[Corrected, 1:40 p.m. May 10, 2010] For teams of student entrepreneurs in Boston, early May means one thing: the culmination of the year-long MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, the country’s oldest and most prestigious business plan contest for young startups, and of its even more lucrative spinoff, the $200,000 MIT Clean Energy Prize. Last week, judges chose finalists in each of the five tracks of the $100K competition and narrowed down the clean energy contenders to just five remaining teams. The big winners will be announced at a public finale event at 7:00 p.m. this Wednesday, May 12, at MIT’s Kresge auditorium.
I got to speak with all but one of the final $100K teams (KarDo) and both of the MIT teams vying for the clean energy prize at a cocktail reception and dinner last Friday at the Beacon Street townhouse of Bob Metcalfe, a general partner at Polaris Venture Partners and one of the $100K judges. My big takeaway was that there are no duds among this year’s finalists. In every case I was impressed by the ingenuity and audacity of the teams’ business ideas and the poise and enthusiasm of their members. While the reception wasn’t technically part of the competition, there were judges, VCs, and journalists such as myself on hand—so the teams, mostly composed of graduate students and business school students, knew they were on stage, and breezed through the speeches and networking with professional aplomb.
Below is a quick rundown of the teams and their concepts. One of the five energy contestants will win the $200,000 clean energy prize after one more round of judging on May 11, and if that team is from MIT, it will be back on May 12 to compete with the five track winners for the final $100,000 prize. (No team has ever won both prizes.) The cash for the prizes comes from a group of sponsors including leading technology companies, investment firms, and service providers.
Aukera Therapeutics—finalist, Life Sciences Track. Team leader Meredith Unger, who will finish her MBA at Harvard Business School this year, said Aukera hopes to treat the devastating neurodegenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, using a form of angiogenin, a naturally occurring protein that stimulates nerve growth. Researchers at Harvard Medical School have shown that the protein is effective against an ALS-like condition in mice (although the big caveat there is that mouse models of human ALS aren’t especially accurate—the only existing drug for ALS, Sanofi Aventis’s riluzole, doesn’t work on mice at all). Aukera hopes to raise money to take the molecule into human clinical trials. She says the good news is that there’s lots of non-dilutive capital available for such a venture, since a number of foundations and government agencies are interested in finding ALS treatments. Aukera plans to stay small and virtual, outsourcing nearly all of its lab and clinical activities.
Insulin Chewing Gum—finalist, Product and Services Track. Every year, the complexity of existing methods for getting insulin into the body lead to complications or death for millions of people with Type 2 diabetes, according to Manijeh Goldberg, a Sloan Fellow at MIT and Harvard Medical School. Her company has a simple concept: put insulin molecules into chewing gum, attached to nano-particles that promote absorption through the tissues of the mouth and throat. Goldberg is getting help with the technology from Praveen Vemula, a postdoc in the laboratory of Robert Langer protege Jeffrey Karp in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Science and Technology. (I first met Vemula at a Kauffman Foundation reception in Kansas City last fall, where he was being honored as one of the first Entrepreneur Postdoctoral Fellows selected by the foundation.) Goldberg says the company’s platform could also be used to deliver energy supplements or painkillers.
KarDo—finalist, Web/IT Track. Co-founder Hariharan Shankar Rahul says big companies with lots of PCs waste billions of dollars in IT administrators’ time every year on repetitive tasks like configuring laptops to operate within virtual private networks. KarDo aims to solve this problem using compiler analysis and machine learning algorithms developed at MIT. The software 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.
OsComp 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.
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