ECE Professor’s LED Discovery at Heart of Case
By Joel Brown, published in BU Today
A US District Court jury has awarded Boston University more than $13 million after finding that three companies infringed on a BU patent for blue LEDs (light emitting diodes), used in countless cell phones, tablets, laptops, and lighting products.
After a highly technical three-week trial in November, the 10-person jury unanimously found that the companies had willfully infringed on BU’s patent for the invention by 2013 Innovator of the Year Theodore Moustakas, College of Engineering Distinguished Professor of Photonics and Optoelectronics Emeritus. Because the jury found the infringement to be willful, the $13,665,000 award could be doubled or tripled by Judge Patti B. Saris. No date has yet been announced for further proceedings.
Despite the amount of damages awarded, “the best part of this is that it validates Professor Moustakas’ work,” says Michael Pratt (Questrom’12), interim managing director of BU’s Technology Development office. “The story is really not about the money. The first thing we want is recognition of his seminal contribution to this field.”
Moustakas, who became a professor emeritus when he retired in June but continues to conduct research at the Photonics Center, testified extensively at the trial and was present in court every day. When the judge read the jury’s verdict, “I put my head down,” he says. “I cried.” He describes the jury’s decision as “amazing…everything we asked,” saying also that his lifetime’s work was being challenged.
“Fundamental to our mission as a global research institution is nurturing an environment of discovery that supports our faculty and the incredibly important work they do,” says Jean Morrison, provost and chief academic officer. “We are delighted with the verdict in this case. Boston University has successfully fought, and will continue to fight, for our faculty members and the intellectual property they create here.”
The three primary defendants, all Taiwan-based, were Epistar Corporation, Everlight Electronics Co., Ltd., and Lite-On Technology Corporation, along with various subsidiaries, most located in the United States. Each is involved in manufacturing or packaging LEDs for use in consumer electronics. A number of big-name electronics manufacturers were initially part of the University’s case, but they avoided litigation by joining a settlement that includes licensing and confidentiality agreements.
The University was represented by Michael Shore, a partner at Shore Chan DePumpo LLP, in Dallas, specialists in intellectual property cases, and Erik Belt, a partner specializing in patent disputes at the Boston law firm McCarter and English LLC, which has represented BU before. While it is possible for the defendants to appeal the verdict, Belt says it would be difficult to overturn the jury’s clear finding of fact.
The University will receive less than half of the final award, after the attorneys, who took the case on a contingency basis, and previous patent licensees are paid. Moustakas will receive 30 percent of the University’s share.
Moustakas joined BU in 1987 and was named the University’s inaugural Distinguished Professor of Photonics and Optoelectronics in 2014. A search is under way for his successor, and the Distinguished Professorship will be renamed the Theodore Moustakas Professorship of Photonics and Optoelectronics.
Moustakas’ invention dates to June 22, 1990, when researchers in his lab were trying to produce microscopically thin layers of gallium nitride to be used in the LEDs, growing crystals of the substance at high temperatures. They discovered that a heater used in the experiment had malfunctioned and the material had cooled to 270 degrees Celsius, far below the intended 600 degrees. But instead of aborting the experiment, Moustakas told them to fix the heater and continue. The snafu led to the growth of a smoother, more translucent gallium nitride layer that also grew much faster when crystallized at the higher temperature, a result replicated—deliberately—the very next day.
The main patent for the LED was issued in 1997, based on an application first submitted in 1991. Since then, blue LEDs have become a key component in many products, because they can generate white light when coated with phosphor.
“The real story is the robustness of Moustakas’ technology,” says Pratt. “It really did become a personal story. There was an attack, an affront to his creation. They had two experts saying it didn’t exist…and the jury wasn’t buying that at all.”
“To infringe in patent law, you don’t have to know about the patent and you don’t have to have an intent,” says Belt. To prove willfulness, “you basically have to show the other side knew of the patent and they were perhaps recklessly disregarding the fact that they were infringing or willfully blind to it. There’s a lot of ways to say it, but you basically have to show that there was willful disregard for BU’s patent rights.
“I think this really validates Professor Moustakas’ scientific breakthrough and establishes him as one of the great scientists in his field,” Belt says.
Giles has recently accepted key roles aimed at progressing the field of astronomy and of supercomputing; all while, continuing his role as a STEM diversity advocate.
By Gabriella McNevin and Rebecca Jahnke (COM ‘17)
Roscoe Giles is a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Boston University (BU). Within the last few months, Giles has become involved with a $864-million cooperative agreement to manage the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). He has also accepted an invitation to aid in the development of U.S. supercomputing policies.
