Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Entra: The Stealthy New Start-Up from Yet-Ming Chiang and Michael Cima

I kept hearing that A123 Systems founder Yet-Ming Chiang was up to something new, so I've spent a few days putting together the pieces.

Turns out he has launched a new company, Entra Pharmaceuticals, to commercialize some drug delivery technology that he and fellow MIT prof Michael Cima cooked up a couple years ago. But they're not just creating an inexpensive, disposable new device that Cima refers to as a "patch pump" -- they're also working on a new drug, too. "The strategy is to make a product with the drug on board," Cima says. "Instead of a $5000 pump, this is a transformational technology that's less expensive, smaller, and less complex."

Unlike a passive nicotine patch, Chiang says their device does involve electronics. "A good way to describe it is 'smart' and 'active,'" he said during our game of Twenty Questions this afternoon. Neither founder wants to be specific about the disease they're addressing, though Cima says it won't be diabetes.

Both Chiang and Cima are board members and consultants to Entra, visiting the company one day a week for a technology update. They've hired Frank Bobe as chief executive, who was formerly chief business officer at Alseres Pharmaceuticals. (Alseres is a 17-year old company that has yet to get a drug approved, and was [updated] just de-listed from Nasdaq.) Heading up business development is Shobana Albrecht, previously at BG Medicine and Baxter. Rick Gyory is VP of product design and development; he earlier worked at Transform Pharmaceuticals and ALZA Corp.

Interestingly, Entra is now located at the BU Photonics Center near Kenmore Square -- the very same building where A123, Chiang's last company, was hatched. (Battery-maker A123 raised $69 million earlier this year, as it remains in a holding pattern waiting to go public.)

Here's the key patent MIT has licensed to Entra, which seems like a hybrid of a transdermal skin patch and a wearable infusion pump.

"Many new drugs have short half-lives," Cima explains. "They're metabolized quickly. So to get the right exposure, you have to hook yourself up to an IV for continuous administration, or if you do a bolus dose, you have to go really high, and a lot of the time the side effects you get are associated with that high concentration. With a device you can wear, you can achieve a long half life" without having to do either of those things, and without having to redesign the molecular structure of the drug itself. "That's the value that we bring, at a high level," Cima says.

This is the first life sciences start-up for Chiang. He told me that the science behind Entra was initially funded by a DARPA grant, and then by MIT's Deshpande Center. "The idea behind Deshpande is to help new technologies get through the 'valley of death,'" Chiang said, when they're not raw research any more, but they're also not yet a commercializable product. "That really worked in this case."

Up to now, the only real known info on Entra was a PEHub report last December noting that Flybridge Capital Partners and North Bridge Venture Partners had put $4.2 million into the company in an A round -- and will increase that amount to $12.5 million if the company hits certain milestones this year. The board member representing Flybridge is Michael Greeley; Jeffrey McCarthy represents North Bridge. This is the fourth Cima-related start-up that Greeley has been involved with.

(Another recent collaboration between Cima and Greeley is Certus Biomedical, which will soon change its name because of some trademark conflicts. Very little is known about that company, either, although its backers are Flybridge, Ed Kania at Flagship Ventures, and Kevin Bitterman at Polaris Venture Partners.)

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Monday, May 4, 2009

Clean Energy Council (Quietly) Announces New Class of Fellows

The New England Clean Energy Council has just named its new group of 25 fellows -- experienced execs and investors interested in repositioning themselves for careers in cleantech. (There has been no official press release, though.) The program starts Tuesday at MIT, and runs through July.

This new bunch includes Ahmet Ozalp, formerly an IT investor at Atlas Venture... Paul Sereiko, founder of SensiCast, a sensor networking start-up... Doug Levin, founding CEO of Black Duck Software... and Tan Rao, whose wireless home theater start-up, Radiospire Networks, was funded by Highland Capital but folded last month.

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Thursday, February 5, 2009

Hang with Adeo Ressi & Bitch About VCs, on March 10th is doing their first east coast event next month -- a cocktail party on March 10th at the MIT Media Lab.

What exactly will happen, once you've bought your $100 ticket? From the site:

    - Get to know fellow CEOs from various fields
    - Hear The Founding Member [that would be the no-longer-mysterious Adeo Ressi] discuss start-up strategies for 2009
    - Learn the current market perspective of an Award Winning VC
    - Explore cutting-edge MIT projects and technologies with the Professors
    - Socialize over food and drinks in a unique Boston-area venue

At least 25 people want to be there; early bird tix are sold out.

What kind of awards, I wonder, will this unnamed VC in Bullet Point #3 have won? Oscar? Grammy? People's Choice? Blue Ribbon from the Big E?

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Sunday, January 4, 2009

Free DVDs: MIT Robotics Conference

(Update: DVDs have been claimed. Thanks for playing!)

If there's an Innovation Economy reader out there who'd like a set of DVDs from last month's MIT Robotics Conference, drop me a note. (Postage is on me, as long as you're here in New England.)

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Video from the 2008 MIT Venture Capital Conference

The organizers of this month's MIT Venture Capital Conference, headlined 'Reinventing Venture Capital,' just posted the videos from the event.

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Success in the toy biz is no game

I've long been a fan of the kinetic sculptor Arthur Ganson, who serves as artist-in-residence at MIT.

But until last week, I knew very little about the toy company he helped found fifteen years ago, Hands On Toys.

