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June 25, 2018

BROWSE NEWS RESULTS

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StartupExchange
November 30, 2016

Gradiant Replicates Rain Cycle for Fresh and Recylable Water

Water treatment startup generates water quality to spec.
Anurag Bajpayee
Founder and CEO
Gradiant
“We like to call ourselves solving the world’s greatest water treatment challenges, which either cannot be solved with current technologies or are prohibitively expensive,” says Anurag Bajpayee, co-founder and CEO of Gradiant, a technology-driven water services company focused on treating the most contaminated industrial waste water. While Gradiant’s technologies are applicable to a wide variety of industry, its first market entry was in U.S. oil and gas. In 2012, when the shale boom was going up and water was the centerpiece discussion, both economically and environmentally, Bajpayee and his colleagues at MIT approached industry regarding the economic, logistical, and regulatory constraints in water treatment. By the end of 2013, they had developed a pilot in the field for their first technology called Carrier Gas Extraction and got the go-ahead to convert it into a commercial facility. That year, Gradiant was awarded the Global Water Intelligence “Technology Idol” award for Carrier Gas Extraction, a desalination technique for turning very contaminated water two to five times more saline than sea water into fresh water quality. Bajpayee describes it as a very simple, but creative solution. “What we were trying do is replicate the rain cycle in a confined space and in a very short period of time.”

Carrier Gas Extraction
The technique uses two unit operations: a humidifier and a bubble column dehumidifier. The water, heated by a low temperature thermal source, rises to the top of the humidifier (a tall tower filled with packing material). As the water drips down, the carrier gas (dry, ambient air) goes up, and they come in contact on the packing material, which provides a surface area for the evaporation process. The air picks up the pure water vapor and leaves behind the salts and other contaminants at the bottom as a saturated brine. By the time the air gets to the top of the humidifier, it’s pure air carrying pure vapor. “We Essentially created the cloud,” says Bajpayee. “Next, we had to create the rain.”

Perforated plates run through the inside of the tower of the multi-staged bubble column dehumidifier. Each of the stages has holes in it, and on top of each of the plates sits a shallow pool of ambient temperature or cold fresh water. As this humid air comes through the bottom of the bubble column, it passes through the holes and starts to bubble through the shallow pools of water. As that bubbling happens, a very rapid heat-transfer and mixing process occurs. The air, then, cools down and condenses the water it had picked up, because it can no longer carry the humidity. “You know how in humid air the temperature reduces and you get dew? That’s exactly what we’re getting,” says Bajpayee. “Because you’re adding more pure water to it, each of these liquid columns continues to increase in height, until the liquid column hits the overflow port and falls to the bottom where it is collected as fresh water.” By the time the air has passed the last stage of the bubble column, it’s cold and dry again, and can either be ejected or recycled in a closed loop.

Selective Chemical Extraction
At that point Gradiant’s customers said, “‘This is great, you’re actually half the cost of the existing solutions, but you’re generating pure water. We don’t always need drinking quality water. Can you give us something that’s lower cost and lower performance, as well?’ And we said, ‘Sure,’” says Bajpayee. He and his team went back to the labs and developed a second product line: Selective Chemical Extraction, a treat to speck water treatment solution, where customers tell Gradiant exactly what they need taken out. “Because if you don’t want drinking quality water, then why pay for it?” asks Bajpayee.

In both technologies one of the important things, Bajpayee noted, is the ability to handle variability. “Industrial waste water as opposed to sea water can vary quite a lot. “Most technologies are designed to work at a steady state, whereas our solutions take feed water that is changing constantly—sometimes hour to hour—and continuously optimize the system to generate product water quality that’s exactly the same every single time.”

Free Radical Disinfection
In addition to the fresh water solution and the recyclable water solution, Gradiant also has a solution that disinfects high amounts of bacteria at extremely high through put rates called Free Radical Disinfection. “This is very specific to the oil and gas industry,” he says. “As the water is going down the well for fracking or drilling purposes, it’s important to disinfect—to take the bugs out—as we say in the industry, so that it doesn’t create complications.”

With these three solutions, Gradiant now has full portfolio of water treatment and management needs of its customers. “Water is a diverse field,” says Bajpayee. “If you want to be a world-leading industrial water treatment company, you need to have a portfolio of technologies and solutions, as opposed to one silver bullet you’re trying hit everywhere.” And even though its solutions are commercial and competitive and in some cases completely revolutionary, Gradiant continues to better them with a team that is very good at taking market feedback, improving current technology, and developing new technologies and products to address other problems.

Currently commercially operating in oil and gas fields in Texas and New Mexico, Gradiant is quickly expanding into other industries including coal power plants, textile mills, leather tanneries as well as internationally. Its next generation systems of the same technology are expected to be lower cost and higher efficiency. In addition to these technologies, it is working on technology called Ion Caging, a closed loop softening system specifically focused on sulfate removals. “We are also working on directional solvent extraction, which is another desalination technology for high salinity water, focused on small scale and space-constrained applications. We are working on novel membrane systems, which promise to increase the efficiency or increase the recovery of standard sea water desalination systems,” he says.

“Technology improvement is never complete, as we know,” says Bajpayee. “At MIT we were always working on newer and better and more efficient, and that’s what we’re doing at Gradiant.” In 2014 Gradiant won the industrial water project of the year which is given to a running, working, profitable commercial project. That was the first time in the history of the organization that Gradiant went from a technology idol to an industrial project of the year globally within one year. “Successful companies and successful technologies adapt and evolve along the way. That’s where Gradiant’s strength lies,” says Bajpayee. “Our customers look at us as a good solution, but they also look at us as a long-term partner, a team that can solve any issue in water that might come their way.”
About MIT Startup Exchange, STEX25, and MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP)
MIT Startup Exchange actively promotes collaboration and partnerships between MIT-connected startups and industry. Qualified startups are those founded and/or led by MIT faculty, staff, or alumni, or are based on MIT-licensed technology. Industry participants are principally members of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP).

MIT Startup Exchange maintains a propriety database of over 1,500 MIT-connected startups with roots across MIT departments, labs and centers; it hosts a robust schedule of startup workshops and showcases, and facilitates networking and introductions between startups and corporate executives.

STEX25 is a startup accelerator within MIT Startup Exchange, featuring 25 “industry ready” startups that have proven to be exceptional with early use cases, clients, demos, or partnerships, and are poised for significant growth. STEX25 startups receive promotion, travel, and advisory support, and are prioritized for meetings with ILP’s 230 member companies.

MIT Startup Exchange and ILP are integrated programs of MIT Corporate Relations.

StartupExchange
September 27, 2016

MIT Corporate Relations and MIT Startup Exchange Announce STEX25 Launch

New startup accelerator focuses on fostering startup and industry collaboration.
Karl Koster welcomes startup and industry participants at a recent MIT Startup Exchange workshop at
MIT's Industry Meeting Center.

MIT Corporate Relations and its integrated program, MIT Startup Exchange, are pleased to announce the launch of STEX25, a startup accelerator focused on fostering collaboration between MIT-connected startups and member companies of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP).

STEX25 establishes an elite cohort of startup companies—25 from the 1,000+ in the MIT Startup Exchange database—that have proved themselves with early use cases, clients, demos, and partnerships, and may be on the cusp of significant growth. These young companies are particularly well-suited for industry collaboration, and therefore will be prioritized by the ILP when advising its members on startup engagement.

