In 2005, after nine years at display companies, Jepsen applied for a professorship at MIT. As part of her interview, she spoke with professor Nicholas Negroponte, who had just returned from proposing his “$100 laptop” idea—building low-cost laptops for kids in developing countries—at the World Economic Forum. Jepsen and Negroponte hit it off immediately. Within hours, the two had hatched the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative, and Negroponte immediately dispatched her to Europe to talk with technology leaders. Working as OLPC’s screen guru, she made the project happen, says Media Lab researcher V. Michael Bove, a technical adviser to OLPC who has known Jepsen since her grad-student days. “She was the one who had the big fights with Taiwanese LCD makers and engineers who didn’t think it”—making an inexpensive laptop—“could be done.”
The true humanitarian worth of spreading cheap laptops across the developing world is up for debate, but OLPC had one undeniable effect: It led directly to the advent of the small, stripped-down, inexpensive “netbook,” a sector that now makes up about 20 percent of all laptop sales. Once the nonprofit showed that it could build a compact, functional laptop for less than $200, nearly every other computer maker followed suit, and the gadget-buying public snatched them up. Since its debut in 2007, OLPC has delivered more than a million computers; Acer, Asus, HP and other consumer-electronics companies now ship approximately 40 million netbooks a year.
Jepsen left OLPC at the beginning of 2008 to take her display technology further. She started Pixel Qi with her own money and the half a million frequent-flier miles she had racked up traveling to Africa. For the OLPC computer, she had designed a new low-power display that could have maximum battery life in villages where the electricity was spotty at best. Instead of always using the power-hungry LCD backlamp, the screen could be illuminated by reflecting sunlight (a variation on the outdoor-readable screens found in some cellphones and rugged laptops). 3Qi is designed to bring the battery-saving benefits of reflective pixels to the rest of us.
She hashed out ideas over the dinner table with her husband, John Ryan, a telecom consultant, and when he became more interested in her project than his own job, she hired him as chief operating officer. After securing venture-capital funding, she rented offices across the street from YouTube in San Bruno, California, set up a lab for playing with liquid crystals in the office kitchen, and began experimenting with ways to get more light through the screen. By the time she and her growing team finished, they had changed nearly every layer inside the LCD, so that all that remains from the original OLPC screen, Jepsen says, is the basic idea of the black-and-white mode. “It doesn’t sound as cool as giving poor kids laptops, but it’s one and the same,” she says. As Pixel Qi scales up, the cost of the screens (which are going into the next OLPC computer) should come down, making Jepsen’s technology ever more accessible.
Jepsen is still involved in Pixel Qi’s technical work, but most of the rest of the time she’s in the air, on her way to supervise manufacturing in Taipei or to meet with a company about using her screen. She logs nearly 300,000 air miles a year in service of these missions. And despite the seemingly obvious benefits of her screen designs, it’s never an easy sell. “To a certain degree, she’s selling ice to Eskimos,” says John Jacobs, a laptop analyst at DisplaySearch who used to evaluate new screens for Apple. “No matter how great the ice is, they’ve already got some.”
Yet Jepsen has an “ace in the hole,” Jacobs says: “She’s a phenomenal evangelist for the technology.” Since she started Pixel Qi, she has effectively completed a world tour every month, trying to convince computer manufacturers from China to Texas to use her screens. When a CEO dismisses Pixel Qi as just another here-today, gone-tomorrow screen technology, she pulls out her OLPC credentials: “Which one has shipped a million products within a year of starting mass production? Which one? There are none,” she tells them. “There are none at all. Which one has even shipped 1,000 products within a year of mass production? OK, 100? We’ve got a million. That’s why you should believe me.”
When she’s at the LCD factory in Taipei that’s gearing up to produce her new screen, Jepsen is on constant call, sometimes napping on the floor after pulling an all-nighter. It takes more than 100 different machines to assemble the layers of an LCD screen, and as Pixel Qi moves into mass production, problems can occur at every step: a few specks of dust in the workroom taint the materials, a batch of the liquid crystals doesn’t precisely match the batch that came before. This is when Jepsen is most content. “Time disappears, coffee appears, and it’s just work at high pressure to debug the problem. Those days are actually some of my happiest. The speed is fast, and the insights gained are tremendous.”
Part of her ability to sustain that nonstop rhythm may come from the quiet force—the qi?—of Jepsen’s personality. But part of it, serendipitously, comes from her illness. Thanks to the destruction of her pituitary gland, her body no longer makes the cortisol that usually regulates a person’s internal clock, so she doesn’t get jet lag; she feels awake as soon as she takes her pills. “My health used to limit me, but now it’s sort of an advantage,” she says. “I think business executives may consider it”—pituitary-gland removal—“an optional surgery at some time in the future.”
The frantic pace is necessary because, as young as the e-reader industry may be, trying to break into it is like trying to launch a new operating system after Microsoft. She’s up against a company that pretty much started the business: E Ink, which today controls some 90 percent of the market. Spun out of MIT’s Media Lab in 1997, E Ink makes the screens for most of today’s e-readers, including the Kindle. The E Ink screen mimics the look of ink on paper because it’s filled with floating particles of actual ink pigment. A zap of current sends oppositely charged black or white particles to the surface, forming images that stay put until zapped again. That means the screen draws power only when changing pages—ideal for a book, with which you can stare at a sheet for minutes. But again: no color, and no video.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.