3 Startups to Watch From MIT’s Delta V Accelerator

Anyone who thinks they can look at a dozen startups and accurately pick out the one or two that will become successful businesses is kidding themselves. But it’s still fun to try.

On Friday, MIT lifted the curtain on 14 student-led teams that worked throughout the summer building technology startups aimed at solving problems in healthcare, education, energy, agriculture, transportation, and other areas.

The pitch event was the culmination of the latest session of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship’s educational accelerator program, which just changed its name from the MIT Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator to MIT Delta V. Hundreds of fellow students, entrepreneurs, investors, professors, and politicians—including Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker—packed the Kresge Auditorium on MIT’s campus to see what the accelerator’s latest group of participants have accomplished.

Two themes emerged. First, healthtech was the most common focus among the group, with five presenting teams building products in healthcare or fitness. (A sixth health-related venture, Emerald, was one of three teams that went through the Delta V program this summer but didn’t present on Friday.)

The other major theme was the developing world. Several of the teams are working on products aimed at serving people in countries such as Rwanda and Pakistan.

“This really is the greatest day of entrepreneurship at MIT,” Bill Aulet, the Trust Center’s managing director, said on stage before the presentations commenced. “We don’t know what’s going to come out [of the accelerator]. Every year it raises the bar of what MIT can do.”

The Delta V program offers each team up to $20,000 in equity-free grants, mentorship and business training, office and lab space, access to hardware prototyping equipment, and other services. It’s part of a slew of resources that entrepreneurs can tap into at MIT, which, like other colleges and universities around the country, has been investing in its entrepreneurship programs in recent years amid booming interest in startups.

Delta V has been getting results, according to Aulet. Of the 44 teams that have participated in the accelerator, 30 have gone on to become “real companies,” Aulet said. “That’s pretty good for startups,” he added. Those companies include Accion Systems, Grove, NVBots, and Spyce.

Delta V alumni companies have created hundreds of jobs and raised “tens of millions of dollars” from investors, Aulet said. Four of them have been acquired.

It’s way too early to say which of Friday’s presenting teams will build successful companies, if any. But that won’t stop us from speculating.

Below are three companies that stood out to me, in no particular order. There are no measurable criteria behind these picks, just a subjective combination of the companies’ progress made so far, potential impact, and “cool” factor.

1. Leuko: This company is developing a tabletop device that would allow cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy to monitor their white blood cell count at home, without drawing blood. Optical sensors see through the skin and into veins at the tip of a finger, counting white blood cells as they flow past a miniature lens.

The technology is based on more than two years of research at MIT, and it has been patented, Leuko team members said. The company has a long way to go—it still must run clinical trials and prove its technology consistently works as promised. But it’s getting some early interest from hospitals, Leuko officials said.

Hospitals are interested because Leuko’s device might improve care and lower costs. Chemotherapy weakens patients’ immune systems, raising the risk of potentially life-threatening infections. By keeping better tabs on white blood cell counts, the idea is that doctors can more closely monitor patients’ immune systems and, ideally, prescribe better care.

Ultimately, Leuko envisions the device’s use expanding to detect severe infections in people around the world.

2. Dot Learn: On his way to becoming class valedictorian at the University of Lagos in Nigeria, Tunde Alawode took online courses at the local public library. That helped him get into MIT, where he has earned two master’s degrees and is on his way toward a PhD.

“This is the power of online education,” said Alawode, Dot Learn’s chief operating officer.

Now, Alawode and his co-founders are trying to make massive open online courses—or MOOCs—more accessible to people around the world. Dot Learn aims to do it through video compression technology that can enable users to download five hours of course videos for less than the cost of a single text message, Dot Learn CEO Sam Bhattacharyya said. That could make a huge difference in countries like Ghana, where streaming an hour of video can cost more than a day’s salary for many people, according to the company.

Dot Learn is initially focusing on prep courses for the West African Senior School Certificate Examination, which is similar to the SAT, Bhattacharyya said. That’s a potential market of about 3 million students, he said. Dot Learn launched a pilot program about a month ago, and 500 students have enrolled in a video-based math course delivered via the startup’s technology.

3. Rendever: This company seems to have found a fresh take on overhyped virtual reality technology—creating virtual experiences for the elderly.

Rendever is developing software that runs on VR headsets like the Samsung Gear VR. The idea is people living in nursing homes and assisted living communities could use the technology to combat feelings of isolation and depression, while also potentially strengthening cognitive skills, co-founder and CEO Dennis Lally said.

The technology could enable users to take virtual tours of famous places on their bucket list or to remotely “attend” family events, for example. In one video clip showed during Rendever’s presentation, an elderly woman was overcome with emotion as she realized she was exploring her former house through the headset.

Rendever’s product is currently being tested in 11 assisted living communities, Lally said. The company’s early partners include Brookdale Senior Living Solutions, which operates more than 1,100 senior living communities nationwide.

Jeff Engel is a senior editor at Xconomy. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @JeffEngelXcon

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