Forbes: Digitizing The Finger: Startup Gelsight Hones Measurement System That Could Speed Up Aerospace Work

The human finger is incredibly sensitive, with a dense array of receptors in the tip that allow us to feel features as small as nanometers. When Kimo Johnson visited aerospace companies that machine metal parts, he learned that many were relying on experienced workers to conduct a “fingernail test” to quickly judge whether a surface defect was just a small scratch or deep enough to potentially compromise the part.

Johnson’s Boston-area startup, Gelsight, aims to provide a more accurate but equally fast alternative with a handheld probe it’s developed. The tip contains a clear gel pad that, like our fleshy fingertips, can conform around an object. Using computer vision techniques, the system “turns touch into an image,” says Johnson, allowing it to map surface features in 3D and measure them down to the single-digit micron level. 

The company is starting to get traction: A number of large aerospace companies are moving toward deploying the tool, Johnson says, including airplane engine maker Rolls-Royce.

Now Gelsight has raised $10 million in a B round that takes its total funding to $11.8 million. It’s expecting revenue to top $4 million this year on sales of over 100 systems and 2,500 gel cartridges.

While the 42-year-old Johnson hopes aerospace will be Gelsight’s breakthrough application, in the nine years since he co-founded the company based on his postdoctoral work at MIT, benchtop versions of its technology have been used for a wide array of tasks, including by Harvard researchers to map fish scales and cosmetics developers to measure how well a product filled in wrinkles.

Rolls-Royce is distributing the handheld device to service reps in its maintenance shops to assess engine parts for damage. Until now, to get an accurate measurement of scratches and dents in sometimes hard to reach places, Rolls and other companies have used a method akin to how dentists make molds of teeth, pressing a wet composite material against the spot that hardens, creating a negative of the defect that is sent off to a lab for cross-sectioning and measurement. It can take as much as 24 hours to get a result.

“We haven’t found another product that has the capability of Gelsight,” says Alistair Donaldson, a Rolls-Royce executive focused on innovation who’s helped the startup hone its technology for practical use. “I could put it in the hands of a child and he could take an accurate measurement.”   

The device is based on work by MIT professor Edward Adelson, a specialist in computer vision who became fascinated by how the sense of touch worked while raising his children. After learning from colleagues that no one yet had developed an artificial tactile sensor with anywhere near the ability of human skin, Adelson set out to do so, leveraging his vision expertise.

“The concept was what would it look like if you had a camera inside your skin and you could see when something’s poking into your skin,” says Johnson, who joined Adelson’s lab as a post-doctoral fellow in 2008 after earning a Ph.D. in computer science from Dartmouth.

Adelson developed a clear pad made of a rubbery thermoplastic elastomer that was coated on one face with a metallic paint. When an object is pressed into the painted side, it takes on the object’s shape and presents a surface that a camera can easily capture a high-fidelity image of through the gel, without distortions from variations of reflective or transparent elements in the object. Johnson built the hardware and wrote algorithms to accurately map surfaces using image processing and machine learning techniques.

Along with a 2011 paper describing the system, Johnson published YouTube videos that caught wider attention, showing renderings of the complex geometry of an Oreo cookie and the raised structure of a printed letter on a $20 bill. He says that led the team to receive thousands of messages from companies and engineers asking if it could be used to measure everything from features of human skin to the quality of abrasives, and a visit by two Boeing engineers with a suitcase full of parts.

“That’s what prompted me to start this company,” Johnson says.    

He launched Gelsight in 2011 with CTO Janos Rohaly, a former lecturer at MIT who cofounded a dental 3D imaging startup that was acquired by 3M, and former CEO Bill Yost. (Johnson has been CEO since 2016.) They made a series of one-off benchtop machines for corporate R&D departments with gel pads optimized for specific applications, such as a toothpaste maker that squished globs of paste to assess its mix of abrasives. But Johnson says he came to realize this approach was a dead end: each company generally only wanted one device that wasn’t widely saleable.

A cellphone manufacturer in China offered a bigger opportunity in mass production, asking Gelsight in 2015 to make a system that could check whether components like metal buttons were the right size. That led Johnson to an epiphany.

“We were making beautiful 3D maps of surfaces, but what the customer often wants is just a single number: What’s the depth of this feature, what’s the chamfer angle,” he says.

They began looking for other industries where a single measurement was needed, day in and day out. That led them to aerospace, particularly scratches and dents on high-value metal parts.

With the proceeds from the sales to the Chinese cellphone maker and lessons learned on what it took to make a system robust and simple enough to be used by ordinary workers, they made the handheld version of the device, debuting it in 2017. 

“Now rather than a single customer we’ve got the entire aerospace market, and that gives us a much better ability to grow the company,” Johnson says. 

Donaldson of Rolls-Royce says he could see hundreds of the $40,000 Gelsight handheld systems being used at his company. Gelsight also earns money on sales of replacement gel cartridges, which wear out after roughly a week of full-time use and go for $120 apiece. 

