Nerds In Real Life

How Jeremy Fryer-Biggs Overcame Dyslexia to Find His Creativity And Help Save The World

JEREMY FRYER-BIGGS

 

My middle school Shop class, aka Industrial Arts, was recess for me. It was the one place could get out from behind my desk, get my hands dirty, and come away having created something tangibly cool. Something that was useful, made with care, and could be displayed proudly for everyone to see. Something that said, “I made this for you with love, mom/dad.”

In Mr. Adamusko’s (7th grade) and Mr. Scheib’s (8th grade) classes, I learned just how broad the industrial arts spectrum was: electrical wiring, welding, drawing, silk screening, staining, painting, woodworking, designing, injection molding, sculpting, manufacturing, and more. I had a blast crafting my first (working) lamp, marionette puppet (Ducks Deluxe!), salt and pepper shakers, and learning how to draw and enlarge a picture of Captain Klutz, my favorite Don Martin cartoon from MAD Magazine.

While I only scratched the surface of most disciplines (pun intended), shop class fueled my love for making. Today, I occasionally use my basic DIY skills in the creative maintenance of my circa 1940s home. But had I been given the encouragement and resources to continue my industrial artistry at home as a kid – and known how I might be able to make a positive impact pursuing it as a full-time gig – I like to think I’d have followed a similar career path as our latest Nerd Profile interviewee Jeremy Fryer-Biggs, Chief Technology Officer and cofounder of Evaptainers.

I met Jeremy Fryer-Biggs last October at the Fast Company Innovation Festival, where he presented the concept and sustainability applications for his Evaptainer powerless cooler – a life-saving, food storage solution in developing countries.

Jeremy Fryer-Biggs:

Jeremy Fryer-Biggs working with a contractor in the Evaptainers’ Long Island facility.

 

Jeremy Fryer-Biggs’ path to Evaptainers has been one heavily influenced not only by his creativity, curiosity, altruism, and entrepreneurial spirit, but also dyslexia. He’s overcome the challenges of a learning “disorder” to succeed as an inventor, designer, maker, engineer, artist, and sustainability champion, not to mention a certified Mythbuster!

We hope Jeremy’s story offers your Nerds some valuable career perspective and some timely advice that will inspire them to follow their passions as makers and creative problem-solvers!

 


“I also from an early age realized that I got an enormous rush out of building something new. I’ve flown a helicopter, gone hang gliding, jumped off a cliff – all of it pales to the feeling of creating.”


Raising Nerd: What inspired you to pursue design/engineering as a career? Did you ever consider other options? 

Jeremy Fryer-Biggs: For as far back as I can remember, I was incredibly curious about how everything works. I loved the diagrams in The Way Things Work and later on couldn’t stop watching How It’s Made. I also from an early age realized that I got an enormous rush out of building something new. I’ve flown a helicopter, gone hang gliding, jumped off a cliff – all of it pales to the feeling of creating. When I was 6, I won my first design competition and never looked back. I am lucky in that I could have pursued any career path and my family would have been 100 percent behind me. But given my eccentricities, no other option would have made as much sense.

 

RN: What were your hobbies growing up? Any favorite books or other media that inspired you?

Jeremy Fryer-Biggs:: I was a total LEGO fanatic as a kid. I loved the freedom, creativity, and visual problem-solving they engendered. I am always amazed how many creative people I talk to have the same affinity for them. Every time I have to assemble something from IKEA, I’m thankful that’s how I spent my early childhood.

As a dyslexic, reading has always been tough for me. Because it was such a fight, I had to be really dedicated to the subject matter to want to slog through a book. At a young age, I found myself totally fascinated by the mysteries of the universe – how did everything begin (Big Bang? inflation?), what’s the nature of the universe (is it expanding? contracting? a multiverse?), what’s the smallest fundamental unit of matter (quarks? strings?). I labored through everything from Hawking’s A Brief History of Time to Feynman’s lectures (though most of it went over my head) looking for an answer. My curiosity also led me to watch any and every documentary I could find, which I think is the foundation of my uncanny knack for bar trivia.

 

RN: Where did you go to school, what did you study, and what influenced those decisions?

Jeremy Fryer-Biggs: I did my undergrad work at University of Chicago. It is an amazing school full of the brightest, oddest, and most wonderfully curious people you have ever met. In hindsight it was totally the wrong place for me. How I got there is a painful lesson worth sharing for the readers who are parents of young, dyslexic, aspiring scientists.

Being dyslexic is a huge advantage as a scientist. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Da Vinci, Einstein, Faraday and Tesla were all considered to have had this disorder. While I can personally testify that learning to read was pretty awful, I’m also fairly certain that it is the source of my creativity and unique sense of spatial reasoning. What doesn’t get talked about a lot is the psychological toll that growing up with it takes on you.

