Grant Erickson (EE ’96, MS ’98)—Making lives better

Grant Erickson (EE ’96, MS ’98) straddles the fence of the nature-nurture debate: Yes, curiosity is something you’re born with, but it can also be honed. However, he has no doubt that curiosity drives discoveries in science and creative solutions in engineering. “I really believe,” he said, “engineering is the art of science.”

No surprise, Erickson is an engineer. He worked two years for Apple on several generations of the iPod and the first iteration of the iPhone. “That was absolutely a fantastic experience to be able to work on those two transformational products,” he said.

After Apple, he founded Nuovations, his engineering design consulting firm to handle side projects. He is also principal engineer of the startup Nest Labs, founded in Palo Alto, Calif., by two other Apple engineers. One device Erickson helped create is the self-programming Nest Learning Thermostat.

“I certainly think my interest in science and engineering has been about satisfying curiosities and answering deeper questions about how things work and why things are.”

- Grant Erickson

Nest specializes in bringing an Apple level of design savvy to “unloved products,” such as thermostats. “We reinvented a device that hasn’t really been touched or updated materially for the last 20 to 30 years,” Erickson said. The Nest thermostat uses machine learning to set the temperature according to the homeowner’s past preferences day-to-day and throughout the day.

Erickson was one of those kids whose curiosity about the world around him became apparent early on, evidenced by disassembled toys and spare parts. “Much to my parents’ chagrin, one of the most frequent things they found with me is that, while I might play with a new toy for a while, invariably there was a trip to the toolbox to get a screwdriver out, take it apart, and figure out what made it work.”

That curiosity led him into engineering at the University. “I certainly think my interest in science and engineering has been about satisfying curiosities and answering deeper questions about how things work and why things are,” he said.

Erickson clearly came to the University loaded with curiosity. “I thought there was a fantastic balance of in-classroom rhetorical learning mixed with in-lab experimentation, exploration-type of exercises. The in-class rhetorical learning offers you the framework to understand what it is you’re exploring and what questions you’re going to be asking,” he said.

But the best opportunity to exercise his curiosity came in the laboratory, particularly in self-directed research with faculty to look at a particular question and say, “Okay, how do we solve this problem? Or how do we learn more about this?”

He had a passion for audio and music, so he thought he might study signal processing and communications. He soon discovered he really liked the application of computing—not so much in a traditional sense where computers are front and center in our lives, but looking at what is known as the embedded systems world, when computers become transparent and in the background.

“My other passion for engineering is creating things, things that could help make people’s lives better, help people do things in better, more efficient ways than they had before,” Erickson said.

“Problem solving requires not only curiosity, but also its close twin, creativity,” Erickson said. He was struck by the fact that both at Apple and at Nest the engineering teams included a high proportion of musicians and left-handers. (Erickson, too, is left-handed.) While neither trait is proof of being creative, Erickson thought it a remarkable correlation. He certainly thinks of engineering as a creative endeavor.

“Science, of course, is all about the theory and what’s possible and here’s how things work,” said Erickson. “Engineering is very much taking that science and applying it to solve problems. For engineers, science is really the palette, the toolbox, the field of herbs and spices to chose from. The best engineers I’ve known are absolutely creative thinkers and creative problem solvers asking, ‘How do I create a solution to a particular problem using limited res