June 2009 is a month of firsts for Xconomy. It’s the first anniversary of our Seattle site. It’s the first time we’ve organized a full-day innovation conference, the Xconomy Summit on Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship, coming up on June 24. And, as part of XSITE, it’s the first time we’ve assembled local startups for a series of lightning-speed presentations with audience interaction.
We’re calling it the Xconomy Xpo, and if you’ve bought one of the increasingly scarce tickets for XSITE 2009 at Boston University, you’ll get to take part in it at BU’s School of Management auditorium next Wednesday. The Xpo will feature a dozen Massachusetts companies, each invited specifically because they show great promise to transform their industries, whether it’s through new energy-generating technologies, new ways of diagnosing or treating disease, or new methods of connecting people with information and computing resources. After each group of presentations, we’ll turn to audience members for a live electronic vote on which companies they think will be most transformative.
We selected four pioneering companies from each of New England’s three dominant innovation sectors (energy, life sciences, information technology), and on the pages that follow, we want to set the stage for the Xpo by telling you a bit about each of them. Click the names below to jump straight to each company’s writeup. And if you haven’t signed up for XSITE, register now.
The specifics around CloudSwitch are deliberately hazy. The cloud-computing company, according to its website, is currently in stealth mode, and is looking to develop “an enterprise software product that delivers the power of cloud computing seamlessly and securely.” It snared $7.4 million in a Series A funding round co-led by Atlas Venture and Matrix Partners this past January. CloudSwitch was founded by CEO Ellen Rubin, previously VP of marketing for Malborough, MA-based Netezza, and John Considine, formerly of Pirus Networks.
While most wind turbines resemble long-bladed windmills, the FloDesign model looks more like a jet engine on a stick—which makes sense for a wind power company spun out of an aeronautics manufacturer. FloDesign claims its unique design will outperform standard wind turbines “by a factor of three or more,” and will work in a variety of wind patterns, performing well even in low wind conditions.
The company won a host of accolades in 2008, including the MIT Clean Energy Prize ($200,000) and the Ignite Clean Energy Prize ($100,000), and even caught the attention of Al Gore, who was rumored to be interested in investing (Indeed, Gore’s company, KPCB, did invest). CEO Stan Kowalski (who, to the best of our knowledge, has never appeared in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire) is enthusiastic about applying aerospace technology principles to a variety of areas; FloDesign has ongoing projects in defense and biomedical sectors as well as cleantech.
IST Energy develops small-scale gasification plants that can fit on a truck. A division of InfoSciTex, IST was founded in 2000, based on a request from the army for a way of cutting down on the trash it must haul, especially overseas. IST has worked since then on a way to scale down industrial gasification plants to fit into a standard cargo container that could then fit onto trucks and make mobile gasification plants.
This year IST launched its Green Energy Machine, which turns organic waste such as paper and food into a synthetic gasoline that can then be used as fuel for a generator or furnace. Although the army is expected to be a major customer of the GEM, IST also expects to sell it to institutions and industries looking for a way to get some energy back from the large amount of trash they generate.
This Lexington-based health company emerged from stealth mode last September, and was greeted with an influx of unexpected interest during the recent swine-flu scare. Pulmatrix’s aerosol flu treatment, unlike the “one drug, one bug” vaccines that dominant today, is designed to work against multiple viruses. The compounds in Pulmatrix’s spray are intended to stimulate immune defenses, change the mucous lining of the lungs to make it inhospitable to pathogens, and reduce the likelihood of transmission by changing the properties of the airways so an inhaled pathogen doesn’t form the little droplets that can be sneezed out.
The company is keeping a pretty tight lid on the specifics, but it has announced that the drug was well-tolerated in humans, with no adverse effects, based on Phase I clinical trials. Pulmatrix also says animal tests have shown its treatment to be effective against a number of flu viruses, including swine flu. A tougher human study, with 25 patients, is commencing in July, with results expected in October.
Satori Pharmaceuticals was founded in 2005 to develop therapies for degenerative neurological disease. Early this year, the company raised $22 million to develop a pill to limit the spread of the neurotoxins that contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. If treated early enough, patients with Alzheimer’s might be able to avoid much of the debilitating mental effects that are the disease’s hallmark.
Satori, which means “understanding” in Japanese, was established by Dr. Mark Findeis with PureTech Ventures. In addition to its own product development, Satori is working with academic researchers to create early-warning blood tests for Alzheimer’s, so that patients could get on the Satori drug as quickly as possible. There are currently more than 5 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease.
Seventh Sense Biosystems is applying advances in chemistry and material science to develop simple health monitors for complex medical conditions. The startup has remained quiet about the specific conditions it aims to monitor, but co-founder and CEO Doug Levinson tells us to envision a monitor no more intrusive than an imprint on the skin that could alter its appearance depending on the status of a patient’s health. The goal is to develop health monitors that enable people to live without the typical intrusions that existing diagnostic tests cause.
To turns its vision into reality, the company is working with bioactive pigments that are designed to change their color or other aspects of their appearance when they come into contact with specific molecular indicators in blood or other bodily fluids. The pigments are polymer particles that could consist of two hemispheres, each loaded with different colors. Surface ligands are bound to a portion of the particles, which are designed to reveal a certain color if the ligands attach to specific drug molecules or other health indicators. This technology was developed by top professors at MIT, the University of Michigan, and the University of California-Santa Barbara.
