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Big data leads new technologies at annual MIT startup showcase

Participating teams praise value of mentorship and customer research

September 12, 2014

James Schulmeister, co-founder of Ashton Instruments, demos his bicycle power meter at the Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator Demo Day

James Schulmeister, co-founder of Ashton Instruments, demos his bicycle power meter at the Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator Demo Day

It was a big day for big data at the MIT Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator Demo Day, an annual showcase of teams participating in the institute’s startup development program.

The practical use of massive data sets was exhibited by four of the 15 teams presenting on Sept. 6, including:

  • Datasight, providing pharmaceutical and biotech companies with faster, more accurate information for selecting clinical trial testing sites to get drugs to market faster.
  • Smarking, applying data to better manage airport parking lots.
  • Wise Logics, seeking to bring real-time traffic information to the 80 percent of the world that lacks it.
  • Cardinal Wind, using machine learning to forecast the value of wind project sites for engineers and investors.

“I was impressed,” said MIT Sloan professor Edward Roberts, the founder of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and a mentor to many of MIT Sloan’s entrepreneurial alumni. “These teams are the best of the best among 150 applicants and big data was ever-present. That heavily reflects the role that data analysis is going to play in the future.”

Demo Day is the culmination of the three-month-long GFSA program, in which select student teams hone business plans over the course of the summer with the help of advisors and mentors. Each team can earn as much as $20,000 in seed money as it hits milestones in customer research, product development, and financial planning. In addition to providing industry-specific mentors and advisors to accelerator participants, the Trust Center also facilitates contacts with potential customers. By the time Demo Day arrives, many startup teams have incoming orders or pilot programs underway.

Natalya Brikner, CEO of Accion Systems and a PhD student in MIT’s Space Propulsion Laboratory, wowed the crowd earlier this year at the Sloan Women in Management Conference with a propulsion system designed for softball-sized satellites. Most satellites stay in orbit for limited missions of just a few days before burning up, but Accion’s system, the size of a penny, can keep them in orbit for extended missions. While the technology itself wasn’t altered during the Accion team’s time in the accelerator, the business plan and the company’s potential changed drastically.

“[The accelerator] is the only reason we’ve landed orders,” Brikner said. “When we began, we had a tech company. But on day one our first task was to conduct customer interviews, and it confirmed a lot, but we also learned a great deal. We learned so much at each milestone, and had a ton of great advisors.” Accion’s advisors for the accelerator included William H. Swanson, the former CEO of Raytheon.

James Schulmeister, co-founder of Ashton Instruments and a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering at MIT, is developing a power meter—a device that measures real-time energy output for avid bicyclists. The device will sell for $499, below the cost of most similar devices on the market. While the technology was far along when the MIT Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator began in May, it evolved significantly during the course of the program.

“The first thing we did was put down the engineering to talk to customers,” Schulmeister said. “We interviewed extensively, and it confirmed some things and we learned new things. It helped us focus the engineering on what the customer wants.”

Kyle Judah, entrepreneur in residence at the Trust Center and director of the accelerator, said the program continues to evolve as access to high-level industry mentors and advisors improves. Mentor matches were better personalized this year, he said, and the program was further supported by a $5 million gift from the Anne Goss Foundation, establishing the Jackson W. Goss Fellowship to support stipends, workspace, and other resources.

Bill Aulet, managing director of the Trust Center, addressed the MIT students in attendance, inviting them to t=0, an annual, week-long entrepreneurship and innovation festival that kicked off with Demo Day. Many of the Demo Day teams formed during t=0 in previous years, Aulet said.

“The students you see today, you can be one year from now. They sat where you’re sitting today one year ago,” Aulet said. “They took advantage of all the resources that MIT has to offer.”