In October, 2015, Giles started a two-year term as Chair of the Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI) Board of Trustees. The following month, NSF approved the largest cooperative agreement the astronomy division has ever granted. A 10-year, $864-million cooperative contract with AUI to manage the NRAO. This record breaking contract will tie AUI leadership to the core goals of astronomical research embraced by NRAO.
Also in October, Giles was invited to the White House’s National Strategic Computing Initiative (NCSI) Workshop. NCSI was established by President Obama’s executive order to ensure the United States continues its role as a supercomputing pioneer in the coming decades. The workshop sought to jumpstart ideas for a cohesive, multi-agency strategy. While at the workshop, he and other industry, academic, and government leaders discussed the challenges and opportunities associated with the increase in computing demands and the heightened role of big data in the ever-evolving technological landscape.
Giles is no stranger to government policy. Having served as Chairman of the United States Department of Energy’s Advanced Scientific Computing Advisory Committee from 2008 to 2015, Giles directly influenced the management and direction of federal scientific computing programs.
Giles’ expansive research interests provide a broad foundation to draw upon. Giles started his education studying physics. He obtained his Bachelor’s of Arts degree with honors from the University of Chicago and received Master’s of Science and Ph.D. degrees from Stanford University.
Giles shifted his focus to electrical and computer engineering upon joining Boston University in 1985. Giles is focused on advanced computer architectures, distributed and parallel computing and computation science.
On LinkedIn, Roscoe Giles describes himself simply as an optimist intent to push “the envelope of computing and science in the large.”
Giles is well acquainted with national initiatives to increase diversity in STEM fields. Giles is listed by the Career Communications Group as one of the “50 Most Important Blacks in Research Science,” and was the first African American to earn a theoretical physics PH.D. from Stanford. Additionally, Giles was the first ever African American conference chairman of the Supercomputing Conference, which took place in Baltimore, Maryland in 2002
To that effect, Giles has been lauded not just for his research, but also for his community outreach. Giles was a Founder and Executive Director for the Institute of African American E-Culture. The foundation worked to open access to information technology to minorities and disadvantaged communities across the country. Giles won the Computing Research Association (CRA) A. Nico Habermann Award for his service as a faculty adviser and Minority Engineers Society Mentor.
At the Boston University Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Giles has received recognition including Scholar-Teacher of the Year in 1992. In 1996, Giles won Boston University’s College of Engineering Award for Excellence in Teaching.
By Rebecca Jahnke (COM ‘17) and Bhumika Salwan (Questrom ’16)
Boston University hosted over 300 attendees November 12-15th at the Metcalf Trustee Center for the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) SpaceVision 2015 Conference. The conference is entirely student-run and space-centric. It bills itself as connecting present with future space leaders and is part of international nonprofit SEDS’ larger mission to empower students through the high school, undergraduate and graduate levels to impact space exploration.
BU Engineering seniors Mehmet Akbulut (ME ‘16) and Dean De Carli (EE ‘16) spearheaded conference planning. Both Akbulut and De Carli, who served as the Chair of Operations and Chair of Programming, respectively, had attended the 2013 Arizona SpaceVision Conference. After pondering why the conference had yet to be hosted in a major city like Boston, the pair submitted a bid to post the conference at Boston University and successfully secured the 2015 venue nomination.
Akbulut oversaw logistics, registration, personnel, and general operations of the event while De Carli took charge of programming and speakers. Together, they developed an agenda that featured industry speakers, panels, a business plan competition, and a first-ever peer mentor session. By bringing students together with leaders in the aerospace community, the conference offered attendees invaluable networking opportunities and the chance to view the future of space development through an interdisciplinary lens.
The SEDS, SpaceVision, Rocket Propulsion, and small satellite efforts at BU are all truly interdisciplinary and interdepartmental. This creates a forum for students in different concentrations to work as a team and further learning in fields such as space research. Both Akbulut and De Carli attribute their success running SpaceVision 2015 to the education and leadership opportunities they’ve had in the College of Engineering and Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE).
“ECE has prepared me to help with SpaceVision by giving me the opportunity to lead in student groups such as Boston University Rocket Proposal Group. It’s given me the leadership skills that I have been able to translate into a much larger scale such as being Chair of this conference,” De Carli said.
