The New England Venture Capital Association and five of its member firms will sponsor free Kendall Square desks for early-stage entrepreneurs, starting March 31st. The 2,500 square foot space will be part of a new co-working facility — where numerous start-up teams share open space instead of hermetically-sealed offices — called CriticalMass that will be part of the Cambridge Innovation Center.
Nancy Saucier, a spokesperson for NEVCA, says that the five firms sponsoring the space will choose the entrepreneurs who get "golden tickets." (Others can pay $250 a month to have access to the same space.) The current sponsors will cover the costs for about 48 entrepreneurs a year to get three months of free rent, but Saucier says other NEVCA members have expressed interest in getting involved with the program, and she expects that as many as 100 tickets could be handed out annually. Sponsoring VC firms will also have conference rooms with their names on the door, which they'll use periodically to meet with entrepreneurs (but which will otherwise be open to CriticalMass denizens.) CriticalMass will also host Q&A sessions with angel investors, as well as "how to" workshops geared to entrepreneurs.
How will entrepreneurs get a "golden ticket"? They'll be doled out by the venture capital firms underwriting CriticalMass. Saucier notes that entrepreneurs who take advantage of a sponsored pass to the CriticalMass space won't be under any obligation to the sponsoring firm.
The initial sponsors of CriticalMass are Charles River Ventures, Highland Capital Partners, North Bridge Venture Partners, Bain Capital Ventures, and Flybridge Capital Partners. Many of the partners of those firms have been participants in regular "office hours" sessions that the NEVCA has held at the Cambridge Innovation Center's Venture Cafe. I'm told the idea for CriticalMass came about when Saucier, Cambridge Innovation Center CEO Tim Rowe, and Jamie Goldstein of North Bridge and the NEVCA began talking about how to take those weekly office hours sessions a few steps further.
A grand opening for the new space is scheduled for March 31st.
It was great fun to show up at the Empty Tallboy (a/k/a Fan Pier) yesterday for the team presentations that wrapped up the Boston Hack Day Challenge. Twenty-six teams had been working since Friday night on Web sites and mobile apps geared to making life better in Boston. The judges (including this blogger) got to show up at the very end, eat mini-Snickers and swill bottled water, and act all judgmental. The event was sponsored by the Boston Globe and Boston.com.
The projects were each impressive in their own way, but we were asked to evaluate how much the teams had actually gotten done over the weekend; how much of a Boston focus there was to the app; and whether the app would somehow improve life for city-dwellers. We didn't have a chance to get hands-on time with the apps, but instead had to judge them based on five-minute presentations, which I'm sure short-changed some teams. The grand prize was an invitation to use Paul Pierce's private box for an upcoming Celtics game, but the judges decided to award a second grand prize, and Globe publisher Chris Mayer was kind enough to spontaneously offer a handful of Sox tickets to that team. (That's Mike Schneider of Allen & Gerritsen, at right, working the whiteboard in the judges' conference room.)
* Note: some of the sites below work...and some don't, since these are all relatively-fragile demos.
We awarded one grand prize to Boston Green (@BosGreenSpace on Twitter), which had built a simple, elegant iPhone app to help urbanites find green spaces in the city, regardless of whether a park is run by the Department of Conservation & Recreation or the City of Cambridge, for instance. The app supplies info about which parks are dog-friendly, which host concerts and events, and which ones sport great playgrounds for the kids. The other grand prize went to KnowEssentials (@KnowEssentials on Twitter), a text-message-based service aimed at providing information about food pantries, shelters, and social services to those who need them. The team also talked about making it easy for non-profits and government agencies to publish information about new services or offerings through their platform.
Best news-oriented project went to BigNewsBoston, which displays the hottest stories right now on Boston.com, across a number of categories like sports, business, and opinion.
Best mobile app went to Drunken Stumble, created to help you plan a pub crawl, invite friends, track how many places you've been, and call a taxi at the end of the night to get home safely. (Not surprisingly, Drunken Stumble also won the "audience favorite" award.)
CanHazParking nabbed the "best Boston-centric" prize for an app that informs you, based on your location, whether it's OK to park on the street. Is there a snow emergency? Street cleaning? The app lets you know whether you "CanHaz" a spot without fear of getting a ticket, or "NoCanHaz."
Best use of geo-location went to Accessible Places, a mobile-friendly Web site that aims to collect information from its users about handicapped accessibility around the city, and then make it available to people planning trips.
Finally, the "most socially connected" award went to a team calling itself the Zombie Programmers, who had built a mobile app to estimate when a Green Line trolley will arrive, which would collect information about the trolley's whereabouts from other riders. We liked the reliance on crowd-sourcing to deliver information the MBTA can't yet supply.
We also gave a special commendation to Open Civic Data group, which promotes making information about cities — like the location of T stops or fire hydrants — more standardized and accessible.
We wished that there had been more prizes to dole out, since there were lots more deserving projects.
