Remembering Burt Swersey

It is with overwhelming sadness I share with you the news that our original champion and progenitor Burt Swersey passed away earlier this week. Burt was instrumental in the creation of Ecovative, which grew out of his Inventors Studio course, and was involved throughout our history to date.

Burt was the most remarkable human I have ever encountered. He combined a passion for technological innovation with the firm belief that we must apply technology to help others. Our ability to innovate should not be squandered fulfilling human wants, but instead be applied to the big problems facing people and planet.

“Don’t work on nonsense!”

Burt’s first career included starting and running 4 medical device companies, and his passion to use technology to improve human lives continued far beyond that.

Burt devoted the last 23 years to developing students. He believed that young people “could do far more than they imagined,” and that they could work on the big NEEDS facing our world. His focus on teaching creativity in the classroom, on elimination of “teams” in invention, and on focusing on NEEDS not WANTS was radically different than other approaches.

At the heart of this philosophy was a deep felt caring and belief that what the world needed was “angels’ advocates” — those that could and would believe and support even the wildest of notions. If you have ever worked with Burt, or attended one of his classes, you would see the ultimate Angels’ Advocate in action. Tireless, for hours upon hours, Burt would encourage each student with compassion and sincerity. He would “Plus” their ideas, and teach others around them to do so collaboratively.

Burt had been working overtime the last two years to try and move Rensselaer and other schools to this model. It remains a tremendously important goal for our educational system, and by extension, our planet.

Incessant insistence balanced Burt’s extremely positive demeanor. After making a space, carefully crafted out of compassion and caring, where one could create something great, free of the fear of failure or critism, Burt would switch gears once such an idea was formed.

As strands of inspiration coalesced to concept he would suddenly exclaim “MORE!”. He would demand that you make it “bigger” or “smaller” (often in short succession). His goal now was to make sure the solution you were working towards was the greatest that it could be, and most importantly, that it was fulfilling a true global need.

By switching between these modes Burt would help others understand that they could do things far beyond their wildest dreams.

Early on in Ecovative’s history Gavin and I would make weekly status reports to Burt. We used to joke that if we presented to Burt we had “cured cancer that week” he would demand to know “why we had forgotten about Alzheimer’s.” By that same token when we presented to him our deepest failures, a commercial disaster or a botched experiment, he would react with enthusiasm for our efforts and convey to us his deepest held belief that “you can do it– no you WILL DO IT”.

These two tendencies made working with Burt one of the most trying experiences of my life. It also was perhaps the most rewarding. I know many others experienced this over the years. Burt was not just content to educate, he wanted to transform his students into a force for good.

And on that note I will leave you with a final thought Burt recorded last year, after winning the NCIIA’s Sustainable Impact Award:

“Make change happen that will have significant benefits for a billion people… what a nice thing to do in your life. Whatcha do in your life? Well, I made life better for a billion people.” – Burt Swersey

Burt was referring not to himself, but the students who he envisioned changing the world for better.

A trim-tab is a tiny part of the rudder on large ships, it moves the rudder, and that moves the ship. A small force applied at the trim-tab can move a tremendous mass. A tremendous force applied in such a way can move the world.

Buckminster Fuller once said “Call me Trim-tab”. He envisioned himself a force to move our society and planet. What a wild idea.

Burt had an even wilder idea. An idea that only Burt could imagine. He didn’t want to be the Trim-tab, not enough would get done. He wanted to create Trim-tabs. Hundreds of them. That would purposefully innovative and create, and in doing so, improve the lives of billions upon billions of people.

By taking this very Burt approach he fulfills the promise he articulates for the student above.

“Watcha do in your life?”

Burt: you created ripples of humans working to make life better for a billion people.

– Eben Bayer

2 thoughts on “Remembering Burt Swersey

  1. Reblogged this on VentureWell Staff News and commented:
    We saw Burt in action in the classroom, driving his students on to push the boundaries of science, technology and the imagination to improve lives through invention and innovation. We saw, too, his love for Ecovative. Your very existence is the greatest tribute to his legacy, let alone your ever-widening success.

  2. Burt was my instructor nearly 20 years ago at RPI, and he remains one of the most influential figures in my life. Thanks for this great piece about him.

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