The College of Engineering, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Department of Mechanical Engineering and Center for Space Physics jointly sponsored the conference. Outside sponsors included Arizona State University School of Earth and Science Exploration and industry sponsors like Lockheed Martin.
ECE Assistant Prof is Rising Star in Machine Learning
By Michael S. Goldberg
To Brian Kulis, advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence bring with them the opportunity to mesh theory with real-world applications, like driverless cars and computers that can describe aloud the objects in front of them.
“You want computers to be able to recognize what they are seeing in images and video,” says Kulis, a College of Engineering assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. “For instance, can it recognize all the objects in a picture? Or a more difficult problem would be, can it look at a video and describe in English what is happening in the video? That is a major application area for machine learning these days.”
Kulis’ expertise in machine learning, along with his research in computer vision systems and other applications, brought him to BU this fall and has earned him the University’s inaugural Peter J. Levine Career Development Professorship, which will be awarded annually to rising junior faculty in the electrical and computer engineering department. The professorship’s three-year stipend will support scholarly and laboratory work. It was established by a gift from Peter J. Levine (ENG’83), a partner at the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreesen Horowitz and a part-time faculty member at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.
Kulis is a rising star in the machine learning field and the Levine professorship speaks to BU’s recognition of his achievements thus far, says Kenneth R. Lutchen, dean of ENG, and is a commitment to helping Kulis build on his world-class research and teaching.
Lutchen adds that Kulis, who earlier this year also received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award for research into machine learning systems, will be a critical faculty member of ENG’s new master’s degree specialization in data analytics.
“We think it will be one of the most popular specializations we have, and it will be accessible not just to students in this department, but also to biomedical, mechanical engineering, and systems engineering students who will want to have this same specialization. Brian’s expertise is perfectly aligned with teaching this,” Lutchen says.
Also a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of computer science, Kulis earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science and mathematics at Cornell University and a doctorate in computer science at the University of Texas at Austin. He did postdoctoral work at the University of California, Berkeley, then spent three years on the faculty of Ohio State University before coming to BU.
Millions or billions of data points
Data science is about managing huge data sets—think millions or billions of data points, from an array of sources—and programming computers to analyze the data and make predictions based on identified patterns. Advances in storing and analyzing these growing collections of information has made Big Data a hot field in both academia and industry, with Harvard Business Review pronouncing data scientist “the sexiest job of the 21st century.”
Those advances include artificial intelligence and machine learning, and they are what enable Kulis to develop exciting connections between theory and action. “There is a nice combination between the mathematics and the theoretical aspects of machine learning. It’s a very applied field, trying to solve real problems,” he says. “That balance is pretty rare.”
He describes his specific area of research as scalable nonparametric machine learning. While a traditional statistical model for analyzing a large amount of data would establish a model for performing the analysis, Kulis pursues a different method. In his research, the data itself determines how simple or complicated the analysis should be.
An example of this approach, he says, is analyzing a large collection of documents for the content they contain. A parametric model would establish 10 clusters of documents to analyze, one each on a set topic. A nonparametric model would instead analyze all of the documents and determine how many topics should be included in the analysis. “You want the data itself to guide the discovery process, and so if there is a lot to say, then you want your algorithm to reveal that structure,” he says. “It’s a more flexible way to do analysis.”
The field is ripe for approaches that allow researchers from different fields–biology and business, for example–to apply machine learning techniques to develop new ways of looking at the data they collect. Kulis says he is looking forward to working with faculty and students from different BU departments both in research and in his courses. “Machine learning brings together a lot of fields that for a long time have been fairly disjoined. When it comes to teaching, a lot of my excitement is in trying to bridge these different disciplines and to teach courses that bring together people from different areas,” he says.
The curriculum, Lutchen says, has relevance to the world at large: “As an engineering faculty, we want people to understand how these new tools and techniques can help society.”
Michael S. Goldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wireless Sensors Developed by Interdisciplinary Engineering Team to be Launched into Space
By Rich Barlow Video by Joe Chan for BU Today
On March 10, 1989, a solar eruption blasted plasma toward Earth. Canadian utility Hydro-Quebec noticed a hop-skip-and-jump in the voltage on its grid two days later. On March 13, with plasma sweeping Earth’s magnetic field and causing electric currents in the outer atmosphere, the grid shut down, plunging the province into darkness for nine hours.