The first four startups to be inducted into STEX25 are Akselos, BioBright, Poly6, and Tagup. Each quarter six to seven additional startups will be inducted into the program until a cohort of 25 is established.

“STEX25 companies have a strong science and technology foundation in important fields such as artificial intelligence, automation, energy, healthcare, ICT, Internet of things (IoT), life science, manufacturing, materials, nanotech, sensors, and more,” said Trond Undheim who directs the Startup Exchange.

Infused with the high-caliber talent and cutting-edge technology that are the hallmarks of MIT-connected startups, these startups are poised to offer industry partners an injection of innovation and entrepreneurial spirit.

“Helping MIT-connected startups get traction with large corporate players is a crucial step in technology commercialization,” said Karl Koster, Executive Director of the ILP. “Our members are very interested in meeting with the MIT Startup Exchange company founders, and these kinds of connections are vital to growing MIT’s innovation ecosystem.”

About MIT Startup Exchange, STEX25, and MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP)
MIT Startup Exchange actively promotes collaboration and partnerships between MIT-connected startups and industry. Qualified startups are those founded and/or led by MIT faculty, staff, or alumni, or are based on MIT-licensed technology. Industry participants are principally members of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP).

MIT Startup Exchange maintains a propriety database of over 1,500 MIT-connected startups with roots across MIT departments, labs and centers; it hosts a robust schedule of startup workshops and showcases, and facilitates networking and introductions between startups and corporate executives.

STEX25 is a startup accelerator within MIT Startup Exchange, featuring 25 “industry ready” startups that have proven to be exceptional with early use cases, clients, demos, or partnerships, and are poised for significant growth. STEX25 startups receive promotion, travel, and advisory support, and are prioritized for meetings with ILP’s 230 member companies.

MIT Startup Exchange and ILP are integrated programs of MIT Corporate Relations.

StartupExchange
September 26, 2016

Tagup: Industrial Equipment Meets the Cloud

Tagup’s platform tracks equipment operation and avoids unplanned downtime.
On Jon Garrity’s iPhone, Tagup is displaying a power transformer at a nearby power plant: not just photos of the transformer, but real-time data on the equipment’s operations such as the temperature and dissolved gas level of its oil. If there were any clues here of something just starting to go wrong, an expert might spot them immediately.

Jon Garrity
Founder
Tagup
That’s the core point of the Tagup platform, which connects industrial equipment to cloud-based services. Tagup provides remote visibility of the equipment, along with better understanding and predictions of its performance, to operators, third-party experts and manufacturers.

“We help reduce unplanned downtime, which has huge costs in lost output and productivity,” says Garrity, co-founder and CEO of Tagup, a member of the MIT Startup Exchange 25 based in Somerville, Massachusetts. “Monitoring data continuously coming off this equipment, an operator or third-party expert can identify an issue before it occurs.”

These benefits are compounded by the ability to generate better operational models by analyzing industrial equipment at scale. “We’re collecting a much higher-resolution set of data, and we can collect it across a much larger sample size,” says Garrity. His co-founder (and fellow MIT alum) Will Vega-Brown, an expert in machine language and software, is leading the company’s efforts to exploit these analytic opportunities.Watching from the cloud
Current monitoring systems for high-cost machinery such as gas turbines offer a glimpse of what Tagup delivers more broadly. In one example, General Electric sells a gas turbine with an accompanying remote monitoring solution. A GE network operating center can watch the performance of more than 1,700 gas turbines around the world, with a team that identifies any problems starting to crop up and then helps operators deal with the problem proactively.

“Our platform enables that type of service for any equipment type,” Garrity says. “If you’re operating, say, a power transformer, instead of relying on once- or twice-a-year oil sampling, you can have third-party experts monitoring the data continuously, with computer analytics, to help you cut downtime.”

As industrial machines join the Internet of Things, Tagup aims to fill a huge and growing gap. “Currently there is no way to simply remotely monitor a diverse number of equipment types and share that data with third parties,” Garrity says.

One challenge is that different pieces of equipment work on different data and communication protocols, some of which have been around since the 1960s, he explains. Tagup translates the data from these older protocols into a modern web protocol, so that developers can build the tools and the analytics required to enhance, modernize and optimize equipment operation in the field.

Sometimes this installed equipment can make its operating data accessible remotely, sometimes not. “If not, we connect the equipment directly with an off-the-shelf industrial cellular gateway—basically a rugged cell phone,” he says.

Making the connection is typically straightforward—getting information about the equipment and the data it provides to provide a “digital twin” and then going onsite to hook up the gateway, which can take as little as 15 minutes. “The rest we do remotely,” Garrity says. “Data coming off that equipment is sent securely to our cloud, where we parse, store and analyze that data, and then make it accessible to users through our application. Our customers are looking for turnkey value, and that’s what we provide.”

Proactive help for steady production
Among early Tagup installations are reverse osmosis systems that deliver purified water. These systems use membranes, whose performance degrades over time. “With Tagup, you can remotely monitor how efficient your membranes are, and you can see when they need to be replaced,” Garrity says.

One customer, a value-added reseller for reverse osmosis systems, can see in real-time the health of all equipment that they have installed, and prioritize its maintenance operations. Instead of visiting each plant every three months, the reseller can focus on locations where maintenance issues are coming up. And it can do so across various types of reverse-osmosis facilities. “They’re using one software interface to check on the health of all the equipment they’ve installed and serviced to date,” Garrity says.

Additionally, the Tagup platform can offer major payoffs for equipment manufacturers. “They can know exactly who the end customer is, exactly where the product is and exactly how well that equipment is performing,” he says. “There’s also a new sales and service opportunity presented to them, moving from a pure equipment sale to a higher-margin service business.”

Moreover, the value of equipment monitoring increases with scale, which allows the generation of better models for predicting equipment health and performance. “The results from our machine language analytics are not yet established, but we’re optimistic about their capabilities,” Garrity says.

For example, in a power transformer, how does the oil’s temperature correlate with a given maintenance concern? “We can build models that take into account, say, 30 of these variables, looking across thousands of transformers, to help identify problems that wouldn’t be picked up by existing models,” he says. “The more data we integrate, the better analytical models we can make, and we can just push these models to the cloud.”

“Given the size of the industrial Internet of Things, the market for these applications is enormous,” Garrity points out. “For instance, sales of new power transformers make up about a $6.5 billion annual market, on top of a large installed base. Analyzing the operational data via our platform and helping customers cut their unplanned downtime creates real value.”
About MIT Startup Exchange, STEX25, and MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP)
MIT Startup Exchange actively promotes collaboration and partnerships between MIT-connected startups and industry. Qualified startups are those founded and/or led by MIT faculty, staff, or alumni, or are based on MIT-licensed technology. Industry participants are principally members of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP).

MIT Startup Exchange maintains a propriety database of over 1,500 MIT-connected startups with roots across MIT departments, labs and centers; it hosts a robust schedule of startup workshops and showcases, and facilitates networking and introductions between startups and corporate executives.

STEX25 is a startup accelerator within MIT Startup Exchange, featuring 25 “industry ready” startups that have proven to be exceptional with early use cases, clients, demos, or partnerships, and are poised for significant growth. STEX25 startups receive promotion, travel, and advisory support, and are prioritized for meetings with ILP’s 230 member companies.

