Tackling Opioid Crisis, Biobot Wins Top Prize at MIT DesignX Event

Biobot Labs, a startup that aims to help governments address the opioid crisis by analyzing sewage samples to understand drug consumption trends, won first place Wednesday night at a demo event for the inaugural session of MIT’s DesignX startup accelerator.

DesignX was launched last year by MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning to nurture ventures working on innovations in architecture, urban planning, real estate, media, art, and design.

Since January, the eight startups selected for the program have received business instruction, connections with mentors and potential industry and civic partners, and $15,000 in equity-free funding.

On Wednesday, the eight teams presented their ventures to a room of more than 100 people. Attendees voted for their favorites, and the top three vote-getters were awarded an additional $5,000, $3,000, and $2,000, respectively. (More on the winners in a minute.)

One of the main takeaways was the variety of ideas on display. The companies’ technologies cover virtual reality, educational toys, sensors, data analytics, 3D modeling, innovative furniture, online marketplaces, robotics, analysis of biological samples, and more. The ventures are tackling problems in sectors like housing, education, and public health.

“The DesignX teams work on various issues, but their common mission of improving the built environment and society led to amazing interaction between the startups, and group discussions that successfully brought together academic discourse and venture building,” says Gilad Rosenzweig, the accelerator’s executive director, in an e-mail after the event. “The startups are all viable businesses, and the work of the students will become their work after they graduate.”

I was also struck by the diversity of the teams themselves, which include MIT students, faculty, researchers, and alumni. All eight companies have at least one woman co-founder, and half of them have two or more. By my count, half of them also have at least one person of color on the founding team. It’s worth noting, given the lack of diversity in the broader tech industry.

Without further ado, here are the three prize winners:

1st prize: Biobot Labs is taking an interesting approach to curbing the deadly abuse of opioid drugs in the U.S. The startup intends to receive permission from municipalities to install machines at various sewer access points, which would gather wastewater samples. Back in a lab, Biobot would run bio-assays to generate data about opioid consumption that might help uncover useful trends and insights. For example, the company says it could map out opioid use by neighborhood, helping governments identify the most at-risk communities and decide where to allocate resources. It might also be able to help evaluate how well intervention measures are working.

Part of Biobot’s pitch is that it says it can produce useful data in a timely manner—within a couple of weeks—so that governments can move from being reactive to proactive.

Biobot says it’s going to keep developing its product and services this summer, with the goal of launching pilot programs in three cities this fall. The company is led by Newsha Ghaeli (pictured above, right) and Mariana Matus (above, left). (Rosenzweig is the one in the middle of the photo.)

2nd prize: BitSence uses sensors and data analytics software to help customers understand how people use spaces, such as corporate offices. The company passively tracks things like foot-traffic patterns and noise levels, with the goal of helping improve people’s experiences and the efficiency of the space. BitSence’s customers include universities and corporate real estate managers.

The company is led by Nissia Sabri, Ammar El Seed, and Arianna Salazar Miranda.

3rd prize: Hosta is trying to make it easier to plan remodeling projects. It has developed software that can convert photos of a space into a 3D virtual model with accurate spatial dimensions. Hosta says it could make it easier for homeowners to share information with contractors, so they could quickly generate quotes without visiting the space and performing measurements.

Homeowners can also use the software to plan decorations before making purchases. For example, they could see a rendering of what the room would look like with a certain couch, and know whether the couch will fit through the door.

Hosta is led by Jose Pacheco and Rachelle Villalon.

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

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