IBM predicts the next big set of opportunities in technology will be in the “intersection of the physical and digital world,” says Deborah Magid, a director in the company’s Venture Capital Group.
“It used to be where IT was never a part of our lives,” she said at an event Thursday celebrating the use of IT in the physical world. The event came as part of IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative, which focuses on the “smart” technology that’s used to track and enhance the efficiency of a slew of activities, including home energy use, travel, traffic monitoring, purchasing medicine, parking, food processing, and much more.
Yesterday, Big Blue held the Boston-area installment of the SmartCamp program, in which startups in the smart tech area head to IBM for a day of intensive mentoring and product development. A group of judges pronounces a winner at the end of the day, after the companies have presented their concepts to an audience of media, investors, entrepreneurs, and other members of the tech community.
Yesterday’s top honor went to Sproxil, a Somerville, MA-based company that’s using smart technology to fight counterfeit production of medicine, which is about a $75 billion problem in developing nations, according CEO Ashifi Gogo. Companies that use Sproxil’s “mobile product authentication” service package their products with scratch-off labels that reveal an item-unique code. Customers then text that code to Sproxil, which confirms whether or not the item is the real thing.
Sproxil’s smart product wasn’t necessarily the most high tech of those presented, but its ability to solve a real problem and its ease-of-use in countries such as Nigeria (Sproxil’s main market), where scratch-off labels are familiar to consumers, is what I think attracted the judges. The company enrolled BIOFEM Pharmaceuticals, Merck KGaA’s sole distributor in Nigeria, in a pilot test of its service, and BIOFEM has already signed up to use the service officially, Gogo told me after the event.
The SmartCamp winner gets 12 weeks of mentoring from IBM, and also some additional coaching from TechStars, which partnered in the event. In November, IBM will round up the winners of each of its seven SmartCamps this year, for a faceoff in Dublin to pronounce which company is the globe’s “smartest.”
“It should help us grow beyond the 12-person startup phase that we’re in,” Gogo said of Sproxil’s win.
The other Boston SmartCamp participants covered the travel, medical devices, and mapping spaces. They included: GIS Cloud, a provider of Web-based geoinformatics, or more intelligent mapping, and Proxpro, which uses GPS technology to create “predictive calendars” that can do everything from telling a user of events that could interfere with upcoming travel to improving the way you can connect with friends while traveling to helping fleet managers keep better tabs on their employees. Fellow participant Skymeter is making a device for tracking consumers’ travel and parking, in order to better implement a pay-per-use model for those areas. There was also SendSor, a maker of a tiny implant for constant monitoring of symptoms in ailments such as a cardiac disease and glaucoma. Its device could allow for the continual flow of data in clinical trials, as opposed to the static information researchers collect from separate check-ups with patients.
The SmartCamp event came amidst a flurry of other startup and investing events, including the MITX Technology Awards (where Sproxil was also honored), the unveiling of the 2010 TechStars class, and Angel Boot Camp. SmartCamp drew a slightly more developed set of entrepreneurs than the other contests, due to the high capital requirements of many of the companies, said program mentor and Southboro Capital managing director Mike Grandinetti (who’s also a TechStars mentor). Sproxil, which was founded last year, has already pulled in about $300,000 in revenue and is aiming for $1.5 million by the end of 2010.
IBM also looks to many of the companies it discovers in these events as future business partners and even acquisition targets, IBM’s Magid told me on a phone call before the event. “These are companies we wouldn’t have known about,” she said. “It’s highlighting the very innovative things that people are doing.”
According to Grandinetti, that’s one of the best benefits for companies who make it to SmartCamp. “If you’re adding value to IBM and filling a gap, access to that distribution channel is the Holy Grail,” he said.
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