Here are some videos of the teams talking about their projects, shot on Saturday:
And here's a video wrap-up shot by the Globe's Suzanne Kreiter:
I was speaking earlier this week to a group of people who largely run established institutions in Boston, whether trade associations, think tanks, or non-profits.
My message, as it often is, is that we're in the midst of a cultural revolution: remaking the region's innovation economy, supporting first-time entrepreneurs in new ways, and breaking down barriers between college campuses and the business world.
Here's a list I shared of initiatives that I think are at the heart of this shift, making Boston a more permeable town — a place where connections happen much more spontaneously than they used to.
How many of these have you participated in or contributed to?
- Stay in MA
- Greenhorn Connect
- OpenCoffee Cambridge
- Venture Cafe
- Startup Weekend
- TechStars Boston
- Mass Innovation Nights
- Innovation Open Houses (a series of events for students I was involved with starting)
- Web Innovators Group
(This isn't intended to be a comprehensive list.... but feel free to add others in the comments.)
As CarGurus CEO Langley Steinert puts it, "What you start out doing is not always what you end up doing."
As an early investor in TripAdvisor, and later an executive at the company, Steinert was close to the action as the start-up nearly ran out of money trying to license the travel content it had accumulated to various Internet portals. Eventually, TripAdvisor decided to develop its own destination site, which has since grown into the biggest online travel community in the world, with more than 50 million monthly visitors.
He left TripAdvisor after it was sold, and in 2006 started CarGurus. "Initially, we said, `let's take the learnings from TripAdvisor around user reviews and community,'" Steinert says, with the goal of building a site where consumers would review and discuss cars and car-related services.
That didn't exactly take CarGurus from 0 to 60 at the speed of a McLaren. The community features, Steinert says, weren't "a complete failure, but we haven't exactly buried Edmunds.com."
So, Steinert says, "two years ago, we were thinking, `Wouldn't it be cool to develop a price comparison engine for used cars, kind of like Kayak does for airfare or Zillow does for real estate?' So we had a couple engineers who started skunk-working it." The project became "DealFinder," now the most prominent feature on CarGurus' home page. It collects and analyzes information about two million used vehicles every day, looking at things like option packages and mileage, and comparing the way similar vehicles are priced. (DealFinder looks not just at cars on the market today, but those listed over the past three months.) It then supplies an opinion about whether a used car's price is "great," "good," "fair," "poor," or blatantly "overpriced." (A 1986 Porsche 911 with 91,000 miles is overpriced at $29,995, but a 1991 Porsche 911 convertible with just 77,000 miles, not surprisingly, is a great deal at $23,995.)
While having their inventory branded as a bad deal can anger some used car dealers (notoriously an honorable and upright bunch), Steinert says that many are happy with the site. When they're selling a vehicle at a good price, CarGurus sends them a steady stream of prospects, Steinert says, and in return, it earns about $10 for every lead. CarGuru's analysis, he says, means that "the consumer is already pre-disposed to think that they are getting a good deal."
CarGurus also provides information about how many days a given vehicle has been on the market, which gives savvy buyers a little more negotiating leverage.
Steinert tells me that CarGurus was profitable for all of 2010, with 230 percent revenue growth (and 739 percent traffic growth) over the prior year.
The company, headquartered in Harvard Square, hasn't raised any venture capital financing. (Steinert says he raised "a small amount of capital" from his friends, family, and "the TripAdvisor mafia.") CarGurus has 17 employees. On its board are TripAdvisor CEO Stephen Kaufer and Simon Rothman, formerly general manager of eBay Motors.
Last week, MIT Sloan student and OnChip Power CEO Vanessa Green was signing the papers on her company's first round of funding: $1.8 million from Venrock and Arunas Chesonis, chairman of PAETEC Holding and an MIT alumnus.
OnChip is commercializing new power electronics technology developed at MIT's Laboratory for Electromagnetic and Electronics Systems. Essentially, it aims to reduce the size of the transformer "brick" required by many high-tech devices to convert alternating current to direct current, and ramp down the voltage from the 120 volts that spills from a standard wall outlet. Green says the company will likely focus on LED lighting applications first, where the transformer must be integrated into the bulb itself.
"Our core innovation applies across consumer electronics segments — anywhere you have a power supply," Green says. "It lets you get similar efficiencies to conventional power supplies, but much smaller form factors. Initially, we're focusing on LED applications, particularly the A19, which is your standard, 'Edison' form factor bulb."
Green's co-founders at OnChip are (from left) George Hwang (who earned his PhD from MIT last year), Anthony Sagneri (still working on his doctoral dissertation), and Justin Burkhart (Master's last year). MIT prof David Perreault is serving as an advisor to the company.
The Venrock partner leading the deal, Matt Trevithick, earned his undergrad degree and MBA at MIT, where he says he spent some time in the LEES Lab where OnChip's technology gestated.