In conjunction with the $10 million fundraising round, which was led by the venture capital firm Anzu Partners, Gelsight added two former high-ranking military aviation officers to its board to help it crack the defense market, where the pressure is intense to quickly inspect hard-used aircraft and get them back in the air. “If a stone hits the blade of a helicopter, you need to know if this thing can fly,” says Johnson.

With the fresh funding, Johnson aims to double Gelsight’s current headcount of eight and build a smaller version of the wand to get into tighter spaces. He’d like to make it the same size as a human finger. “People use their finger a lot in manufacturing to feel different spaces, if they could have a digital tool that’s a similar form factor, that would be ideal,” he says.

The company is also adapting the technology to make robotic hands that can judge hardness, making them better able to handle delicate and small objects.

There are plenty of other technologies capable of fixed-station inspection, but Gelsight faces little competition from portable alternatives apart from Arizona-based 4D Technologies, which makes a handheld, laser-based device.

It’s been a twisting journey for Johnson. A saxophonist and guitarist, he double-majored in music and math at the University of New Hampshire and had contemplated trying to make a career in music until he developed an interest in computer science while studying for a master’s in electro-acoustic music at Dartmouth. Leaving academia to found a business is another move he wasn’t planning, but he says startup life reminds him of being in a rock band.

“You have a small group of people, you’re trying to break into a space and the odds are stacked against you,” he says. Fortunately, Gelsight has dodged rock band-style interpersonal drama, he says. “We’ve got a great team.”

Original article published in Forbes:

A Helping Hand: MIT’s entrepreneurial ecosystem boosts sensor tech startup


Then he had children.

“I thought I’d be fascinated watching them discover the world through sight,” says Adelson, the John J. and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Vision Science in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. “But what I actually found most fascinating was how they explored the world through touch.”

That fascination led Adelson to invent a touch-based technology: a sort of artificial finger consisting of a gel-based skin covering an internal camera. The device could chart surface topographies through physical contact—creating something like sight through touch. That technology is now the lifeblood of GelSight, the startup that Adelson founded in 2011 along with two MIT colleagues.

Originally “a solution in search of a problem,” as Adelson describes it, GelSight now produces bench-based and handheld sensors deployed for quality control in industries such as aerospace and consumer electronics. The company is also pursuing other commercial applications. Based not far from MIT in Waltham, Massachusetts, GelSight is closing its second round of financing and appears poised for profitability.

On the surface, GelSight’s story reads like another MIT cradle-to-corporation fairy tale. But the team’s odyssey from concept to company was filled with complex passages the founders were ill-prepared to navigate.

“We were academics,” Adelson recalls. “We had this technology and thought it would be easy to transform it into a profitable enterprise. We learned very quickly that the technical invention is the easiest part for people like us. Developing a product and building a company is way harder. That requires the effort and expertise of many smart people who must work a very long time. Fortunately, we had great connections available to us through the MIT community. The resources we were able to tap into at MIT were essential in creating and sustaining GelSight.”

Cofounders meet on campus

Adelson’s first collaborator in developing the underlying technology was Kimo Johnson, who joined his laboratory as a postdoc in 2008. “Ted had invented this material that could make very precise measurements in 3-D,” says Johnson, CEO and cofounder of GelSight. “We published several papers on the technology as academics tend to do. But we also made videos and posted them on YouTube. The response was amazing. My inbox was flooded with emails asking about potential applications. That was when we realized we should form a company.”

“The technical invention is the easiest part for people like us. Developing a product and building a company is way harder,” Adelson says.

As a first step, Johnson collaborated with students in a course called iTeams at the MIT Sloan School of Management to draft a hypothetical business plan built around GelSight technology. The plan proposed a potential application in the inspection of helicopter blades. That exercise helped him understand how valuable a handheld device that employed GelSight technology could be to professionals who inspect and repair critical surfaces. “This was another piece of information that encouraged us to move forward,” says Johnson.

Adelson and Johnson met GelSight’s third cofounder in 2010 at an on-campus seminar on imaging and computer vision. János Rohály, a former MIT research scientist, had founded Brontes Technologies in 2004. That startup, which applied computer vision in dentistry, was acquired in 2006 by 3M. It was the incarnation of every MIT startup’s dream.

“After my talk, Ted and Kimo introduced themselves and told me about GelSight,” recalls Rohály, who is now CTO of GelSight. “I was captivated by their technology and invited them to make a presentation to my colleagues at Brontes. A little later I realized I was losing sleep fantasizing about their technology. In 2011, when they formed the company, they reached out to me. I had the entrepreneurial experience and the knowledge of the MIT network that could help them. And I joined the team.”

Tapping MIT’s broad network
With Rohály on board, the GelSight team turned to MIT’s teeming startup network for help plotting its next crucial steps. “MIT sits in the middle of the Boston-area startup ecosystem,” says Adelson. “This ecosystem is populated with technologists, investors, business people, lawyers, and other professionals. Together they form a vibrant group of people who are constantly networking, sharing ideas, and encouraging each other. That energy and activity is critical to launch a startup company. It was for us.”

