Xconomy Summit Hits Boston: Lessons on Innovation, Plans for Recovery from Dean Kamen, Juan Enriquez, and a Host of Other Leaders

6/25/09

Boston-area entrepreneurs unveiled their inventions for optimizing decision-making, delivering drugs to the bladder, and providing a “check-engine light” for the human body. Investors shrugged off the bitter economy and talked about their future plans to create new tech companies. Inventor and educator Dean Kamen delivered an inspirational speech on ways to train the coming generation of inventors and entrepreneurs. Indeed, there were plenty of signs that the innovation economy is on the mend yesterday at XSITE, The Xconomy Summit on Innovation, Technology, & Entrepreneurship.

Hundreds of innovators came from all over New England for the all-day summit at Boston University’s School of Management. The tagline of the event was “The Recovery Starts Here,” which rang true throughout the day as startup leaders, entrepreneurs, and investors shared their ambitious plans and terrific accomplishments in the fields of energy, education, life sciences, and technology.

Before we highlight some of the themes of the day, let’s cover the several breaking news announcements made:

Tech entrepreneur and investor Vinit Nijhawan announced the launch of the Boston University Kindle Mentorship Program, which aims to unite mentors from the innovation community with aspiring entrepreneurs to drive the creation of startups and retain young talent in the Boston area. [The name has nothing to do with the Amazon Kindle reading device, by the way---it's all about kindling mentorship, according to BU.] The program is already supporting three startups, including Novophage, a new developer of anti-infective treatments to combat antibiotic resistance, which has mentors such as MIT inventor Bob Langer and his BU counterpart Jim Collins. “I believe that startups will solve any human problem we have,” said Nijhawan, who joined the BU faculty last year as an executive-in-residence.

Two stealthy startups made their public debuts at XSITE. First, we heard from technology veteran Christian Heidelberger, who is chairman of Brown University spinoff Dynadec. Founded by Brown computer scientist Pascal Van Hentenryck, Dynadec has developed optimization software to enable dynamic decision-making. “I’ve got a lot of experience in bringing operations from zero stage to revenue, and this is the most exciting venture I’ve ever been involved in,” said Heidelberger. (Here is Wade’s recent story about how Providence, RI-based Dynadec wants to help companies make better decisions faster.)

Ever heard of Taris Biomedical? Christine Bunt, co-founder and chief operating officer of Lexington, MA-based Taris (formerly Certus Biomedical) gave her first public presentation of the stealthy developer of a drug-device product for the bladder. Bunt announced that venture-backed Taris—which Xconomy first described in detail a few weeks ago—plans to begin clinical trials this year of its device for delivering lidocaine into the bladders of patients with interstitial cystitis, or painful bladder syndrome.

We heard from many of the top startups and leaders in the New England innovation economy, including a scene-setting talk by well-known speaker and Biotechonomy CEO Juan Enriquez on why the economy is still in danger—and how Boston can supply the brains to save it—as well as an inspiring keynote speech by famous inventor Dean Kamen that brought the packed amphitheater at BU to their feet for a standing ovation. Here are some of the main themes and highlights from the summit:

Inventor Dean Kamen speaking at Xconomy's XSITE innovation summit—Invest in smart kids. Kamen talked passionately, at times appeared a bit choked up, about FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), what has grown into an 11-country robotics competition for high school and grade school students to get them exciting about science and technology. “The only shot we have [at paying for the government's current layouts for economic recovery] is creating wealth, and the only shot we have at creating wealth is having lots of innovators,” said Kamen, whose Manchester, NH-based operation DEKA Research has developed such innovations as a robotic prosthetic arm, the Segway two-wheeled transporter, and a waste-methane-powered system to produce clean drinking water in the developing world. Later Joel Cutler, managing director of General Catalyst Partners, told the audience that the poor economy, and the dearth of high-paying jobs with established companies, has yielded the benefit of inspiring more young people to pursue careers with startups. Cutler’s firm has even brought on a co-founder of Facebook, Chris Hughes, who is helping the firm connect with young innovators, he said.

—Corporate dollars may fill part of the venture investment void. We heard from executives at major companies such IBM, EMC, and GSK about their interests in investing in innovation. This comes as the venture capital industry struggles to raise money for new funds to back early-stage startups. “Corporate investors are filling the gap left by venture folks, who have not returned capital well over the past 10 years,” said Christoph Westphal, who is CEO of Cambridge, MA, biotech Sirtris, a subsidiary of London-based drug giant GlaxoSmithKline. (Westphal spoke as a former VC at Polaris Venture Partners.) Also, IBM executive Mohamad Ali said that he would like to work more with innovators outside of the walls of Big Blue. “I would like to do more with Massachusetts universities,” Ali said. “It’s an open invitation.” John Maraganore, CEO of Cambridge biotech Alnylam Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:ALNY), added that if the venture model is no longer able to serve the needs of some innovators, “then entrepreneurs will find a new way do things.”

—New ventures are still spawning all over the place. These aren’t the salad days for venture-backed startups, but Bob Higgins, founder and partner at Highland Capital Partners and other VCs said that their firms continue to seed new startups. In fact, Higgins said that his firm has seeded 60 startups over the past four years, even though only 15 of them have closed Series A rounds of venture financing. Entrepreneur and venture capitalist Eric Paley, who recently co-founded venture firm Founders Collective, noted that he has seed-funded more than 20 startups over the past few years.

—The promise of New England startups was on full display during the XSITE Xpo, where 12 of some of the most promising young firms in the fields of energy, life sciences, technology competed for votes from audience members on which of the firms had the most potential to transform their respective industries. The winners in each of the three categories were: Cambridge-based Satori Pharmaceuticals, which is aiming to cure Alzheimer’s disease with small-molecule drugs; WiTricity, an MIT spin-off that is developing wireless electricity by transferring energy magnetically; Skyhook Wireless, a provider of location-based applications enabled by its Wi-Fi Positioning System.

—Entrepreneurs can lead the ways during times of “extreme uncertainty,” said Noubar Afeyan, managing partner and CEO of Flagship Ventures. Afeyan suggested that startup entrepreneurs are perhaps best equipped to deal with economic uncertainty, suggesting that such a person would be an appropriate leader for some of America’s troubled industry giants such as GM. That assertion brought loud applauds. “The rest of the economy is now dealing with the uncertainty that we all deal with in the best of times,” he said.

Xconomy staffers and audience members posted extensive updates from XSITE on Twitter—for the full stream of comments search for the tag #xsite09 or click here.

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