Sunday's column focused on the story of Hands On, from 1993 to this holiday season. From the piece:

    Fifteen years later, with somewhat rueful chuckles, they describe the toy business as "a real roller coaster ride," in [CEO Andrew] Farrar's words. The Lawrence-based company is about the same size it was when it started, and still struggling to get its products into toy chests around the world. They have seen hot products ripped off by others; not-so-hot products dropped by big distributors; new ideas summarily rejected by big toy companies like Mattel; thousands of toy retailers go out of business; and the incredible rise of video games and electronic toys. Also, one of their products killed a dog.

    Success in the toy biz, says [COO Rustam] Booz, "is not an easy equation. It's very tough."

    One of their advisers and board members, strategy consultant David Wright, says he occasionally asks the founders, "Guys, do you still want to be doing this? But they are two of the stubbornest people I know - and I mean that in the best way possible."

Here's the video, in which Farrar and Booz show off a Ganson-designed toy prototype, the Catapult, and talk about bringing it to market:

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Boston VCs Hope for Sunnier Days Ahead

From Sunday's Globe: 'Releasing Capital for Rays of Energy.' It deals with two of the newest-vintage photovoltaic start-ups in the Boston area, 1366 Technologies and Wakonda Technologies.

    To date, 1366, which traces its roots to MIT research, has raised $12 million from Polaris and North Bridge Venture Partners, another Waltham venture capital firm. Wakonda, which spun out from the Rochester Institute of Technology, has raised $9.5 million, much of it from Massachusetts-based venture firms Polaris, General Catalyst, and Advanced Technology Ventures. The two companies are located a few miles from one another, off Route 128 in Boston's northern suburbs.

    Polaris's involvement with two start-ups working on new approaches to wringing electricity from the sun is a little out of the ordinary but not unique; General Catalyst has funded two solar companies, and Advanced Technology Ventures has funded three. Over the past four years a roaring torrent of cash has been funneled into companies developing photovoltaic materials. According to Cambridge-based Greentech Media, a research firm, roughly $4.5 billion has been invested in about 150 solar start-ups in that time frame.

In the video, MIT prof. and 1366 co-founder Ely Sachs gives you a PV primer.

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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Keynote Interview from MIT VC Conference: 'Guitar Hero' creator Eran Egozy

At today's MIT Venture Capital conference, I had the fun task of conducting an on-stage interview with Eran Egozy, co-founder and CTO of Harmonix Music Systems, the Cambridge company that brought you 'Guitar Hero' and 'Rock Band' (as well as earlier music-oriented games like 'Frequency' and 'Karaoke Revolution').

We had a chance to talk about the creation of the company; some of their early attempts to license technology they'd developed and create a hit game; how they raised $10 million in funding from angel investors and VCs; how they almost ran out of money before their 'C' round; what made 'Guitar Hero' a hit; the company's acquisition by MTV for $175 million (in cash); what's next; and why there will never be a game called 'Clarinet Hero.'

The MP3 file is here; it includes Q&A, and is about 30 minutes long.

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Panel from MIT VC Conference: Media/Tech/Entertainment

Moderated a panel earlier today on media, technology, and entertainment at the 11th annual MIT Venture Capital Conference. My panelists included:

    Jeremy Allaire
    CEO, Brightcove

    John Lanza
    IP Practice Group Leader, Choate Hall & Stewart, LLP

    Lucy McQuilken
    Investment Director, Intel Capital

    Neil Sequeira
    General Partner, General Catalyst

We talked about Facebook, Twitter, set-top boxes, Internet video, the Kindle, Blu-ray, iTunes, copyright, piracy, videogames, and the music industry.

The MP3 is about 50 minutes long. Some of the questions during the Q&A are on the quiet. The file is here.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Delivering Electricity Like WiFi

Earlier this month, my Globe column profiled WiTricity, a relatively new MIT spin-out that's trying to bring to market a system for wirelessly transmitting electricity (and doing it safely.)

Here's the opening:

    In a brick building in Watertown where men's suits were once made, Eric Giler is running a company that seems to be defying the gravity of the current economic morass.

    Investors call to ask whether they can give him money. Customers request demos and suggest they're ready to commit to partnerships as quickly as possible. At January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Giler plans to rent a hotel suite in the Venetian (not a highly trafficked booth at the convention center) and schedule meetings selectively.

    His company, WiTricity Corp., is commercializing a breakthrough unveiled last year by MIT researchers: the ability to safely transmit power through thin air. Imagine electricity beamed around rooms the way Wi-Fi provides an Internet link. WiTricity could provide the power to keep a mobile phone's battery perpetually charged or operate a wall-hung flat-screen TV without cords.

Here's the video of CEO Eric Giler giving a demo of the system:

They don't yet have much of a Web site yet, but eventually it will be here.

Mass High Tech supplies more background on Giler; I provided an update on the company back in October.

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Friday, October 31, 2008

MIT VC Conference: December 6th

The MIT Venture Capital club just opened up registration for the 11th annual MIT Venture Capital Conference. It happens on December 6th, and while registration costs $245 for early birds, there's also an entrepreneur showcase in the evening that's free for anyone to attend.

I'll be there, moderating the closing session with Harmonix Music Systems co-founder Eran Egozy. And I'm going to try to arrive early to see Dan Primack's opening session with Paul Maeder and David Fialkow, from Highland Capital Partners and General Catalyst.

More on the event:

    ...Every year, the conference brings together over 400 venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and industry leaders to discuss current opportunities and challenges in Venture Capital investing.

    This year, the conference theme is Reinventing Venture Capital. A Keynote Panel of founding partners from leading venture capital firms will open the conference with a discussion of evolving strategies of the venture capital community and the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the dynamically changing industrial, financial, and economic conditions around the world.

