UW’s Shwetak Patel Named “Genius Grant” Recipient for Work on Sensor Networks

University of Washington professor Shwetak Patel, best known for his work on developing sensor networks that can be used to monitor power use in buildings, has been named a MacArthur Fellow—the award commonly known as the “genius grant,” which comes with a $500,000 cash prize that recipients can use however they want.

Patel, 29, is well-known around the Pacific Northwest innovation community as a researcher, teacher, and entrepreneur—last year, his company Zensi was purchased by Belkin for undisclosed terms. Now, a lot more folks are going to learn about his work.

There’s a bit of theater involved in the MacArthur Fellow awards. Winners are nominated without their knowledge by someone who is asked to serve as one of the award’s rotating board of nominators. If all goes as planned, winners don’t know they’re even up for consideration until someone from the foundation calls to deliver the news. (Patel was nominated by Henry Levy, chairman of the UW’s computer science and engineering department.) The money is paid out quarterly over five years.

In July, Patel was also named a Microsoft Research Faculty Fellow, after being nominated by the university. That honor noted that Patel’s sensor research was being used not just for energy efficiency, but also in “elder care, home safety, and the creation of new approaches for natural user interfaces.”

Patel was traveling as the awards were announced and couldn’t be reached for any comment. Ed Lazowska, the UW’s Bill and Melinda Gates chairman of computer science and engineering, called Patel “an incredibly creative young person” and “the sweetest guy in the world.” Patel works jointly for the computer science and electrical engineering departments, and leads the school’s Ubiquitous Computing Lab.

“The ‘sustainability sensing’ that Shwetak is doing will have huge impact. You can determine exactly how much power each device in your home is consuming, from a single inexpensive device that you plug into any wall outlet,” Lazowska wrote in an email tonight. “He also has extremely low power sensors whose batteries can last for decades—you can toss a few under your refrigerator and it alerts you if your ice maker starts leaking on your hardwood floor, before damage is done.”

As Jeremy Jaech recently wrote in an Xconomy guest column, “Patel’s sensors are hidden inside a wall or under a water heater to detect and alert a homeowner, or an insurance company, when a sensor detects water leaks, fire or carbon monoxide. These sensors will be able to save the lives of many homeowners, and save insurers hundreds of millions of dollars; water damage claims now surpass fire claims and natural disasters and are very expensive to settle.”

This is the second MacArthur Fellow connected to the UW’s computer science and engineering department—Lazowska notes that Yoky Matsuoka was named a fellow in 2007 for her work in neurorobotics.

Here’s a video from the MacArthur Foundation about Patel, which is from this profile page about him.

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