Such bolts from the blue (or black) of space rarely wreak such havoc. But less severe irritants—interrupted radio transmissions, disrupted GPS devices, even rusting of pipelines—can result when electric currents course through the magnetic field, says Joshua Semeter, who’d like to know more about this phenomenon (largely because the magnetic field may be an essential ingredient for life on Earth). So would the federal government, which is why NASA has agreed to launch a network of wireless sensors named ANDESITE, developed by Semeter’s College of Engineering students to study changes in Earth’s magnetic field caused by space weather.
It is the final frontier, finally crossed: the first space launch for eight-year-old BU Student-satellite for Applications and Training, overseen by Semeter (ENG’92,’97), an ENG professor of electrical and computer engineering. Colloquially known as BUSAT, the program engages students in designing and operating small satellites. Earlier this year, the BUSAT group was one of the teams from a half dozen universities that beat out nine competitors to continue receiving support from the Air Force, which has contributed more than $500,000 to BUSAT projects. (BU also provided funding.) NASA will set a date for the launch late this year, Semeter says, assuming the agency’s review shows that ANDESITE’s ejecting sensors “won’t blow up their vehicle.”
ANDESITE sensors are DVD-sized boxes packed with electronics boards, and eight of them will hitch a ride on a NASA spacecraft that will spit them out roughly 280 miles above the Earth. Each sensor, traveling at a speed of approximately six miles per second, will complete an orbit of the Earth in roughly 90 minutes. The sensors will measure variations in electrical currents flowing in and out of the upper atmosphere along Earth’s magnetic field. “From this we will learn about how turbulence forms in space plasmas and what the eventual effects of this will be” on things like radio signals, allowing for better modeling of those effects, Semeter says.
ANDESITE’s success has already led to one terrestrial development, he adds. ENG has hired Brian Walsh (GRS’09,’12) as an associate professor of mechanical engineering. Walsh researches small satellites and space technology.
“This whole idea of taking any kind of spacecraft and spitting out small sub-payloads is really experimental,” says Semeter.
“This whole idea of taking any kind of spacecraft and spitting out small sub-payloads is really experimental,” says Semeter, although ANDESITE employs “technology that’s very well established here on Earth. They use it for self-driving cars and finding cabs in a city; Uber uses this kind of thing. This is wireless mesh network technology.…Our innovation was, why can’t we use that in space? What science could you do?”
In July, government representatives visited the students’ lab at the Engineering Product Innovation Center for a demonstration of how the sensors would deploy during an upcoming zero-gravity test flight, a nausea-inducing trial that previous BUSAT students have experienced firsthand. The students rigged a contraption to gently fire sensors into a mesh net, a form of soccer-meets-space.
“Looks like a good setup,” Zane Singleton of the Defense Department’s Space Test Program and tech company MEI Technologies said at the demonstration.
Earlier in the history of miniaturized satellites, “NASA didn’t give a rat’s ass” about them, Semeter says, with one official harrumphing, “Why would somebody who drives a Ferrari care about Matchboxes?” Then the National Science Foundation convinced NASA that solid science research could be done by mini-satellites. Today, ANDESITE is but one government effort to study space weather. Last February, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite was launched to record data about solar wind.
Cody Nabong (ENG’15), ANDESITE’s project manager, joined BUSAT on a buddy’s recommendation after being stymied in his search for an internship. (A picture of his friend on a zero-gravity flight was a grabber.) “I’ve been interested in aerospace since I came here, so it wasn’t a hard decision,” says Nabong, who appreciates the hands-on practice of the classroom concepts he’s studied that the team has provided. “The computer program that you use to make your 3-D models—I got a lot of practice with that. And then I learned a bunch about communications stuff that I wouldn’t have been exposed to if I had just had courses.…The biggest thing I’ve learned is how you meet requirements for an engineering project,” he says, referring to the government competitions and reviews the ANDESITE project has hurdled.
If the foregoing sounds uber-Star Trek-y, BUSAT’s members include some liberal arts disciplines majors who came for graduate engineering study through BU’s LEAP (Late Entry Accelerated Program) initiative. One BUSAT alumnus was a building contractor from San Francisco, who was “perfectly suited for this job,” says Semeter. “He’s used to going to the project site, telling people what to do. That’s all we needed. And he was technically competent.”
Densmore’s Contributions Part of a $32 Million DARPA Contract to Cutting Edge Synthetic Biology Effort
By Rebecca Jahnke (COM ’17)
A $32 million contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was awarded to “The Foundry” (http://web.mit.edu/foundry/), a DNA design and manufacturing facility at the Broad Institute of MIT to support the engineering of novel biological systems. Boston University Computer Engineering Professor Douglas Densmore’s role in automating the facility’s design process with software inspired by electrical and computer engineering was key in establishing novel, large scale, parallel design processes that landed the contract.
