score big with golf club project

Image: Adam Clark
Boeing engineer Adam Clark helped design Callaway’s golf clubs. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

EVERETT, Wash. – When experts at Callaway Golf sought Boeing’s help to improve their golf clubs’ aerodynamics, Boeing turned to a special breed of engineers: recent hires with a hunger for projects off Boeing’s beaten path.

Some of the engineers didn’t even play golf before they took on the challenge – but now they’re learning.

The result of the collaboration is Callaway’s XR-16 line of drivers, which sport a pattern of chevron-shaped “trip steps” to optimize the aerodynamics of a golf swing. Computerized analysis helped the engineers tweak the club’s shape ever so slightly: By making the air flow just a bit more turbulent at a key point, the engineers reduced the drag encountered during the swing.

“We’ve obviously been working on this problem for many years,” said Evan Gibbs, Callaway’s senior manager for research and development for woods. But for the XR-16, Callaway had only a few months to up their aerodynamic game. That’s why the company turned to Boeing’s engineering-savvy duffers.

The unusual collaboration is arguably the highest-profile success story for Boeing’s Opportunities for New Engineers program, also known as ONE.

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