    Dr. Jamshed J. Irani, Director of Tata Sons, one of India’s oldest, largest, and most respected business conglomerates, will deliver lunch keynote address. The conference will close with a fireside chat with Eran Egozy, CTO and Co-Founder of Harmonix, a MIT Media Lab startup which created Rock Band and Guitar Hero.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

An Update on WiTricity, the Wireless Power Company

WiTricity is a new MIT spin-out hoping to make electricity just like WiFi -- beam it through the air, and allow all your electronics to "tune in." (I've previously covered them here.)

An update... they've got offices now in Watertown. They're hiring RF engineers. Right now, the company consists of "10 PhDs and me," according to CEO Eric Giler. ( Giler had previously been CEO of Groove Mobile and Brooktrout Technology.) Marin Soljacic, one of the original MIT researchers, remains involved. They got $4 million in Series A funding in the second quarter of this year, from Argonaut Private Equity and Stata Venture Partners.

Giler says they're building a "real world" prototype (IE, something that will work more reliably than the initial lab prototype), and they're beginning to talk to potential customers.

This is a potentially big company...keep an eye on them...

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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Three Events at MIT: Financial Crisis, Energy Debate, Energy Night

Let me point you to three excellent (free) events at MIT, happening this week and next.

The first is a panel discussion called 'Perspectives on the Current Financial Crisis,' Thursday at 5:30 in the Wong Auditorium.

The second, coming up on Monday, is the only Presidential debate being held in the Boston area. Well, it's a debate between two surrogates for the Obama and McCain campaigns. They'll be talking about energy policy. That's at the Kresge Auditorium, Monday at 7:30 PM.

The third, at the MIT Museum next Friday night, is MIT Energy Night, organized by the MIT Energy Club. It features 40 demos from MIT research groups and spin-off companies. From Patti Richards at the MIT News office:

    "Highlights include presentations/demos by the following
    - Bicycle powered laptop
    - $25K X Prize "Crazy Green Idea"
    - New floating wind turbine system
    - MIT Electric Vehicle Team"

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Monday, September 29, 2008

The Future of Mobile: From the Emerging Technologies Conference

Here's some video I shot at last week's Emerging Technologies Conference at MIT. It features two local executives (Google's Rich Miner and Motorola's Liz Altman) talking about where mobile is headed -- especially with regard to open and proprietary operating systems. (This took place a day or two after the official announcement of the first Google/Android phone.)

Some notes from the panel (not direct quotes):

Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch: It's still too expensive to develop an application that runs across a broad range of phones.

Liz Altman: Low-end phones will use proprietary operating systems.

Rich Miner: Agrees with that, but says mid-range phones are getting more capable, and will be compatible with the Android operating system before long.

Miner: Google will try to avoid bloatware - aim for simplicity - even as phones get more capable.

Lynch says that "thought interfaces" will be a promising way to interact with mobile devices in the future. Miner is bullish on speech, and mentions Vlingo, a Cambridge start-up. The idea of scanning barcodes of products to get more info about a product also comes up.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Last Night's Event with Ed Roberts of MIT

There was a nice crowd last night at the Vilna Shul for the Fireside Chat with Ed Roberts. Ed is one of the gurus of entrepreneurship at MIT.

What we discovered during the conversation is that I tend to think locally, while Ed thinks globally.

I wanted to focus in on what more we can do to encourage the creation and cultivation of big, important, innovative companies here. Ed wanted to talk about the growth of China, and how Tsinghua University aims to become the MIT of China.

I started by asking Ed about the most successful companies he has been involved with. In Massachusetts, he was a founder of the hospital IT company MediTech, with 2700 employees and $400 million in revenue. But an even bigger hit has been, the Chinese Web portal.

I asked Ed about his biggest concern for the Boston/Massachusetts economy. His answer: our entrepreneurs and VCs sell companies too soon. Ed said that his friend, the late Alex d'Arbeloff (co-founder of Teradyne) would always encourage the companies he counseled to "fight the fight" and ignore the VCs encouraging them to sell.

But Ed said his bigger worry was one related to how a single federal policy position will affect the future competitiveness of our country. Since 2001, it has gotten harder and harder for smart people (like MIT grads) to stick around in the US after they graduate, and either get experience working at a company here -- or start a company of their own. MIT alums who hail from foreign countries, he observed, have a higher rate of entrepreneurship than U.S.-born alums, and we're now essentially telling them, "Go back to India, China, or Africa."

Someone from the audience said he is starting a consumer tech company, and has been having trouble getting funded by Boston area VCs. Ed said that even on the West Coast VCs can be reluctant to back consumer-oriented companies. (Perhaps, but I'd say they're less reluctant there than here.) He talked a bit about how slow established VCs can be to expand the scope of their investing. "VCs have as much of a problem as large corporations do in shifting their focus to new areas" like nanotech or cleantech, he said.

Ed mentioned he is working on a new study, to be released in the coming months, about the economic impact that MIT entrepreneurs have had on the world. (It's an update of an old study conducted by BankBoston.) Basically, it's huge.

I suggested that our next challenge in the Hub is helping our other great academic institutions -- not just MIT -- get better at spinning out companies.

And I also noted that if our region is already the center of the universe for life sciences innovation (it clearly is), and is becoming an important hub for cleantech, why don't we do a better job of communicating that to the rest of the world, to attract more people, money, big companies?