I spent much of my childhood knowing the answers to things and not being able to demonstrate that knowledge in written form. This was maddening. I would flip numbers on math tests, get wrong answers, and not do as well as I knew I could. Eventually, I started second-guessing myself. Is it the dyslexia or am I just lazy and careless? Was it just the dyslexia or am I not actually as smart as I think I am? By the time I got to college, I had a huge chip on my shoulder. I wanted to prove myself in a place with the smartest professors and peers and none of the pretentious trappings or distractions that come with a big-name school. U of C was the manifestation of these ideals. Unfortunately, in my desperation to prove myself, I overlooked a few critical details.

Chicago’s much vaunted core curriculum makes it one of the most reading intensive institutions in higher learning. I had enough trouble reading simple English. Discussing the syntax of ancient Greek words, while fascinating, was totally beyond me. In addition, [the school also lacked the necessary staff resources and willingness to assist dyslexic students like me].

These factors were not a recipe for my success.

That first year was tough, all my underlying insecurities were compounded and it almost broke me. Then, of all things, I took a sculpture class. One of my greatest joys has always been coming up with and constructing new inventions. I can remember spending hours after school in hardware stores and Radio Shacks (RIP) finding parts I could cleverly repurpose for alternative applications (my high school Intel International Science and Engineering Fair project was a novel motor built with pipe fittings, refrigerator components and whoopee cushions). Being in that sculpture class gave me access to the studio after-hours, and this opened up a whole new world.

While there were few [U of C art department] resources (the building was falling apart and the tools were limited) there was also little university oversight. This created a tremendous amount of freedom to do whatever you wanted. I spent hours teaching myself to braze and then weld, and familiarized myself with the basic tools in a machine shop. My dad jokes that he sent me to University of Chicago to learn how to weld, and I am not sure that’s too far from the truth.

Spending time in Midway Studios let me reconnect with my creative side and pursue my passions. I wound up using my newfound skills to, among other things, build my first remotely-operated submarine in my dorm room. I graduated with honors in Biology and Sculpture.

Most importantly, I walked away internalizing two important lessons. First, science isn’t abstract. You have a theory and you create a method to test it. Unlike school, real life doesn’t come with ready-made answers, a bag of presorted parts and instructions. If you are really pushing boundaries, you are frequently going to have to make your own testing apparatus and instruments. Having a broad understanding of materials and the ways to work them, as well as a bit of hands-on experience, is essential.

And second, persistence is critical to doing anything worthwhile. While luck plays an important role in success, tenacity is equally important. In the end, I think I got the best education in the world [despite some of the school’s shortcomings].

RN: Who were your early mentors/influencers? Did family members support and/or inspire you to pursue your interests/passions growing up, whether STEM-related or in other areas? Who are your current mentors or professional inspirations?

Jeremy Fryer-Biggs:  My parents are incredibly supportive people. My mom was a lawyer and my dad was in real estate, so neither was a direct inspiration for a career in the sciences, but they were great about putting the right foundational elements in place for one. My dad reads an insane amount about EVERYTHING and taught me to be endlessly intellectually curious. My mother was one of the first female partners in a major New York law firm and demonstrated every day how to be the best at what you do and what real grit looks like. Every time I have to put myself out on a limb to defend a new idea, I am thankful for her influence in making me just a tad stubborn.

Jeremy Fryer-Biggs

MythBusters Episode 102: Shark Week Special 2 (2008)

 

I worked in an oncology and Lupus lab in the hematology department for three years in college, and my principal investigator (PI) there was an important mentor and influence. Jamie Hyneman from Mythbusters served as an inspiration. I’m also continually impressed by how people like Dean Kamen, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos have dedicated their careers to pursuing a combination of science, entrepreneurship, and social mission.

 

RN: What earned you a win in 2009 for Tufts $100K entrepreneurship competition? Tell us about why you decided to take the proceeds from that to start the Strivers Foundation in East Africa.

Jeremy Fryer-Biggs: I think it’s up to all of us to manifest the world we want to live in and that it’s our duty to leave things better than how we found them. I’m a big believer not only in donating your time and money to a good cause, but also in using your expertise and ideas to create positive, meaningful change.

 

Jeremy Fryer-Biggs

Kampala, Uganda. 2010. Students after a tour of Quality Chemicals Industries Limited, Kampala Uganda

 

Poverty is something that I think a lot about. It’s one of those core issues that is incredibly tough to address because it’s both a cause and a result of other problems, like endemic disease, lack of education, overpopulation, etc. The reality is there are limited resources in the world to address its major problems. Because of this, solutions which cost-effectively tackle root causes are exponentially more powerful as they can simultaneously impact many downstream issues.

