Innovation Economy

Start-up plans to seek out, kill bacteria

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Correspondent / June 6, 2011

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Highlights from Scott Kirsner’s Innovation Economy blog.

A small Boston University and MIT spin-out company, Novophage, wrapped up its first round of funding late last month, raising $5.75 million from a trio of local investors and Chevron Technology Ventures, an arm of the energy conglomerate.

The start-up is engineering customized viruses called phages, whose job is to seek and destroy the bacteria that gum up all kinds of industrial processes, from paper-making to oil exploration to heating and cooling big buildings.

Anywhere there’s water and humidity, explains Micah Rosenbloom, Novophage chief executive, you get colonies of bacteria that produce what are called biofilms. “Right now, people use all kinds of chemicals and biocides to eliminate the bacteria, but that isn’t very environmentally friendly,’’ Rosenbloom said. “What we did was to go in and analyze the microbial community, we sequenced its genome, and then we developed a targeted phage that can seek and destroy. It is a predator of bacteria.’’

Biofilms, he noted, tend to make production processes less efficient and more energy-intensive. “They clog up the system,’’ he said, “so it costs you more money to run it, and in the case of paper-making, you sometimes need to stop the production line to deal with the biofilms.’’

Backing the seven-person company are Flybridge Capital of Boston, Founder Collective of Cambridge, and The Kraft Group. The Kraft family, notably, owns a portfolio of paper and cardboard businesses.

Flybridge funded the last start-up with which Rosenbloom was involved, Brontes Technologies, and a Brontes cofounder, Eric Paley, helped start Founder Collective. Early in its life, Brontes was a finalist in MIT’s $100K Entrepreneurship Competition. It was acquired by 3M in 2006 for $95 million; the company made new technology that enables dentists to produce better-fitting implants for patients.

Novophage also participated in MIT’s entrepreneurship competition, as well as contests at Harvard Business School, University of California at Berkeley, the University of Texas, Boston University, Purdue University, and even the University of Nebraska.

“I jokingly say that their original business model was winning business plan competitions,’’ said Rosenbloom, who was an adviser to the company before taking on the chief executive role this year. “They’d brought in $100,000 or so in prize money, and they were running the company on that.’’

But once Rosenbloom was in, with his experience at Brontes and 3M, the company started to spark interest from venture capital firms. “It was a really competitive deal,’’ said Jon Karlen of Flybridge. He adds that the company had initially been thinking about designing phages that would fight infections in people, or produce biofuel. “But this is a totally different approach,’’ he said. “They pivoted a while back, mainly because it is very capital-intensive to try to make therapeutics or fuel.’’

The key scientific team members at Novophage are Michael Koeris, Brett Chevalier, and Tim Lu. Koeris and Chevalier previously worked at Flagship Ventures; Lu was named one of Technology Review magazine’s “Young Innovators Under 35’’ last year. The company’s field is often called “synthetic biology,’’ which entails designing new biological entities to perform specific tasks. Rosenbloom says the company will initially focus on battling biofilms in HVAC systems and paper production.

“I think this is one of those classic challenges of a technology that’s applicable to many markets, where you need to pick what to focus on,’’ said Eric Paley at Founder Collective. “This is an alternative to using toxic chemicals. When you talk to people in industry who have to manage these problems, this is a Holy Grail kind of solution.’’

Novophage participated in the MassChallenge start-up competition last summer. With this funding round, it becomes one of the best-funded alumni of that program, just about matching RelayRides, a car-sharing start-up that has raised $5.77 million to date.

Groupon for the greens? The 21st-century mania for serving up deep discounts to consumers willing to subscribe to e-mail lists marches on, with the launch last week of Divoty. The Pembroke-based start-up collects special offers of interest to New England golfers, promising “unbelievable deals for 50 to 90 percent off.’’

The reality is a bit less dazzling. Divoty is offering a round at the Glen Ellen Country Club in Millis for a foursome, including carts, for $200 (a 33 percent discount, according to the company).

Soon, they’ll sell 18 holes with a cart for one golfer at the Gardner Municipal Golf Course for $40 (20 percent off the typical $50 weekend rate, or 11 percent off the weekday price, by my calculation), and a few one-hour lessons with Boston College head golf coach Trevor Drum for $80 (a 43 percent discount, Divoty said.)

“Our mission is to secure any deals that can get people playing more, or playing better,’’ said cofounder Brian Krause. “In the summer months, we’re hoping to see a lot of greens fee deals, but also some deals for golf product and golf retailers, too, if they make sense. And there is a lot of interest from the golf pro community to do deals on lessons, either stand-alone, or as a package to ‘learn & play’ their course.’’

Krause says his Divoty cofounder, Kevin O’Brien, is a former golf pro at the Cohasset Golf Club and Myopia Hunt Club. They have bootstrapped the company, and plan to present a new deal to Divoty subscribers every three days at the start.

Divoty isn’t the only “daily deal’’ site designed for duffers, of course. But competitors like 14 Stix and CaddiesBag are focused more on golf apparel, equipment, and accessories as opposed to regionally relevant lessons and greens fees.

For the full Innovation Economy blog, updated daily, visit