Digital Dreamers

Microprocessor Designs in Shelburne aims to combine cybernetics (the man-machine interface), ergonomics (the user interface), electronics and technology to help people better interact with their environment.

by Jason Koornick

Mark Lyons (left) watches as Jeff Finkelstein, president of Microprocessor Designs in Shelburne, takes a ride on the Segway Human Transporter, a recent invention by engineering pioneer Dean Kamen. Their company created the hardware, firmware and architecture for the self-balancing transporter, which is expected to be on the market late this year. Lyons is Finkelstein's partner and company vice president.

A high-end commercial coffee maker; an electronic Band-Aid that injects drugs; a high-tech ski helmet; a car seat that automatically adjusts to the body; a blood pressure monitor; and the Segway, a human transporter that hopes to revolutionize the way people move clearly a crazy-quilt list of products. As unlikely as it seems, though, they do have something in common: technology developed by a small company in Shelburne called Microprocessor Designs.

The company is housed in a modest, two-story home just off U.S. 7. Inside the renovated building, seven full-time engineers use cutting-edge technology to enhance people's everyday lives.

Since the company was founded in 1987 by its president, Jeff Finkelstein, Microprocessor Designs has worked on projects that have a wide range of practical purposes in the fields of health care, sports training, personal communications and transportation to name just a few.

The common element in the company's work is that every project contains tiny specialized computers called microprocessors. Unlike a home computer, which is designed to do a wide variety of functions, a microprocessor is a single-chip processor designed to perform specific tasks for the product in which it is installed. The company also designs the software and firmware (a type of imbedded software) for the processors.

Finkelstein calls it the "ubiquitous micro." He says the devices help people interact with their environment in a positive way. "There will be a microprocessor in almost every appliance or gadget that people touch," he says. "We're not trying to mechanize the world we're not computer geeks. We like to think that we're helping to make the world a better place to live."

The company's mission is to combine cybernetics (the man-machine interface), ergonomics (user interface), electronics and technology. "It's all rolled into a day's work," Finkelstein says.

He takes a broad view of technology by continually thinking about the end product even as he is working on the smallest component in a design.

"An occupational hazard in many engineering environments is forgetting the practical application of the work that you are doing," he says. "We try to take a perspective that takes into account all the real-world concerns of using the final product."

Finkelstein applies this "big picture" philosophy to running his business as well. Like the microprocessor the company designs, he says the company runs "without a lot of fluff. We try to stay lean and mean so we can be reactive to our clients' needs."

"Even though we are a small company, we can do things more efficiently than larger companies because we can spend $100,000 where other companies would spend millions," Finkelstein says. "We just try to make good business and life decisions."

Even as the president, Finkelstein is heavily involved in engineering work. He specializes in the hardware components while his partner, vice president Mark Lyons, is responsible for the software.

The partners met in February 1984 when they both worked for Linkabit in Boston, a predecessor of Qualcomm. They were developing satellite communication computers for the military, a job Finkelstein calls "a little disturbing." During the experience at Linkabit, he gained an appreciation for the practical side of engineering.

He and Lyons were developing back-up communication systems that would function if a nuclear war destroyed the planet. "The best mode of operation is if the device isn't used," he says dryly.

The partners were two of 60,000 engineers working on the project. "We were extremely frustrated with the corporate engineering process," Lyons says. "As far as I'm concerned, I could never go back to less-directed engineering disciplines.

"The products here are incredible breakthroughs. When I see people riding around on the human transporter, there's not a better validation of my work," Lyons says.

Although they shared the same frustrations, the partners didn't work together again until 1993, six years after Linkabit closed the Boston office. Finkelstein took a job at Aox, a Boston company that made boards to connect PCs with workstations, and Lyons went to California to work as a principal engineer at Raytheon.

During his stint at Aox, Finkelstein learned "a ton about designing and customer interaction," although the experience was so hectic, he was burned out after 12 months.

At the time, he was also taking physiology and biology classes at Harvard. "Towards the end of July 1987, I realized that I had to go back to graduate school," says Finkelstein. He got into an orthopedic group at the University of Vermont with the help of faculty connections who he says "schmoozed my application through. I went from being a design engineer to a graduate student in four weeks."

Finkelstein, who grew up outside of New York City, had been coming to Vermont for vacations since he was a teen-ager. He visited the state to ski when he was in high school and as an undergraduate student at SUNY Stony Brook. "I always knew that I would end up in Vermont," he says.

Finkelstein says the goal in his graduate studies was "to learn enough about medical jargon and parlance that I didn't need an intermediary to talk about what was needed in a particular medical product".

Jon Lavallee (left) and Kurt Preiss are two of seven full-time engineers at Microprocessor Designs who use using cutting-edge technology to enhance everyday lives.

During graduate school, members of the department would ask Finkelstein to help with various projects. "Pretty soon that was all I was doing," he says. "I realized that I wasn't getting my work done. I wrote my thesis but never defended it."

Ironically Finkelstein never received his master's degree because he was busy working on projects for the company that would become Microprocessor Designs. The company's first major job was developing motion-tracking devices for Ascension Technology in Colchester.

The Ascension device, called "Flock of Birds," can track three-dimensional movements of up to four sensors and analyze biomechanical and human factors. It is used in medical imaging, virtual reality, robotics, flight simulation and scientific visualization.