MIT Startup Exchange and ILP are integrated programs of MIT Corporate Relations.

StartupExchange
September 26, 2016

BioBright: Fixing the Lab Reproducibility Crisis with Augmentation, not Automation

BioBright strives to augment human ability to do science in the lab with voice assistance that recognizes biomedical research terms and the use of augmented reality tools.
A recent Nature survey of 1,576 researchers found that more than 70 percent of respondents have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist's experiments. More than half have failed to reproduce their own. This “reproducibility crisis” was revealed to be especially acute in biological and medical research.
Charles Fracchia
Founder
BioBright
“Lack of reproducibility is a big issue right now in biomedical research,” says Charles Fracchia, CEO and founder of MIT-based startup called BioBright, which is aiming to improve laboratory documentation technology. “More often than not, it’s very difficult to determine the root cause of an experiment’s outcome. It’s costing us between $10 and $50 billion dollars a year in the U.S. alone.”

Most of the Nature survey respondents agreed that the solution to the crisis is improved documentation and standardization of protocols. Yet given time pressures, few were willing to put in an estimated 30 percent more time required for comprehensive documentation.

“Current laboratory tools are not conducive to reproducing experiments,” says Fracchia, a bioelectrical engineer who is currently on leave from the MIT Media Lab. “Most tools don’t connect to networks or have outdated connection mechanisms and proprietary formats. All that stands in the way of doing longitudinal, data driven discovery.”
To ease the documentation process, Cambridge, Mass. based BioBright offers a suite of “smart lab” software, hardware, and services. The company built a voice assistant called Darwin tailored to recognize biomedical research terms, and software that automatically collects data from laboratory equipment. Information is recorded, aggregated, and analyzed in the cloud where other scientists can access this integrated record in order to duplicate the experiment.

“Our goal is to augment the human ability to do science in the lab with voice assistance and augmented reality tools,” says Fracchia. “With BioBright, scientists can spend their time uncovering the root causes of success or failure while staying in the experiment. They don’t have to stop every 15 minutes to record information. Our system allows the lab notebook to write itself so scientists can do what they’re supposed to do -- analyze the data.”

BioBright is targeting biomedical researchers in academia, biotech, pharma, and even healthcare, and the tools could eventually expand to other industries such as food research. The company was recently chosen to be among the first six companies in the new MIT Startup Exchange STEX25 program. This more focused version of the successful MIT Startup Exchange program is designed to facilitate industry interaction with the 25 most promising MIT-based startups.

Augmentation over Automation
Some have argued that the reproducibility crisis can be solved with laboratory automation -- replacing human-driven lab processes with robots and other devices. Fracchia himself helped launch an earlier MIT-based startup named Gingko BioWorks that built the first automation tools for synthetic biology.

The experience taught him that while automation is often valuable, it does not necessarily improve reproducibility. “Automation is excellent at doing workflows and protocols 1,000 times over, but it’s very brittle, and has no ability to adapt,” says Fracchia. “Research is for the most part an exploration. You’re adapting and changing parameters on the fly. BioBright’s augmentation tools keep humans at the center of the loop, not computers.”

Fracchia goes on to note that the automation world is mostly driven by computer scientists “who don’t know the intimate problems of the lab.” BioBright inverted that. “We are biologists with intimate knowledge of biomedical workflow who learned computer science and electronic engineering.”

According to Fracchia, most reproducibility problems stem from translating workflow between researchers. “Automation won’t help with that,” he says. “BioBright’s human augmentation, however, allows the scientist to say ‘Darwin, show me the average temperature that I’ve used for the last three months, or show me how Mike did it last week.”

BioBright helps reduce the often significant time lapse between data generation and collection, says Fracchia. “Researchers’ hands are often busy and gloved, so they must put off the time when they record information, sometimes even to the end of the day,” he says. “A lot of information gets lost this way. Small deviations from the protocol are often not recorded. Maybe you will note on a Post-It that a sample was a little more viscous than usual, or if you’re really disciplined, write it in a notebook, but there it stays. It’s difficult to look at the information in context.”

BioBright helps solve a related challenge with laboratory documentation: the vast range of time scales. “In biological research you’re ranging from picoseconds to hours, days, or even months,” says Fracchia. “Humans are good at collecting information in the minute range, but have difficulty in other ranges, especially picoseconds. BioBright pervasively collects information across different time scales and centralizes it in one place.”

Inside BioBright – from Custom Sensors to Voice Control
The sensors and cameras available with BioBright vary depending on the specific environment, but the underlying architecture remains the same. BioBright is a cloud-based platform that uses a modest onsite computer – currently a Raspberry Pi board – to act as an Internet of Things hub. The local device aggregates information from the lab sensor network and mediates with the cloud service using end to end encryption.

One of BioBright’s key innovations is a “hot folder” that interfaces directly with lab equipment. “We automatically grab the data as it’s generated and centralize it,” says Fracchia. “The system is built to be extensible and include new data formats based on customer’s needs, which allows us to extract metadata that is directly relevant to our customers’ workflows.

BioBright offers camera systems that record in both visible and infrared light. “You can place these cameras around your lab, or over benches or specific stations,” says Fracchia.

The company has also developed tiny sensors designed for biological research that can fit into standard sized vessels or tubes. “We developed the first temperature sensor that fits in an Eppendorf tube,” says Fracchia. “Our wireless sensor lets you easily record the temperature of your samples across an experiment.”

BioBright’s Darwin voice assistant enables researchers to issue voice notes instead of stopping to record information manually. “You add a little microphone to your lapel so you can interact with BioBright, and leave voice notes,” says Fracchia. “You can also give orders like telling the camera to record an image.”

The natural language AI system also works in reverse, letting you ask the computer for information or to correlate data. You can even set up the system to volunteer advice based on sensor input and historical data.

“BioBright is bidirectional, sending longitudinal information back to the scientist,” says Fracchia. “For example, we can warn scientists that they’re conducting a test at the wrong temperature. Even if they ignore the warning, they can analyze the difference between what actually happened and what was supposed to happen. At an early stage, we can tell you that your protocol is unlikely to succeed, which is tremendously important in pharma and biotech where it can take weeks to get results.”

BioBright is built on modular components that the company assembles for customized services sold to large industries. Some components, however, will be sold as standalone products.

Although most of BioBright’s technology is proprietary, Fracchia is a proponent of open standards and interoperability, which are often lacking in the biomedical field. “We use interoperable data formats so you’re not trapped in the ecosystem,” he says. “BioBright solves a problem that is common across a number of industries: scattered data in different formats.”

The company is now working on integrating sensor networks, wearable sensors, and augmented reality head mounts into the system. Eventually, Fracchia envisions something like an Iron Man suit for biomedical researchers. “We want BioBright to fit the workflow of the scientist like a glove.”

Impact before Income
BioBright draws extensively on MIT Media Lab’s innovative pervasive computing technology. Fracchia mentions the Media Lab’s Principal Research Scientist Shuguang Zhang as being especially helpful in launching the company. Other MIT institutions have also played a big role.

“I cannot say enough good things about the Venture Mentoring Service, which has been instrumental in getting BioBright to where it is today,” says Fracchia. “And MIT’s Technology Licensing Office helped us look at innovation in a refreshing way. They really understand MIT’s motto: Impact before income.”