"People have been focused on LED emitters [the chips that convert electricity into light in an LED bulb]," Trevithick says. "So much money and talent has been invested there that we have some really good emitters. But we think the focus of innovation needs to be on what some people would consider the more pedestrian side, which is the power supply." Trevithick says that if OnChip can produce a power supply that is smaller and less expensive than what exists today, it'll leave room in the bulb for other features — such as an ambient light sensor that would adjust the lamp's output based on how dark or light it is in the room. Also, he says, "driving down the cost will increase the size of the market for LED lighting." (Home Depot sells a standard-sized LED bulb for $18, but says that it says can last up to 46 years.)
Trevithick says OnChip will focus first on power supplies integrated into LED lighting: "It's a great place for a start-up to be, because there aren't a lot of entrenched incumbents. LED illumination will grow into a very large market, and people are looking for new solutions." But eventually, OnChip could move into power supplies for laptops, printers, and mobile phones. Among the smallest transformers around is the cube-shaped, 1-inch by 1-inch plug that accompanies the Apple iPhone. "OnChip thinks they could do the same thing, but it'd be about the thickness of three quarters," Trevithick says. That could lead to transformers being integrated into more devices, rather than sitting around under your desk, or hogging up three outlets on a power strip.
Green says OnChip will likely develop a few early products on its own, "because there's enough design work that needs to be done on our end that is specific to the product," but the company may also license its technology to partners focused on certain markets.
OnChip is currently based in Polaris Ventures' rent-free Dogpatch Labs space in Kendall Square, but Green says that may change as the company uses the new funding to bring on a few additional employees, and set up an electronics lab. "We're working toward a number of technical milestones that will continue to be our focus over the next year," she says.
OnChip won second prize last year in the national Cleantech Open business plan competition.
In addition to raising money for OnChip, Green has been keeping busy as the managing director of MIT's annual energy conference, taking place next month.
It never hurts to highlight the parallels between your nascent start-up and a more successful and established company. The comparison that Pixability founder Bettina Hein likes to draw is between her 10-person Cambridge firm and Constant Contact, the publicly-traded Waltham company with more than 600 employees. Just as Constant Contact made it easier for small and mid-sized businesses to send out e-mail newsletters and marketing messages to their customers without being considered spammers, Pixability wants to help businesses make better use of online video.
"Creating video is really a hurdle for most smaller companies," says Hein. "They may not have a camera, they may not know who to hire, and they don't know where the video needs to be once it's finished — like YouTube and Facebook." (Hein is second from the left in the picture. The other members of the Pixability team shown are, from left, Andreas Goeldi, CTO, Yelena Kadeykina, marketing director, and Apollo Sinkevicius, operations director.)
Pixability helps its clients produce videos for as little as $895, which can be added to their corporate Web sites and also uploaded to video-sharing sites where prospective customers might find them. (YouTube, Hein points out, is now the #2 search engine people use to find information online, after Google.) For that entry-level price, the company ships out a hand-held Flip video camera, and asks you to shoot up to 30 minutes of raw footage. Once you upload the footage you've shot to a private "online project area," Pixability then handles the editing, integrating imagery like logos, PowerPoint slides, photos, or Web site screenshots. (They also add music.) The whole project gets done within two weeks from the time you upload the footage. One key to Pixability's speed is that the videos are edited by a network of several dozen freelance editors around the country, rather than Pixability staffers.
The company was founded in 2008 to help consumers edit video footage of birthday parties and summer vacations. "That didn't fly," Hein says. In the fall of 2009, she decided to concentrate exclusively on video for businesses, and raised a small seed round from angel investors.
This latest $1 million funding round came together after Hein spoke at a meeting of the Angel Capital Association in Worcester last October. The focus was deal syndication: how the groups could collaborate better when making investments. Now, Pixability will become a kind of poster child for syndication among angel groups. Its latest round includes money from nine different angel groups, including Maine Angels, the eCoast Angel Network in New Hampshire, North Country Angels in Vermont, and Boston Harbor Angels and Launchpad Angel Group in Boston.
Hein says the largest single investor in Pixability is IKEA chairman Göran Grosskopf; he was also an investor and board member at Hein's last start-up, a speech recognition company in Zurich, Switzerland called SVOX AG.
Hein says that only about 15 percent of Pixability's customers so far have been from the Boston area, but that group includes companies like CloudSwitch, High Start Group, MIT, and Houghton Mifflin.
Several of Pixability's board members and board observers, interestingly, have ties to Constant Contact: two were early investors in the e-mail marketing company, and one, Janet Muto, once served as Constant Contact's chief marketing officer.
Hein is also the founder of a networking group for about 100 female leaders called the "She-EOs," which convenes once a month for a meal. (There is no Web site yet.)
(The Globe covered Pixability in greater detail last May.)
It wasn't a good month for CMGI stock...networking equipment makers Sonus Networks and Sycamore were among the top five...You could buy shares of StorageNetworks for $20 (it'd liquidate in 2003)...companies like Netegrity, Digitas, Keane, Acterna, and RSA Security had yet to be acquired...and telecom gear maker Avici Systems was starting to slide (it finally went out of business in 2009.)
