Showcasing a summer of startups

Published: September 12, 2013

At demo day, 13 startup teams present a summer of intensive work at MIT’s Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator

For some, the road to entrepreneurship starts with solving a personal problem.

Shireen Taleghani, MBA ’13, co-founder of 6Sensor Labs, suffers from a gluten allergy, and like 30 million others, grapples with food safety in a world of ambiguous menus and bad labeling.

“For people with food allergies, there is no such thing as a simple bite to eat,” Taleghani said. “One out of three times when ordering ‘gluten free’ food they get sick.” She and her co-founder, Scott Sundvor, SB ’12, developed a portable, affordable, food tester.

6SensorLabs was one of 13 startup teams that presented their work to a packed room at Walker Memorial on campus Sept. 7. The groups were graduates of the MIT Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator (GFSA), a 12-week, intensive startup program held on the MIT campus during the summer.

The GFSA Demo Day was the kickoff event of t=0, an annual weeklong series of entrepreneurial events culminating in a hackathon on Friday, Sept. 13.

Andrej Seniut, an international participant from Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Russia, won entry to the GFSA with a company called ImSlide, which dealt with leukemia diagnostics, but he changed direction completely with guidance from GFSA mentors to another problem notorious in both Russia and the U.S.: power outages from ice storms. Just 12 weeks later, ImSlide presented a solution to annual and expensive power outages with a coating that prevents ice from accumulating on power lines.

“It was very refreshing,” said Seniut, “in that we came planning a different business, but changed our perspective to take the point of view of the problem and how to solve it. Before, we’d been thinking about the technology and how to apply it, but this forced us to ask ‘What’s the benefit for the customers?’ We’re familiar with the problem [of icing on power lines] and we found the best idea to solve it and created a business plan.”

Founded in 2012 as the Founder’s Skills Accelerator, GFSA went international this year with teams from China, Scotland, Canada, Germany, Russia, and Turkey joining seven MIT-based teams who competed for inclusion last spring. Students accepted to the accelerator have access to expertise and resources from all five MIT schools, as well as centers and institutes like the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, the MIT Venture Mentoring Service, the MIT Technology Licensing Office, and others.

Participants were selected through a competitive application process. Each team is also supported by a simulated board of directors, made up of of MIT faculty and business leaders. Teams can earn up to $20,000 for reaching predetermined milestones on their entrepreneurial path.

Entrepreneurship as team sport

Paul English, a co-founder of Kayak.com, the online travel company, addressed students at the event, challenging them to “break rules” and upset the status quo in favor of what will work best for the end user. Above all, he urged them to focus on building strong teams.

“When I’m asked what I look at in companies I’m investing in, it’s 70 percent about the team in place. Most failures are team-related, with infighting and disagreement about roles,” said English, who this semester joined MIT Sloan as a senior lecturer. “Sometimes after a long conversation about the leadership team in place, it’s an afterthought to say ‘Oh, and what’s the product?’”

Brint Markle, MBA ’14, CEO of AvaTech, began developing the concept last year with Allie Owens, MBA ’14, and built out the founding team with Jim Christian, SM MechE ’14, and Sam Whittemore, MechE ’14, in a product design class at MIT. He was inspired to think of “pain points” in his own experience as a backcountry skier, and with his teammates sought to help skiers and ski resorts do a better job of preventing avalanches. Together, they developed a device that can assess snow conditions with as much accuracy as manual methods, but also track data—a potential boon to ski resort managers as well as backcountry skiers.

“[GFSA] really pushed us, held us accountable,” said Markle. “More importantly, they forced us to think big. We began with a single device, but we’re already thinking about new applications around this product and others.”

“I think for me, the biggest thing was just time, to have 100 percent of your time to focus,” said Taleghani, who developed the portable food tester. “We accomplished more in two weeks [during the summer] than we did in two months beforehand. It was a truly collaborative environment, and the enthusiasm of the program coordinators really makes you believe in your vision.”

Bill Aulet, managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan, introduced the presentations at demo day with a rallying cry for entrepreneurs. Aulet said he pushed for the inclusion of international students this year.

“Entrepreneurship is a global endeavor,” Aulet said. “It’s great for our students, who need a global perspective, and what better way to achieve that than working side by side with students from China, Russia, Germany—challenging each other, socializing, and sharing experiences.”