Commencement Speaker Mike North: UCSB Ph.D. Alum, Nonprofit Founder, Discovery Channel Host, and ‘Indiana Jones of Technology’
It’s impossible to pigeonhole Mike North. On his resume, you will find these diverse titles: founder of the nonprofit Reallocate; founder and president of creative agency North Design Labs; creator/host/producer/cameraman of “In the Making” on Discovery Digital; Chief Technology Officer of Nukotoys; host of “Outrageous Acts of Science” on the Science Channel; host of “Prototype This!” on Discovery Channel; co-founder of [freespace], a global network of civic engagement centers; co-founder of the co-living space concept The Embassy Network; and a UC Santa Barbara Ph.D. alum. Now he can add yet another title to that list: guest speaker for the 2014 Graduate Division Commencement ceremony, on Sunday at 4 p.m. on the Faculty Club Green.
There are other words that have been used to depict the multifaceted Dr. North, some of them self-descriptions: inventor; innovator; inspirational speaker; scientist; engineer; collaborator; risk-taker; teacher; mentor; world traveler; Burning Man aficionado; docnorth (his Instagram username); “wild child”; “the black sheep of my group”; and “the Indiana Jones of Technology.”
He has gone scuba diving with sharks; built a 30-foot, 90-m.p.h., fire-breathing Viking ship and driven it from Santa Barbara to Burning Man; and lives in an eight-bedroom San Francisco Victorian that some have called a “high-tech commune,” but which North describes as “co-living with intention” with creative “family.”
The Gaucho grad alumnus, born Michael Thomas Northen, holds three degrees from UCSB: a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering in 2001; a Master of Science in Materials in 2002; and a Ph.D. in Materials with an emphasis in nanotechnology in 2006. His Ph.D. project involved studying the natural adhesive found on the pad of a gecko’s foot and designing and fabricating the world’s first synthetic adhesive that can be turned on and off electronically.
Mike wasn’t playing with geckos during his childhood in Laramie, Wyoming, but he was a curious and adventurous boy, describing himself as “a bit of a wild child.”
“My parents were very hands off with me and allowed me great amounts of freedom,” said North, who spent time with his parents and brother in a cabin at an elevation of 10,000 feet in Medicine Bow in Wyoming’s Snowy Range.
At the age of 5, he was driving a snowmobile and going cross-country skiing. “I was always building and making things, whether it was a secret fort in the mountains, or a zip line between a tree and my basketball hoop.”
In those days, his mother was a home economics teacher and his father worked for the University of Wyoming in the Atmospheric Sciences department as a photographic engineer and expedition leader. Later, his parents would move on to other occupations, including running a delicatessen and catering company after the family moved to Petaluma, California. From the ages of 10 to 19, Mike helped out in that family endeavor, learning how to run a business from his dad and how to interact with customers from his mom.
As a junior in high school, 16-year-old Mike traveled to Sweden for a year of study in Lund. The town is “kind of my second home now,” and North, who is fluent in Swedish, maintains a close relationship with the family he lived with there.
North took a roundabout route to get to UCSB. He enrolled at Santa Rosa Junior College; dropped out after his first semester to work and live in Boston and then Sweden; and returned to Petaluma to work a construction job and re-enter junior college. He earned Associate degrees in Engineering and English from the Santa Rosa college in 1999.
“My older brother [Trent Northen], now with his own lab at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, attended UCSB, and I'd be lying if I said that those trips down to visit him in IV in the early ’90s weren't part of the inspiration for coming to UCSB,” he said.
From 1999 to 2006, UCSB was North’s home. Throughout his undergraduate and graduate studies here, he gained the skills and experience that would lead to success in many areas. At UC Santa Barbara, collaboration, innovation, and yes, even failure, he said, helped him to grow and equipped him to take on the challenges of a nonprofit startup, ReAllocate; to travel the world (more than 40 countries) telling innovators’ stories online and on TV; and to share with and learn from diverse groups of exceptional people.
His UCSB advisor, Mechanical Engineering Professor Dr. Kimberly Turner, is looking forward to hearing what North has to say on Sunday.
