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Pivoting from Film to Tech

An Unexpected Career Turn à la Hampshire

When he set out to study science and film, alum Aaron Edell 01F had no idea that he was laying the groundwork for a career.

At Hampshire, Edell was torn between a career in medicine and one as a filmmaker. “Hampshire is famous for its filmmaking program, but it also has a fantastic science program,” he says. “You can do graduate-level work as a Div I.”

In his Div III, he had a foot in each discipline when he made a film about a medical subject with the same name, Plastination. Plastination is a technique that infuses bodies with plastic to ensure to ensure they retain many of their original properties and don’t decay. (This technique was the basis of the popular Bodies exhibition, which put plasticized human bodies on display.)

“When you do a Div III project at Hampshire, you’re essentially your own CEO,” Edell says. “You have to learn how to get stakeholders on board with your project, how to get feedback and implement changes, how to find the right people to guide you. You learn how to get things done, how to start and finish a project.”

After graduating, Edell moved to New York City and worked on a film set for a Disney movie, which led to a job producing a show about theater and Broadway for PBS. “I knew how to edit and deliver content and how to work as a team from my time at Hampshire,” he says.

This confidence led to a great leap of faith — a film project in Africa.

“My wife was in medical school and we traveled to Africa and shot a film about African river blindness, which is a terrible disease that can cripple you,” Edell says. “Merck [the pharmaceutical company] was making a drug to treat it and was releasing it for free, but the people in small villages weren’t getting it.”

Edell paid for travel and production with a credit card and shot the film. His wife continued with medical school and is now a “superstar cornea specialist,” he says.

When you do a Div III project at Hampshire, you’re essentially your own CEO.

In 2008, after returning to New York, his entrée to technology came with a job as a delivery and support engineer at SAMMA Systems, which preserved videotape by migrating the content onto digital files in an era when videotape cassettes were no longer in use and were dissolving from age. His clients, among them the Library of Congress and the United Nations, wanted the content saved.

“We were trying to preserve history,” Edell says. “The video we saved included footage of the original moon landing and interviews with Richard Nixon.”

SAMMA was acquired by Front Porch Digital, which was, in turn, acquired by the tech behemoth Oracle, and Edell went from working at a company with a score of employees to one with 250,000. He stayed for almost seven years.

“The Hampshire student in me was fighting working for Oracle,” Edell says. “There was no creativity, nothing was interdisciplinary, and I was pigeonholed in a role.”

Edell had kept in touch with his film buddies from Hampshire, and he saw that they were doing the kind of creative work he yearned for. He found an outlet in producing some web series. When his wife got a fellowship in Boston, the couple moved there.

“I taught myself how to code with a twelve-week course,” he says. “I had no idea I could do that, but I was a lifelong learner, and I could learn new things — and hard things” — such as machine learning. 

“At Hampshire, I’d taken a great neural networks class, and suddenly it was very relevant to developing machine learning tools.”

In the summer of 2015, Edell and his wife returned to his native California and settled in the Bay Area — tech central. He was a vice president of product management at an AI company, GrayMeta, and then launched Machine Box, which developed tools and models to create customized artificial-intelligence technologies, such as face and object recognition and text analysis.

“It was my Div IV,” Edell says. “We had total creative freedom to solve problems the way they should be solved.”

Just nine months later, he sold Machine Box in a multimillion-dollar deal. Now, with two children (ages three and five), he’s figuring out his next move.

“Doing a start-up is crazy,” he says. “If you don’t overthink it, you can succeed — you don’t have to have an MBA or a five-year plan. Once you’ve got the ball rolling, you deal with the problems as they come up. In true Hampshire fashion,” he adds.

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