Soon after leaving graduate school, Finkelstein teamed up with Bruce Larson, an engineer from southern Vermont. Larson moved to Burlington and worked five years for the company.

In 1988, fate arrived in the form of an inconspicuous classified ad in The Boston Globe. The ad that caught Finkelstein's eye was looking for an entrepreneurial hardware engineer familiar with bio-medical technology. Only a fax number was listed, a rarity in those days. To his surprise, after sending his resume Finkelstein received a phone call from Dean Kamen.

A pioneer in engineering, Kamen is the inventor of the dialysis machine and holds the patent for the first insulin pump. The men discovered they had indirectly worked together before. The meeting, says Finkelstein, was the beginning of a "long working relationship" that continues today. Kamen would go on to invent the Segway Human Transporter and hire Microprocessor Designs for much of the engineering work.

"During the interview, Dean gave me a test to see how fast I could complete a project," Finkelstein says. "He told me to make it happen. For the next two weeks, I worked 80 hours a week and we made it work. To some extent, that experience taught me that I could get things done if I set my mind to it."

Finkelstein was living in Vermont but spent 3 days a week working at Kamen's New Hampshire home. He says he was surrounded by other young engineers who were working on projects that were going to be products. "It was a great design circle, a sort of high-life," Finkelstein says fondly. He calls Kamen "a really cool mentor."

In the late '80s and early '90s, Microprocessor Designs took on new projects while continuing to work with Kamen's company (DEKA Research) and existing clients.

The company's most ambitious project was one they designed, manufactured, marketed and sold entirely on their own called Palmdac. A forerunner to today's Palm Pilot, the device connected to the portable Atari Portfolio to collect data and perform other custom applications.

Hundreds of Palmdacs were sold in the United States and Europe. Finkelstein says the experience was "a nice way to figure out how to do everything on our own." The product sold better in Europe because Atari wasn't tied to the image of electronic games as it was in this country. "The experience was an eye-opener in realizing the importance of perception and not just product quality," he says.

By 1993, running the growing business single-handedly was taking a toll on Finkelstein. "I realized that I needed a partner who could help absorb some of the responsibilities so that I could actually enjoy having a business," he says.

He reconnected professionally with Lyons, who accepted a job with Microprocessor Designs. For the first six months, Lyons worked out of his home in Boston before moving to Vermont in the summer of 1993. Lyons accrued ownership in the company, which allowed the partners to manage larger projects.

"Mark and I have complementary skills, but also enough supplementary skills that we can do detailed internal and external project reviews," he says.

When the company was offered a job designing the hardware, firmware and architecture for Kamen's Segway Human Transporter in 1998, a prototype had already been developed. The team at Microprocessor Designs was asked to revisit the original electrical design and figure out ways to save money in the long run.

"We came up with something that was viable but quite different than what they had," Finkelstein says. When DEKA accepted the group's proof of concepts, Microprocessor Designs was called in to implement the design.

The Segway Human Transporter is a personal transportation device that DEKA calls "the world's first dynamic self-balancing human transporter." A rider stands on the two-wheeled scooter and leans in the direction he or she wants to go. The smart device balances the rider while it glides around. While the Segway uses an array of complex electronics, the device is designed to hide the technology behind a simple interface. There are two buttons: a power switch and an emergency brake.

The Segway has attracted a lot of attention since it was announced in a publicity frenzy in December. The industrial/commercial Segway will be on the market soon. The consumer model release date is projected for late 2002.

Kamen has only kind words to say about Microprocessor Designs' contribution to the Segway.

"They were intimately involved with a lot of the electrical work. They did a great job," he says. "A company like theirs has an expertise in staying current. Everybody is smart and enthusiastic. What else could you want?"

He says Microprocessor Designs' location in a neighboring state is advantageous. "Having those guys close by is good. We can off-load projects that are beyond our capacity," Kamen says.

The company assigned four full-time employees to work on the Segway for two full years. Finkelstein and his team are proud to be part of a ground-breaking project.

"The Human Transporter is an engineer's ideal project," Finkelstein says. "It takes engineering to a new level in that you take existing technologies and integrate them into a product that becomes front-page news."

Co-workers, Rob Macklin (left), Bryan Randall and Dan Eastman make a reality of the company's mission: to combine cybernetics (the man-machine interface), ergonomics (user interface), electronics and technology to create things of use to the real world.

There has been no shortage of work for Microprocessor Designs in the almost 10 years since Lyons joined the company. The business has been profitable since the beginning.

"The economic downturn hasn't affected this company knock on wood," Finkelstein says. "We have been very conservative in growing since none of us are managers. We've never leveraged ourselves. We don't owe anybody anything. There's nobody screaming at us but ourselves, and we scream pretty loud."

Finkelstein says Microprocessor Designs is moving in a direction that will allow it to own the products it develops. "In five years, we hope to have 50 percent of our revenue from our own products," he says.

The group will continue to consult for larger companies to have access to new technology, a competitive advantage they don't plan to give up.

"Our charter right now is not to invent new technology but to employ existing technology to create products that are unique in themselves," Finkelstein says.

Spoken like a true innovator.

Originally published in April 2002 Business People-Vermont