EMC, incidentally, has grown by nearly 20,000 employees since 2001...
But Peformable co-founders David Cancel, Joshua Porter and Elias Torres — all of whom are well-known on the start-up scene thanks to copious blogging, tweeting, and prior entrepreneurial activity — packed their new high-ceilinged Central Square space with people on a frigid February evening.
Performable, founded in 2009 and previously based in Newburyport, aims to help companies turn more of the visitors to their Web sites into paying customers.
MITX board member and poet Don Bulens (who worked with Cancel at Compete) and Shareaholic founder Jay Meattle... Oneforty CEO Laura Fitton... TechStars Boston director Katie Rae... Blueleaf CEO John Prendergast (whose online financial management start-up shares space with Performable)... Tourfilter founder Chris Marstall and Brian Del Vecchio of Digital Lumens (pictured at left)...Svpply founder Ben Pieratt...Greg Raiz of Raizlabs...Chase Garbarino of BostInnovation...Reed Sturtevant of Project 11 Ventures...MassChallenge Chief Mentoring Officer Karl Büttner...Wendy Troupe of Terametric...Tom Summit of TalentGraphz and CSN Stores...Jules and Desmond Pieri...new Performable employee Alex Patriquin...and FitnessKeeper founder Jason Jacobs.
Greg Bialecki, Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economy Development, with David Cancel.
Compete president Scott Ernst, Bill Schnoor of Goodwin Procter, and Ted Dintersmith, once a Waltham venture capitalist, now a gentleman farmer residing in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Serial entrepreneur Wayne Chang with Cort Johnson of DartBoston; Johnson recently left SCVGNR and is cooking up something new at the Dogpatch Labs space in Cambridge.
Onetime Harvard roomies Hugo Van Vuuren and Andrew Bialecki of Performable.
Cambridge-based General Catalyst Partners recently made its biggest energy industry investment thus far, acquiring a majority stake in CLEAResult, a 300-person company headquartered in Austin that works with utilities to design and implement energy efficiency campaigns.
CLEAResult is already active in 15 states, but CEO Glenn Garland says that the new funding will enable the firm to become a national player. By the end of March, the company hopes to have a small Boston office open and staffed.
Last year, CLEAResult was ranked by Inc. Magazine as the 144th fastest-growing private company in the U.S. Garland says 2010 revenues surpassed $40 million.
"Utilities are 98 percent of our business," Garland says. "We act as an extension of their staff. Most utilities are working under either a regulatory or statutory goal to achieve a certain energy efficiency target, like a reduction in total kilowatt hours used in their market."
CLEAResult helps utilities communicate with their customers. Sometimes, CLEAResult employees go out to homes and businesses to conduct energy efficiency audits, and in other instances, they may direct a utility customer to other contractors in their market. Audits are on-site inspections that typically point to a number of ways a building's energy efficiency can be improved, like better seals around exterior doors, or better insulation in the attic.
"We find that cost isn't usually one of the barriers to someone doing something about energy efficiency," Garland says. "It's that they don't have the knowledge or expertise to make judgments like which contractor to hire, or what level of efficiency they should try to attain."
In some markets, like Nevada, CLEAResult also helps utility customers install certain small-scale renewable generating technologies, like solar panels, wind turbines, or hydropower.
"We've been looking to make an investment in this space for three years now," says Hemant Taneja of General Catalyst. "We want to enable them to go from 15 states to 50 states."
Prior to the General Catalyst investment, Garland says the company had been "completely bootstrapped. We did it the old-fashioned way — with credit cards."
Taneja wouldn't be specific about the amount General Catalyst had paid for its stake in CLEAResult, aside from saying that it is the firm's biggest energy-related investment to date.
Former Massachusetts energy secretary Ian Bowles expects that CLEAResult's entry to the New England marketplace — often considered relatively far along with its energy efficiency initiatives — could help spur competition. "We need more market participants offering innovative, well-designed, cost effective solutions in order to get more energy and bill savings and drive competition," he wrote in an e-mail.
But CloudTree is a cloud-y start-up that's tough to ignore: its management team hails from local companies like EqualLogic, Ellacoya Networks, Arbor Networks, Virtual Iron, and Whaleback Systems. And they've had no trouble, apparently, raising north of $1 million in start-up funds from angel investors.
I had lunch yesterday with co-founders Kurt Dobbins and Phil Bedard (pictured at right) to talk about the business. They both left security specialist Arbor Networks in November 2009, and incorporated CloudTree in early 2010. Working on the start-up are a team of about 11 full-time employees and contractors. Most work off-site, but CloudTree also has an office in Waltham.
The entire company, Dobbins says, is itself built upon cloud technology, meaning that they didn't have to buy a single server to do software development. The company's objective is to build new cloud-based applications for wireless carriers, geared to helping them retain subscribers for the long-term. (Can you say "Verizon iPhone"?) They say they're in discussions with several carriers about starting initial tests soon.
