Unlikely collaborators take on venture

Harvard-MIT team is finalist in clean energy contest

By Gal Tziperman Lotan
Globe Correspondent / May 10, 2010

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Students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University are engaged in a rare collaboration — with $200,000 at stake.

Five student teams from across the country, each promoting a prospective business venture, have made the finals of MIT’s Clean Energy Entrepreneurship Prize competition, a student-run program that helps develop and fund clean technology initiatives. One team, which calls itself Oscomp Systems, includes three students from schools that are usually rivals: one member is from Harvard; two from MIT. The team created a compression technology that reduces the cost of natural gas production.

“Everybody [on the team] brings a different philosophy to the table,’’ said Emmanuel Magani, an MIT Sloan School of Management student. Their project began when two students, Pedro Tomas Santos from MIT and Shantanu Agarwal from Harvard, took an energy ventures class together at MIT.

The winner of the competition, now in its third year, gets a $200,000 award funded by the utility NStar and the US Department of Energy. Though 62 teams from 35 schools around the country entered, the competition recently was pared down to five finalists, who tomorrow will present their ideas to a panel of judges — many of them venture capitalists.

“There are a lot of different contests out there, but we have found our sweet spot,’’ said Robbie Barbero, co-managing director of the competition’s planning committee. “We train the next generation of entrepreneurs in the skills it takes to be successful in the clean energy space.’’

The top 25 teams were paired with mentors — professionals in the team’s geographical region and scientific realm — who worked with them for three months. Last week, a panel chose the finalists, with each receiving $15,000 and a slew of services to help advance their companies, from marketing to consulting.

“You can tell how excited [students] are when they talk about it,’’ Barber said. “For them, landing the money is important, but it’s not the most important thing. They really want to start clean energy companies.’’

C-Crete Technologies from MIT, also a finalist, began as a class project four years ago.

Natanel Barookhian, a Sloan student, partnered with Rouzbeh Shahsavari, a fourth-year student in MIT’s School of Engineering, to create C-Crete — concrete engineered at the nano level to make it stronger, more durable, and environmentally friendlier than regular concrete.

“The world is looking for simple, scalable ways to deal with the carbon footprint — ours is probably one of the quickest and one of the most efficient ways to deal with it,’’ Barookhian said.

Another finalist, Enertaq, founded by two University of Maryland students, is a system which tracks electrical demands of large buildings and adjusts the supply accordingly.

Transportation finalist viaCycle, a digital lock system for fleets of community bicycles from the Georgia Institute of Technology, allows users to remotely lock and unlock shared bikes via text message. The system is already in use at Emory University in Georgia.

C3Nano Inc. began as a class project at Rice University in Houston, Texas. The company created a film coating for touchscreens, which it claims is more durable and affordable than film coatings on the market today.