That motto has steered BioBright away from venture capital for the time being. After raising a modest angel round, the company has been sustained entirely by customer contracts, which Fracchia says is quite unusual. “A four-year return rate was not the best match for us,” he says. “We don’t have to make investors happy or report to a board that is driven around valuation. Instead, we can focus on partnerships and analyzing companies’ reproducibility problems. We want to solve problems, not just sell you a product and go away.”

Fracchia says his team is “very honored and humbled” to be named to MIT’s STEX25 program. “MIT Startup Exchange and the ILP have let us grow and better understand our customers,” he says. “The point of STEX25 is to link up transformative technologies with companies that are creating real value.”

About MIT Startup Exchange, STEX25, and MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP)
MIT Startup Exchange actively promotes collaboration and partnerships between MIT-connected startups and industry. Qualified startups are those founded and/or led by MIT faculty, staff, or alumni, or are based on MIT-licensed technology. Industry participants are principally members of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP).

MIT Startup Exchange maintains a propriety database of over 1,500 MIT-connected startups with roots across MIT departments, labs and centers; it hosts a robust schedule of startup workshops and showcases, and facilitates networking and introductions between startups and corporate executives.

STEX25 is a startup accelerator within MIT Startup Exchange, featuring 25 “industry ready” startups that have proven to be exceptional with early use cases, clients, demos, or partnerships, and are poised for significant growth. STEX25 startups receive promotion, travel, and advisory support, and are prioritized for meetings with ILP’s 230 member companies.

MIT Startup Exchange and ILP are integrated programs of MIT Corporate Relations.

StartupExchange
September 26, 2016

Poly6: Citrus Peels off a Performance Plastics Startup

Poly6’s Citrene™ a polymer material made from citrus peels, is a superior alternative to specialty composites, and is both biodegradable and energy efficient to produce.
Like other tech startups, Boston-based Poly6 Technologies faces immense challenges as it strives for success. Yet Poly6 has several advantages, starting with a killer elevator pitch. Its flagship product -- Citrene™ -- is a high performing polymer material made from citrus peels. Citrene™ is marketed as a superior alternative to specialty composites and plastics used in high-value markets while also being biodegradable and far more energy efficient to produce.
Keith Hearon
Founder
Poly6
Citrene™, which is initially targeted at the 3D printing resin and high-end wood coatings markets, is the first of many products based on biological sources that Poly6 hopes to produce in the coming years. “We take an oil that occurs naturally in the peels of lemons, oranges, and other citrus sources and convert it into a high-performance material,” says Keith Hearon, co-founder and CEO of Poly6 Technologies. “If you’ve ever dropped your cellphone and watched it shatter or looked on in horror as a beautiful hardwood floor is scratched, you realize there’s clearly a need for higher performing materials.”

The promise of the technology – and the company behind it – have been real enough to attract the attention of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP), which has chosen Poly6 as one of the first six startups in the new MIT Startup Exchange STEX25 program. This more exclusive, and intensive, spinoff of MIT Startup Exchange aims to facilitate industry interaction with a more select group of the most innovative MIT-based startups. STEX25’s goal is to offer the 25 startups strategic advice, connections, and potential customers while simultaneously offering industry participants investment opportunities and early access to cutting edge technologies.A Citrus-inspired Invention
Hearon invented the recipe for Citrene™ in 2012 when he was a Ph.D. student in Biomedical Engineering at Texas A&M University, and patented it before coming to MIT as a postdoc in 2014. Creating renewably sourced performance polymers was not his initial primary goal, however.

“I invented Citrene™ during an effort to recycle Styrofoam,” explains Hearon. “I learned that in the 1990s a Japanese company had used D-limonene, an oil that occurs naturally in citrus peels, to dissolve Styrofoam. It was only when I saw the chemical structure of D-limonene that my vision for creating Citrene™ arose.”

Hearon realized that Citrene™, which combines D-limonene with additional feedstocks, could emerge as a highly versatile, uniquely qualified class of polymers. At MIT Hearon focused on investigating Citrene’s™ use in specialized biomedical engineering applications.

“During my two years in MIT’s Langer Lab, we investigated applications ranging from wound healing to tissue regeneration,” says Hearon. “Being a part of Professor Bob Langer’s group at MIT was catalytic in inspiring me to pursue a new venture full time.”

With growing concerns about CO2 emissions and material waste, the eco-friendly Citrene™ has a number of advantages. “We project it takes up to 95 percent less energy to produce Citrene™ in comparison with competitive performance polymers,” says Hearon.

About 99 percent of plastics are made from petroleum, and over 590 billion pounds of non-degradable polymers are discarded each year, he notes. Polymer production also represents a big chunk of the over 23 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions pegged to materials production.

“Our lower energy of production is associated with the simplicity of our manufacturing process, which also requires far less water than typical polymers and results in zero production waste.” He also notes that Citrene’s™ lack of toxicity affords greater safety both in manufacturing and usage, and its biodegradable bonds degrade in a tunable manner.

Yet, Hearon doesn’t like to call Citrene™ a “green material,” and he prefers talking more about the material’s toughness, durability and flexibility than its environmental benefits. “Citrene™ can be as tough as polycarbonate or as stretchy and flexible as a rubber band,” he notes. Citrene™-based resins offer unique low viscosity/high toughness combinations and excellent sunlight stability, he adds. In addition, Citrene™ coatings are more water resistant than many analog polymer coatings like polyurethanes and acrylics.

Poly6’s reluctance to push a green marketing angle stems in part from the fact that bioplastics tend to play to the low end of the polymers market. There’s an untested bias in the industry that high-performance polymers require petroleum derived feedstocks.

“We usually don’t compare Citrene™ with other bioplastics,” says Hearon. “Our real comparison is with other high performance materials. It just so happens that we’ve chosen environmentally beneficial starting points for building these materials. We do not consider ourselves an environmental play, although our long-term mission is one of positive environmental impact.”

Citrene’s™ customizable, on demand processing capabilities add to its material value proposition. “Citrene™ is sold as a portfolio of liquid resin products that harden in the presence of light, heating or other stimuli. “Hardening times are controllable from fractions of a second to 72 hours or longer and are easily customized to meet customers’ processing requirements,” says Hearon.

Poly6’s line of Citrene™ UV curable resins, which harden instantly after UV exposure, provide tougher, more versatile, less toxic and less oxygen inhibited alternatives to resins currently used in many 3D printing and high throughput UV coatings processes, says Hearon. He adds that Citrene™ thermally curable resins, which cure in durations ranging from seconds to hours, “offer tougher, less yellowing, less toxic and better surface wetting alternatives to resins used in composite production and specialized advanced manufacturing processes.”

Keeping Focused
Citrene’s™ initial traction has been strongest in the 3D printing/additive manufacturing industry, which will begin to use Citrene™ by the end of 2016. Poly6’s next targeted application is as a performance coating for wood products in home décor and marine applications. The first Citrene™ coatings products should arrive by mid-2017.

Going forward, a wider range of applications beckons. “Citrene™ has applications ranging from medical products to nail polish to specialty electronics,” says Hearon. “As an early-stage startup, focus is of utmost importance for Poly6, but we will eventually expand to other industries.”