The MIT ecosystem delivered in a big way for GelSight. The company’s founding trio received consistent support and encouragement from the MIT Venture Mentoring Service (VMS), which provided business advice, financial guidance, and introductions to potential manufacturing partners, customers, and investors. (VMS will be celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2020.)

“Neither Ted nor I had the slightest business experience,” says Johnson. “At the Venture Mentoring Service, we could rely on seasoned entrepreneurs who were ready to share their experience and expertise with us. There are so many challenges a fledgling company faces. Negotiating contracts, for example. It takes an experienced entrepreneur to know where to make concessions and where to push back. We got that and much more from the Venture Mentoring Service. In the early days, they almost served as a board of directors for us.”

GelSight got another big boost when their technology was featured in a 2011 MIT News article. “That article generated an enormous amount of interest,” says Johnson. “There are so many subscribers across so many industries. And MIT News gets copied on so many technical news sites. In fact, it was that article that connected us to a person in business development, who in turn connected us to our biggest consumer electronics customer.”

GelSight’s founders also made critical connections through the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation and the MIT Technology Licensing Office. The MIT Industrial Liaison Program put the young company in touch with a series of potential customers, including Boeing. “In our first years, we essentially bootstrapped the company, selling benchtop systems to customers in industries including cosmetics, abrasives, and aerospace,” says Johnson. “These were mostly connections we’d made through MIT. And they were enough to keep us going and slowly growing.”

Unlike many startups, which seek rapid growth and an early sale, GelSight has plotted a more gradual growth curve. In 2014, thanks to a connection obtained through the MIT network, the company received an inquiry from a China-based manufacturer of smartphones. That company had a slew of complex measurement problems they thought they might resolve with GelSight’s capacity to measure surface topography. That sale—GelSight’s first large-volume order—changed both the company’s manufacturing practices and its focus.

“Up until that point, we’d been selling single systems to R&D laboratories,” says Johnson. “This sale showed us that our real value would be in quality control. We shifted toward process development and systems for mass production and inspection.” Buoyed by the China sale, GelSight held its first round of financing in 2015. Capital infusions came from Omega Funds—a Boston-based venture capital firm that specializes in biotechnology and medical device companies—and Ping Fu, a technology innovator and investor Rohály knew from his days at Brontes. Both Fu and Omega Funds managing director Richard Lim sit on GelSight’s board of directors.

Rohály credits MIT for much of the success in GelSight’s first round of financing. “MIT gives you a tremendous boost when you approach people,” says Rohály. “Just the name alone. This is true not only in technology circles, but also in business circles. Especially with investors. If you are from MIT or have technology invented at MIT, people are interested in seeing that technology.”

He also credits MIT and its ecosystem for sustaining the GelSight enterprise through all phases of its development. “There is a can-do attitude among MIT people that I have rarely seen elsewhere,” he says. “They can attend to any problem at any level and have the confidence in their ability to solve it. Too many times, in other venues, I’ve seen people stumble before problems because they don’t trust their ability to solve them. That doesn’t exist at MIT. When there’s a problem, [MIT people] say great, let’s start working on it.”

“MIT gives you a tremendous boost… especially with investors. If you are from MIT or have technology invented at MIT, people are interested in seeing that technology,” Rohály says.

In the past few years, GelSight has hit several important milestones. In 2017, the company successfully deployed its technologies at mass production and inspection facilities. The following year, GelSight was selected to provide surface inspection technology for the manufacturing operations of a top aerospace company.

This too has helped GelSight gain credibility with investors. “Until recently, investors would ask us whether people would actually buy our products,” says Johnson. “Now, when we have major companies selecting our technology to inspect their flagship products, that’s validation.”

In 2019, the cofounders say GelSight plans to step off the brakes and hit the gas. Over the past few years, the company has spent significant time and resources resolving scientific questions about the technology to ensure it can be produced on a broader scale. Now GelSight is working to close its second round of financing. This new capital will enable the company to ramp up manufacturing and accelerate its business plan.

“We’ve been extremely attentive to managing cash flow and operations,” says Rohály. “And we’ve found a nice sweet spot in aerospace and electronics. We’re also continuing to push for customers in new spaces. The amazing thing is that 90 percent of our current customers come from inbound interest, from customers reaching out to us and asking us to solve their problems.”

The GelSight team still seeks advice from partners in MIT’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. But now the company’s leaders also offer insight and advice to other MIT inventors seeking to bring laboratory creations to market. “We’re very much a part of the broad MIT network,” says Johnson. “We’ve learned firsthand how much can be gained by experienced professionals sharing their knowledge within a larger community. Now we’re in a position to give back to the community that has helped us so much.”

Original article published in  MIT’s Spectrum Magazine: