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Computing faster with light, not electricity, Lightmatter wins MIT $100K Launch

Lightmatter, born at the MIT Quantum Photonics Laboratory, took home the grand prize May 17 at the MIT $100K Launch startup competition with the promise to accelerate artificial intelligence innovation with light-based processing. The team’s technology replaces electricity in processors with light, mimicking the computational operation of the brain to process larger and more complex algorithms with less power.

“Today’s computers do operations one by one,” says Yichen Shen, who earned his PhD in physics from MIT in 2016 and remains at the instutite as a post-doctoral associate. “We do operations all together, when light is passing through, it’s all simultaneous. We change the architecture completely. We use light instead of electricity, so that it’s even faster and saves power.”

“There’s a lot of data crunching that has to be done. In the brain, all this information happens in an analog fashion. The thing that makes the brain such a powerful processer is the connectivity of neurons,” said Dirk Englund, assistant professor at the Quantum Photonics Laboratory. “Every neuron in your brain is connected to in the order of 7,000 other neurons. In an electrical circuit, you have lots of wires crossing over one another. Light flies through to make these highly connected networks, creating a huge advantage.”

The prize, $100,000, will help fuel development of Lightmatter’s processers, and comes on the heels of a $75K Harvard Innovation Challenge Prize earlier this month.

The $5,000 Audience Choice award, chosen through live voting, went to Change:WATER Labs, with a prototype to “shrink wrap crap” and bring a new kind of sanitary portable toilets to regions without sewer infrastructure or reliable power. Using a membrane, the team’s free-standing toilets remove the water from waste to substantially reduce the cost and increase the ease of removal. The company won the MIT qualifier round for the Hult Prize last December.

The potential impact of the technology, team members said, goes beyond cost-cutting to saving lives and bringing dignity to the 40 percent of the world’s population that does not have access to sanitary facilities. 

“To a girl in a refugee camp, every time she goes to a communal toilet she risks disease, attack, or even rape,” said Change:WATER Labs founder Diana Yousef. “So many families will dig holes next to their tent and end up living with their own waste.”

“Sewage is mostly water. By quickly and cheaply getting rid of that water we eliminate most of the problem,” said CTO Huda Elasaad, a visiting scholar at MIT. “Our team has developed a novel membrane that passively and rapidly vaporizes sewage and leaves behind only solids. It’s evaporation without the energy costs, and we like to call it ‘shrink wrap for crap.’”

Pipeguard won the $10,000 Booz Allen Hamilton Data Analytics for a robot the team calls Daisy that can travel through pipes, identify the location and type of leaks to prevent costly bursts, protect infrastructure, and guide public works toward more efficient replacement and maintenance.

Launch is the third and final MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition event of the year.  Where Pitch judges 90 second elevator pitches, and Accelerate delves into early customer research and prototype development, Launch encompasses whole business plans after a process of legal, design, and business mentorship. Beginning with 160 applications, 50 teams were given $1,000 stipends and access to mentors as business plans were revised and presentations were honed. Two weeks ago, in a private judging session, eight finalists were selected and given $10,000 stipends.

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