Bedard says, "We want to help the carriers accelerate deployment of new features and applications, so they see lower attrition. Just look at what has been happening to Sprint's subscriber base. We want to create stickiness for them."
A first application, which they call "Social Connect," wants to render the address book obsolete on your mobile phone, and replace it with your lists of friends and connections on various social networks. It'd enable you to pull up a friend's name, and communicate with them through whatever channel is convenient for each of you: you could send a text message from your mobile phone that would appear on Twitter or Skype or AIM, for instance. Or you could place a phone call that reaches them on a desktop voice-calling client like Google Chat. "Essentially, phone numbers go away," Dobbins says. "It becomes all about identities." They say the service would also make it possible to send texts to groups of contacts, and eventually to initiate video chats. And their goal is for "Social Connect" to work on any kind of phone — not just the latest smartphone.
CloudTree also acquired a small maker of desktop conferencing and communication software called Yakkle, and hired its creator, Tom Hazel. That, they suggest, could enable their wireless carrier customers to distribute a branded desktop application that would interact with Social Connect.
CloudTree's founders say they aren't yet in a position where they need to be talking to venture capital firms, but they don't discount the possibility of raising a VC round at some point in the future. The last company that Dobbins co-founded, New Hampshire-based Ellacoya Networks, raised an astounding $145 million before being sold to Arbor Networks, another venture-backed company (for an undisclosed sum.)
The museum spent $9 million on the planetarium's overhaul, including $2 million for a new Zeiss Starmaster Projector that's parked on a platform at the auditorium's core. It uses light and fiber optics to splash an array of stars on the planetarium's 57-foot dome, made of perforated aluminum panels. (There's only one other projector like it in the U.S.) Augmenting the Zeiss are two Sony high-resolution digital projectors, tucked away on opposite sides of the dome.
Museum types don't like to brag, but it may be the best-equipped planetarium in the U.S. today. (The seats are comfy, too.) The resolution is so good that you can take a pair of binoculars with you — planetarium director David Rabkin lent me a pair — to bring the finest astronomical details into focus. The museum has also created a brand-new, half hour show, "Undiscovered Worlds," which explores newly-discovered planets that orbit stars similar to our sun.
Tonight, there's a press preview, and tomorrow night, VIPs will fill the planetarium's 209 seats. Among those expected Thursday are Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, New York City Mayor (and Medford native) Michael Bloomberg, and U.S. Senator Scott Brown. Friday, there's a "Tweetup Under the Stars," accessible only to a lucky few folks who are fans of the museum on Facebook or who follow its Twitter account. Saturday, there are shows for museum members, and on Sunday, the planetarium opens to the public (though there have been sporadic test shows inside it since mid-December.)
My take: there's no better mid-winter destination in Boston. (Especially if you play hooky from work...)
- Boston Globe obituary: "Mr. Olsen launched Digital in 1957 in a defunct woolen mill in Maynard with $70,000 in venture capital. For a time, Mr. Olsen, his partner, Harlan Anderson, and his brother Stanley Olsen were the company’s only employees. With innovation after innovation, Mr. Olsen and Digital helped create the computer industry. At one point, the company was valued at about $14 billion."
"...Adjusting for inflation, Fortune [Magazine] said, Digital was bigger than Ford Motor Co. at the death of its founder, Henry Ford, and also larger than US Steel when Andrew Carnegie sold his company or Standard Oil when John D. Rockefeller stepped aside."
In a tribute to him in 2006, Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder, called Mr. Olsen “one of the true pioneers of computing,” adding, “He was also a major influence on my life.”
Mr. Gates traced his interest in software to his first use of a DEC computer as a 13-year-old. He and Microsoft’s other founder, Paul Allen, created their first personal computer software on a DEC PDP-10 computer.
In the 1960s, Digital built small, powerful and elegantly designed “minicomputers,” which formed the basis of a lucrative new segment of the computer marketplace. Though hardly “mini” by today’s standards, the computer became a favorite alternative to the giant, multimillion-dollar mainframe computers sold by I.B.M. to large corporate customers.
- Gordon College's "About Ken Olsen" page (Olsen was a long-time trustee and supporter of the Christian college, in Wenham)
- Gordon College also produced this video, "The Legacy of Ken Olsen," which includes reminiscences from several former DEC employees:
- WBUR obituary, from tech reporter Curt Nickisch
- Photos from a Ken Olsen tribute held at Gordon College in 2006
- Olsen's profile in the National Inventor's Hall of Fame
- James Connolly of Mass High Tech reminisces about a long-ago Ken Olsen photo shoot at the Mill in Maynard.
- Video: Commemorating 40 years of Digital
It seems a foregone conclusion that French pharmaceutical-maker Sanofi-Aventis will buy Cambridge's Genzyme Corp. sometime soon for about $20 billion. That'll end Genzyme's thirty-year stretch as one of the most innovative (and at times, controversial) pioneers of the biotech industry. With about 12,000 employees and $4 billion in annual revenues, Genzyme is not only the biggest biotech company in Massachusetts, but it's one of the last of the first-generation biotech companies still standing as an independent business. (Two years ago, a Swiss company, Roche Holdings, paid $46 billion for the very first biotech firm, San Francisco-based Genentech, founded in 1976.)
