MIT 100K and Energy Prize—Impressions From the Finalist Party

5/11/09Follow @bbuderi

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on top of warehouses, tracks the sun, and enables the gathering of solar energy far more efficiently than traditional solar systems. According to the competition material, Sun Point’s system is aimed primarily at small- and medium-sized solar installations, as a cost-effective alternative to motor-based systems, which are often maintenance intensive. Impression: Like the industrial application—non-sexy, but potentially big impact.

MeterLive (100K mobile track winner): Billboard analytics company. Counts cell phones around public billboards to better gauge how many people actually are likely to see the signs. Promises to bring far more accurate pricing for billboard ads, especially those on digital billboards—a fast growing advertising medium. Impression: Seems like a step in the right direction, just not sure how much better it will be than current tracking, or how big the market is.

Levant Power (Energy prize finalist, transportation category winner): This company has targeted what it sees as a, um, shockingly untapped power source: vehicle suspension systems. Its GenShock product is a replacement for standard shock absorbers that enables the recovery of energy generated when a vehicle bounces around. It converts that energy, which is typically dissipated as heat, into “electricity that can be used directly on the drive train (in hybrids and electrics) or it can displace alternator load (on conventional vehicles),” COO Zack Anderson said in an e-mail. The company, which says its system can enable fuel savings of from 2 percent to 10 percent depending on vehicle type and terrain, is concentrating on the military and commercial markets first, where vehicles can log upwards of 100,000 miles annually. Anderson says this could save Wal-Mart $15 million a year in fuel costs, and that the company is working with AM General to test GenShock on a Humvee. Impression: Brilliant idea, but lots of hidden complications in defense, auto markets.

Cambridge Eyenovations (100K life sciences track winner): Some three million people in the U.S. with glaucoma have to put in eye drops eight times a day to prevent blindness, according to the pitch. Despite the stakes, many abandon the regimen. This idea is for drug-eluting contact lenses that can dispense the medicine automatically so that people don’t need to put in eyedrops at all, and can go a month without changing contact lenses. Impression: big idea, potential far beyond eye drops. But what’s with the puns in names? Cheapens the overall product.

Global Cycle Solutions (100K Development track winner): Tapping the power of bicycles in emerging nations. The idea is to sell peripherals such as water pumps, cell phone chargers, and corn shellers that attach to bikes, allowing them to be powered by pedaling. A corn sheller introduced in farms and villages of Tanzania last summer dramatically reduced manual labor and allowed villagers to shell corn some 40 times faster than manually. Impression: I have no idea how hard the peripherals are to market, deliver, or maintain, but ah shucks, this is a good idea.

Process Water Absorbers (Energy prize finalist, clean hydrocarbons category winner): Clearly farther along than the other teams, in the sense that PWA has 14 patents filed, and two issued, and has a test underway with a Big Five oil producer, according to CEO Stephen Spoonamore, who is also CEO of Ohio-based Absorbent Materials Company, the company from which PWA licenses its filter material. The idea is for a system that cleans up the “produced water” removed in oil drilling, by extracting organics such as toluene, benzene, and xylene, as well as organic acids. The company says filtering such produced water from oil drilling is a $5 billion annual market (produced water is also generated in natural gas and coal bed methane extraction, which are also target markets—and Spoonamore told me the worldwide market for filtering is some $50 billion). Spoonamore says he thinks PWA’s filtration system (as big as a house) can save oil producers 75 cents per barrel by extracting things like toluene that can be resold, and save another 30 cents per barrel on avoiding fines for pollution. First market is oil from near-shore platforms. Impression: Biggest potential market of them all. Must be lots of competition. But I would have liked to hear the pitch from a student. I thought that was the point.

All these companies face a long road to make their dreams reality—and many are in fields rife with competitors. Still, as I mentioned, as a group they are even more impressive than what I’ve seen in the past. And while it’s also impressive that several are in prototype trials already with major potential customers, just for the record, my own favorite is Ksplice. I hate restarting my computer.

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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