Doug Levin, the organizer of this event, mentioned that the next two guests will be Marvin Minsky and Nicholas Negroponte, dates TBD. Info here.

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Sunday, September 7, 2008

How Can You Tell if Your VC is Jewish?

...I'll leave it to you to invent the punch-line to that joke. ("Serves bagels and lox at your celebratory closing brunch," maybe?)

The fall speakers series at the Vilna Shul is starting up this week, on Tuesday.

I'll be chatting with Ed Roberts, founder of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center, and one of our region's top experts on investing, innovation, and entrepreneurship. His most recent book is "Innovation Matters." We'll take audience questions about raising money, starting and growing companies, and the challenges of entrepreneurship.

The event is free...and you definitely don't have to be Jewish to attend, though the venue is a Jewish cultural center on Beacon Hill (who knew?) There are snacks and networking before and after the program. Event runs from 6 to 8 PM.

This series is organized by Doug Levin, founder (and until recently, CEO) of Black Duck Software.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Filling Out Your Fall Calendar: Events Worth Knowing About

Here are a couple events for September, October, and November that I think will be worth going to. I'm planning to be at each of them in some capacity (reporter, moderator, organizer, etc.)

9.23-9.25: Emerging Technologies Conference @ MIT
Werner Vogels from Amazon, Rich Miner from Google, and Craig Mundie from Microsoft top the list of interesting speakers (according to me, at least)

9.25: Tech @ The Movies
This is the first entertainment industry panel that Mass TLC has organized, focusing on the role Massachusetts tech companies are playing in the movie industry. I'm moderating a panel, and giving a short talk about the historical contributions our state has made to the movies, based on my new book Inventing the Movies.

10.2: Mass TLC's Innovation UnConference
Mass TLC is reinventing its big fall event this year (previously known as the investor conference), trying to make it more valuable for entrepreneurs.

10.21 New England Mobile Summit
Part of the Mobile Internet World 2008 trade show, organized by the Yankee Group.

10.30 Ideas Boston
A chance to meet big thinkers like IBM's Martin Wattenberg, Daniel Schrag from Harvard, and John Maeda, the new president of RISD.

11.12 Innovation in Hollywood: Past, Present & Future
I'm giving an illustrated book talk about Inventing the Movies at the Museum of Science... chock full of movie clips, photos, and trivia.

11.15 HBS Cyberposium
Last year's speaker roster included Walt Mossberg, Ray Kurzweil, and Curt Schilling.

11.19 Future Forward 08
A gathering of entrepreneurs, investors, and CIOs/CTOs to explore new directions in technology. Audience limited in size; invite only.

12.6 MIT Venture Capital Conference
No Web site up yet for this year's event... but last year's included Google exec Chris Sacca and VMWare CEO Diane Greene.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Boston's Most Innovative Display Companies

Sunday's Globe column focused on three companies trying to bring new display technologies to market: Siftables, Vitality, and A2a Media.

Here's the video, with demos from Siftables and A2a, followed by my list of the five most innovative display companies right now in the Boston area (plus a few bonus companies).

So in addition to those three companies, each of which I think has some promise, here are the five most innovative display companies in the Boston area. How do I define innovative? Cool technology with the potential to change the world. Let me know who I missed in the comments section.

    1. E Ink: Low-power, paper-like digital displays for products like Amazon's Kindle and mobile phones.

    2. Ambient Devices: Putting Internet connected displays in unexpected places, like a refrigerator magnet or umbrella handle. Former Palm CEO Carl Yankowski was enlisted last summer to help Ambient make it big.

    3. Myvu: Will consumers wear Robocop-style glasses to watch video content from their iPod? Myvu's gonna find out.

    4. CircleTwelve: A one-man effort to commercialize the DiamondTouch table developed at Cambridge's Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs. Here's some earlier Innovation Economy coverage of CircleTwelve, and a comparison of DiamondTouch and Microsoft's Surface technology.

    5. QD Vision: Enlisting quantum dots to produce brighter displays that use less power. Here's a Technology Review article on the company.

And in the honorable mention category: Actuality Systems still sells its knock-out 3-D displays, but is repositioning itself as a medical imaging company. Emo Labs is a company built atop cool technology: integrating a display and speaker, so the audio actually comes out of the screen. But they've been having trouble gaining momentum, despite some funding from Polaris Venture Partners.

On the content side, three more companies are worthy of note.

FrameMedia is a neat Wellesley company thinking about how to deliver content to Internet-connected picture frames... and LocaModa and Aerva are both exploring ways to enliven flat-screen displays in public places with all kinds of interactive content.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Worth reading: 'How Town Hurts Gown'

Former Boston city councilor Tom Keane had an interesting piece in Sunday's Globe magazine that sounds some alarm bells. We've always assumed that our education industry has no choice but to stay here: Harvard has been in Cambridge for centuries, and it always will be.

But Keane writes:

    ...We're proud of our longstanding reputation as America's premier college town, but, in fact, only 16 of the top 125 schools in the country are located in New England, according to US News & World Report. The rest fiercely compete against us not only on the basis of class size, lab space, and faculty, but also on amenities such as dorms. Today's students are no longer satisfied with crowded quads and grungy bathrooms down the hall. Quality of life matters, and prevented from building, Boston schools have a tough time delivering.

    Equally problematic is competition from overseas. Foreign students once flocked to New England; now their numbers are down. Some are going to colleges elsewhere in the States. Others are staying home and attending newly built schools there. Our own schools are now building elsewhere as well. Emerson opened a campus in LA. MIT is building in Abu Dhabi, Harvard Medical will soon be in Dubai, and the University of Massachusetts is cutting a deal to offer courses in China. If the students aren't coming to Boston, the schools may as well go to them.