Genzyme was one of those classic Massachusetts success stories — a company obsessed with figuring out how to do the impossible. The company's very first product treated a rare and previously untreatable malady called Gaucher's disease. Genzyme developed its first treatment by extracting and purifying an enzyme out of human placentas (yikes: it required 22,000 placentas to treat a single patient for one year), and later it pioneered a method of making a synthetic form of the enzyme using genetically engineered animal cells. In the years since, Genzyme has developed and acquired other products to treat rare diseases like Gaucher's, as well as kidney disease and arthritis. It has poured tens of millions into cultivating new drugs for cystic fibrosis and multiple sclerosis, too.
This morning, I was remembering when I first interviewed Genzyme CEO Henri Termeer, back in 2003. Sitting in the company's brand-new Kendall Square high-rise, he recalled how in the late 1970s and early 1980s, biotechnology was seen as a field of enormous promise, but companies were applying it in all sorts of ways that turned out to be economically unsustainable: developing perm treatments, dying fabric, unclogging drains. "People just had no idea how these technologies could be best leveraged," Termeer said. When he joined Genzyme, in 1983, the company had fewer than a dozen employees. A research collaboration with the National Institutes of Health led to the company's first product, even after a first clinical trial showed poor results.
Genzyme and other Boston biotech companies, like Biogen and Genetics Institute, grew here, Termeer told me, because of the presence of top-notch universities and venture capitalists with money to invest. One thing that wasn't here: big pharma companies. Their absence allowed Genzyme and others to hire the best scientists and product development people, and point them at audacious goals. "It was a magnificently pioneering time," Termeer said. The biggest pharmaceutical companies were focused on making "enormous money with small, incremental improvements on their products," and then hawking those improvements with their "enormous marketing power." That created a vacuum in which Genzyme and a handful of other big biotechs grew.
Boston has changed since then. Most major pharma companies have set up research outposts here to tap the talent coming out of local universities. And they regularly acquire both private and public biotech companies here to fill their product pipelines. In the life sciences industry, the odds of spawning independent, enduring, iconoclastic "tentpole" companies like Genzyme weren't high in 1981, but they're far lower now. The biggest players in pharma have fortified themselves with formidable sales forces and distribution channels — and there isn't much logic in challenging them. (Cambridge-based Biogen Idec, which has been narrowing its focus to neurological diseases, could be the next to get gobbled.)
It's interesting to wonder whether Genzyme would still be trucking along as an independent company if Termeer had groomed an obvious successor to lead the company once he retires...or if the company hadn't encountered a lengthy series of manufacturing problems that began in 2009.
Can Genzyme be anywhere near as innovative a company inside the corporate hull of Sanofi as it has been on its own? Will Termeer stick around in any kind of substantive way? Betting on either scenario is like betting that the sequel to a movie you loved will be better than the original.
I'm not excited, you may be able tell, about the prospect of another branch office in Kendall Square.
But I'm also not pessimistic about the likelihood that we will create other Genzymes here... as long as there are small teams of researchers in grubby office space who believe they see some glimmer of promise on the horizon, and leaders like Termeer to point them in the right direction.
The clock on your wall lets you know whether you're running late for a meeting, and the thermostat tells you, roughly, what temperature it is. In the 21st century, why isn't there a prominent display in every home and office that clues you in to how much energy you're consuming?
That's the premise behind a new Boston College start-up, Applied Power Innovations, from entrepreneurs (and sophomores) CJ Reim, Rich Rines, and Kevin Driscoll.
Monitoring energy consumption is a busy space, but the trio believe that relying on a Web site or mobile app to present the data won't work. "That requires you to think or take the initiative," says Rines. "Our display is right in front of you all the time."
They've already got a prototype of what they call the Power Dashboard, consisting of two parts: a base unit that connects to an electrical line, and a display unit that can be mounted on a wall or placed on a desk. The base unit can communicate to the display over a range of about 100 feet. The display can present information like how much you're spending on electricity this month versus last month.
They say that clamping the base unit onto a home or apartment's power supply is about a 10-minute installation process, and they project they can sell a finished product for about $200.
Their first target customers will be universities. ("Universities are something we know best," quips Reim.) Many run energy conservation campaigns and contests, but it's hard to motivate students to get involved. But if each dorm room or floor had a display showing how much power they were using, and that data could be compared with others, Applied Power's founders think that the cost savings could surpass 20 or 30 percent.
Reim says that the company is talking to Boston College officials, and may have Applied Power's product in a few buildings on campus by next month — which happens to be "green month" at the school.
So far, they say, they've been building the company without outside funding.
Highland Capital Partners SVP Michael Gaiss tells me that after a one-year hiatus, the venture capital firm is bringing back its Summer@Highland program for student entrepreneurs. The program will take place both in Highland's Lexington office, and in rented space in San Francisco. The goal is to have four to six teams in each location.