The Foundry focuses on designing, testing and fabricating large sequences of genetic information. The intent is to create DNA nucleotide arrangements that can be applied widely for medical, industrial and agricultural purposes.
Engineers at the Foundry work with chains containing millions of nucleotides, all of which are specified using only the letters A, T, G and C. The Foundry sought Densmore’s computer aided design expertise to help automate complex processes because the feat is impossible for an engineer writing out such vast sequences by hand.
Densmore’s contributions will allow the Foundry to significantly increase its output of DNA designs beyond what would have been possible relying on conventional design techniques. The Foundry’s work will lead to greater advances faster – tackling issues like delivering nitrogenous fertilizer to cereal crops and converting compounds that naturally occur in human bacteria into therapeutic drugs.
Douglas Densmore is a Kern Faculty Fellow, Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science and Engineering Junior Faculty Fellow, and Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Boston University. He also acts as the director of the Cross-disciplinary Integration of Design Automation Research (CIDAR) group at Boston University, where his team develops computational and experimental tools for synthetic biology. His research facilities include both a computational workspace in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering as well as experimental laboratory space in the Boston University Biological Design Center. Densmore is the President of the Bio-Design Automation Consortium, Nona Research Foundation, and Lattice Automation, Inc.
For more information, please see the Broad Institute of MIT press release.
By Gabriella McNevin
Professor Dimitris Pavlidis (ECE) received the 2015 Distinguished Educator Award from the IEEE Microwave Theory and Techniques Society (MTT-S). The award recognizes an individual who has achieved outstanding success in the field of microwave engineering and science as an Educator, Mentor, and Role Model for Microwave Engineers and Engineering Students. The award consists of a recognition plaque, a certificate and an honorarium of $2,500. Pavlidis was conferred at the IEEE International Microwave Symposium the week of 17-22 May 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona.
Pavlidis has pursued microwave research while remaining active in both academia and the microwave engineering industry. He boasts citation in more than 550 publications, and his work with semiconductor devices and circuits have an extraordinary impact on high-speed, high-frequency and photonic applications.
Early in Pavlidis career, he recognized the importance of mentoring engineering students, and in improving microwave engineering academic programs. In 1989 he introduced the first comprehensive Microwave Monolithic Integrated Circuits (MMIC) course, of many, that would be taught around the world. The MMIC course (IEEE Trans. on Education, 1989) was followed by courses covering design, processing and characterization of high frequency components; also, microwave and millimeter-wave circuits and devices. The courses have been well received by students, because they are structured to shed light on the fundamental principles of each topic, and simultaneously provide information on cutting-edge applications.
Pavlidis’ decorated academic career is complemented by achievements in the field of microwave engineering. Pavlidis was involved in pioneering University Research Centers like the Space Terahertz Center and the High-Frequency Microelectronics Center and played a key role in establishing Nanofabrication facilities.
Pavlidis is recognized for a dedication to advancing global microwave engineering efforts. He was appointed to be the Chair of the High Frequency Electronic Department at the Technical University of Darmstadt (TUD) and Director of International Relations at the Institute of Electronics, Microelectronics and Nanotechnology (IEMN). In this capacity, Prof. Pavlidis created an entirely new facility for high frequency micro-/nano-electronics at TUD that served for education and research.
He introduced double degree teaching programs between the universities of Georgia Tech. and the University of Lille1 that have been supported by the US Department of Education/EU Directorate General for Education and Culture (ATLANTIS Program) and Partner University Fund (PUF Program). He initiated major programs for graduate education through transatlantic mobility of students and obtaining of double degrees from US and European institutions. These involved consortia consisting of the universities of Darmstadt, Lille1, Imperial College, Michigan, Illinois, Georgia Tech and UC Irvine and funded by the Funds for Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) and the European Union under joint US-EU initiatives. He has also coordinated and contributed to the initiation of CINTRA, a new international laboratory in Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University for research and education in micro/nano technology and high frequency electronics and optoelectronics. This laboratory is sponsored by the CNRS French Agency, and encourages graduate and postdoctoral students gain experience in Singapore. He played a key role in promoting microwave to Terahertz engineering, chaired and assisted in the organization of numerous international and IEEE meetings and was the general TPC Chair of the 2010 European Microwave Conference.