    Then there's distance learning. Most colleges now offer online courses; community colleges, in fact, report that online enrollment is growing more than five times faster than on-campus enrollment. Eventually, students and schools will figure out that much of their learning can be done without leaving home.

Definitely worth a read.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Guterman Goes to Sloan

Brookline jouno Jimmy Guterman, who has lately been blogging for O'Reilly Radar, editing Esther Dyson's old Release 2.0 newsletter, and consulting for Harvard Business Publishing, is jumping over to edit the MIT Sloan Management Review, whose existence has been forgotten by nearly everyone.

Good luck with the overhaul, James....! One hopes there's more of a financial commitment to improving that publication than there has been to the increasingly anorexic Technology Review.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Mark Horan on Building Big Hometown Companies

Mark Horan, president of the Massachusetts Network Communications Council, has an op-ed in the Globe today headlined 'Tech should begin at home.' The gist is that its good news that Google now has a big presence in our state, but that we're not doing enough to cultivate home-grown innovators. As an example, he writes:

    Take a simple Google-centric example. A New York Times article last year described two MIT PhD students, Sanjit Biswas and John Bicket, who a few years back helped to build Roofnet, a wireless mesh network that offered free broadband service to an area covering about one-third of Cambridge.

    According to the Times, the pair showed their technology to Google executives, who were impressed enough that they joined with California-based Sequoia Capital to invest in a new company founded by the students. Today, Meraki Networks is up and running - in Mountain View, Calif.

    Too many of our brightest young entrepreneurs flock to Silicon Valley, whose giant companies help to seed their growth.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Gathering for Student Entrepreneurs, This Saturday at MIT

MIT senior Albert Park is putting together an event called Underground 2008 this Saturday, May 3rd. All student entrepreneurs are welcome. As Albert explains it, the goals are:

    INSPIRE: Hear the latest and greatest on how your fellow entrepreneurs are changing the world.

    CONNECT: Quiz successful entrepreneurs, investors, and each other for some new perspectives on entrepreneurship.

    CREATE: Befriend your college's entrepreneurs and learn about what resources are available for you.

Students from MIT, Harvard, Babson, Olin, BC, Tufts, and BU are expected to attend -- but everyone is welcome. Dharmesh Shah, founder of HubSpot, will give the opening keynote. That'll be followed by panels on "Student Successes," "Alumni Entrepreneurs," and "Investors in the Hot Seat."

It starts at noon on Saturday. There's a Facebook group, but no Web site for the event. You can RSVP (with your name and college) to - and sooner is better. In addition to Albert, Underground 2008 is being organized by:

    Harvard College Entrepreneurship Forum
    MIT Science and Engineering Business Club

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Monday, April 28, 2008

ROFLCon Round-Up

Kudos (!) to the MIT and Harvard students who organized ROFLCon, an exploration and celebration of Internet culture and contagious memes, last week. I dropped in Friday afternoon and Saturday morning... and especially enjoyed a ten-minute disquisition by Tron Guy about whether it is appropriate to wear underwear with a skin-tight white 'Tron' costume. (No, is the answer.)

Carolyn Johnson has a great wrap-up piece in the Globe this morning ... Chris Herot has a blog entry about it ... and David Weinberger, who delivered a keynote on Friday morning, has a number of posts, including one on the LOLcats panel. There's also coverage from Wired News, and photos from the excellent San Francisco-based blog Laughing Squid.

The big news, however, was a street fight between Firefox and the TripAdvisor owl, right outside the venerable Media Lab:

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Why Maeda Matters

Sunday's column in the Globe focused on John Maeda, a long-time Media Lab professor (and globally-renowned artist) who was picked in December to run the Rhode Island School of Design. Maeda is funny, thoughtful, wise and challenging -- the perfect personality for an artist pushing boundaries, and a professor nudging students in interesting new directions. He's also all over the Web in video form.

My Globe video is below...with more links after that.

Here's a talk he gave last year at TED.

Here's his video hello to the RISD community.

And here's Maeda in conversation with another young designer, Joshua Davis.

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Thursday, February 7, 2008

Does Facebook's Revenue Matter?

The Power, Drugs & Money conference at the Seaport Hotel has brought together an interesting mix of people ... Jim Gordon of Cape Wind is speaking now, and I just bumped into someone from the Boston Redevelopment Authority and Noubar Afeyan from Flagship Ventures in the hall.

The first morning panel focused on innovation in New England, and was moderated by Chris Gabrieli of Bessemer Venture Partners and the Massachusetts 20/20 Foundation. Panelists included Bob Buderi from Xconomy, Doug Banks from Mass High Tech, Bob Krim from the Boston History and Innovation Collaborative, and me.

Krim said that Boston has a good track record of gravitating to new ideas once old ones lose steam. (For a long time we fished for cod... then we focused on the telegraph and telephone... later, we invented minicomputers and e-mail.) Krim also has a nice term for the interactions that happen here between investors, entrepreneurs, tech users, and academic researchers. He calls it the "bump and connect."

Doug Banks had a nice turn of phrase when he said that developing technologies that produce cleaner power is "the noble pursuit of the day." I agree, even if some worry about it becoming a bubble.

We bashed Harvard a bit, which Gabrieli suggested looks down upon the process of commercializing new ideas. I mentioned Facebook at one point ... if Harvard had more VCs prowling the hall, or had more of an entrepreneurship infrastructure forging connections with the local innovation economy, would more than one local investor have seen the Facebook deal before the founder moved to California?

