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Scouting out Bay State's next big idea

Baseball scouts travel to college stadiums in California and high school fields in the Dominican Republic to identify promising players. Amy Salzhauer and Daphne Zohar do their scouting on university campuses, at conferences, and in far-flung research labs -- looking for promising breakthroughs in life sciences and high tech that could be turned into companies.

Like a teenage pitching prospect with a fluky fastball, the ideas may still have rough edges, and sometime the researchers who developed them don't want to leave academia for the private sector. Often, there isn't a reliable, working prototype, and most of the time there's no business plan.

But Salzhauer and Zohar, who run Ignition Ventures in Cambridge and PureTech Ventures in Boston, make a living by spotting good ideas in any state, finding willing investors, crafting a prototype or proof-of-concept, conducting market research, and building a management team.

They get paid in cash or a piece of equity in the newly hatched company. They're not venture capitalists, and they're not running incubators -- a word that has long since been banned from usage in polite company. Call them Boston's idea hunters, or innovation scouts.

"We're willing to do the heavy lifting when we see promising technologies in life sciences," says Zohar, who employs 14 full-time employees and coordinates a network of 75 advisers who help funnel opportunities to her. "We scour the academic community and look at about 15 projects a week."

PureTech focuses primarily on opportunities in Boston and Israel, where Zohar was born. The company takes 30 to 50 percent of equity in the companies it helps get off the ground. But Zohar points out that her share of a new start-up gets diluted as later investors put money in.

A big part of PureTech's strength comes from the network of advisors Zohar has assembled. They include people like Bob Langer, a renowned biomedical engineering professor at MIT; Bennett Shapiro, formerly a top research executive at Merck; and John Zabriskie, who co-founded PureTech with Zohar and who oversaw the merger of Pharmacia and Upjohn.

Several of the companies that PureTech has helped form came directly out of local universities and hospitals.

Cellicon Technologies, developing antibiotics, came out of Boston University. Its top scientific officer is James Collins, a BU prof who last week was awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant.

Nanopharma, based on work done at Mass General, is trying to use nanotechnology to reduce the toxicity of cancer drugs while increasing the time they stay in the body fighting the disease.

Salzhauer at Ignition Ventures is helping a researcher from Columbia University start a new medical devices company that will develop products for "selective organ cooling" during surgery.

She explains: "If you can selectively cool the brain, and not the entire body, you lower the metabolic requirements of the neurons, and they can survive" -- even though the surgeon may need to pinch off the blood supply to parts of the brain during surgery. Salzhauer helped to put together the management team for the company, called Toev Medical.

Salzhauer also helped the Boston company BioScale, still in stealth mode, license a new technology for biomolecular detection from the Draper Laboratory in Cambridge. CEO Mark Lundstrom says the technology could be used in drug development or for defense against bio-warfare.

"We were principally using Ignition for technology licensing and initial market research," Lundstrom says. "They were really instrumental."

Both Ignition and PureTech are considering raising their own small venture capital funds, to have readily available fuel for the companies they start, and also so that they can co-invest with the venture capitalists who take their companies to the next stage.

Ignition has already worked with two companies that have attracted venture funding -- Lilliputian Systems and Ember Corp., both MIT spinoffs. PureTech expects to see the first of its companies secure venture money in the next month or so.

The company is a Cambridge start-up called Protein Forest. The company is working on a microchip, developed originally in Israel, for analyzing proteins in a blood sample. The Protein Forest chip, expected to launch sometime next year, will be much faster and more sensitive than traditional methods of protein analysis.

Salzhauer at Ignition says: "We're trying to create the most efficient links we can between the laboratory and the marketplace."

But as with baseball scouts, the real mark of success for Ignition and PureTech will be seeing one of their prospects make it into the show and that may still be a few years off.

Where are they now? The two founders of EMC Corp., the state's biggest tech employer, have been getting involved lately in more activities that have very little to do with data storage.

Dick Egan, the "E" in EMC, wants to maintain his rep as one of George W. Bush's most effective fund-raisers leading up to the 2004 election. Roger Marino, Mr. "M," has gone Hollywood.

Marino briefly owned the Pittsburgh Penguins before the team went into bankruptcy and was taken over by star center Mario Lemieux. Now, Marino is one of the producers of the Broadway revival of "Gypsy" starring Bernadette Peters, and he has financed four movies that will be coming out over the next year, including "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" with Malcolm McDowell; "Door in the Floor" with Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger; and "When Zachary Beaver Came to Town" with Jonathan Lipnicki. Along with director Michael Corrente, Marino runs New York-based production company Revere Pictures.

Marino isn't totally out of tech. He has been an investor in several companies founded by EMC alumni. He put money into StorageNetworks (now defunct, he calls it "a disappointing successful investment"); Waltham-based GiantLoop, which has been suspiciously quiet in 2003 but which Egan says is "regrouping" with a new CEO; and TechTarget, a Needham media company. TechTarget, which produces publications and conferences for IT workers, is "the most successful thing I have going," he says.

"I'm still putting money into high tech, because it isn't going to go away," Marino says. "But it was just too inflated. It was growing so fast that the market couldn't absorb all the technology changes. It got ahead of the users."

Dick Egan, who served as EMC's chairman until President Bush appointed him ambassador to Ireland in 2001, left that post earlier this year and returned to Hopkinton.

Since then, he has kept a relatively low profile on the tech scene, delivering talks at Boston College's law school and Bentley College. Though Egan had been a director of the Massachusetts High Technology Council before he left for Ireland, he hasn't renewed his affiliation.

"He's not currently on our board, and he has not expressed an interest," says Chris Anderson, the council's president. "His primary mission right now is raising money for President Bush, and there's not room for a lot else until next November."

The main reason floated for Egan's departure from Dublin earlier this year was that he was frustrated that he wasn't permitted to be more involved with efforts to bring peace to Northern Ireland.

But that hasn't dimmed Egan's support for the president. In June, he held a $2,000-a-plate dinner that raised more than a million dollars for the Bush/Cheney reelection campaign. Egan and two of his sons, Michael and Christopher, are all Bush "Rangers," which means they've raised at least $200,000 each. (Both sons work for Carruth Capital, the family's commercial real estate and investing firm.)

Dick Egan didn't return my phone calls seeking comment. Perhaps I'm not seen as a big enough prospective campaign donor?

Scott Kirsner is a contributing editor at Fast Company. He can be reached at skirsner@verizon.net.

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