“Dr. North is definitely one of those students who continues to have lifetime lasting impact on me,” she said. “It was clear from the first time I met him, as a UCSB undergrad, that he was destined for great things. He is definitely a man with passion for discovery, and a deep humanitarian side as well. From the highly engineered ‘fire-breathing dragon’ art car he built to take to Burning Man, to the first reversible gecko-based adhesion, Mike takes on everything at full speed. I cannot wait to hear what he has to tell our graduates, and I can be certain it will be energetic and profound.”
In the following question-and-answer section, Dr. North shares details of his gecko dissertation research; what fascinates him about Burning Man; a little-known historical fact about himself; and more.
How was it that you came to UCSB for graduate school? You said that your older brother, Trent Northen, attended UCSB.
At Santa Rosa Junior College, I really enjoyed my Materials classes, and I fell in love with the Santa Barbara area. My brother was at UCSB at the time and told me about the five-year master’s/bachelor’s program. The combo of mechanical engineering and Materials seemed perfect to me, and when I looked at how strong the Materials program at UCSB was, it seemed a pretty clear choice. Interestingly, this was a big step in me letting go of my ego – at first I wasn’t going to go to UCSB, because I didn’t want to follow in my brother’s footsteps. But then I realized that was a silly reason to not do something. I loved UCSB from visiting my brother, it was a great program, and quite frankly the in-state tuition made it possible for me and my parents to afford me going to college there.
What kind of a student were you when you were at UCSB?
I was a great student. At my junior college I had tons of friends and a lot of social obligations. When I transferred to UCSB I had very few friends, and loved it! It allowed me to do want I really wanted to do, focus on my studies. (When I first went back to college – I dropped out of college for a year and a half during JC – I was working full time and going to school full time. This put me in a place of always wishing I had more time for my studies, to really enjoy them. When I transferred to UCSB, I was given that.) I was also extremely competitive. The best feeling in the world was absolutely crushing a test. The goal was to not only get the highest score, but also to finish the test first. A group of us really did compete, and also study together. We pushed each other forward. I received numerous honors and awards. I was also president of Pi Tau Sigma [International Mechanical Engineering Honor Society].
Please tell us a little bit about your gecko dissertation research.
I was the black sheep of my group. The project was a complete departure from my PI’s research focus. Her primary focus was parametric resonance in MEMS. My project was developing and characterizing a micro/nanostructured adhesive inspired by the gecko. Kim [Turner] was 100% supportive and loved the project, and gave me the confidence to be bold and daring in my work.
At the same time there were research groups at heavy-hitting institutes such as Stanford and Berkeley working in the same field. My work was different and allowed us to form nice alliances with these groups.
When I started the research, others were focused on just creating a nanostructured surface to mimic the gecko. My take was that there was a lot more to the gecko system than just the nanostructure. My premise was the hierarchical structure must play a significant role. We were the first to make a hierarchical structure integrating both micro and nano. This revealed that not only did this allow the adhesive to be effective on rougher surfaces, but also made it more resilient to damage.
But for me it was not about making an adhesive that sticks well – pressure-sensitive adhesives are hard to beat for that! To me it was about an adhesive that could be turned on and off. I decided to take the ball and run right for that goal line. I could have taken the structures I was making and optimize them for adhesion, but I was more about inventing and taking big leaps toward reversible adhesion. And that’s what I created, an adhesive that you could turn on and off electronically. The process was a lot of work (80-hour weeks in the cleanroom) and required a lot of experimentation. I failed often. I wore a hat that said “frequent failure” (much to the chagrin of my classmates – “how can you want to fail?”). I loved failure, because in those failures I would have moments of serendipity, of discovery of something new I hadn’t anticipated. Ultimately some of these discoveries are what led to the final success.
What was your first job out of graduate school?
Putting together and hosting “Prototype This!” on the Discovery Channel. The roles involved were: concepting the show, casting the other hosts, building the shop/set, coming up with the ideas for the projects, helping storyboard the episodes, bringing in partners, designing and building the prototypes, and even helping to produce the episodes.
Describe your current jobs and what they entail.
ReAllocate: Founder/Chair of an organization that leverages a volunteer network of high-level technologists, designers, and innovative thinkers to holistically address real-world problems. Its motto is “World Class Talent, Real World Solutions.” My roles now are largely spreading the word, bringing in partners, and continuing the vision for the organization.
