The MIT-Pillar AI Collective has announced its first six grant recipients. Students, alumni, and postdocs working on a broad range of topics in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data science will receive funding and support for research projects that could translate into commercially viable products or companies. These grants are intended to help students explore commercial applications for their research, and eventually drive that commercialization through the creation of a startup.

“These tremendous students and postdocs are working on projects that have the potential to be truly transformative across a diverse range of industries. It’s thrilling to think that the novel research these teams are conducting could lead to the founding of startups that revolutionize everything from drug delivery to video conferencing,” says Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Launched in September 2022, the MIT-Pillar AI Collective is a pilot program funded by a $1 million gift from Pillar VC that aims to cultivate prospective entrepreneurs and drive innovation in areas related to AI. Administered by the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, the AI Collective centers on the market discovery process, advancing projects through market research, customer discovery, and prototyping. Graduate students and postdocs supported by the program work toward the development of minimum viable products.

“In addition to funding, the MIT-Pillar AI Collective provides grant recipients with mentorship and guidance. With the rapid advancement of AI technologies, this type of support is critical to ensure students and postdocs are able to access the resources required to move quickly in this fast-pace environment,” says Jinane Abounadi, managing director of the MIT-Pillar AI Collective.

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The six inaugural recipients will receive support in identifying key milestones and advice from experienced entrepreneurs. The AI Collective assists seed grant recipients in gathering feedback from potential end-users, as well as getting insights from early-stage investors. The program also organizes community events, including a “Founder Talks” speaker series, and other team-building activities.   

“Each one of these grant recipients exhibits an entrepreneurial spirit. It is exciting to provide support and guidance as they start a journey that could one day see them as founders and leaders of successful companies,” adds Jamie Goldstein ’89, founder of Pillar VC.

The first cohort of grant recipients include the following projects:

Predictive query interface

Abdullah Alomar SM ’21, a PhD candidate studying electrical engineering and computer science, is building a predictive query interface for time series databases to better forecast demand and financial data. This user-friendly interface can help alleviate some of the bottlenecks and issues related to unwieldy data engineering processes while providing state-of-the-art statistical accuracy. Alomar is advised by Devavrat Shah, the Andrew (1956) and Erna Viterbi Professor at MIT.

Design of light-activated drugs

Simon Axelrod, a PhD candidate studying chemical physics at Harvard University, is combining AI with physics simulations to design light-activated drugs that could reduce side effects and improve effectiveness. Patients would receive an inactive form of a drug, which is then activated by light in a specific area of the body containing diseased tissue. This localized use of photoactive drugs would minimize the side effects from drugs targeting healthy cells. Axelrod is developing novel computational models that predict properties of photoactive drugs with high speed and accuracy, allowing researchers to focus on only the highest-quality drug candidates. He is advised by Rafael Gomez-Bombarelli, the Jeffrey Cheah Career Development Chair in Engineering in the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering. 

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Low-cost 3D perception

Arjun Balasingam, a PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science and a member of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory’s (CSAIL) Networks and Mobile Systems group, is developing a technology, called MobiSee, that enables real-time 3D reconstruction in challenging dynamic environments. MobiSee uses self-supervised AI methods along with video and lidar to provide low-cost, state-of-the-art 3D perception on consumer mobile devices like smartphones. This technology could have far-reaching applications across mixed reality, navigation, safety, and sports streaming, in addition to unlocking opportunities for new real-time and immersive experiences. He is advised by Hari Balakrishnan, the Fujitsu Professor of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence at MIT and member of CSAIL.

Sleep therapeutics

Guillermo Bernal SM ’14, PhD ’23, a recent PhD graduate in media arts and sciences, is developing a sleep therapeutic platform that would enable sleep specialists and researchers to conduct robust sleep studies and develop therapy plans remotely, while the patient is comfortable in their home. Called Fascia, the three-part system consists of a polysomnogram with a sleep mask form factor that collects data, a hub that enables researchers to provide stimulation and feedback via olfactory, auditory, and visual stimuli, and a web portal that enables researchers to read a patient’s signals in real time with machine learning analysis. Bernal was advised by Pattie Maes, professor of media arts and sciences at the MIT Media Lab.

Autonomous manufacturing assembly with human-like tactile perception

Michael Foshey, a mechanical engineer and project manager with MIT CSAIL’s Computational Design and Fabrication Group, is developing an AI-enabled tactile perception system that can be used to give robots human-like dexterity. With this new technology platform, Foshey and his team hope to enable industry-changing applications in manufacturing. Currently, assembly tasks in manufacturing are largely done by hand and are typically repetitive and tedious. As a result, these jobs are being largely left unfilled. These labor shortages can cause supply chain shortages and increases in the cost of production. Foshey’s new technology platform aims to address this by automating assembly tasks to reduce reliance on manual labor. Foshey is supervised by Wojciech Matusik, MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science and member of CSAIL.  

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Generative AI for video conferencing

Vibhaalakshmi Sivaraman SM ’19, a PhD candidate in electrical engineering and computer science who is a member of CSAIL’s Networking and Mobile Systems Group, is developing a generative technology, Gemino, to facilitate video conferencing in high-latency and low-bandwidth network environments. Gemino is a neural compression system for video conferencing that overcomes the robustness concerns and compute complexity challenges that limit current face-image-synthesis models. This technology could enable sustained video conferencing calls in regions and scenarios that cannot reliably support video calls today. Sivaraman is advised by Mohammad Alizadeh, MIT associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science and member of CSAIL. 

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