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Because Hamiltonians Track COVID-19: John Werner ’92


John Werner ’92 makes a practice of translating his varied interests (augmented reality, photography, TEDx, to name a few) into action to get things done. At the moment, that puts him in the thick of an effort to monitor COVID-19 without jeopardizing personal privacy.

Werner is a founding and current board member of the PathCheck Foundation, a nonprofit launched in 2020 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His day job is as a managing director and partner at Link Ventures, a venture capital firm, and he runs a technology incubator, Cogo Labs.

PathCheck, made up of volunteer scientists and other experts, helps employers, states, and nations monitor the coronavirus using apps and platforms that trace contacts and notify users of potential exposure — while protecting their privacy. Users keep their data on their personal smartphones unless they decide to share it.

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The foundation is a spin-off of MIT Safe Paths, which develops free, open-source tools to track COVID-19 with a “privacy first” approach. Safe Paths creator Ramesh Raskar is an associate professor at MIT, where he directs the Camera Culture research group. Werner formerly headed innovation and new ventures at Camera Culture, one of the many places his interests have taken him over the course of his career.

When Raskar initially pondered the idea that would become Safe Paths, he says Werner was the first person he called. Having seen Werner in a range of roles, Raskar was impressed by his skill in bringing people together and building trust between them. That’s what Werner loves to do. He’s built a career on it. 

A sampling of things he’s founded or co-founded includes: ARIA, a community of futurists, practitioners, and people in adjacent fields that focuses on the potential of augmented reality; Imagination in Action, which runs an event at Davos at the opening of the World Economic Forum; TEDx BeaconStreet; TEDxMIT; and Citizen Schools, a nonprofit that works with middle schools across the country.

Werner felt confident he had the contacts and skill to help Raskar, so he dove in. “During this epidemic, I guess I was thinking that years from now I don't want to look back at this period and say I was on the sideline, and I didn't do what I could,” he explains.

Raskar says Werner convinced organizers to spin off a nonprofit from MIT Safe Paths so their work could have real-world impact. Werner introduced them to their first funders for the nonprofit, to their first chief technology officer, corporate partners, and others who would be instrumental for PathCheck, which so far has raised $2.5 million and is working with states and nations to develop their COVID-19 software. 

Werner takes pride in having a hand in the venture, which he thinks has a shot at growing in scale and having significant impact.

“I think we're in an interesting place where there's a triopoly of companies — Amazon, Google, Facebook — that have a tremendous amount of power in the world, and as we think of dealing with this pandemic, I think, ‘Do we want to really cede all this power to these for-profit companies?’” Werner asks. “And how do we avoid becoming a surveillance state as some countries have? And so there's a unique opportunity to figure something out here.”

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