“In The Making”: Creator/Host/Producer/Cameraman of my own new online show distributed through Discovery Digital Networks. They are three-minute episodes [think Grad Slam talks online!] on breakthrough inventions and technologies. I literally travel around the world discovering and shooting short episodes on people creating breakthrough projects. Discovery approached me and asked what my dream show would be. This is it. They are calling me the “Indiana Jones of Technology.”
[freespace]: I have helped to create a global network of participatory civic engagement and empowerment centers.
The Embassy Network: I have helped to create a global network of co-living spaces for individuals striving to make a difference in the world. My San Francisco roommates include the deputy innovation officer for the city; an executive at the satellite company Planet Labs; and a neuroscientist.
North Design Labs: Innovation consulting and inspirational speaking.
Please explain your time as Chief Technology Officer of Nukotoys.
Nukotoys was just getting started when they found me. They had just gotten a little bit of funding, and needed someone to help them develop their physical products. At first I just helped them out, but that quickly turned into consulting, and then as I took on a more and more significant role, I became the CTO of the company. Along with a savant programmer, we were a two-person research and development team, developing prototypes and ultimately products. At first I was drawn to the educational aspect, using video games and toys to educate kids. Our first product, Mission to Planet 419, was for helping kids get past the fourth-grade reading slump. We developed a space exploration game that taught kids how to use books and other methods to find useful information. During this process I was able to work in first-, second-, and third-grade classes in an underserved school in Chicago. I saw the power of using video games in the classroom. Kids were focused on the games, intent on completing tasks. This freed the teacher from her usual role keeping order and allowed her to become a one-on-one coach for kids. It was work that was doing something good for the world.
That project wrapped up and our attention turned to more money-making products. We developed a couple of video games that had integrated trading cards. Both Monsterology and Animal Planet trading cards made it into major retail stores and the Apple Store. It was a major accomplishment, but somehow after a couple years of working on it, didn’t completely fulfill me. Also, at this time ReAllocate was really getting up to speed and it was clear that if it were to succeed it needed my full attention. So I stepped down from my position at Nukotoys to completely focus on ReAllocate.
You are passionate about your nonprofit ReAllocate. How did you come to found it and what has the impact been on you?
I was working at Nukotoys. One day the CEO asked me if I’d be interested in doing some volunteer design and prototyping work to help his nonprofit develop a low-cost brace for treating kids in developing countries with club foot. Much like I did on Prototype This! I assembled a team of experts, including the prototyping expert from Burton Snowboards, Objet 3D printers (now Stratasys), and designers. We iterated various braces and nine months later I found myself testing prototypes in a clinic in Nicaragua. The moment I put this brace (which utilized the advanced skills and resources we have in the developed world) on the foot of a child who would be disabled for life without a device like this, it struck me. I was doing something powerful with these resources and it was without question the most meaningful thing I had done in my life. When I returned to the U.S., I decided that I not only wanted to make it possible for people in under-resourced parts of the world to have access to our resources, but I also wanted experts to have the experience that I did. So I founded ReAllocate to bring these two worlds together for their mutual benefit.
Please tell us about the Cooperative Innovation class you teach at UC Berkeley.
I teach this course in the fall. My goals with the course were to create my dream class and also to teach students valuable skills that I have learned since college/grad school. I also wanted to take a stab at a different way of “teaching.” The class is completely workshop- and project-based. Each week we have a three-hour workshop, where I generally bring in top practicing professionals from the Bay Area and the rest of the country. I work with the workshop leaders to design a course around what they think is the most useful skill they have to teach. Leaders range from the former Chief Marketing Officer of Sun Microsystems to the founder of bit-torrent.
The project aspect is the students form teams and select projects in the local community that address some sort of social need. Examples are helping transition prisoners out of San Quentin; developing a business incubator in West Oakland; and a community fish association. The skills they learn in class they apply immediately to their projects, and often the workshops focus on their projects.
At the end of the semester students then travel to international locations such as Kenya, India, and Guatemala to work on projects there.
I really try to emphasize the four deep skills I feel are critical for this sort of work: empathy, creativity, collaboration, and storytelling. On the first day of class, I told the students there would be a whole lot of written assignments, because I don’t feel like reading a bunch of papers, and neither does the world. The world is evermore communicating with pictures and videos. It was a little tongue-in-cheek, but I do believe that being able to tell meaningful stories in video is an essential skill. To my surprise this is where the students struggled most; most had clearly never created a video before.