Banks said that Facebook doesn't have impressive revenues, and is probably overvalued. He mentioned that the #2 e-commerce vendor, after Amazon, is, headquartered right here in Massachusetts. I said to Doug afterwards, that's great, but how many smart young people are moving from Kansas to Massachusetts because they want a job with And how many smart young people are moving from Kansas to California because they want a job with Facebook, or one of the zillions of Facebook app developers out there?

Someone in the audience complained that as venture firms raise larger funds, they tend to be less interested in backing early-stage companies started by wet-behind-the-ears founders. I mentioned some of the new early-stage, smaller venture funds that have started up in the last year or two.

The opening keynote speaker was John Kao, author of 'Innovation Nation.' He offered a picture of what other countries, like Singapore and Finland, are doing to try to build hubs of innovation.

I see countries like those, and states like North Carolina and Michigan, playing offense: trying to attract smart people and fast-growing companies. Our job here (in the US, and in Massachusetts) is to play both offense and defense.

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Monday, December 31, 2007

Endy heading to Stanford ... Big loss for MIT

I wrote about synthetic biology pioneer Drew Endy back in 2005, after his group's work had been covered in Wired.

Just saw this piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, which notes that Endy is hopping from MIT to Stanford at the end of the 2007-2008 academic year. Big loss for MIT.

Endy was also a co-founder of the Cambridge company Codon Devices.

(Photo credit: Leah Fasten)

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

You Heard It Here First: $300K in Prizes for MIT Entrepreneurs

As this blog suggested back in September, the prize money at MIT's entrepreneurship competitions has leapt from $100,000 to $300,000, with the addition of a $200,000 prize for "Clean Energy Entrepreneurship".

Money comes from NStar and the US Dept. of Energy. Prize, according to Robert Gavin of the Globe, "will go to the team that develops and presents the best plan for commercializing alternative energy products and services."

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Monday, November 19, 2007

John Maeda's new shoe is *fast*

How fast did John Maeda's limited-edition Reebok sneaker sell out? One hundred pairs went in just one day, priced at $150, according to the Media Lab prof and artist.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Combating Global Warming: Last night's MIT Enterprise Forum

Last night I was at a meeting of the MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge that focused on "How Innovative Businesses are Combating Global Warming."

Ian Bowles, Massachusetts' secretary of the executive office of energy and environmental affairs, opened the evening with an update from the State House. Bowles talks so fast I am pretty sure his compensation package has a words-per-minute clause. Very smart guy. But he predicted that we won't see any federal action on a carbon tax or CO2 emissions trading, either of which could help mitigate global warming, until the next Presidential administration.

I moderated a panel with Emily Kreps from Goldman Sachs, Daniel Goldman from Great Point Energy, Phillip Boyle from Powerspan, and Professor Daniel Schrag from Harvard. Schrag led things off with a short and dismaying PowerPoint overview of the latest data and projections about climate change: Houston, we have a problem.

Goldman talked about how his company is transforming coal into natural gas, and sequestering the CO2. Boyle explained how Powerspan removes acid-rain-causing pollutants from power plant emissions, and can also sequester CO2. And Schrag explained some of the thinking related to "global dimming" -- figuring out ways to reflect sunlight before the earth's atmosphere absorbs the heat. He's concerned that some country might decide unilaterally to try a global dimming experiment, with dangerous effects, since we don't know enough about how climate works.

The panelists all agreed with Bowles that we're not likely to see any federal implementation of something like the Lieberman-Warner bill soon, which would cap emissions and reduce them over time.

I suggested that citizen action is what's needed, given that we have a little more than a year before our next President takes office. Initiatives like Hull Wind and the CalCars plug-in hybrid movement work. Why wait for Washington to get moving?

Afterward, I met a bunch of entrepreneurs working on swell stuff.... Michael Chen is trying to develop wind farms in China...Jon Strimling from was explaining the benefits of using biomass fuels to heat one's home...and Benjamin Brown runs the Web site MakeMeSustainable.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sunday's Globe column: Social Networking Goes to the Dogs

I'm traveling this week, so a bit slow to post the link to last Sunday's Globe column. It focuses on two Boston companies working on intelligent, wearable tags -- one for humans, and one for dogs.

From the piece:

    Entrepreneurs of every breed need to make a clean break with reality; their job is to imagine a product or service that doesn't yet exist and that fills a need none of us knew we had. Ideas that seem slightly crazy at first - Bluetooth headsets, anyone? - can become commonplace in just a few years. Or they end up as one more crazy concept that didn't fly.

    SNIF [Labs] is the second local start-up to introduce wearable tags for information exchange. Charlestown-based nTag Interactive has raised $14 million to market smart name tags that enable conference-goers to swap contact information, peruse the day's agenda, play ice-breaker games, or respond to a speaker's survey question.

    Both companies trace their genealogy to the MIT Media Lab. In 1995, the lab was organizing a party to mark the launch of a research initiative, called Things That Think. The objective was to explore what might happen when computers were embedded into all sorts of objects.

And here's the video ... a short conversation with SNIF Labs CEO Noah Paessel:

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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Today's Globe column: The Elixir/Sirtris Rivalry

As a journalist, it's hard to resist writing about rivalries -- especially when big personalities are involved.

