Professor Eric Fossum wins award for photo technology

by Peter Charalambous | 2/9/17 2:05am

Nearly 200 million Americans carry Thayer School of Engineering professor Eric Fossum’s groundbreaking invention in their pockets or bags. Whenever they snap a photo, they utilize a technology that Fossum pioneered more than 20 years ago while working at NASA. That invention, the CMOS image sensor, has allowed engineers to document interplanetary travel, doctors to conduct revolutionary surgeries and everyday people to share their lives through photos. Fossum was recently awarded the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, the most prestigious award in the engineering, for his work developing this technology.

“I thought it was a prank call,” said Fossum, as he described learning on Jan. 24 that he received the award. “I was just standing outside of my office when I got it. It was like many calls you get in New Hampshire from pollsters and what not.”

Instead of speaking to a pollster, Fossum was connected to John Browne, the former chief executive officer of British Petroleum, he said. Browne informed Fossum that he, along with three other scientists, had been awarded the Queen Elizabeth Prize for their work pioneering digital imaging sensors.

“I was pretty astonished,” Fossum said. “It’s a gigantic honor.”

The award recognized Fossum’s invention of both the CMOS active pixel image sensor as well as the “camera-on-a-chip” CMOS image sensor, he said. George Smith, Nobukazu Teranishi and Michael Tompsett also contributed groundbreaking innovations to the development of digital imaging sensors. Together, they share the honor, as well as the £1 million reward, of the Queen Elizabeth Prize. Fossum said he will travel to London, England to receive the award from Queen Elizabeth in the coming months.

“There is sort of a ladder of awards, and you’re always thinking about the next rung of the ladder,” Fossum said. “All of a sudden, you leap frog to the top rung, it gives you a kind of existential crisis.”

Fossum began climbing that ladder at a young age. While a teenager, he spent his Saturdays in the Talcott Mountain Science Center in Avon, Connecticut. At 16, he started working for Calpurnia Associates as a systems analyst and programmer, where he gained more experience programming, he said.

After graduating high school, Fossum continued his education at Trinity College in Connecticut. While he originally planned to study computer science, he said he quickly realized that his skill level already exceeded the classes offered at Trinity. He instead studied engineering and physics while also working part time at his old job at Calpurnia Associates to help pay for his education. After graduation, he studied at Yale University to receive a Master’s degree and a Ph.D. in engineering and applied science.

Fossum moved to Columbia University in 1984 to become an adjunct professor in their electrical engineering department. He worked at Columbia for six years while also spending his summers working for Hughes Aircraft Company Missile Systems Group through the Howard Hughes Graduate Fellowship. He decided to move to California in 1990 to work as an assistant technical section manager for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. However, JPL was having trouble creating a camera that could function in space, according to Dartmouth News. Fossum’s experience with charge-coupled devices made him a perfect candidate to create a solution, he said.

CCDs were too bulky, damage-prone and inefficient for use in space, so Fossum worked to create an alternative technology. His breakthrough came when he invented the CMOS image sensor. By integrating all the technology needed for the CMOS sensor on one chip, Fossum created a camera that could endure the conditions of space, according to Dartmouth News.

Then, Fossum worked to further develop this technology and transfer it to commercial markets. The commercialization of the CMOS sensor lagged in its early stages, with only a few Japanese companies applying it to the production of camcorders and other products, so Fossum decided to create his own company, Photobit, in 1995. He led this company until 2001 when he sold it to Micron Technology.

After selling Photobit, Fossum began his retirement by moving to Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire; however, he was asked by a few coworkers in 2005 to help reform Siimpel Corporation, a company that worked on autofocus technology on cameras, he said. He said he served as chairman and CEO of Siimpel by helping the company become relevant in the technology market. In 2007, Fossum left Siimpel and retired again.

Fossum partially unretired again in 2008 by serving as a consultant for Samsung. He traveled to Samsung’s headquarters in South Korea for one week every month to advise engineers about camera technology, he said.

In 2010, Fossum said he decided to fully unretire and begin work as a professor, contacting Thayer Dean Joseph Helble to inquire about a position at Thayer. While he was originally expecting to teach one course and mentor a few graduate students, Fossum quickly took on many roles at Thayer, he said.

He currently teaches four different courses at the College and mentors students. He serves as the associate provost for entrepreneurship and technology transfer and leads Thayer’s Ph.D. Innovation Program.

“He oversees our Ph.D. innovation program, which is a program to help engineering Ph.D. students develop the skills and the knowledge to be technology entrepreneurs,” Helble said. “This was the first program of its kind in the country. To have a scholar, entrepreneur, innovator and teacher like Eric Fossum is just a tremendous opportunity for those Ph.D. students.”

Fossum is also continuing his research in digital imaging. He is focusing on Quanta image sensors which counts individual photons when each encounters the chip, he said.

“Where it leads right now is unclear, but two of my Ph.D. students are spinning off a company with me,” Fossum said. “We’ll see where that goes.”

Apart from working at Thayer, Fossum also spends time working with the local community. He works with Camp Invention, a summer program that introduces elementary school students with inventors like Fossum to encourage a sense of innovation and entrepreneurship. He also plans to donate a large portion of the prize money from the Queen Elizabeth Prize to charity, he said.

“I admire that the same person who has been distinguished with this great pride is also a person who supports summer camps for young children who are interested in invention,” Provost Carolyn Dever said. “To me, that’s the mark of a true educator.”

Fossum plans to stay at Dartmouth and continue educating the next generation of problem solvers, he said.

“One of the aims of the Queen Elizabeth prize is to encourage young people to go into engineering as a field, and I think it’s really important because engineering is a very creative field, many people don’t realize that,” Fossum said.

To those future engineers, Fossum offers some advice: “Always to do something you really enjoy and you feel is worthwhile. Aim high and don’t give up.”

However, while Fossum has achieved one of the most coveted awards within engineering, he joked that there is something he still lacks.

“I still don’t have a parking spot, so clearly I haven’t quite made it yet,” he quipped.