Ultimately, Prof. Pavlidis has trained and inspired several generations of students by providing them with the tools for setting up extremely successful careers in science and engineering.
Pavlidis has guided students to become highly influential Professors at top schools (Purdue; Seoul National University; Central University Taiwan; Nanyang University, Singapore) as well as key managers and senior scientists in industry (Northrop Grumman, TRW, IQE, Raytheon, Tyco, Freescale, Thales Alenia Space, EADS, Skyworks, Intel, Global Foundries, Samsung, ITRI).
His contributions to Education continue as the Program Director of the National Science Foundation’s Program on “Electronic, Photonic and Magnetic Devices”, Coordinator of future emerging technologies such as the “Beyond Graphene” (2DARE) program, and ECCS Coordinator of the Materials Genome (DMREF) program and various ERC Centers. In his present capacity, he is focused on boosting innovative potential by integrating the education of future scientists, engineers, and educators into a broad portfolio.
ECE alums’ class project earns spot at Black Hat USA 2015
By Joel Brown, published in BU Today
The Square Reader, used by millions of businesses in the United States, could at one point be converted in less than 10 minutes into a skimmer that could steal and save credit card information, according to three recent ENG grads. Their findings will be presented today at the Black Hat USA 2015 cybersecurity conference in Las Vegas.
Computer engineering grads Alexandrea Mellen (ENG’15), John Moore (ENG’15), and Artem Losev (ENG’15) discovered the vulnerability last year in a project for their Cybersecurity class, taught by Ari Trachtenberg, an ENG professor of electrical and computer engineering.“The beauty of the hardware attack itself was that there would be no sure way to know if it was the merchant with the Square Reader that actually took your information,” Mellen says.
The trio also found that Square Register software could be hacked to enable unauthorized transactions at a later date.
“The merchant could swipe the card an extra time at the point of sale,” says Moore. “You think nothing of it, and a week later when you’re not around, I charge you $20, $30, $100, $200… You might not notice that charge. I get away with some extra money of yours.”
Moore, who was valedictorian of his ENG class, says the three reported the vulnerabilities to Square last fall, and the company quickly moved to close them. Square also sent Moore a $500 “bounty” for the software hack.
Moore says there is no evidence that either of the vulnerabilities has been used to scam credit card holders, but warns that the group’s findings raise red flags for the fast-growing mobile commerce field in general.
“This isn’t just about Square,” he says. “Over the past six years, mobile point-of-sale has really taken off…and all of these providers are offering new hardware and software to process payments, and customers are trusting their credit card information to new devices that haven’t been tested as much as traditional point-of-sale devices. They’re interacting with the personal cell phone of the merchant in a lot of cases. There’s just a lot going on.”
The three turned their class project into a paper that submitted to the Black Hat conference and waited two months before learning it had been accepted, which was a huge thing, “because Black Hat is the premiere information security conference in the world,” Mellen says. The weeklong event draws everyone from hackers to government officials. Mellen and Moore will give a 25-minute presentation on their work at the conference, where they get free passes to the briefings at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, worth $2,195.
Trachtenberg says students have derived papers from class projects before, but none were undergraduates and none of the conferences have had the stature of Black Hat. “This is a conference with a very high impact,” he says. “There are 10,000 security professionals that pay a lot of money to come to this conference and listen to the latest interesting security research.”
Vulnerabilities in payment software present more of an inconvenience than a financial risk, he says, at least for consumers who check their credit card statements regularly, because losses are generally covered by the credit card companies.
“The bigger reason to be scared is that Square had security in mind from the very beginning and designed these to be secure,” he says. “They should have known better than to have left these kind of holes. It kind of bodes poorly for other vendors who might not be taking security quite as seriously and what kind of problems they might be having.”
Square doesn’t disclose how many businesses use its software or how much revenue it derives by taking a small percentage of their transactions, but Bloomberg quoted one analyst as estimating that the company took in $300 million in merchant fees in 2013.
Mellen and Moore say they made Square aware of the two potential problems late last fall, and the company was receptive to their warning.
Through the winter and spring, Square staffers discussed possible solutions and their difficulties with Moore on a page on the HackerOne platform, and they eventually settled on a solution that would alert the company if the hack was ever used.