"We definitely think about this as an entrepreneurship program, not a seed program," Gaiss says. "That means we're really looking for teams that are three, six, nine or even twelve months away from raising a seed round."
Highland is specifically looking for tech-focused teams, which the firm describes as "SaaS, internet/digital media, infrastructure, energy efficiency, robotics, advanced materials & semiconductors."
Of the start-ups that participated in the three previous Summer@Highland programs, Gaiss says that Highland has funded two (the custom jewelry site Gemvara and video analytics specialist Affine Systems), and three others have raised money from investors other than Highland. (Fifteen teams in total have participated in prior editions of Summer@Highland.)
Each team receives a $15,000 stipend, free office space, plus access to Highland partners and the entrepreneurs in their network. Highland doesn't take equity in the companies that participate, and there's not even a requirement to give the firm first crack at funding. At least one member of each team must be a current student, or have graduated no earlier than December 2010. The application deadline is April 7th.
A dozen years after it was founded, the MIT spin-out MicroCHIPS has finally started testing its implantable drug delivery system in humans. MicroCHIPS CEO Ajit Gill tells me the company began the study last month in Denmark, implanting its small, subcutaneous device in eight women suffering from osteoporosis.
The MicroCHIPS device, pictured at right, will be delivering a drug called Forteo, made by Eli Lilly & Co. and used to increase bone density in patients suffering from severe osteoporosis. Currently, women who take the drug need to give themselves daily injections. Eventually, MicroCHIPS aims to market a device that could deliver the drug for about a year — no needle pokes required. (Most patients on Forteo, a synthetic version of parathyroid hormone, take it for about two years, Gill says.) The implant can be done in a doctor's office with just local anesthetic, says Gill, who joined MicroCHIPS last spring.
The MicroCHIPS device holds tiny doses of a drug inside reservoirs that can pop open on a pre-programmed schedule, or as a doctor deems necessary, triggering releases with a handheld wireless device. (A small pulse of electricity melts a layer of titanium and platinum that seals the top of each reservoir.) This first study in humans will look at how the osteoporosis drug circulates in patients' bodies once it is released.
MicroCHIPS sprang from MIT research done by professors Bob Langer, Michael Cima, and a PhD student of theirs, John Santini, who served as the company's CEO until last year. Early last year, Santini told me that the company had raised more than $70 million to develop its implant, much of it from Polaris Venture Partners in Waltham, Flybridge Capital Partners in Boston, and corporate investors like Medtronic and Novartis.
But Gill tells me the company has shrunk to just four employees, and is using a contractor to oversee the current clinical trial. (He says MicroCHIPS had about twenty employees when he arrived last April.)
Why did it take the company so long to get its device into humans? Gill says that keeping moisture out of the device proved a big headache: "Proteins and peptides are really sensitive to moisture, and hermetically sealing it turned out to be challenging."
MIT professor Langer says that a lot of money was spent exploring whether the device should be used to dispense drugs, or hold an array of sensors that could be exposed to the body over time to detect things like blood sugar level. "Money and time were split between those two ideas," he says. More issues the start-up faced: "Accurately loading and dosing the drug [onto the chip], and formulation and drug stability," Langer says. "It's a totally new kind of technology, and that's both good and bad."
The device that MicroCHIPS is currently testing has just 20 reservoirs that hold individual doses of a drug, but Gill says the product that the company plans to market will have 400 reservoirs. "Our next step will be developing that commercial device and putting it through tests," he says.
Gill says the company has also been exploring using its technology to deliver various multiple sclerosis drugs, and glucagon, a drug used to raise blood sugar levels in diabetics.
And Gill adds that the company will likely need to raise even more money to win FDA approval for its device. Some of that money, he suggests, could come from corporate partners.
Running MIT's Media Lab is one of the more alluring — and challenging — academic gigs in town, and we should know by April the name of the lab's next director.
Nicholas Negroponte created the lab in 1985 with then-MIT president Jerome Wiesner to explore the ways technology, design, and communication were converging. Neither of the two subsequent directors have really made much of an imprint on the place, though outgoing director Frank Moss did successfully introduce the theme of developing new technologies to help the sick and disabled, and dialed up the emphasis on turning lab research into start-up ventures. [Update: Moss phoned me after this post initially appeared, noting that he landed 28 new sponsors for the lab's work within the past two years, and hired five new faculty members during his five-year tenure.]
"I think there is a short list" of candidates, says Idit Harel Caperton, an entrepreneur and Media Lab alum who serves on the lab's visiting committee. "We're looking very long-term. It's an important time for the lab. The new building is fantastic, and there are amazing fundraising opportunities. The lab is inventing the future, but also inventing a better world — using technology and innovation to really make the world a better place for everyone, including those with special needs and poor people."
One former Media Lab researcher told me via e-mail that the new director "needs to be a person who is to some degree amphibious, able to swim with sharks in academia as well as the whales in industry...a person with some personal vision, but also the ability (like a great orchestral director) to let other soloists carry the day."