I read Muhammad Yunus’ book Banker to the Poor when it came out in 2008, and it resonated with me. To grossly oversimplify, his microfinance model struck me as powerful because it offered people the ability to break this cycle and lift themselves out of poverty by empowering them to start a business and helping them finance it on fair terms. With the extra money from their business, micro-finance recipients could potentially afford to improve other parts of their lives, such as purchasing healthier food, buying mosquito netting, and paying school fees.

I saw this as vastly preferable to programs which donated food or mosquito nets (though both are definitely important and worthwhile) because the individual could choose what they needed most; and as those needs changed over time, the money from the business could be used to address those new priorities.

Jeremy Fryer-Biggs:

Kampala, Uganda. 2010.  A student learning how to weld with Charles during the fabrication unit of the program

 

But I also saw a problem. The wave of new micro-finance charities tended to push people towards particular income generating activities, like bee keeping, brick making, and raising chickens. While these are all useful, there is a finite need in the marketplace for honey, bricks, and chicken, and a limited ability to scale these operations up and employ others.

The idea for Strivers was to gather a group of super smart, young people with an entrepreneurial track record under one roof. Since they know the needs in their country, the local market, and their culture best, let them decide what kinds of businesses to build.

We helped them brainstorm, develop business plans, network with successful entrepreneurs who they otherwise would not have had access to, and build valuable core skills. In hindsight, it was equal parts multi-month-hackathon, accelerator, and micro-finance program.

I was in graduate school at Tufts studying biomedical engineering and entered the Gordon Institute for Entrepreneurship $100k competition with the Strivers concept and, to my surprise, it won.

 

Jeremy Fryer-Biggs:

Kampala, Uganda. 2010. Nasur’s award-winning chargers.

 

We chose to base the program in Africa because it’s the poorest continent on the planet (the average income in most Sub-Saharan countries is around $500 US per YEAR). As far as I know, it was the first accelerator program in East Africa. We had enough money from the Tufts 100k winnings and personal funds to run the program in 2010, and it was a phenomenal and humbling experience.

I was incredibly inspired by one participant, who came from a really tough situation in the north of the country where Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army operated. He recognized the discrepancy between market penetration of cell phones and the lack of an electrical grid to charge them in rural areas. Seizing on this as an opportunity, he devised an inexpensive device similar to an automotive alternator, which could be mounted on a bicycle or a motorcycle to recharge a phone. He developed a working prototype while in Strivers and his pitch at the end of the program was so compelling, we had to help fund it.

Growing the business was a struggle for him but he wound up sourcing the parts locally, creating a workshop, expanding sales to Rwanda, and winning awards from international bodies like the IEEE. Every time he sends me an email announcing a new life milestone (e.g., owning his first car, buying his first piece of land), I am overwhelmed with pride at all he has accomplished!

RN: You also created your own product development company with clients like Sharper Image. Can you give some examples of your favorites?

Jeremy Fryer-Biggs:  When I was leaving grad school, I got offered a job by a family friend. He ran a private equity fund and as part of a larger deal had just acquired a company which made car covers. Let’s be honest, there isn’t anything very exciting or sexy about car covers. He knew it and wanted to reinvent the company by changing that. He was looking for someone who was both creative and scientifically grounded to create an R&D program for them, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time. I turned down the job offer but agreed to consult for him, and my product development business was born.

While I have a personal interest in medical devices (and have worked on many), early on, I was open to taking any business that would pay the bills. The car covers required a lot of knowledge about fiber chemistry and textile construction, which I had zero background in. Taking on that project afforded me the opportunity to go spend time in textile mills in the US and China, which, in turn, broadened my manufacturing knowledge.

Life has a funny way of folding back on itself. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought, “I’m never going to use that piece of niche knowledge again,” only to have it become important a few years later. I can trace a direct line between my time improving car covers at the beginning of my career and the work done to develop the smart fabrics now which power the Evaptainer. So many projects are interdisciplinary and the broader your knowledge base the better.

To that point, some of my favorite projects involved combining unrelated disciplines. I was asked by the car cover company to develop inexpensive materials to mitigate the transfer of the sun’s heat into a car (everyone hates getting into a car left out in the sun). To accomplish this, not only did my team have to come up with new materials, but we also had to find a way to quantify their effectiveness. We developed a custom wireless sensor package which combined a thermometer, photometer, hygrometer, and barometer that was used inside and outside of test vehicles.