Square did not respond in detail and declined to discuss specific solutions on the record with BU Today, but a spokesperson offered a statement: “With so many sellers relying on Square to run their business, we’ve made protecting them a priority. We protect sellers by encrypting transactions at the moment of swipe, tokenizing data once it reaches our servers, and monitoring every transaction to detect suspicious behavior. We’ve also recently migrated the small percentage of remaining sellers who use an out-of-date, unencrypted card reader to new hardware. Today, those unencrypted card readers no longer work. We’re always making advances in security, and we appreciate John Moore’s research, which encouraged us to speed up our deprecation plans.”
All three alums have other plans now. In September, Mellen will return to running her own company, Terrapin Computing LLC in Cambridge, which sells four iOS apps. Moore will start work as a software engineer for Google, and Losev will continue his computer science education at New York University.
Moore says another lesson to draw from their experience has nothing to do with hackers or credit cards and everything to do with the classroom.
“Don’t be afraid to take on a project that goes a little bit above and beyond what’s required,” he says. “We could have done a project that was a lot simpler and easier, but instead we decided to do something that was quite challenging for us. We learned a lot in the process. We put in a lot more time than we expected, and it ended up paying off in the long run.”
Additional press coverage on ECE alums cyber security discovery:
One of Six Teams Selected
By Gabriella McNevin
ANDESITE, a task force within Boston University’s Small Satellite Program, qualified to launch a self-designed satellite into orbit. The ANDERSITE team is one of six that qualified for the final round of the US Air Force University Nanosat Program competition.
The ANDESITE satellite is on the forefront of an international movement to advance our understanding of “space weather” and its effects on society. Space weather arises from interactions between the Earth’s plasma environment and the impinging solar wind. These interactions can damage satellites, harm astronauts in space, render GPS information erratic and unreliable, disrupt ground-space communications, and even cause electricity blackouts on Earth. In 2013, the White House raised inadequate space weather forecasting to the global agenda, citing the significant “threat to modern systems posed by space weather events” and “the potential for “significant societal, economic, national security, and health impacts.”
The ANDESITE satellite has been designed to deploy a network of magnetic sensors from a central mother ship. The ejected sensors will operate collectively as a space-based wireless mesh network with the aim of studying fine-scale variations in Earth’s geomagnetic environment caused by space weather events. The ANDESITE satellite’s scientific and technological innovations place it at the cutting edge of the burgeoning cubesat movement.
ANDESITE is a unique interdisciplinary university-wide collaboration. The team of 16 students is comprised of Astronomy, Electrical, Computer, and Mechanical Engineering scholars. The group is under the guidance of two faculty advisors, Joshua Semeter (ECE/Photonics) and Ray Nagem (ME). Research Engineer Aleks Zosuls also provides support and acts as a liaison with the Engineering Product Innovation Center (EPIC).
The qualifying competition took place in the Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico in February 2015. Now, the qualifiers must shift their focus from satellite fabrication to implementation. The University Nanosat Program will provide Air Force technical guidance and $110,000 to support each of the remaining six competitors.
After returning to Boston from New Mexico, ANDESITE advisor Professor Semeter recalled, “it was a stressful experience for the students with an exciting outcome.”
The University Nanosat Program provides hands-on experience for graduate and undergraduate students and an opportunity to create and launch a satellite with a specific research capacity. The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate, Air Force Office of Scientific Research and American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics developed the program in 1999.
Prysm’s custom video walls use proprietary LPD technology
By Mark Dwortzan
After Amit Jain earned his first bachelor’s degree, in physics, chemistry, and math, in India, his older brother hired him to help out at the audiotape manufacturing company he owned in Kolkata. Despite knowing nothing about how to assemble audiotapes, Jain jumped right in and was soon running the factory floor.
That training later proved invaluable. During his senior year at the College of Engineering, Masud Mansuripur, then an associate professor of electrical engineering (now at the University of Arizona), made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: he would hire Jain as a research assistant and teach him everything he knew about optics if he decided to stay at ENG for graduate study. Jain (ENG’85,’88) accepted, and became one of the first ENG students to graduate with a master’s in electrical engineering with a focus on optics.
Fast forward to 2005. When investors asked Jain and his business partner, Roger Hajjar (ENG’88), to shift from optical networking to large displays, they came up with a new display technology that wound up transforming the industry—despite the fact that neither had prior knowledge of the field.
Jain and Hajjar cofounded Prysm, Inc., and their new display technology laid the foundation for the Silicon Valley–based designer and manufacturer of video wall systems now used across the globe by leading technology, retail, financial services, and media companies, governments, and universities, among them Beijing TV, CNBC, General Electric, and ENG.