Poly6 is developing a wide range of chemical formulations that it uses to optimize resins. “Our patents cover materials made from over 160 natural precursors ranging from citrus to pine to grape-skin extracts,” says Hearon. “Poly6’s products will be high value. We’re not trying to compete with commodity materials right now.”

MIT: A Guide on the Side from VMS to STEX25
Poly6 has more business experience than many engineering-based startups. Hearon previously worked part time for a medical device startup, and Matthew Stellmaker, Poly6’s co-founder & COO, founded a materials-related design-build firm in South America. Yet, Hearon and Stellmaker discovered that building a materials startup with cutting-edge technology from the ground up requires some new skills in the entrepreneurial toolbox. Fortunately, MIT’s many entrepreneurial support programs were there to help take Poly6 to the next level.

“At MIT I was able to engage in remarkable mentoring opportunities through the MIT Venture Mentoring Service (VMS) program, and Poly6 has also made invaluable industry connections through MIT’s Startup Exchange program,” says Hearon. “Now we are honored to be among the inaugural STEX25 class, through which we’re looking forward to even greater engagement with industry.”

When asked what advice he would give other tech startups, Hearon has this to say: “Persistence goes farther than intelligence. Without adherence to a single vision and mindset, it’s easy to lose confidence or direction.”

About MIT Startup Exchange, STEX25, and MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP)
MIT Startup Exchange actively promotes collaboration and partnerships between MIT-connected startups and industry. Qualified startups are those founded and/or led by MIT faculty, staff, or alumni, or are based on MIT-licensed technology. Industry participants are principally members of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP).

MIT Startup Exchange maintains a propriety database of over 1,500 MIT-connected startups with roots across MIT departments, labs and centers; it hosts a robust schedule of startup workshops and showcases, and facilitates networking and introductions between startups and corporate executives.

STEX25 is a startup accelerator within MIT Startup Exchange, featuring 25 “industry ready” startups that have proven to be exceptional with early use cases, clients, demos, or partnerships, and are poised for significant growth. STEX25 startups receive promotion, travel, and advisory support, and are prioritized for meetings with ILP’s 230 member companies.

MIT Startup Exchange and ILP are integrated programs of MIT Corporate Relations.

StartupExchange
September 26, 2016

Akselos: Simulation software for super-sized projects

Akselos simulation platform promises to accelerate simulation time to enable complete detailed simulations
In recent decades, simulation software has become widely adopted in infrastructure engineering, helping to reduce development time and identify flaws before they’re fully baked into the design. Typically, engineers use Finite Element Analysis (FEA) computational modeling technologies to simulate systems under many operating conditions in a so-called “virtual prototyping” process. David Knezevic
CTO
Akselos
Yet, FEA is showing its age, especially when it comes to large infrastructure. “With large-scale projects, FEA hits a wall where the computational cost grows very quickly, and this cannot be overcome even with the latest HPC systems,” says David Knezevic, CTO of a MIT simulation technology spinoff called Akselos. “The computational intensity of FEA has led to all sorts of limitations in how it’s used. Engineers tend to either do detailed analyses of small parts of the system or else do a very coarse analysis of the overall system.”

The company’s Akselos simulation platform promises to accelerate simulation time to enable complete detailed simulations from start to finish. “Our software enables detailed analysis of much larger infrastructure than has been possible in the past,” says Knezevic. “When performing a detailed analysis of large infrastructure, you typically obtain 1,000 times or more speed-up compared with conventional FEA simulations.”

The 17-employee company is headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland, with major offices in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Boston, where Knezevic works. Akselos’ customers are building and maintaining infrastructure such as power station gas turbines, wind turbines, offshore oil and gas structures, ships, submarines, and mining infrastructure. Most of these systems are often operating under very extreme conditions. The impressive speed of Akselos and the wide range of industries that could benefit from it are just some of the reasons why the MIT Industrial Liaison Program (ILP) selected the company as one of the first six startups in the new MIT Startup Exchange STEX25 program. This tightly focused spinoff of MIT Startup Exchange is designed to facilitate industry interaction with a select group of the 25 most promising MIT-based startups.

Digging into the Details with Reduced Basis FEA
In 2009, Australian-born Knezevic, a former Oxford Rhodes scholar and Harvard Lecturer, joined Professor Tony Patera’s research group at MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. Working as a postdoc, he pursued simulation research that had been underway there for more than a decade. Like many researchers around the world, Patera was looking for ways to accelerate simulations for large infrastructure in which FEA wasn’t feasible. Patera continues to work on this so-called “Reduced Order Modeling” research today.

The research that Knezevic focused on resulted in what he calls the unique value proposition of Akselos: Reduced Basis FEA, or RB-FEA. RB-FEA builds on top of conventional FEA, but it adds an “acceleration layer” which dramatically reduces solve times.

“The reason that FEA can be slow is that it uses a generic representation of the system, . which is very flexible, but also very computationally expensive,” says Knezevic. By comparison RB-FEA builds up a physics-based dataset for each component in a system. These datasets are reused when a simulation is performed, which leads to RB-FEA’s enormous speed advantage.

Because RB-FEA uses parameterized models, with parameters assigned to each component, you can click on a component in the Akselos GUI and quickly change factors like length, density, stiffness, curvature, Poisson ratio, and other properties. “The parameterized models make it easier to update the model, which is extremely valuable for iterative design,” says Knezevic. “From an early stage in a design process, you can simulate a model hundreds or thousands of times with RB-FEA. In contrast, if you modify something in an FEA model, you have to go through the whole FEA solve all over again, which is typically a thousand times slower than using the Akselos solver.”

Akselos uses a cloud-based infrastructure that “leverages HPC and parallel computing to the fullest extent,” says Knezevic, although he adds that “Akselos’s unique speedup is purely due to the RB-FEA algorithms.” Akselos offers other features one might expect from a modern simulation package, including online model libraries, a drag-and-drop GUI, and a decision support system.

Customers such as oil and gas producers are particularly interested in the substantial CAPEX reductions enabled by Akselos in the upfront design phase. “Industry is increasingly interested in lean design,” says Knezevic. “There’s a strong opinion that a lot of things are over designed. You often see overly conservative models with excessive safety factors, which can be a symptom of incomplete understanding of a system. If you model a system accurately and in detail, you can understand the risks much more precisely and reduce the safety factors while still being extremely safe.”

A leaner design not only reduces construction costs, but also maintenance costs, says Knezevic. “CAPEX reduction up front leads to OPEX reduction over the lifetime of an asset.”

Akselos is especially qualified in the post-deployment maintenance phase. With the speedy, detailed simulations enabled by RB-FEA, engineers can build a highly detailed digital twin of the physical asset, and easily update it as the asset is upgraded or damaged. Alternatively, Akselos designers can build a twin for customers.

“Akselos models are extremely well suited to being updated to account for the reconfiguration of physical assets,” says Knezevic. “Because our models are modular, you can easily replace components or modify parameters, and then re-solve very quickly.”

With Akselos, customers can update the digital twin based on changes made to the physical asset. Better yet, they can make the changes to the digital twin first to understand the impacts on reliability, throughput, and safety before construction. “You can run 1,000 simulations on it for different scenarios, and then you’ll understand if it’s safe or if you need remedial action and maintenance,” says Knezevic.

