We recently sat down with esteemed battery engineer Esther Takeuchi, the key contributor to the battery system that is still used to power the majority of life-saving implantable cardiac defibrillators.
Takeuchi’s career has made an immense impact on science and has been recognized globally. She currently holds more than 150 U.S. patents, more than any American woman, which earned her a spot in the Inventors Hall of Fame.
Her innovative work in battery research also landed her the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2008, where the president complimented her on her work that is “responsible for saving millions of lives.”
Five Questions for Esther Takeuchi
“I was an experimentalist from a young age.”
When did you first become interested in science?
I think I was interested in the sciences from a very early age. I had a lot of curiosity as a child. I think a lot of that curiosity was inherent and a lot of it was from following my father around. My father was an electrical engineer and he would do various things around the house and he was very generous in that he would let me follow around. I’m sure that he was pretending to let me help him, but I thought I actually was.
What were some of your first memories of exploring your inherent curiosity?
Not too far from our home was a small park where people would practice putting and various golf things. As kind, you could go and find golf balls that people had lots or abandoned. The big event was to take them home and if you rubbed them long enough on the sidewalk, you can actually rub off the white coating. I don’t know how many people have seen the inside of a golf ball, but I have. It’s actually—at least at that time—it was an enormously long rubber band that was wrapped around an air filled rubber ball. So if you take a golf ball apart that’s what it looks like. I was an experimentalist from a young age.
What was your first real big break?
The first project that I was assigned to was an incredibly important project. That was the development of the battery for the implantable cardiac defibrillator. We knew there was a potential market opportunity and that’s why we were pursing it, because we could identify a market need for battery. There was a device that existed—it had a battery but the battery only lasted year and a half or so. Our deliberate goal was to develop a battery that could last three and a half to five years, which compared to what was available at the time, would be a really big breakthrough. I think that was really a fortunate thing that my first project ended up being a very important project. I think the success of a project depends on the person, but the impact of the project sometimes depends on the project itself. In this case, it was a combination on both ends.
What was Wilson Greatbatch like?
He was absolutely a serial entrepreneur. He was an inventor; he was a dreamer, and for him—once the company was working—running the company was just not him. He was always thinking and always creating some new goal—a remarkable man, a really remarkable man. But at the same time, he was incredibly down to earth. I knew him fairly well because he would come to the company and he loved talking science. I remember one time he was walking down the hall and he was looking for me. He says, “Esther, I need pH meter.” I said, “Okay Mr. Greatbatch, I’ll see if we can find a pH meter for you.” Then he said, “Well, maybe pH paper would be good enough.” Then he starts explaining his dilemma: “Well, I’ve been using chicken manure to fertilize my garden and now my shovels are starting to rust, so I need to know the PH of this dirt because I can’t have rusted tools.” On one side, he’s trying to develop an MRI compatible pacemaker, and he’s worried about his pitchfork rusting. He’s just a remarkable man.
Did you have any idea that you’d receive the National Medal of Technology and Innovation?
I knew that I was a candidate because I had actually been contacted by the FBI and they basically told me that I had to give them permission for a background check. So I knew that I was a candidate, but I didn’t know that I was going to be a recipient. I had been traveling and I was driving back from the airport to my office at the university and I had stopped at a red light and my cell phone rang and because I was stopped at a light, I picked up my cell phone. The person on the phone said, “This is the White House calling, can you talk?” So I look up and the light changes and I look behind me and there’s a police care immediately behind me. So I said, “No, I can’t talk. Call me in 15 minutes in my office,” and I hung up. So I can tell you that I hung up on the White House.