“I have learned to never be afraid of trying new things and to go with my gut,” says Jain, 53, now Prysm CEO (Hajjar is CTO). “When we started Prysm, Roger and I had no fear of entering a new industry and no baggage from previous companies on what couldn’t be done—just ideas that could be applied in a new context. Within 18 months we came up with the concept for a new display technology, built a prototype, and shipped our first product.”
Today Prysm designs, assembles, installs, and provides software support for large, modular, interactive video walls of nearly any size, brightness, or resolution, customized to users’ needs, as well as 117-inch and 190-inch standard video walls used in collaboration rooms. The custom video walls enable architects, designers, and brand managers to provide unique, engaging, immersive experiences in lobbies, conference centers, control rooms, stores, and other environments. The collaborative walls empower teams in multiple locations to boost their productivity through real-time interactions, whether through touch or gesture, or by posting, sharing, and editing content uploaded from smartphones, tablets, or other mobile devices.
At the heart of Prysm’s video walls is the company’s proprietary laser phosphor display (LPD) technology, which features a solid-state ultraviolet laser engine, phosphor panel, and advanced optics. Mirrors direct beams from the laser engine across the phosphor panel, which in turn emits red, green, or blue light to form image pixels. The process occurs on multiple 25-inch tiles that fit together to make up a single integrated wall. Compared to conventional LED- and LCD-based technologies, LPD video walls deliver superior image quality, viewing angles, energy efficiency, and environmental impact—resulting in a lower ownership cost. With an an eco-friendly manufacturing process and nontoxic materials and requiring no consumables, they use up to 75 percent less energy than competing large-format display technologies and give off far less heat, eliminating the need for electrical system or HVAC upgrades.
“The Prysm video wall…delivers astounding image quality and ultrawide 178-degree viewing angles,” says Yao Hong, a sales director at the State Grid Corporation of China, which uses a curved, 80-foot-wide-by-11-foot-high wall to monitor the electrical grid system of China’s Jiangsu province. “These attributes combined with the tremendous scalability of LPD technology provide an ideal display solution for the command and control environment.”
Chris Van Name, a regional vice president at Time Warner Cable, chose Prysm to impress customers and minimize environmental impact. “Prysm’s video wall creates a significant ‘wow’ factor for any customer visiting our store and enables us to showcase our technologies in TV, broadband internet, and digital phone in a brilliant and beautiful fashion,” he says.
For Jain, Prysm represents the pinnacle of a 20-year career of growing successful technology-related businesses. Before cofounding Prysm, he was CEO of Bigbear Network and cofounder and CEO of Versatile Optical Networks, which was acquired by Vitesse Semiconductor Corporation; he led the Vitesse Optical Systems Division as vice president and general manager. Previously, he had held several management positions in start-ups and large companies, such as Terastor, Optex Communications, and Digital Equipment Corporation.
Throughout his career, Jain has drawn on expertise in both engineering and business and on lessons learned from an extended family, many also entrepreneurs. While working for his brother in the audiotape business, he imagined inventing technologies rather than just assembling them on the factory floor, so he came to ENG in 1983 to earn a second bachelor’s degree, in electrical engineering.
He learned not only engineering, but also how to communicate effectively to large groups as the first undergraduate teaching assistant of Kenneth Lutchen, a biomedical engineering professor at the time and now dean of ENG.
“Because I already had a bachelor’s degree, Ken gave me the opportunity to teach classes while still an undergraduate,” recalls Jain. “As I faced up to 40 friends and peers, I learned how to explain complex ideas clearly and concisely.”
Fortunately, he had already developed a penetrating voice, capable of drawing attention. “My projectile voice comes from survival of the fittest,” he says. “I have 48 cousins and am second from the bottom in age, so you needed a powerful voice to get your point across.”
After earning both undergrad and grad degrees at BU and an MBA at the University of Maryland, Jain became well-versed in the technological, communications, entrepreneurial, and other skills that are the hallmark of the societal engineer (basically, one who has a sense of purpose and appreciation for how engineering education and its experiences are superior foundations for improving society), a concept he embraces both as CEO of Prysm and as a member of the ENG Dean’s Leadership Advisory Board.
His close relationships with his family and his 200-plus employees, he says, are critical to his success and those relationships are anchored by his religion, Jainism, some of whose tenets—Don’t kill. Ask forgiveness. Respect different views—appear on a card he carries in his pocket.
“Everyone has a viewpoint,” he says. “The important thing is to listen to all views in order to make the right decisions.”
A version of this article appeared in Engineer.