Sensor Integration
Currently, a key focus for Akselos is to link digital twins to sensor data. Accelerometers, strain gauges, and other sensors are increasingly being deployed on large infrastructure, providing valuable insights into the current state of critical infrastructure. Calibrating digital twins based on this sensor data provides an advanced new approach to structural integrity management.
“With sensor inputs, you have a real-time digital twin that takes into account any physical changes in your asset,” says Knezevic. “You can then run analysis on this updated, calibrated twin to determine risk.”

“If you can detect and react to issues in a predictive and precise way, you can reduce unplanned physical maintenance, which is extremely expensive because you usually have to shut down production,” says Knezevic. “Based on accelerometer input about structural vibration, for example, you can calibrate your digital twin and then run a thousand different simulations on the calibrated model. This allows you to analyze how the infrastructure in its current state would react to different situations, like if a storm hits, or if you want to increase system throughput”

From a Deshpande grant to STEX25
The idea for building a company around RB-FEA emerged in 2011 when Patera, Knezevic, and two of Knezevic’s colleagues -- Phuong Huynh and current Akselos CEO Thomas Leurent decided the RB-FEA technology was ready to be commercialized. They applied for a Deshpande grant at MIT and were funded later that year to continue the commercially oriented research around RB-FEA. This research led to the founding of Akselos in 2012.

“Throughout this process we benefited a great deal from many resources at MIT, including the Deshpande Center, the ILP, and the Venture Mentoring Service,” says Knezevic. “Our VMS mentors acted like a board for us, and gave us great guidance in how to build up a company.”

Even at four years old, Akselos is still benefiting from MIT assistance by being a member of the MIT Startup Exchange program. The company’s selection to the STEX25 should further expand its interactions with MIT’s industrial contacts.

“We’re honored to be part of STEX25,” says Knezevic. “It’s a great way to expand our outreach to companies that are facing challenges with designing, operating, and maintaining complex and critical engineering systems.”

Readers may download and try out Akselos's product for free from this community.akselos.com.About MIT Startup Exchange, STEX25, and MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP)
MIT Startup Exchange actively promotes collaboration and partnerships between MIT-connected startups and industry. Qualified startups are those founded and/or led by MIT faculty, staff, or alumni, or are based on MIT-licensed technology. Industry participants are principally members of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP).

MIT Startup Exchange maintains a propriety database of over 1,500 MIT-connected startups with roots across MIT departments, labs and centers; it hosts a robust schedule of startup workshops and showcases, and facilitates networking and introductions between startups and corporate executives.

STEX25 is a startup accelerator within MIT Startup Exchange, featuring 25 “industry ready” startups that have proven to be exceptional with early use cases, clients, demos, or partnerships, and are poised for significant growth. STEX25 startups receive promotion, travel, and advisory support, and are prioritized for meetings with ILP’s 230 member companies.

MIT Startup Exchange and ILP are integrated programs of MIT Corporate Relations.

StartupExchange
May 23, 2016

Domeyard LP: A New Spin on HFT

Domeyard LP leverages diverse expertise sets to push boundaries in high-frequency trading.
The technology world has grown accustomed to stories of successful startups emerging from garages and dorm rooms, but it’s still a rarity in the financial world. Domeyard’s humble dorm-room origin story is only one reason this Boston-based high frequency trading (HFT) firm is turning heads from Wall Street to Silicon Valley and beyond.


Christina Qi
Partner, Domeyard LP


“The support from the finance, technology, and academic communities has been phenomenal. We’ve increased our firm’s value from zero to nine digits, less than a year after launch,” says Domeyard co-founder Christina Qi, who graduated from MIT in 2013.

It helped that the dorm room was at MIT and that other Domeyard founders and early employees came from Harvard and MIT — a union alluded to by the company name. It also helped that other key members of the team have worked at Google, Apple, and Microsoft Research, as well as financial firms such as Goldman Sachs, Virtu, and GETCO.

Qi credits the MIT Startup Exchange for being “a huge help in starting our company.” Last year, Domeyard exhibited at a MIT Startup Exchange R&D conference where the co-founders met a number of clients and partners. One of Domeyard’s lead investors was an MIT Industrial Liaison Program member. “He started his hedge fund from scratch almost four decades ago, after someone decided to take a chance and help him out. Now he’s paying it forward,” says Qi.

In its less than three years of existence, Domeyard has moved on to close multiple rounds of investment. Investors include the founder of one the largest quant funds in the world, the CEO of a global consulting firm, one of the biggest private equity investors in the world, and one of the pioneers of China’s Internet industry, says Qi.

Investors both in the company and in Domeyard’s services are attracted by some of the fastest trading technologies in the world. “To be even a millisecond or a microsecond faster makes a huge difference in many industries, especially in finance,” says Qi. “We have focused on performance, an area in which we could potentially be the best in the world.”



Beyond Flash Boys – the changing face of HFT
The term “high frequency trading” was only coined around 2007. HFT describes a segment of the financial services world that specializes in rapid algorithmic trades using fast servers and networks, marked by high order-to-trade ratios.

The irony of Domeyard’s rapid success is that it was founded only months before the publication of Michael Lewis’ scathing critique of the HFT industry in the best-selling “Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt.” The controversial book alleged that trading markets were rigged by HFT traders who specialized in front running orders, a practice that uses extremely high-speed infrastructure and sophisticated algorithms — the sort that Domeyard possesses — to cash in on advance knowledge of pending orders in the market.

HFT’s reputation had already been drawn into question by the “Flash Crash” of May 6, 2010. A $4.1 billion trade on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange initiated with a bank’s automated execution algorithm resulted in the Dow Jones Industrial Average losing over 1000 points before bouncing back to near the previous value, all in a matter of fifteen minutes.

The 2010 Flash Crash, as well as an October 2013 Flash Crash in Singapore, in which $6.9 billion in capitalization vaporized, led to a feverish rethinking of HFT. Exchanges and regulatory bodies began to implement new rules to add some human oversight into HFT, sometimes adding latency in the process. Regulators have also attempted to make trades more transparent in order to expose potentially illegal or destabilizing activities.

“We started Domeyard at a very interesting and eventful time,” says Qi. “The timing was ideal for us because we were forced to confront long-term issues early on, tackling the adversity that large companies face. We looked at the bigger picture of what we’re doing, the impact of our trading strategies, why we’re doing it, and whether it’s good for society. We stayed true to our founding belief that a sustainable business must provide some form of service to the community.”

Domeyard gambles on in-house tech
In addition to rethinking how quantitative trading should be practiced, Domeyard’s management chose an interesting approach to implementing technology. While most software-oriented tech startups take advantage of third party cloud-based services for much of their infrastructure today, Domeyard went for an in-house strategy.

“Unlike other trading firms, we built most of our technology in-house rather than outsourcing to third party vendors,” says Qi. “Most HFT platforms are still new, and not quite as developed as we would like. Going in-house also saves a lot of money. What we have built is of higher caliber and greater value than what is currently on the market. It would cost thousands of dollars per hour on the cloud to spin up the amount of storage and computational cores that we have today.”

Like most HFT-oriented firms, Domeyard takes advantage of physical proximity to glean every last speed advantage. “We co-locate our servers next to the exchanges’ matching engines in locations like New Jersey, enabling us to receive data at a much faster rate,” says Qi. “This is especially true when receiving raw data that you have to clean up and process really fast. Finding signals in data is one feat, but turning them into profitable opportunities takes a tremendous amount of skill and teamwork.”