Elixir Pharmaceuticals and Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, two companies founded to exploit the science of sirtuins (which are enzymes thought to be linked to the aging process and age-related disease), have the big personalities: Jonathan Fleming and Ansbert Gadicke, heads of the two biggest biotech VC firms in Boston, are on the board of Elixir, and Christoph Westphal, the golden boy of Boston life sciences, runs Sirtris. (Westphal worked for Polaris Venture Partners before deciding to become a CEO.)

And Sirtris managed to go public first; Elixir is now trying to follow suit.

But the crucial difference is that Sirtris is still very much pursuing drugs based on the sirtuin work of local researchers like Harvard's David Sinclair, while Elixir has in-licensed a diabetes drug already approved in Japan (which has nothing to do with sirtuins), and is trying to get it approved in the US. Elixir, five years older than Sirtris, has decided to develop a near-term product, while Sirtris is still focused on the long-term vision.

“The decision was made that the company needed to really get commercial as quickly as it could,” Ed Cannon, Elixir’s first chief executive, told me. [His comments were snipped from the column before it ran.] “They needed later-stage molecules,” he says, referring to drugs that are closer to winning FDA approval.

Cannon is bullish on both companies' prospects (he still holds some stock in Elixir). “I think Christoph has been a magician,” Cannon says. “And it’s not just smoke and mirrors. He has surrounded the company with terrific scientists, and terrific business people and investors.”

Here's the video, featuring MIT prof and Elixir co-founder Lenny Guarente talking about his research:

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Howtoons: The book that'll turn your kids into inventors, scientists, or engineers

I saw Joost Bonsen, the Mayor of MIT, earlier this week, and he showed me a fresh-off-the-presses copy of his first book, Howtoons: The Possibilities are Endless!

If you know children, this is what to buy them for Christmas, Chanukah, or Kwanzaa. It's a compilation of fun projects that kids can do -- like making a marshmallow shooter, or a turkey baster flute. Bonsen guarantees that they will be accepted into MIT if they read it; actually graduating is their problem.

To get a feel for Howtoons, check the Web site.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

What's Andora Up To?

Bob Langer's lab at MIT seems to be going through a particularly fertile period -- I heard tonight that two Langer Lab companies are currently out talking to VCs.

Ryan McBride of Mass High Tech had a fun piece last Friday about another recent Langer Lab spin-out, Andora, basically speculating about what they may be up to. The company raised $4 million earlier in the year.

Andora (no Web site yet) is in Kendall Square, and were until recently was cohabitating with Tempo Pharmaceuticals, another Polaris-backed start-up. Avid surfer Amir Nashat is running the company. Oddly, Jon Flint from Polaris, not usually a life sciences investor, is on the board.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

MIT's Business Plan Competition: From $10K to $300K?

MIT's annual Entrepreneurship Competition started in 1990, with $10,000 of prize money... so for a long while, it was known as the $10K competition. In 1996, the purse grew to $50,000, and then to $100,000 last year.

The competition has a pretty good track record for spawning companies. While some never make it past the embryonic stage, Akamai Technologies was a finalist in 1998. Direct Hit won the competition in 1998, and then was acquired two years later for half a billion dollars. In 1995, Harmonix (makers of the hit videogame "Guitar Hero," now owned by MTV Networks) was a finalist.

This week, I've bumped into a few Sloan students who've suggested to me that the prize money is heading north again this as much as $300,000. One judge I spoke to said he has been hearing rumblings, too.

Bill Aulet, one of the Sloan school lecturers involved in supporting the competition, said yesterday he wasn't ready to confirm any numbers, and several other people connected to the competition didn't return my calls. Given that the most recent change to the competition was adding a new $50,000 "Development" category, which focuses on businesses that can improve low-income communities or developing countries, I'd expect the additional prize money to focus on a new category -- like energy or the environment.

Increasing the prize money three-fold wouldn't be about convincing more students to enter the competition -- just about anyone with an entrepreneurial inkling at MIT knows about it already, and has plenty of motivation to get involved. I think the increase would have three benefits:

    1. Marketing: Ensure that the competition remains prominent on the national scene...attracts more media attention...makes more prospective B-school students aware of Sloan...and brings in more venture capitalists to look at the finalists and winning companies as prospective investments.

    2. Pocket change: Give the winning companies a bit more prize money to use in their start-up stage, assuming they don't find funding quickly from VCs.

    3. Spark more entries in a particular sector, like cleantech.

With $250,000 or $300,000 in prizes, it seems like the MIT competition would be the country's biggest.... the state of New Hampshire ran a competition with $250,000 in cash prizes from 2003 to 2005, but they haven't repeated it since. Across the pond, the London Business School has a $500K competition, focused on homeland security.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Memo to Wearable Computing Gurus: You Are Not Welcome at Logan Airport


    Star Simpson, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student, was arrested at gunpoint Friday morning at Logan Airport when authorities suspected she had a bomb strapped to her chest.

    Simpson was wearing a black sweatshirt that had a circuit board with wires, green LED lights and a 9-volt battery attached to it. When an airport employee asked about her shirt, Simpson walked away without answering so the employee called the authorities, the Boston Globe has reported.

Here's the Globe piece.

Salon has links to WBZ video of Simpson's arraignment, and a quote from a state police major, who says the MIT sophomore is "extremely lucky she followed the instructions or deadly force would have been used. She's lucky to be in a cell as opposed to the morgue."

And BoingBoing's Xeni Jardin has a great collection of links, including a link to Simpson's homepage (which seems to be down right now.)

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Monday, August 27, 2007

New-and-Improved MIT Museum will Open in Late Sept.

