Innovation for health and wellness comes up big at MIT Accelerate Contest

Winning teams developing products to improve life for amputees, the elderly, and celiac sufferers

February 22, 2013

The Beth Project, a team developing a custom-fit prosthetic socket, won the MIT $100K Accelerate Contest Feb. 19 Photo: Chris Snyder

The Beth Project, a team developing a custom-fit prosthetic socket, won the MIT $100K Accelerate Contest Feb. 19 Photo: Chris Snyder

The Beth Project: Benevolent Technologies for Health, a team developing a low-cost, custom fit socket for amputees’ prosthetic limbs, won the MIT $100K Accelerate Contest Tuesday night and snagged the $10,000 Daniel M. Lewin Grand Prize.

Beth Project co-founder Jason Hill said coming up a winner in the MIT contest will propel his team forward.

“We’re playing with an early prototype showing promise,” Hill said. “These resources will help us a lot.”

The team’s prosthetic socket feels like a soft plastic coffee bag but inflates solid with a hand pump. It replaces hard, uncomfortable sockets and ones that fail to fit if the wearer gains weight or becomes bloated. It is expected to cost less than half the $700 of a current socket and take hours rather than weeks to make.

Accelerate is the second of three business development contests that are part of the year-long MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition that gets a team from pitching its idea to launching a company.

Accelerate paired 36 teams with mentors, industry advisers, office space and $1,000 to develop a product demo for a panel of judges to consider. The teams spent two months prototyping or hacking, seeking customer validation for their ideas, collecting data to prove their concept, and then roll out a beta product.

Paul Sagan, executive vice-chairman of Akamai Technologies and a judge for the contest, said the first-place award reflected the attitude of Lewin, the MIT alumnus and Akamai executive killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“You can’t be afraid to be bold, to be audacious and to tackle big problems, because in solving those big problems you find the biggest rewards,” Sagan said. “The rewards aren’t just financial. The rewards are deeply satisfying in other ways, like leaving a mark on the world. That’s how Danny did it.”

Hill said he and Beth Project co-founder Elizabeth Tsai, a master’s student at the MIT Media Lab, believe in what they’re doing.

“We came to solve a problem, but it’s a really good problem to solve and it feels really good to work on that kind of thing,” Hill said. “That kept us going.”

The MIT contest provided the team with invaluable tools: work space, opportunities to test the product, and a mentor—Ninad Gujar of Boston MedTech.

“We had a great mentor, who stayed on top of us,” Tsai said. “Having him there really helped.”

The Beth Project, which also included Ramin Abrishamian and Asa Hammond, triumphed over 35 other teams in the fields of emerging markets, energy, life sciences, mobile technology, product and services and Web/information technology. Eight finalists competed Tuesday and were whittled down by a panel of judges to three prize-winners.

Bit Harmonics developed a software service to remotely monitor seniors’ behavior by tracking energy use in the home and individual appliances. It captured the $2,000 AARP Foundation Prize.

Currently, seniors can wear alarms to contact technicians in an emergency. But the team believes they’re unreliably used. By focusing on how individual appliances are activated—or not, technicians can determine if a senior has had a bad fall or stroke and needs help.

“MIT provides you the space, advice, mentors and time,” said co-founder Jake Whitcomb, a student in the MIT System Design and Management program, a joint program offered by MIT Sloan and the MIT’s School of Engineering. “Having the vote of confidence helps propel us on to the next stage.”

GlutenTech, a team developing a hand-held sensor to detect gluten in products, won the $2,000 audience-choice award. The sensor targets an $8 billion market for people who suffer gluten intolerance or celiac disease and are searching for a reliable way to avoid reactions to wheat, barley and rye. The GlutenTech team includes MIT Sloan student Shireen Taleghani.

The Accelerate finale was held at Morss Hall in the Walker Memorial Building. Keynote speaker and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark discussed the importance of knowing when to step away from your company. For Newmark, the time came in the late 1990s when he found it difficult to make “tough personnel decisions and take big risks.”