Increasingly, running an HFT firm requires a lot more than speed. Co-location, fast servers and algorithms, and the latest networking technologies are essential, but “we also need to generate great signals to trade on the marketplace,” says Qi. “Finance is becoming more intertwined with technology. We want to take more of a scientific approach to trading, so it’s not so much based on rumors and gossip, or researching a specific company, but rather about using mathematical models and very deterministic algorithms. We’re eliminating the element of chance. You can’t make tens of thousands of lucky trades in a day.”

Another reason why Domeyard is looking beyond sheer performance is that future improvements in the near-term are likely to be minor. “We are very close to the latency threshold of what’s physically possible,” says Qi. “While we have one of the fastest trading systems around, we are also focusing on more sophisticated strategies. Our edge is in creating smarter strategies without compromising speed.”

Managing the tradeoffs between speed and intelligence is core to Domeyard’s mission. “Running sophisticated algorithms can equate to being slow, so for each situation we have to strike the right balance between speed and complexity,” says Qi. “Our decision depends on intraday market conditions, the markets we’re trading in, and the rules and regulations in each market and jurisdiction. We tailor and revise our strategies every day.”

Domeyard is also notable for being diverse, both in terms of ideas and the people behind them. “Many HFT firms have a common lineage, branching from one of the ten largest firms in the industry,” says Qi. “In contrast, our founding team came from different companies and industries. We had different majors in college. We weren’t fraternity brothers or best friends growing up. Instead, we found each other because of our mutual career interests and goals.”

“When a new hire joins the team, we encourage them to avoid repeating the ideas that their previous firms have implemented,” Qi says. “Just because a large competitor chose a specific solution doesn’t mean that it’s the best solution for us.”

Domeyard has attracted a competitive talent pool thanks to its tech startup atmosphere, academic environment, and flat managerial structure. The latter is still far from the norm in the tech world, and pretty much unknown in financial services. “The goal is that everyone can contribute their ideas openly regardless of age, experience, or background,” Qi explains.

Qi’s main goal for Domeyard is to stay on track and optimize core competencies. “There are a lot of distractions out there, such as new markets we could be trading in, or networking events every other day,” she says. “But we try our best to focus on what we’re doing now. It takes a balance of focus, creativity, and feedback to become the best in the industry.”



MIT Startup Exchange actively promotes collaboration and partnerships between MIT-connected startups and industry. Qualified startups are those founded and/or led by MIT faculty, staff, or alumni, or are based on MIT-licensed technology. Industry participants are principally members of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP).

MIT Startup Exchange maintains a propriety database of over 1,500 MIT-connected startups with roots across MIT departments, labs and centers; it hosts a robust schedule of startup workshops and showcases, and facilitates networking and introductions between startups and corporate executives.

STEX25 is a startup accelerator within MIT Startup Exchange, featuring 25 “industry ready” startups that have proven to be exceptional with early use cases, clients, demos, or partnerships, and are poised for significant growth. STEX25 startups receive promotion, travel, and advisory support, and are prioritized for meetings with ILP’s 230 member companies.

MIT Startup Exchange and ILP are integrated programs of MIT Corporate Relations.
StartupExchange
April 25, 2016

BioBuilder Educational Foundation: Engineering Tomorrow’s Synthetic Biologists

Natalie Kuldell started BioBuilder to inspire new generations of scientists and engineers with hands-on laboratory experiences.
“If I had only learned science the way it was taught to me in the classroom, I probably never would have become a scientist,” says Natalie Kuldell, a faculty member in MIT’s Department of Biological Engineering. “It was only in high school when I had a chance to work in an investigative lab that I realized how creative and fun science could be.”


Natalie Kuldell
President, Founder, & Executive Director

BioBuilder Educational Foundation



As director of a nonprofit, MIT-spawned startup called the BioBuilder Educational Foundation, Kuldell aims to pass along that spirit of adventure to students. BioBuilder provides a web-based curriculum for synthetic biology aimed primarily at high-school students, and also hosts after-school clubs, teacher training, and other programs. BioBuilder is now taught in more than 40 states and a dozen countries.

“We want to make the emerging field of synthetic biology more accessible,” says Kuldell. “We want students to start thinking about cells as tiny factories and DNA as a programming language that can control the living system.”

As science and engineering research programs and companies compete to attract the brightest young prospects, synthetic biology is hampered by the fact that relatively few students — or adults for that matter — know what it is. Many who do recognize the term often know it in connection with the controversies over genetically modified crops.

Even the experts sometimes disagree on the exact definition of synthetic biology, which attempts to unify biotechnology fields including genetic engineering, molecular and evolutionary biology, and even computer engineering. According to the MIT Synthetic Biology Center, the goal of synthetic biology is “to make the construction of novel biological systems into a practical and useful engineering discipline.”

BioBuilder’s website points to a variety of real-world applications beyond food engineering, including the development of biofuels, anti-malarial drugs, biodegradable adhesives, and less toxic cancer treatments. “The hope is that synthetic biology can turn biotech into something reliable, robust, and scalable in the same way that engineering turned physics and chemistry into technologies we can all rely on,” says Kuldell.



That many high school students have never heard of synthetic biology is not surprising. Between their lack of funding and lack of time, high school science classes struggle to squeeze in the basics of science, let alone dig into the most recent biotech breakthroughs. Science teachers must often resort to time-efficient lectures rather than hands-on investigations and lab work that more effectively engage students.

Keeping Synthetic Biology Real
Kuldell conceived the idea for BioBuilder when she realized much of the curriculum she had developed over a dozen years of teaching synthetic biology to MIT students could be adapted to high school students. The BioBuilder program differs from most K12 science curricula in that it is regularly updated with the latest research underway at MIT and elsewhere.

“I’ve always tried to base my teaching around authentic research questions, which leads to collaborative and team-based learning, and lasting moments of engagement,” says Kuldell. “BioBuilder takes these real research questions and converts them into teachable modules framed with engineering challenges.”

Another major goal for the program is to make the education as hands-on as possible in order to “engage students as creative and critical thinkers,” says Kuldell. The multimedia-rich BioBuilder curriculum and hands-on lab kits lead to an online portal that lets students share what they’ve learned.

Activities include exploring bacterial photography, evaluating identical DNA programs in different types of bacterial strains, and varying the protein output from a series of genetic devices. In one BioBuilder activity, students try to generate bacteria that smell like bananas.

“We ask the students to design a genetic program that will regulate the output of cells to only smell pleasant during a particular phase of growth,” says Kuldell. “It may seem silly, but the scent industry is enormous. Scent has been an under-utilized reporter for cellular behavior, and the ability to control cell outputs is key to any biotechnology.”

BioBuilder keeps the teaching relevant by showing the potential for synthetic biology to solve real-world problems like hunger, climate change, and disease. The curriculum also covers biosafety, bioethical issues, and the debate over genetically modified foods.

BioBuilder offers more of an engineering focus than is typically found in high school biology classes. “I am a scientist by training, and when I first came to MIT I did not fully appreciate the work engineers do,” says Kuldell. “I came to realize how engineers can apply what we learn through science in order to meet real world needs. I saw how effectively these engineering challenges could be used to engage students and teach them the science, as well as the limitations of scientific understanding.”

