Tiny school Olin aims for big impact

An iPhone add-on by Riva Kahn Hallock (pictured), of Olin, is sold by Eidolon Optical.
An iPhone add-on by Riva Kahn Hallock (pictured), of Olin, is sold by Eidolon Optical.

In early December, a group of five college students and recent graduates received $1 million from investors backing their technology startup, Technical Machine, which makes microcontrollers for software developers. It was an impressive yet familiar story in a state that regularly churns out promising tech entrepreneurs from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But these whiz kids did not come from either of those Cambridge juggernauts. They hailed from tiny Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham — a school with a total enrollment of about 350 that graduated its first class in 2006.

Olin may not be a household name, but the funding splash by Technical Machine signaled that companies and investors would be wise to start paying attention to the school and its students, if they have not already.


“People we meet fall into two camps,” said Jon McKay, one of Technical Machine’s cofounders and a 2013 graduate. “They either haven’t heard of Olin or they’ve heard good things about it.”

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The college, founded in 1997 with a $400 million endowment by the F.W. Olin Foundation, began enrolling students in 2002.

To help attract high-caliber applicants, the school offered full-tuition scholarships to every entering freshman until 2009, when McKay enrolled, and has awarded half-tuition scholarships to all students since.

US News and World Report ranks Olin as the nation’s fourth-best undergraduate engineering school among colleges that do not offer doctoral programs.

Olin junior Riva Kahn Hallock used her iPhone device for performing cornea examinations to check a seal at the Vancouver Aquarium. Hallock worked on the instrument with Eidolon Optical of Natick, where she is employed 10 hours per week.

With a curriculum centered on project-based learning, Olin’s pitch is that students leave with more practical experience than do graduates of other colleges. In their first semester, for example, freshmen must design toys for fourth- graders, which are tested and rated by children from a nearby elementary school.


“Our students are very desirable to companies because they have a long resume of real-world projects,” said Olin spokesman Joseph Hunter.

Many recent projects were on display at the school’s end-of-semester exposition on the Friday before Christmas. They included an iPhone attachment that helps ophthalmologists perform cornea exams, prototypes of unmanned tugboats that could someday rescue stranded ships without putting crews at risk, and window blinds that use light and temperature gauges to adjust height and tint automatically.

The iPhone attachment is being used by some eye doctors just months after junior Riva Kahn Hallock designed it.

Hallock worked on the instrument with a Natick company called Eidolon Optical, which makes other tools for eye doctors. She used three-dimensional design software to imagine a 7.5-times magnification lens that incorporates Eidolon’s patented eyeball illumination technology and can attach to the camera of an iPhone, allowing doctors to easily snap close-up pictures of eyes.

Until now, said Eidolon president Victor J. Doherty, doctors have struggled to capture images of what they see through magnifiers, sometimes holding cameras up to lenses in awkward attempts to document their exams.


He said Hallock, who works 10 hours per week at Eidolon outside of class, quickly solved the problem and helped the company sell about 40 of the new devices — for $300 each — at the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s annual meeting in New Orleans last month. Orders have been streaming in since.

‘Our students are very desirable to companiesbecause they have a long resume of real-world projects.’

Doherty added that he prefers to collaborate with students from Olin, rather than those from MIT and Harvard. The big-name schools, he said, “take credit for everything.”

McKay said that Olin grads make strong hires for existing companies, but he hopes more students will follow Technical Machine’s lead and start new businesses.

Before its $1 million funding round, the Boston-based team raised almost $200,000 on the crowd-funding website Dragon Innovation to help manufacture its microcontroller, called the Tessel. It is currently accepting preorders and expects to start shipping the devices in the spring.

“I think a lot of eyes are on us in the Olin community, but we don’t feel pressure — we just feel support,” McKay said. “I went back to visit and saw a lot more entrepreneurial spirit than I saw when I was there, and I think we’ll see more kids coming out working on their own startups.”

Callum Borchers
can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.