Born from a serendipitous discovery in the femtosecond laser research laboratory of Harvard physicist Eric Mazur, SiOnyx’s technology promises to give semiconductor manufacturers a way to make far more sensitive and efficient chips for medical imaging devices and photovoltaic cells.
Silicon is already the main semiconductor used in imaging devices and solar cells, because it gives up electrons when it’s struck by photons of light. But a team in Mazur’s lab led by James Carey, who’s now SiOnyx’s principal scientist, found that blasting ordinary silicon with an extremely brief but powerful pulse of laser light in the presence of dopants like sulfur hexafluoride gas produced “black silicon,” a roughened form of the material that turned out to be a much better absorber of photons, even at infrared wavelengths that normally pass right through silicon. And not only is the material sensitive to wavelengths that silicon-based devices simply couldn’t detect in the past, it also produces more electric current in response to the same light input.
SiOnyx emerged from stealth mode last fall. If the venture-funded startup can translate the findings into technology that semiconductor manufacturers can incorporate into existing fabrication facilities, it could lead to low-cost methods for producing far more sensitive MRI and X-ray machines—meaning doctors could detect tumors and other abnormalities while exposing patients to less radiation. And down the road, black silicon solar cells could make electricity from the sun’s abundant infrared rays, a portion of the spectrum that’s untapped by today’s photovoltaic technology.
To supply the signals that orient GPS devices, the U.S. Department of Defense launched a multi-billion-dollar network of Global Positioning System satellites. But Skyhook Wireless’s insight was that today’s cities are saturated with another kind of wireless signal that can be tapped at no cost: those continually broadcast by the Wi-Fi routers in practically every home and workplace. By fanning out across the world’s cities with antenna-equipped trucks, Skyhook has built a proprietary database of the locations of the networks, information that allows any Wi-Fi-enabled device running Skyhook’s software to triangulate its position to within about 30 meters.
The six-year-old company’s big break came in January 2008, when Apple announced that Skyhook’s software, together with another technique called cell-tower triangulation, would power the new location-finding feature in the iPhone. Since then, Skyhook’s location-finding software has been baked into dozens of platforms, including camera-phone software such as Locr, camera memory cards such as the Eye-Fi, laptop-based software like AOL’s Taggit, Mozilla’s Geode, and Skyhook’s own Loki system, and even laptop recovery systems such as GadgetTrak’s MacTrak.
Stylefeeder runs a personalized online shopping recommendation service that suggests items users might like based on items they’ve already browsed or items preferred by users with similar profiles. The company also runs a shopping application on Facebook used by over half a million members of the popular social networking site; Facebook members can share the items they browse and buy with their friends.
The company is profitable, and scored a big win recently by arranging with publishing giant Hachette Filipacchi Media to provide a personalized shopping service for the websites of Elle magazine and the company’s other fashion, automotive, design, health, and hobbyist publications. Part of the company’s success lies in its executives’ decisions to outsource its IT infrastructure to the Amazon cloud, keeping its staff small, and focusing on “affordable luxuries” that still attract consumers in the midst of the economic downturn.
Can solar energy be cheaper than coal? 1366 Technologies, a maker of silicon photovoltaic cells, thinks it can—as early as 2013. The company spun out of MIT in 2008 under the leadership of cofounder and CTO Ely Sachs, a professor of mechanical engineering (who has his finger in a number of green-energy pies; he also founded Evergreen Solar). Rather than trying radical new methods of producing solar cells, 1366 is focusing on increasing the efficiency of existing cell designs and assembly techniques.
Earlier this year, 1366 received an award from the Department of Energy worth up to $3 million as part of the Solar America Initiative. The company’s name refers to the solar constant— the 1366 watts per square meter, on average, that reaches Earth in one hour, which, if fully captured, would be enough to satisfy the energy demands of the entire human species for one year.
MIT spinoff WiTricity is developing technologies to deliver electricity to machines wirelessly using magnetic coupling. The technique turns electric current into a magnetic field that resonates with coils in a receptor and converts the energy back into electricity. The invention helped to win its creator, MIT assistant professor of physics Marin Soljačić, a MacArthur genius award.
Currently WiTricity is focusing on power supplies for the home appliances market—devices like cell phones, laptop computers, and televisions. But it’s also preparing for the coming boom in electric vehicles by developing coils large enough to transmit power to a car battery while the vehicle is parked. Depending on the market, these chargers could be built into the floor of a garage or be wall-mounted.
Zafgen’s anti-obesity drugs work according to the same strategy as many tumor-shrinking medications: cut off the blood flow, in this case to adipose tissue, where fat deposits form. It’s a novel approach; most pharmaceutical solutions for obesity focus on appetite control or fat absorption. CEO Tom Hughes, who joined Zafgen after a 20-year stint at Novartis, knows his idea isn’t mainstream, but points to animal studies the company has conducted that showed rats and mice losing weight regardless amount of the amount of food consumed.
Zafgen is a streamlined operation. The company only has 4.5 employees, contracting most of the research to outside firms, sometimes working with labs across the pond, as in its recent partnership with UK-based Argenta Discovery. Hughes knows the company has much to prove, but has big plans for 2009: he’s hoping to get its blood flow-blocking obesity treatment into clinical trials later this year.
Ryan McBride, Roxanne Palmer, Wade Roush, and Eric Hal Schwartz contributed to this report.