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Entrepreneur alumnus to bankroll winning thesis idea

An MIT alumnus and entrepreneur whose doctoral thesis provided the basis for what is now a $2 billion high-tech firm will fund a $50,000 prize for the best idea for independent research or a doctoral thesis proposed by a graduate student in mechanical engineering.

George Hatsopoulos (S.B. 1949, S.M., Sc.D.), who founded the Waltham, Mass.-based Thermo Electron Corp. almost 50 years ago with early financial assistance from the Institute and $50,000 from an angel investor, will present the first $50,000 prize at a ceremony later this year.

"It occurred to me that when someone has a thesis idea associated with an invention and it requires funding, I thought of making some funding available to make it happen," said Hatsopoulos, who added that the award-winning thesis topic must focus on a practical--and patentable--process or mechanism.

In his doctoral thesis written in 1956, Hatsopoulos demonstrated the principal of direct conversion of heat into electricity that led to development of the thermo electron engine, which became the technological and commercial cornerstone for his company.

At the time, MIT held a 50 percent interest in the engine's patent, which Hatsopoulos offered to buy back. Instead, Dean of Engineering C. Richard Soderberg gave the Institute's interest back to Hatsopoulos in exchange for a gentleman's agreement that Hatsopoulos would endow a professorship in mechanical engineering (a chair currently held by Professor Ian Hunter) once his new company was successful.

"This would never happen today. But, sure enough, the company was successful," Hatsopoulos said.

In 1999 Hatsopoulos retired from Thermo Electron, which by then had become a diversified, multinational high-tech company with more than $2 billion in annual revenues and offices around the globe.

Mechanical engineering graduate students are encouraged to submit a proposal of no more than five pages outlining an idea for an innovation or invention that has the potential for being patented and becoming the core of a doctoral dissertation. Proposals may be sent to Leslie Regan (Room 1-106,, 253-2291) by May 15. E-mailed submissions should have the words "Hatsopoulos $50,000 Prize" in the subject line.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 9, 2005 (download PDF).

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