By Lena Bae
AJ Perez is CEO of NVbots, creators of an efficient, affordable 3-D printer.
It was the summer of 2012, and MIT engineering students and fraternity brothers Alfonso “AJ” Perez, Mateo Peña Doll, Chris Haid and Forrest Pieper ran into a problem. They were working on a project and needed to prototype parts, but they couldn’t easily access a 3-D printer on campus to create the prototypes. They did, however, have free time and an endless supply of creativity, so they took on a seemingly impossible project – building their own 3-D printer in the basement of their fraternity.
Today, the four are the ambitious co-founders of New Valence Robotics (NVbots), a company selling a more efficient, affordable and completely wireless 3-D printer to educational institutions and others. In early October, AJ, the CEO of NVbots, was also included among the winners of the Boston Globe’s “Hive 25 under 25,” an inaugural list of young local innovators. He is also the recent – and final – recipient of the Jerome Lemelson Fellowship, a scholarship for graduate students “whose research involves invention, innovation and intellectual property.”
The south Florida native first came to MIT as a rising high school senior participating in MIT’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) program. MITES is a six-week residential summer program run by the MIT Office of Engineering Outreach Programs (OEOP) that provides academic enrichment for promising students, predominantly from underrepresented and underserved backgrounds. Even for AJ, a high-achieving student, the college-level coursework he encountered at MITES was an unexpected challenge. “I was a super arrogant kid coming in,” AJ admits. “I got beat down a little bit.”
While during MITES, AJ enjoyed the challenge of learning new material beyond the scope of his high school coursework, when the program came to a close, AJ was still unsure about his next steps. “I really wasn’t interested in all that much in high school,” AJ says. “I was just good at some stuff – I was good at school, for the most part.”
After MITES and his senior year of high school, AJ returned to MIT as an undergraduate. He initially majored in business but changed his major four times to political science, physics, material science, and finally, to mechanical engineering.
“I was totally lost,” AJ says. “I had no idea what was going on – I was 18 years old. Total existential crisis.” While wavering in his decision to drop material science courses he didn’t find interesting, a resident advisor in AJ’s fraternity encouraged him to do what felt right. “I thought, ‘I’m going to go try that for a while,’” AJ says, “and [I] got really excited about it.”
AJ, who recalls being a “Legos kid” as a child, found the hands-on aspect of mechanical engineering enthralling. The class that hooked him on mechanical engineering was 2.007 (Design and Manufacturing I). In 2.007, students are given design challenges to address with specific timelines and limited resources. “I really enjoyed that – you had to operate within a budget, you had to operate on time, and you had to deliver something that would, within the context of this little contrived game, operate to specification,” AJ says. He realized that he loved being creative under pressure.
During his junior year, AJ continued to develop his skills in production under constraints and deepen his leadership abilities through the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership (GEL) Program. The GEL Program is a co-curricular program that students can apply to take during their junior or senior year at MIT. Students attend engineering design and leadership courses, engage in leadership labs, and develop leadership skills by working on projects in a team-based setting.
AJ cites the GEL program as one of his most meaningful experiences at MIT. Through the GEL program, he fine-tuned his ability to work with engineers of diverse backgrounds, a skill AJ found more difficult to sharpen in departmental classes largely filled with students trained in similar engineering fields. “You learn to communicate very well with other mechanical engineers, computer scientists, and material scientists, but knowing how to communicate effectively with an interdisciplinary engineering team [is] probably one of the best skills I got [from the program],” he says. Effective communication with individuals from diverse backgrounds is a skill that AJ continues to value highly in his current work at NVbots, where he deals regularly not only with other engineers, but also with lawyers, accountants, politicians, and potential customers.
After graduating from MIT, AJ planned to stay in the Boston area to continue developing NVbots with co-founders Chris and Forrest, who were both a year younger than AJ. He applied to the Master of Engineering in Manufacturing (MEngM) program at MIT, but he was uncertain whether he would enroll due to tuition fees. When he found out that he had been selected for the prestigious Jerome Lemelson Fellowship, his main hesitation disappeared.
This fall, NVbots is currently piloting three printers in local high schools. They will be working closely with the pilot schools to get feedback on these initial prototypes and make further improvements as needed. In AJ’s coursework, which is highly complementary to his work for the company, he is working on ways to make the 3-D printer a more precise, efficient system.
The team is also teaching a class on 3-D design and 3-D printing to fifth and sixth graders at the Lee School in Dorchester as part of the Citizen Schools program, an AmeriCorps-affiliated initiative in which volunteers teach afterschool classes to students from public schools situated in low-income areas. The 3-D design/printing class was inspired by his experience taking 2.007 and serving as a teaching assistant for an engineering design course in MITES.
AJ is passionate about bringing the kind of hands-on, team-based learning that engaged and inspired him as an undergraduate to elementary school children. As a student less interested in abstract theories than designing and constructing under real-world constraints, AJ understands the frustration that children can feel when given problem sets rather than a material problem to physically solve.
“Kids hate learning math,” AJ says. During AJ’s first lecture, a student asked him whether the course would involve math. AJ’s response of “no” was met with loud cheers. Instead of teaching equations, AJ and his team have their students compete in design challenges using objects found in their everyday lives. Through these challenges, AJ says: “We can explain the science to them – the concept of the gear ratios that are happening in [a self-rotating] cube – that they wouldn’t be excited about if they were taught ‘the geometric theory of cube ratios.’”
Ultimately, it is that excitement that AJ knows firsthand and that he wants to spark in fellow “Lego kids” at an early age. “We stifle inventors at a young age, by shoving them into a framework of very confined mathematical learning,” says AJ. “The most successful engineers and inventors in world history all stopped creating new ideas by the time they were 27 or 30. … So if we’re constraining the first 18 years of somebody’s life … it seems kind of absurd. We should get them at a young age.”
“That’s the hope. To get them passionate,” AJ says.