You enjoy attending the annual Burning Man in the northern Nevada desert. How many times have you gone, and when did you first start going? What fascinates you about it, and what do you do there?
My first trip to Burning Man was when my older brother called me up from Santa Barbara and asked if I wanted to go “camping.” I was 18 and my older brother in college asking me to go camping was the coolest thing ever. I said yes, asked what I needed to bring. “You know, camping stuff, tent, sleeping bag.” Five hours later he picked me up and we were off to the Burning Man.
I’ve been 16 times since.
I could go on and on about Burning Man. But to be brief it’s the highest density of creativity on the planet for that week. It’s a test bed for trying new things, both technologically and socially. People are open, friendly, caring, and supportive. It’s where I meet some of the most interesting people, doing some of the most significant work on the planet. Not to mention we create a city of 70,000 people for a week and then leave without a trace. Burning Man itself is like a rapidly iterating prototype of a city, changing and innovating every year.
I’ve built everything from art cars to giant art pieces. Now I help organize a camp of 200 global change makers called IDEATE (From Ideas to Reality). We have a power grid, water, kitchen, showers, and most of all community.
In what ways did UCSB prepare you for your career?
The usual stuff like a strong education, etc. I think the unique things to UCSB are the extremely collaborative nature of the school. I was able to work with people from different departments on my projects. People were open and helpful, the basis of collaboration. This is probably the most important skill that I possess, being able to find and work with others. My role on Prototype This! was largely bringing people together to work together.
I also learned a lot about innovation, how to take chances, how to fail and how to learn. This is largely due to my advisor Kim Turner giving me a lot of freedom to explore and try new things. An engineer’s ability to operate in a place of ambiguity is essential for innovation. And guess what, it’s something engineers often struggle with.
Do you have any suggestions for the UCSB educational system on how to better prepare our grad students for careers?
Create a state of the art maker space open to the entire university.
Who has been and/or is a hero, mentor, role model, or inspiration to you?
Instead of calling out individuals I’ll be a little more philosophical. Everyone you surround yourself with is a mentor or role model in some way. That’s why the most important thing in life is to surround yourself with people you respect, like, look up to, and enjoy. Spending time with people, you can’t help but be more like them.
What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment and/or something you are the most proud of?
My biggest accomplishment in life and the thing I am most proud of are my friends and colleagues. Being surrounded by such an exceptional group of people is the greatest thing I could ever aspire to.
What does it mean to you that you will be returning to speak to our graduating grad students as our guest speaker?
Frankly, I’m just excited to share what is going on out in the world with the students. I’m involved in some pretty exciting projects and communities. The opportunity to share and inspire with the grads really gets me going! I also recognize it’s a huge honor, which means a lot to me because it means a lot to my parents.
You live in a communal residence in San Francisco, an eight-bedroom Victorian called The Embassy, with other creative types. Please tell us a little about this.
Co-living at The Embassy is really about living with intention. It’s about surrounding yourself with people who are working toward something in life, something to improve the world. It’s about having a support network around you so that you can try things that are a bit more daring and bold. For me, it’s largely about having a family. I’m passionate about what I do in life and not ready for a family. But I think people do need family. This is a way to have family, without having to get up in the night to change a diaper.
What’s on your bucket list of things to do that you haven’t done?
I don’t have a bucket list. I keep my vision wide and take what opportunities appear on the horizon.
With your schedule, is it difficult for you to get together with family?
It is, but I make it happen. I flew back from Mexico City to go to my 6-year-old niece’s play. I spent Easter with my family and then crammed a trip to Switzerland and back into 4 days. A friend told me of an app that helps you calculate how many more times in your life you’ll see your parents. I got the point without downloading it and now make every effort to spend time with my family.
What is something that very few people know about you or that would surprise people about you?
I’m related to 11 of the Mayflower families. Now that’s American!
What do you do for fun and relaxation?
Fun: Dance my head off in front of a giant sound system.
Related links about Dr. Mike North:
How 3D Printing Saved Christmas, by Dr. Mike North