My hunch: the lab is going to hire a young-ish academic with plentiful energy, rather than selecting someone from industry...someone who will invigorate the Media Lab without trying to alter its trajectory too much. Some people who'd be interesting candidates (these are people who'd be on my list of individuals worth talking to — not necessarily who is on the search committee's short list):
Danny Hillis, the MIT alum who founded supercomputer-maker Thinking Machines, and subsequently worked at Disney....Liz Altman, once a Motorola mobile devices executive who served as a liaison to the Media Lab, and now a doctoral student at Harvard Business School...Larry Smarr of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology...Krisztina Holly, formerly executive director of MIT's Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, and now a vice provost at USC...Joe Marks, who once ran Mitsubishi's R&D Lab in Cambridge, but is now vice president of Disney Research...Rich Miner, an investor at Google Ventures who earlier headed up the Cambridge R&D Lab for Orange, the French telecom company...and John Maeda, a former Media Lab prof who became president of the Rhode Island School of Design back in 2008, but might be lured back (his family still lives in the Boston area.)
"I hope to get a person who cares about diversity," says Caperton, "one who can bring more women, more Hispanics, and more African Americans in, as well as more international faculty and students. MIT at large has been doing a lot better at that than the Media Lab."
Moss tells me he has already stepped down as director — a bit earlier than expected — so that he can spend more time finishing a book that is due out this June, tentatively titled, "The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives." Moss says he hasn't yet determined what his next full-time job will be, but says he'll serve on the board of a Cambridge company he helped start called Bluefin Labs. Moss will continue working at the Media Lab one day a week, heading a research group he created called New Media Medicine.
Until the next director arrives, a committee headed by faculty member Mitchell Resnick is running the lab. I'm told that Negroponte has been spending more time at his office in the Media Lab — an intimidating prospect to whomever steps into the wheelhouse of the boat he built.
The richest man in Los Angeles, Patrick Soon-Shiong, just bought a tiny Cambridge start-up that sells smart pill packaging, Vitality Inc. Terms of the purchase weren't disclosed, but Soon-Shiong had already been the biggest investor in Vitality, which also attracted funding from MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte and other Boston-area angels.
Vitality's first product, the GlowCap, fits on the top of a standard plastic prescription pill bottle. Its job is to remind you to take an important medication daily, getting your attention when you open the medicine cabinet with a blinking light — or an assortment of increasingly loud chimes. The GlowCap can text a family member if you forget to take the medication, and it can also send its data over the Internet to create a monthly report of how closely you adhered to your medication regimen. It's up to you whether you want to share the information with your doctor. The GlowCap talks directly to a small wireless base station plugged into an electrical outlet — no computer or WiFi network required. (The base station, pictured at right on the desk of Vitality CEO David Rose, gets its Internet access from AT&T's wireless network.) GlowCaps can also send text messages or make phone calls to remind you that it's almost time for a refill. Vitality makes the case that most American's don't take medications as prescribed — skipping them, for instance, if they happen to feel good one morning — which can cause a disease to worsen, resulting in higher healthcare costs.
Soon-Shiong earned his fortune in the pharmaceutical industry (he helped develop a breast cancer drug called Abraxane), and he's apparently interested in technologies that can radically reengineer the country's healthcare system (on Twitter, his username is "Solvehealthcare.") In 2010, the Los Angeles Business Journal estimated his net worth at $7 billion.
Soon-Shiong is also a minority owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, and the deal to acquire Vitality was hashed out in his courtside seats in late December, says Vitality CEO David Rose. Rose adds that sitting next to them at the game were Zynga CEO Mark Pincus and DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg. The transaction closed in January.
Rose and Vitality president Josh Wachman say they'll stay on, and that they're focused on developing new products, like a colorful and cute wireless pedometer for kids. "Our roadmap," says Wachman, "is to create more things that help people make better decisions every day. We think about things like tracking vitamins and pills, the food you eat, your stress level, or your sleep quality. We're really in the behavior-change business." (Wachman is pictured at left, holding a GlowCap.) The company has a knack for publicity; the GlowCap has already been featured on the "Today Show," mocked by Stephen Colbert, and demonstrated by Dr. Mehmet Oz on "Good Morning America."
Rose says that once a consumer has installed the wireless base station (he refers to it as "the night light," since it emits a gentle glow), it creates an opportunity for Vitality to introduce other wellness-related devices that can take advantage of the same Internet link.
The company first raised money in 2007, and Rose says early investors will see about a 10x return on their money. (A 2009 Information Week article said the company had raised $4 million.)
About Scott Kirsner
Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.
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March 3: Web Innovators Group
Demos, drinks, and schmoozing at the Royal Sonesta in Cambridge.
March 7-8: MassDigi Game Challenge
Competition for aspiring game developers... plus panels and keynotes related to the business of play.
April 3-4: Mass Biotech Annual Meeting
Issues facing the region's life sciences community.