Published: March 6, 2013
The MIT Accelerate Contest is about getting stuff done. At the event’s finale on February 19, three of eight startup team finalists won cash prizes by demonstrating their ability to turn great ideas into reality. These teams were given more than just an award; they also received the opportunity to create the products they will use to enter the MIT $100K Launch contest and to start their own companies.
The Accelerate contest is designed to help student teams prototype and develop their ideas using resources they otherwise would not receive. Each team is provided with mentoring by industry experts, presentation and product design coaching, video recording assistance, and $1,000 to purchase equipment and materials.
Benevolent Technologies for Health: The Beth Project showed they had what it takes to build a prototype and were awarded the $10,000 grand prize. MIT Media Lab graduate student Liz Tsai, SM ’13, serial entrepreneur Ramin Abrishamian, MIT SM ’78, UCLA student Asa Hammond, and industrial designer and MIT D-Lab mentor Jason Hill created flexible prosthetic limb sockets that can be reshaped according to the unique needs and structure of a patient’s residual limb. The team met during the MIT Hacking Medicine conference in 2012 and has participated in different workshops and competitions to reach where they are today.
“In video games we call it intermittent reinforcement,” said Hill. “The baton in a relay race and all of these competitions are the runners, and when you get done with one there’s another opportunity, and you hit that, and it keeps the momentum going.”
Accelerate’s condensed timeframe and clinic network helped The Beth Project address the needs of its target customer instead of spending time on test fittings.
“It turns out that people don’t want to see graphs and charts about how your socket is quantitatively better,” said Tsai. “They want to see something that’s intuitive for them and intuitive for their patients—something that works at the end of the day.”
While some student teams form at hackathons, other teams are created at celebratory events. Shireen Taleghani, MBA ’13, and Jon Kiel met at a mutual friend’s wedding in September 2012. The two started glutenTech after discovering their shared interest in making the dining-out experience easier for people with gluten allergies. Together they won the $2,000 Audience Choice Award for the concept of a sensor that detects the presence of gluten in food.
The team spent the MIT Independent Activities Period (IAP) hacking their prototype over Skype—Kiel did the demo work in his kitchen in Philadelphia while Taleghani developed their business plan in Saigon, Vietnam. The distance reaffirmed the team’s ability to work together under pressure. In just over a month they built their entire prototype from scratch, conducted market research targeting 250 gluten-free consumers, and fleshed out their business strategy.
Taleghani and Kiel believe that they couldn’t have come this far without the Accelerate resources.
“If it wasn’t for the contest, all of our great plans we made in September would not be happening,” said Kiel. “The barriers probably would have been too great. The only disappointment I had was that I couldn’t thank the organizers enough for the time and effort they put in.”
Bit Harmonics, winner of the $2,000 AARP Foundation Prize, had the fortune of spending IAP at the Beehive Cooperative, another resource provided to semifinalists and finalists. Their company applied device-level energy consumption monitoring to the home health sector by determining the efficiency of household appliances and tracking behavioral patterns. Co-founder and MIT System Design and Management student Jake Whitcomb attributes much of their success to the workspace and its invaluable community support.
“You go into the Beehive and all of a sudden you find these companies that have been thinking about similar problems and have been trying to clear the same hurdles,” Whitcomb said.
Whitcomb and his co-founder Charles Baron found their affiliation with the Accelerate contest made research labs enthusiastic to support them.
“There’s this sense of urgency when you say ‘We have to present this thing in early February,’” Whitcomb said. “All of a sudden, it’s just open doors. It’s amazing what people can accomplish in a month given all of these tools.” During IAP, Bit Harmonics validated assumptions about their product and were able to roll out a pilot into six different homes to test their core technology. They have since begun working with the MIT AgeLab where researchers investigate how to help senior citizens live safer, healthier, and happier lives.
QuikCatheter, an Accelerate finalist, developed a catheter that helps physicians who perform interventional procedures navigate blood vessels more quickly and reliably. The interdisciplinary team is made up of Allen Chen, MD/PhD student at HMS, Leo Tsai, Chief Resident in Radiology at BIDMC, and Vyas Ramanan, a student in the Harvard-MIT Medical Engineering and Medical Physics PhD program. The Accelerate contest allowed the early-stage team to pivot their clinical focus and develop a strong value proposition for their product. Their Accelerate mentor, Eric Sugalski, founder and principal mechanical engineer of Boston Device Development, helped the team develop their prototype and commercialization strategy—two areas they plan to continue focusing on as they prepare for the Launch Contest.
“Accelerate really helped us to focus our efforts,” said Chen. “We were able to iterate more effectively thanks to the excellent advice we got and the wonderful network of mentors we were introduced to.”
Keep an eye on these and other promising teams as they move on to the Launch business plan contest. Applications for Launch are open until March 22, with judging rounds running from early April until the May 15 finale.