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MIT 100K and Energy Prize—Impressions From the Finalist Party

Xconomy Boston — 

The five track winners for the MIT 100K business plan competition were announced on Friday. These teams will compete in the finals on Wednesday, along with the winner of its sister contest, the MIT Clean Energy Prize competition (that team will be announced next Tuesday). All five track winners, and three of the five Energy Prize finalists (all those with MIT ties), gathered Friday night at Bob Metcalfe’s house in the Back Bay for a small celebration of their making it so far.

Metcalfe, now a general partner at Polaris Venture Partners, has hosted a party for the 100K finalists for many years. As is also the tradition, finalists select one team member to stand on the stairs leading to the second floor, while guests gather in the foyer below them to hear their very short (60-second or so) pitches. I’ve been to several of these gatherings, and others that are similar—and always enjoy them. This year, though, the teams seemed to have risen to another level in terms of both their poise and the sophistication of their pitches. For the first time, I came away pretty sure that not only would a few of these plans turns into real businesses, but that one or two might even be significant businesses. (So, hey—remember when Xconomy spotted you.)

Below are my capsule descriptions of the eight finalists (out of some 260 that entered the two competitions), along with a few impressions. Congratulations to all:

—-Ksplice (100K Web/IT track winner): This teams wins the prize for most rarin’ to go, for sure. When someone asked who wanted to start things off, Waseem Daher’s hand shot up as fast as an Olympic badminton player reacting to a smash. What he was so eager to talk about is technology that enables the installation of operating system and application updates on running systems, without the need for rebooting the computer or restarting the application. The initial target market is enterprise systems, where such updates mean downtime and lost productivity, according to Daher. Although Ksplice only works on Linux systems right now, he envisions every operating system and application employing the technology for software updates. Impression: strikes a universal chord in computer users—big potential royalty market.

YouTea! (100K Product and Services track winner): Urinary tract infections strike 11 percent of women each year, according to team spokesperson Alex Herzlinger. YouTea! has a new way to deliver a preventative medicine through “a low-calorie, great tasting” drink, I guess called YouTea!. The team was also a finalist in the Harvard Business Plan competition, where it said it planned to the deliver YouTea! first in powdered form, then in a bottle. Impression: Big market need, but might consider a new name (I thought they were saying UT, as in the University of Texas, hook ’em). And, even if it really does taste great, there’s always the question of how many people will take preventative measures in the first place (see Cambridge Eyenovations below).

Sun Point (Energy prize finalist, winner of renewables category): Eric Cohen described a passive solar tracker, with no motors, gears, or drive train (at least I think I got that right). It goes on top of warehouses, tracks the sun, and enables the gathering of solar energy far more efficiently than traditional solar systems. According to the competition material, Sun Point’s system is aimed primarily at small- and medium-sized solar installations, as a cost-effective alternative to motor-based systems, which are often maintenance intensive. Impression: Like the industrial application—non-sexy, but potentially big impact.

MeterLive (100K mobile track winner): Billboard analytics company. Counts cell phones around public billboards to better gauge how many people actually are likely to see the signs. Promises to bring far more accurate pricing for billboard ads, especially those on digital billboards—a fast growing advertising medium. Impression: Seems like a step in the right direction, just not sure how much better it will be than current tracking, or how big the market is.

Levant Power (Energy prize finalist, transportation category winner): This company has targeted what it sees as a, um, shockingly untapped power source: vehicle suspension systems. Its GenShock product is a replacement for standard shock absorbers that enables the recovery of energy generated when a vehicle bounces around. It converts that energy, which is typically dissipated as heat, into “electricity that can be used directly on the drive train (in hybrids and electrics) or it can displace alternator load (on conventional vehicles),” COO Zack Anderson said in an e-mail. The company, which says its system can enable fuel savings of from 2 percent to 10 percent depending on vehicle type and terrain, is concentrating on the military and commercial markets first, where vehicles can log upwards of 100,000 miles annually. Anderson says this could save Wal-Mart $15 million a year in fuel costs, and that the company is working with AM General to test GenShock on a Humvee. Impression: Brilliant idea, but lots of hidden complications in defense, auto markets.

Cambridge Eyenovations (100K life sciences track winner): Some three million people in the U.S. with glaucoma have to put in eye drops eight times a day to prevent blindness, according to the pitch. Despite the stakes, many abandon the regimen. This idea is for drug-eluting contact lenses that can dispense the medicine automatically so that people don’t need to put in eyedrops at all, and can go a month without changing contact lenses. Impression: big idea, potential far beyond eye drops. But what’s with the puns in names? Cheapens the overall product.

Global Cycle Solutions (100K Development track winner): Tapping the power of bicycles in emerging nations. The idea is to sell peripherals such as water pumps, cell phone chargers, and corn shellers that attach to bikes, allowing them to be powered by pedaling. A corn sheller introduced in farms and villages of Tanzania last summer dramatically reduced manual labor and allowed villagers to shell corn some 40 times faster than manually. Impression: I have no idea how hard the peripherals are to market, deliver, or maintain, but ah shucks, this is a good idea.

Process Water Absorbers (Energy prize finalist, clean hydrocarbons category winner): Clearly farther along than the other teams, in the sense that PWA has 14 patents filed, and two issued, and has a test underway with a Big Five oil producer, according to CEO Stephen Spoonamore, who is also CEO of Ohio-based Absorbent Materials Company, the company from which PWA licenses its filter material. The idea is for a system that cleans up the “produced water” removed in oil drilling, by extracting organics such as toluene, benzene, and xylene, as well as organic acids. The company says filtering such produced water from oil drilling is a $5 billion annual market (produced water is also generated in natural gas and coal bed methane extraction, which are also target markets—and Spoonamore told me the worldwide market for filtering is some $50 billion). Spoonamore says he thinks PWA’s filtration system (as big as a house) can save oil producers 75 cents per barrel by extracting things like toluene that can be resold, and save another 30 cents per barrel on avoiding fines for pollution. First market is oil from near-shore platforms. Impression: Biggest potential market of them all. Must be lots of competition. But I would have liked to hear the pitch from a student. I thought that was the point.

All these companies face a long road to make their dreams reality—and many are in fields rife with competitors. Still, as I mentioned, as a group they are even more impressive than what I’ve seen in the past. And while it’s also impressive that several are in prototype trials already with major potential customers, just for the record, my own favorite is Ksplice. I hate restarting my computer.