At Metcalfe’s Party for MIT $100K Finalists, a Preview of Startups Presenting at Tonight’s Finale

5/11/11Follow @gthuang

It was high society meets tech entrepreneurship last night. The setting: Bob Metcalfe’s townhouse in the Back Bay. The occasion: an annual reception and dinner before the finale of the MIT $100K Business Plan Contest, which takes place tonight at Kresge Auditorium. The players: all the finalists and event organizers, plus a few venture capitalists from Polaris Venture Partners, and other guests.

This year’s gathering marked the end of an era. That’s because, as you probably know, Metcalfe the VC and inventor—that’s Professor Metcalfe now—has moved to Texas as a faculty member at UT Austin and will probably sell his Beacon Street home. Which raises the question of where this stellar event will take place in future years. But let’s not worry about that just yet.

Metcalfe, dressed fashionably in a jacket, tie, and sneakers, greeted each guest at the door, and posed for pictures with $100K finalists and organizers (including Kourosh Kaghazian) throughout the evening. As an aside, one finalist said to me, “How do you ‘invent’ the Ethernet? Do you just decide one day you’re going to do it?” (I had to admit it was a good question.)

Each of the six teams gave a quick pitch from the staircase above the first-floor landing. As usual, it was an impressive array of businesses spanning high-tech, social tech, life sciences, cleantech, and energy.

William Sanchez from CoolChip Technologies (which won the $200K MIT Clean Energy Prize earlier this week) talked about developing more efficient heat sinks to save energy in data centers. David Jia from Upkast described his company’s virtual file system for managing your data from Facebook, Flickr, Google Docs, work drives, laptop, and personal devices, all on a unified Web interface. Lindsay Stradley and David Auerbach told the story of Sanergy, which is building low-cost toilets and sanitation systems, starting in Kenya, to collect waste and convert it to fertilizer and electricity.

Auerbach had the sound bite of the night: “Join us as we turn shit into gold.”

Next up, Anand Dass talked about Green Logistics (winner of the MIT Elevator Pitch Contest last fall), which plans to make special air-shipping containers that are lighter than conventional containers and collapsible, so as to save a bundle on jet fuel. Matt Hirsch and Vikram Anreddy introduced Sensactive, which is designing a 3-D gesture interface for mobile devices. (Best application: pulling the slingshot out of the screen in Angry Birds.) And Heather Kline from Zinaura Pharmaceuticals talked about her company’s drug candidate for epilepsy and pain treatment, which she says targets new seizure pathways without causing toxicity, addiction, sedation, or cognitive impairment.

Whew, that’s a very wide-ranging set of ideas. But over drinks and dinner, I got to know some of the finalists a little better, so I could start to understand where their babies really come from.

Take William Sanchez. He is a born entrepreneur from the Bronx, who previously co-founded Vecarius (which does waste-heat recovery), as well as a Salsa dancing company (teaching and performance), all while working on his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at MIT. He was an MIT undergrad too, and had a hard time adjusting to Boston until he started dancing as a sophomore. “Salsa dancing kept me sane,” he says. Some key lessons from Salsa applied to his startup: “You have to set up right, and know who’s doing what. Also, it’s the passion that led to starting a venture.” People get lost in their 9 to 5 jobs, he says. “I want to bring that to CoolChip—not forgetting what my motivation was.”

Meanwhile, David Jia and Kelvin Sun from Upkast are the prototypical startup founders. An MIT Sloan business guy (Sun) and an MIT computer science undergrad (Jia), the two met a couple years ago through a mutual friend and already have a product out—but they worked hard on their business plan for the competition. (That’s sort of the reverse of many contest entrants, whose products don’t exist yet.) I see Upkast developing into a platform for unifying public, private, and personal clouds, but it will face lots of competition. Sun says the company is pursuing a “freemium” model—free for consumers, and looking to charge businesses. The MIT Media Lab is already using the system.

Speaking of the Media Lab, that’s where Matt Hirsch is doing his Ph.D. His venture, Sensactive, is probably the flashiest of the finalists, in a “Minority Report” sort of way (anyone remember that movie?). The idea is to use a very thin optical sensor behind a phone or tablet’s LCD screen to capture depth information, so you can manipulate medical images or other displays by moving your fingers in front of them. Hirsch sees this becoming a big opportunity, especially with 3-D displays coming out this year. “Multi-touch on a surface is inadequate right now,” he says. “You really need a 3-D interactive device.”

Lastly, Zinaura isn’t flashy, but it could end up having the greatest human impact of all of the entrants—if its epilepsy drug works well for patients. Heather Kline, a Harvard Business School student, told me the drug is already approved for use in China for treating Alzheimer’s disease, so it has been de-risked for toxicology and safety. She made a strong case that epilepsy, which affects some 60 million people worldwide, is a huge opportunity because one-third of patients don’t respond to current medications and another third suffer debilitating side effects. The results in animals are quite advanced and promising, Kline says, so the next step is to move into a Phase I clinical trial.

Now it’s nail-biting time for the finalists. At the end of the night, Metcalfe dispensed some crucial advice to a few of them: “The key thing is to have fun,” he said.

Indeed, that’s true today, and every other day. Good luck to all of those presenting at MIT tonight, and have fun. You’ve earned it.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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