Pitt senior boasts multiple inventions, patents

By Gretchen Andersen

When Micah Toll saw images of Afghani refugees living in tents and subpar housing during the… When Micah Toll saw images of Afghani refugees living in tents and subpar housing during the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, he wished he could do something for them.

And then he did.

Toll, who is currently a senior mechanical engineering student, was only 17 when he started Disaster Rebuilding Solutions, a research and development company. Toll said he had to have his father sign the company forms with him because he was still a minor.

The company markets one of Toll’s many inventions — a lightweight construction beam made out of a material created by plastic-stressed skin and foam.

Although the material is easy to cut and transport, it can be used to build temporary bridges and housing structures.

“My ultimate goal is to really see [Design Rebuilding Solutions] brought to the marketplace and see it used for what it’s intended for, to help see it save millions of peoples’ lives,” he said.

Toll says he is just like any other college student — he has a messy room, goes to class and is involved with student organizations such as Hillel, Panthers for Israel and Pittsburgh Israel Public Affairs Committee. Toll also serves on the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America as the Pitt campus fellow this year, while at the same time pursuing his engineering endeavors.

But Toll also has several companies, patent-pending inventions and a feature on “The Circuit,” a YouTube channel presented by the U.S. Air Force.

One of his most recent accolades came from Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, who highlighted Toll’s achievements in the Board of Trustees meeting at the end of February.

Nordenberg played the clip from “The Circuit” and said it was a dramatic and informative way to show the Trustees how Micah has used his Pitt education to develop a number of inventions.

“Micah Toll’s story is a perfect example of a Pitt student combining the educational, research and public service aspects of his time here at Pitt,” he said in an e-mail sent from University spokesman John Fedele.

Eric Beckman, George M. Bevier professor of engineering and co-director of the Mascaro Sustainability Initiative, said he has known Toll since he won his first contest through the Mascaro Center. Beckman said he usually doesn’t meet students at Pitt with such a strong entrepreneurial drive at so young an age.

“He’s chosen to direct his energies at novel solutions to ‘green’ problems, where he shows good business intuition along with technical skills,” Beckman said. “If Pitt could graduate about 20 Micahs per year, the region would have no worries about business creation and job growth for decades to come.”

Professor Howard Kuhn, in the department of mechanical engineering and materials science, has known Toll since the student’s freshman year, teaching him in classes such as Entrepreneurship for Engineers and Product Realization. He said that Toll uses his engineering expertise to meet societal needs through his entrepreneurial work.

In class, Toll is “quiet and unassuming, but he is diligent and tenacious in pursuing correct answers to homework problems and conclusions to projects,” Kuhn said.

Kuhn said that Toll is neither the best nor the worst student in the class. “The major difference is that he is constantly thinking up ideas for applications of his new knowledge to solve larger societal problems and acting on those ideas by building prototypes to test the ideas and then building a business model to implement those ideas.”

For each project, company or contest, Toll said, he has worked with different people because he knows what his skills are and what they aren’t, so he tries to work with people who have complementary expertise.

Currently he is working on an exercise device with Adam Tow, a friend he met at summer camp about seven years ago.

Although they cannot talk much about the project because it’s patent-pending, both Tow and Toll said they hope to bring the device to the market by the year’s end. Toll said because he knew the engineering and Tow knew the biomechanics behind the design, the two were able to work together well.

“Anyone who knows Micah is struck by his passion for the things he cares about — from engineering to social justice,” Tow said. “The added perspective I can give as someone who’s worked with Micah before is that he’s uniquely patient and easy to interact with — a skill which I’m sure will take him places.”

Toll, who says his bedroom can often turn into his own laboratory, also keeps a design journal on him at all times so he can immediately write down any ideas that pop into his head.

One of the most frequent questions Toll gets involves his post-graduation plans. So far, he said his plans aren’t solid yet, but he hopes to break into the electric vehicle field in Israel, which he called one of the world’s leaders for electric technology.

His goal has always been to contribute to the growth of electric vehicles, because he believes electric vehicles are the future of personal transportation and will provide for clean and efficient mass transportation. Toll said he doesn’t want to make a quick buck, but instead improve lifestyles of people.

“Everyone is good at some things, some people do what they can to contribute to the world,” Toll said. “I know what I’m good at — creating things to help people.”

Toll’s extracurricular projects

Toll moved onto other projects after Design Rebuilding Solutions.

In addition to the construction material, Toll has also created an inexpensive wind turbine, a personal electric vehicle (PEV) and a kit that tests for imported toxic drywall, which has been said to erode plumbing and electrical systems in households.

About two years ago, Toll started chinesedrywalltesterkit.com, a website he developed for homeowners so that they can buy the kit and then test their house to see if it contains potentially toxic drywall imported from China.

During his time at Pitt, Toll has competed in the Pitt Business School’s Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence’s Big Idea Competition. Both the Design Rebuilding Solutions and chinesedrywalltestingkit.com won first place the years he competed.

Toll said in the interview that “it is estimated that over 100,000 homes have been built in the United States in the past decade or so using this material.”

Kuhn said the imported toxic drywall is “a severe health problem in Southern states.”

During his sophomore year, Toll created an inexpensive wind turbine along with his friend, Shaun Espenshade, a senior at Duquesne University, for a contest sponsored by Pitt’s Mascaro Center. They won first place, a $5,000 prize.

“It was on the lower end of the power range. It’s not going to power an entire house, but it’s used to offset some of the electricity you would use in the house,” Toll said of the turbine. “Maybe power three or four rooms in your home, so that way instead of using energy from the grid, you are creating your own energy.”

Two weeks ago, he found out he was selected for the finalist round for this year’s competition for his newest PEV project.

Working with students in the College of Business Administration, Toll is trying to start a PEV company, a project he’s had on his mind for about two years. He called the PEV design similar to an electric motorcycle and said he has wanted to explore sustainable energy, especially in the automotive field.

The company is still in the research and development stage, but his team has developed some different prototypes.

“We’ve got one prototype that I actually use every day to commute on, to drive around Pittsburgh,” said Toll. “We’ve got about a thousand miles on that one.”

Toll’s passion for inventing and science dates back to when he was a kid, visiting his father — a biological oceanographer — in his lab full of tanks of creatures such as octopus and squids.

“I always saw him working on experiments and exploring the world essentially and that was something I wanted to do,” Toll said. “I wanted to determine how things work and create new things to that wealth of knowledge.”