Innovation Economy

A list worth watching

By Scott Kirsner
August 22, 2011

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Excerpts from the Innovation Economy blog.

As we head into fall, I’ve been putting together a list of Massachusetts companies worth watching. I’m either eager to see their newest product, or to find out more about their strategy.

AisleBuyer. The Boston company has raised almost $12 million for a mobile app that could replace the cash register, or those self-checkout kiosks you see at Home Depot and CVS. But the company has yet to announce a major retail or restaurant partner since I test-drove the app at Brookline’s Magic Beans baby store last August. What’s brewing?

CyphyWorks. The start-up from iRobot cofounder Helen Greiner raised another $1.2 million last month, and it has won several small government grants. It is working on flying robots that could operate indoors and out for surveillance and inspection, though it has yet to show one in public.

General Compression and SustainX. Both are developing systems that store energy from wind and solar power installations as compressed air, for use in times of peak power demand.

Genzyme. What R&D initiatives will get started under Sanofi’s ownership, and who is actually running things in Cambridge?

Heartland Robotics. What will Heartland’s low-cost manufacturing bots look like, how much will they cost, and how easy will they be to integrate into existing processes? Heartland is the other local start-up from an iRobot founder, Rodney Brooks. I talked to several people who saw demos of its prototypes in November; they described a robot that looks like a human from the waist up, with either one or two arms, and a camera where you might expect the head to be. The robot will be trained to do repetitive tasks - like inserting widgets into boxes - and Heartland is apparently targeting a $5,000 price point.

Kayak and TripAdvisor. If the stock market is hospitable, one or both of the travel sites could go public. Kayak would be the third IPO for Cambridge-based General Catalyst Partners, and TripAdvisor would be a spin-out from Expedia, which is already publicly held. Successful offerings could raise the profile of Boston’s travel cluster.

Lilliputian Systems. The Wilmington company is working on miniature fuel cells for consumer electronics. Imagine just inserting a new butane cartridge in your laptop, instead of plugging it into a wall for a couple of hours. I first met the founder in 2001, and ever since, I’ve been eager to see a demo and learn what sorts of electronics Lilliputian’s technology will work with.

Longwood Founders Fund. This is the new life-sciences-focused venture capital fund from Rich Aldrich, Christoph Westphal, and Michelle Dipp, a trio that was involved with creating Sirtris Pharmaceuticals. I hear they’re incubating some interesting projects.

Retired? I always wonder about next acts. What will Josh Boger, founder of Vertex; Ray Ozzie, former chief software architect at Microsoft; and Jit Saxena, Netezza founder, do next?

Rue La La. EBay picked up the Boston-based “flash sale’’ specialist this year as part of a bigger purchase of GSI Commerce. But Rue La La was spun off as an independent company run by Michael Rubin (with eBay retaining a 30 percent stake). Will Rubin and Ben Fischman, Rue La La CEO, play well together, and what will their growth plans look like in the fiercely competitive online discounting business?

SCVNGR. One of Boston’s highest-profile mobile start-ups. But what’s going to get momentum first: SCVNGR’s first product, a game that involves performing “challenges’’ at different locations to earn points, or its second offering, an app that offers special deals at local establishments, and a way to pay for them using your phone?

Zynga Boston. The San Francisco “social games’’ biggie bought two small Boston game companies recently, Conduit Labs and Floodgate Entertainment. What’s the first game the Zynga Boston team will release? Given Conduit’s background, I’m guessing it will be music- or dance-related.

RelayRide service expanding to Boston RelayRides, the “neighbor-to-neighbor’’ car-sharing service, is jumping the Charles River this month, using $3.6 million in new funds to expand from Cambridge, where the company was founded, into Boston.

The company is also expanding in San Francisco, where it is headquartered.

Unlike Zipcar, which leases the cars in its fleet, RelayRides invites automobile owners to rent out their cars when they are not using need them.

The company was created by a Harvard Business School student, Shelby Clark, and it won a $50,000 prize in the inaugural MassChallenge start-up competition.

Clark said the average vehicle owner is earning about $250 a month by renting out a car through RelayRides, and that the company has 150 cars signed up for the service so far in Cambridge and San Francisco.

(I should note that the gas used by renters, as well as maintenance costs, are deducted from that revenue.)

“We’re starting to cover all of Metro Boston,’’ Clark wrote via e-mail. “The first car that we enrolled in Boston proper (near Boston Common) is an awesome Mercedes CLK convertible, which is available for only $8 an hour (priced lower than most standard car-sharing cars).’’

RelayRides has raised $10 million from a group of investors, including Google Ventures, August Capital, Shasta Ventures, and Lisa Gansky. Several new competitors have cropped up since the company was founded, including Getaround, in San Francisco.

For the full Innovation Economy blog, updated daily, visit