MIT’s $100K Business Plan Prize, $200K Energy Prize Up for Grabs on Wednesday; A Look at the Finalists

5/10/10Follow @wroush

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watches a human performing administrative tasks on one machine, then carries out the same tasks across many machines automatically. KarDo thinks its technology can reduce desktop and laptop support costs by 20 percent, or as much as $20 billion a year in the United States. I didn’t get to talk with Rahul, but he told me later by e-mail that KarDo has used prototype software to “successfully automate hundreds of combinations of real tasks performed by the IT staff at MIT on end user desktops and laptops,” and that the company intends to raise capital for a commercial launch late this year.

Lark Technologies—finalist, Mobile Track. Julia Hu, Lark‘s co-founder, was late to the reception because she’d been doing a presentation in New York and had her bus trip home delayed by Friday’s bomb scare in Times Square. She says Lark is developing a Bluetooth-powered wristband that can improve sleep patterns for couples. The wristband contains a few simple sensors and connects to a smartphone that monitors the wearer’s sleep patterns. When the wearer has had enough sleep to be refreshed—or when their preset wake-up time rolls around—the bracelet prods them awake using a silent vibration (sparing their sleep partner from the noise of a traditional bedside alarm). Hu plans to get the bracelet into production by the end of this year; it will work first with Android phones. The company has also developed an iPhone-compatible version, but Hu told me the startup was forced to turn to the Android operating system after months of delays getting Apple to certify its hardware and software.

SolSource 3-in-1—finalist, Development Track. The problem this company wants to solve, says Scot Frank, president and CEO of OneEarthDesigns, is the indoor air pollution caused by smoky stoves and cooking fires, which kills 1.6 million people in developing countries every year. The company has developed a portable, lightweight solar concentrator, the SolSource 3-in-1, that can capture heat or generate electricity. Frank told me the concentrator looks like a big upside-down umbrella, with a mount at the focus point for various attachments such as a thermal electric generator or a capsule containing heat-storing phase change materials that can be used to cook food. OneEarthDesigns has been testing the device for four years in Himalayan villages, and Frank says the company needs $150,000 to launch a pilot project in western China.

And on to the two MIT teams competing for the MIT Clean Energy Prize. (The other three Clean Energy Prize finalist teams—from Georgia Tech, Stanford, and University of Maryland—weren’t represented at the cocktail reception because they aren’t eligible to win the $100K competition):

C-Crete Technologies. Founder Rouzbeh Shahsavari, a PhD candidate in MIT’s department of civil engineering, says that more than 10 percent of the carbon dioxide humans pour into the atmosphere every year comes from the production of concrete, the world’s most common building material. He says C-Crete, which won the Elevator Pitch portion of the $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, has developed a new nanoengineered formula for concrete that not only reduces carbon dioxide emissions by half, but is twice as strong as traditional concrete.

Shanantu Agarwal of OsCompOsComp Systems. Co-founder Shanantu Agarwal, a second-year MBA student at Harvard Business School, says the company has developed a new type of rotary compressor for “marginal” natural gas wells, meaning those where the gas comes out of the ground at such low pressure that producers must compress it for delivery into gas pipelines. Traditional piston compressors, which themselves run on natural gas, are so inefficient that many existing marginal wells are uneconomical, Agarwal says. Replacing all of the nation’s piston compressors with OsComp’s equipment, which was developed by four MIT engineers, could bring enough low-price natural gas onto the market to allow utilities to shutter many coal-fired generating plants in favor of far cleaner gas-powered facilities.

Over drinks, I had a spirited debate with Agarwal and his co-founders about whether any system intended to make fossil fuels more affordable can be properly described as a “clean energy” technology. He reasonably insisted that solar, wind, nuclear, and other alternative energy technologies are decades away from widespread implementation, and that natural gas is needed as a bridge technology that releases less carbon dioxide and particulates into the atmosphere than coal.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Robbie Barbero

    This is a great summary of the top venture ideas to come out of MIT this year. One thing to note – the two MIT teams competing in the MIT Clean Energy Prize are competing against three other teams from outside of MIT (Georgia Tech, Stanford, and University of Maryland) for the $200,000 grand prize.

  • Wade Roush

    Thanks for the clarification, Robbie. I’ve updated the story to make it clear that there are five teams competing for the Clean Energy Prize—and that only if the $200K winner is one of the two MIT teams will that team be eligible to go on to win the $100K prize.