The ability to gauge the overall quantity of sunlight striking the vehicles during the test allowed us to normalize different tests on different days to each other so we could compare them. It also didn’t hurt that the company paid for us to shakedown the system for a week in the Virgin Islands.

RN: How did you get involved with Mythbusters and what was your role as part of the show’s technical team? What was most rewarding about your experience working with Adam Savage, Jamie and the crew?

Jeremy Fryer-Biggs: I watched Mythbusters and, like most science-minded nerds, I was fond of it. After I graduated college, I was trying to figure out what to do with myself since there really isn’t a prescribed career path for inventors. People I knew kept telling me I should go work on the show. Since that was not a thing people do in real life, I laughed it off.

Then my brother said it. Because I hold him in very high esteem, I took the suggestion seriously for the first time. I poked around on the internet later that day, found Jamie’s email address, and reached out. He responded 56 minutes later. He said I was welcome to fly out on my own dime for an interview, but warned, “I will be blunt and immediate about discontinuing your tenure here for any reason that suits me.” I got on the first flight I could.

I wound up working on a combination of private R & D projects with Jamie’s company M5 as well as building rigs for the show. As you would imagine, the whole crew is an amazingly smart group of well-intentioned troublemakers, and it was my incredible privilege to spend time around them.

Adam Savage is a never-ending fount of energy. I can recall a number of conversations where he would be on a Segway doing circles around you as fast as he could while talking to you.

Jamie has so many diverse talents that never made it on-air. We did a motorcycle-based episode, and before the cameras started rolling, who’s the person doing tricks on the Alameda runway? To no one’s surprise, it was Jamie.

The most valuable thing I took away from my time there, and still use pretty much every day, involved communication. A lot of fun but crazy things were done on that show. One week we’d need to borrow a tank to test a myth. The next week we would need to get permission to blow up a water heater on someone’s property. I spent a lot of time calling people with insane requests. The even wilder part was that most of the time people said yes. Granted, I was calling on behalf of a popular science TV show, but I learned you can call anyone about anything and, if you have a compelling reason for asking, they will usually help you.

I remember we were crunching numbers related to automobile engines and we needed to know the average amount of fuel combusted per piston stroke. I called local mechanics and got nowhere. I called several big car companies and was told the information was proprietary. Finally, I called Jeff Gordon’s NASCAR racing team in North Carolina, and they were incredibly gracious sharing what the average is for a stock car and explaining how we could work backwards and approximate the figure for a production model.

For some reason, a lot of introverts like me wind up in science. My first inclination when addressing a tough challenge is not to enlist the help of others. I walked away from Mythbusters realizing that although you need to do your own research first to understand the scope of a problem and come across as credible, the next best thing you can do is pick up the phone. You’ll either get the answer you’re looking for or an “I don’t know.” If it’s the latter, the person usually is willing to point you in the right direction. While it can be scary reaching out, the very worst thing they can do is hang up on you. After you’ve had that happen a few times, you realize it’s not the end of the world.

 

Jeremy Fryer-Biggs

Episode 111: MythBusters: Motorcycle Bike Flip (2008)

 

RN:  Given the show’s focus on trial and error, what were some of the more frustrating myths to test? What were some of your favorites?

Jeremy Fryer-Biggs: My favorite myths to test were the ones where the outcome was unexpected. You don’t work in potentially dangerous situations without doing a lot of research, getting experts involved and taking proper safety precautions. The team was really diligent about doing a lot of homework before filming. As a result, most of the time, the outcomes were among the predicted results.

Every once in a while, though, something would surprise you. We did a myth involving two phone books which were leafed together page by page. The underlying concept was that the friction between the pages would keep them from being pulled apart. Then we tested it. One person couldn’t pull the books apart. The crew in a tug-of-war configuration couldn’t pull them apart. Two forklifts couldn’t pull them apart. It took tracked vehicles to separate them in spectacular fashion. I think we were all a little surprised by that.

Certainly some myths I got to work on were “squirlier” than others, but that also made for great TV. For me though, frustration came in two forms: repetitive tasks and waiting. For the phonebook friction myth mentioned above, someone had to leaf several thousand pages of San Francisco phone books together and then do it again and again for all of the phone books (and their backups on standby) featured in the episode. While there is a Zen-like quality to that kind of challenge, it certainly isn’t the most fun thing you could be doing.

The second source of frustration is waiting. The segments are edited together so that they are fast-paced and fun to watch. What you don’t see, and what no one would have tuned in for, is all the “not Mythbusting” that’s involved. If we were on location shooting a myth for 8 hours more than 7 hours of that time was spent in prep, safety and breakdown. It’s all part of the process and there are no shortcuts but it makes for long days.

 

END PART 1

 

Jeremy Fryer-Biggs:

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