I'm really excited about the MIT Museum's $3 million renovation project. This is a place that has too long been hidden away, when it deserves to be a big part of Boston's tech and cultural communities. From Felicia Mello's piece in the Globe today:

    The new gallery will eschew historical exhibits to focus on cutting-edge projects including a stackable electric car, new-generation robots that explore the ocean floor, and tropical fish that are helping scientists in the search for a cancer cure. It is the brainchild of museum director John Durant, who arrived two years ago from a British science museum with frenetic energy and what he calls a bullish outlook about the ability to engage the average Joe or Jane in learning about science.

    ...Durant has pushed to raise the museum's public image, helping start a citywide science festival earlier this year. He is one of many science museum directors looking to dust off their collections and update them to reflect recent discoveries.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Conference tech start-up nTAG grabs $8.3 million

nTAG started out as a cool demo at the MIT Media Lab -- intelligent nametags that could exchange information with one another. Researcher Rick Borovoy decided to turn the demo into a company.

Some of the earliest deployments were kind of sketchy; at PopTech in 2003, attendees seemed more interested in talking about what was wrong with the tags, which were supposed to help identify like-minded folks, than what was right with them.

But now nTAG has developed into more of a full-fledged "event technology" company, offering conference organizers technology for surveys, personalized agendas, and cell phone audience polling.

Today, the Boston-based company announced an $8.3 million second round of VC from Sevin Rosen and Pilot House Ventures. An earlier jolt of funding was $6 million last January, from the same funds. Company has raised a total of $23 million, according to VentureBeat.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Top Innovators Under 35: From Technology Review

Technology Review, MIT's alumni newsletter, put out its annual list of the most interesting innovators under 35 today.

Who's on the list from New England?

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Monday, July 30, 2007

Times Magazine Piece on Sociable Robots

This Times Sunday Magazine piece, which ran yesterday, focuses almost exclusively on "sociable robots" being developed at MIT...and includes some cool video demonstrations. From the story:

    Bill Gates has said that personal robotics today is at the stage that personal computers were in the mid-1970s. Thirty years ago, few people guessed that the bulky, slow computers being used by a handful of businesses would by 2007 insinuate themselves into our lives via applications like Google, e-mail, YouTube, Skype and MySpace. In much the same way, the robots being built today, still unwieldy and temperamental even in the most capable hands, probably offer only hints of the way we might be using robots in another 30 years.

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Friday, July 27, 2007

How iRobot is Like Intel

TIE-Boston put on a really interesting event last night at the MIT Museum: "Mobile and Sociable Robots: At the Leading Edge of Computing."

Cory Kidd from the Media Lab was there, demoing his robotic weight loss coach, which he's hoping to commercialize once he leaves the Lab. I talked with the CTO of Bluefin Robotics, Christopher Wallsmith, about some of their new underwater 'bots that can glide for long periods of time, or hover in place. (Hiawatha wrote a great piece in the Globe earlier this month that included Bluefin.)

But the thing that struck me as most interesting was Helen Greiner's opening talk. (Helen is the co-founder and chairman of iRobot.) Two things struck me, actually.

First was how authentically iRobot has been living up to its mission statement: Build cool stuff, Deliver great product, Make money, and Have fun. They've shipped 2.5 million of their Roomba robotic vaccuum cleaners thus far.

The second thing was that iRobot is the closest thing Boston has to a Google, an Apple, or an Intel: a company that is so clearly the leader in its field that all the best people want to work there (aside from those who're happier in academia). Helen said iRobot now employs about 200 engineers and researchers. These kinds of "magnet" companies not only attract great people, they also make it clear that the region is a center of gravity for their particular industry -- and they start spinning off start-up companies. Q Robotics, one of the other companies on last night's panel, is just such a spin-off. Q CTO Joe Jones was one of the developers of iRobot's Roomba.

That's pretty cool.

(Photo by Jason Grow / Business Week. Chris Brady took some great photos at tonight's event.)

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Watts by Air

Science News has a great piece about how an MIT team successfully transmitted electricity over the airwaves ... something people have been puzzling over since Nikola Tesla began exploring the problem early in the 20th century.

From the piece:

    "What they've done is take some very basic physics concepts [and] brought these ingredients together. It's the synthesis which is the novel thing," says [John] Pendry [, a physicist at Imperial College in London].

    Shanhui Fan, a physicist at Stanford University, says that the use of magnetic resonance as a means of transferring energy is a completely new concept, and "very clever." Although it's a simple principle, nobody seems to have thought of it before, he says. "Many great things look simple from hindsight."

    [MIT prof Marin] Soljacic and his colleagues have applied for two patents, and they have branded their idea with the name WiTricity to suggest an electrical-power version of Wi-Fi wireless-Internet technology.

    But if the physics is simple, why didn't anyone think of it sooner? Soljacic suggests that before the spread of cell phones and laptops, there was little need for a wirefree power source. In fact, Soljacic admits that what got him thinking hard about wireless power was the frustration of being awakened at night by a beeping cell phone that needed to be recharged.

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Which Three Boston Notables (and One Company) Will Be at the White House This Friday?

President Bush hands out the National Medals of Science and Technology this Friday at the White House.

Who's on the list from our part of the world?

1. Chuck Vest, former president of MIT
2. Bob Langer, head of MIT's Langer Lab and founder of numerous biotech and med device companies, among them Alkermes, Alnylam, Pervasis, and MicroCHIPs
3. Daniel Kleppner, an MIT physicist whose work led to ultra-accurate atomic clocks and the global positioning system
4, Genzyme Corporation.

A Globe blog post on the winners is here.

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