Of Drivable Airplanes, Hair-Raising, OLPC, Card-Counting, Black Silicon, & More: New England’s Top Innovation Stories of 2008

Xconomy Boston — 

What did the New England innovation community devote itself to, struggle with, and just plain obsess over in 2008? Well, as you might expect, the answer was far different from 2007. Last year at this time we were reminiscing about iRobot’s legal battles with Robotic FX, the upheaval at Mitsubishi’s computer research lab in Cambridge, MA, and the strategy behind EMC’s acquisition of Mozy.

This year, we’ve got flying cars (oops, I mean drivable airplanes), the triumphs and tribulations of Nicholas Negroponte’s OLPC organization, the real story behind the movie 21, and a scientific effort to stop baldness, among other picks. These favorites fall into two camps: most popular (based purely on page views) and editors’ picks. Taken together, they span IT, mobile, life sciences, health, energy, transportation, and more.

Most Popular

1) Drivable Airplanes

Wade evidently hit a nerve when he profiled the efforts of Woburn, MA-based Terrafugia to make a new type of vehicle—what it calls a “roadable aircraft”—that takes off and flies like a plane, but then can be converted into a car in under 30 seconds. That story, back in May, touched off a firestorm of comments against the idea on our site and over at Slashdot. We followed up five days later with a Q&A with CEO Carl Dietrich, who responded to his critics (even if he didn’t manage to satisfy all of them).

2) The OLPC saga

MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte’s grand idea for an affordable laptop for kids in the developing world turned out to be one of the most popular—and controversial—topics of the year. Wade’s live blogging coverage of the May announcement of OLPC’s latest product was our second-most popular story of the year. But the OLPC story hardly ended—or began—with that. Earlier in the year, we ran a detailed interview with Negroponte, covered his fight with Intel, and broke the news of OLPC co-founder Walter Bender quitting the organization, saying it had lost its way.

3) Card-Counting and the MIT Blackjack Team

In March, the movie 21 came out depicting the exploits of the MIT card-counting blackjack team. In the days leading up to the debut, I tracked down John Chang, who is living in Las Vegas and was the basis for Micky Rosa, the team mentor played by Kevin Spacey. Or at least that’s what Chang says. John Chang’s story, our third most-popular of the year, helped sparked a mini-feud with Bill Kaplan, who co-founded, trained, and financed the MIT team—and who now runs Newton, MA-based FreshAddress, which Wade wrote about a few days later.

4) The Black Silicon Revolution

No. 4 with our readers was the story of Harvard spinoff SiOnyx and its … Next Page »

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