Synthetic biology takes “an engineer’s eye and applies to it biology,” says Kuldell. “In life sciences, we need to move beyond ad hoc endeavors when we are putting pieces of DNA together and develop protocols and standards so they can be assembled in a reliable way. Through standardization and shared databases, we may be able to lower the barriers of entry of doing biotech to the point where everybody can do it.”

MIT Venture Mentoring Service helps chart trajectory
The heart of the BioBuilder project, which focuses on investigative curriculum for high schools, started with a multiyear grant from the National Science Foundation. Halfway through that funding cycle, the NSF requested details on how the project could be made self-sustaining, and Kuldell sought out MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service for advice.

“Working with the Venture Mentoring Service, it became clear that by establishing the project as an independent nonprofit, we could build capacity and expand into the broader community,” says Kuldell.

Four years ago, the VMS helped Kuldell plan the BioBuilder Educational Foundation. Since then, the Foundation has been sustained with individual contributions, as well as partnerships with companies that sell BioBuilder’s lab kits, and through additional grants.

Assistance from the VMS has been extended post launch to help Kuldell expand the program. “They were critically important in helping me think about how to scale the work so I didn’t have to be everywhere,” says Kuldell. “The VMS showed me how teachers could become ambassadors for the program. I hadn’t anticipated this wonderful community of teachers that has supported BioBuilder. Teachers run teacher training workshops all over the country, and promote BioBuilder at professional meetings. They have led the way in adapting the curriculum for middle schools.”

O’Reilly Media recently published a BioBuilder textbook, now available on Amazon, which has helped teachers who run into “institutional resistance” from schools and school districts, says Kuldell. “The textbook helps bring synthetic biology into classrooms as a formal curriculum. We are also starting an after school club for schools that aren’t ready to bring it into the formal classroom but would like to try it out.”

BioBuilder plans to launch a dedicated BioBuilder teaching and learning space in Kendall Square with Lab Central, which provides lab space and an entrepreneurial environment for biotech startups. The partnership is one of many the foundation has forged with industry — mostly Boston-area firms — in order to expand BioBuilder’s reach.

“The Massachusetts Life Science Center provided equipment grants to our teachers, and through that I’ve developed a relationship with VWR’s Wards Science, which has been distributing our lab materials,” says Kuldell. “Now New England Biolabs wants to provide reagents to our clubs. Biotech businesses realize it’s important to bring community and public access into the biotech world.”

Just as BioBuilder has given high school students the confidence to envision careers in synthetic biology, it has also helped Kuldell gain confidence in her own abilities. “I could not have imagined myself running a public benefit organization,” she says. “There’s something about being at MIT that makes you very brave and makes you believe that you can do the work that you think is important.”



MIT Startup Exchange actively promotes collaboration and partnerships between MIT-connected startups and industry. Qualified startups are those founded and/or led by MIT faculty, staff, or alumni, or are based on MIT-licensed technology. Industry participants are principally members of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP).

MIT Startup Exchange maintains a propriety database of over 1,500 MIT-connected startups with roots across MIT departments, labs and centers; it hosts a robust schedule of startup workshops and showcases, and facilitates networking and introductions between startups and corporate executives.

STEX25 is a startup accelerator within MIT Startup Exchange, featuring 25 “industry ready” startups that have proven to be exceptional with early use cases, clients, demos, or partnerships, and are poised for significant growth. STEX25 startups receive promotion, travel, and advisory support, and are prioritized for meetings with ILP’s 230 member companies.

MIT Startup Exchange and ILP are integrated programs of MIT Corporate Relations.
StartupExchange
March 21, 2016

DropWise Technologies: Turning Up the Heat Exchange

DropWise Technologies’ coatings promise major energy savings for power plants and other vital industrial uses.
In a way, we’re still living in the Steam Age, and grappling with the limitations of steam power. More than 85% of the world’s electrical power comes from steam power plants, according to Adam Paxson, chief executive officer of DropWise Technologies. After driving the plant’s turbines, steam is condensed back to water in a heat exchanger, whose metal tubes are filled with running cold water. This condensation also creates a vacuum that helps to pull steam through the turbines. But condensation itself is not so efficient, because thick blankets of water build up on the condenser’s metal tubes and block the flow of heat.


Adam Paxson
DropWise Technologies CEO


DropWise Technologies, a startup based on research from two MIT labs, has developed ultra-thin, ultra-effective coatings to break down the blankets of water and bring major savings in energy and water use for these power plants. Just as crucially, the water-repellant coatings could fight climate change by cutting carbon dioxide production.

“Even a small incremental improvement across heat exchange efficiency can have enormous global impact, and with these coatings, we’re talking about heat exchanger coefficients going up by a factor of seven,” says Paxson. “Implementing this coating in a typical large-scale power plant would offset the amount of CO2 equivalent to a few thousand cars. And for the first time, retrofitting existing power plants can be done in a way that is economically and operationally viable, with just a truck outfitted with a small amount of chemicals and deposition equipment.”

Beyond power plants, almost every major industrial process makes heavy use of heat exchangers, he points out. DropWise also targets chemical processing, desalination, turbines, power components and other industrial applications that have not been addressed successfully by other coating technologies.

Coat dependent

Heat exchangers transfer heat from one fluid to another through a very thin sheet of metal, “which inevitably gets fouled or corroded by some form of material — whether it’s thick films of condensing steam that build up on these surfaces, or biofilms or corrosion,” Paxson explains. “Even a very thin layer, a micron thick, makes a significant impact on performance.”



Working on his PhD in the lab of Kripa Varanasi, associate professor of mechanical engineering, Paxson realized the need for a simple, highly manufacturable solution to the heat exchange problem, with coatings that were very thin, highly robust, and easily applied to large surfaces.

Paxson and Varanasi created advanced coating designs and collaborated with Karen Gleason, MIT associate provost and professor of chemical engineering. “We combined the coating processing and materials that Professor Gleason had been developing with the application expertise and testbeds in the Varanasi lab,” Paxson says. “Right away we started getting some incredible results in terms of both performance and durability.”



David Borrelli
DropWise Technologies CTO



The coatings are generated by an initiated chemical vapor deposition (iCVD) technique created by the Gleason lab, says David Borrelli, formerly a PhD student in the lab and now DropWise’s chief technology officer. The iCVD technique flows gases across hot filaments to graft ultra-thin polymers to metal surfaces, while maintaining the metal surfaces at room temperature.

This process creates an extremely thin film, about one two-thousandth the thickness of a piece of paper. “It’s very difficult by any finishing process to get a thin enough coating that the coating itself doesn’t inhibit your heat transfer,” says Borrelli. “That’s one of the key benefits in our processes.” Another is that the coating can be applied across large expanses of metal or other surfaces.

Two aspects of the technology impart durability, a crucial requirement. The polymers that are being deposited bond tightly with the metal oxides on the surface of the heat exchangers, and the polymers create a cross-linked overlying layer that protects against chemical reactions driven by the steam.

Paxson built a testbed in the Varanasi lab, essentially a miniature power plant that simulates the temperatures and pressures inside an actual operating power plant. Accelerated testing at higher temperatures has shown no degradation of coating performance over more than three years, and DropWise is running even longer-term durability tests.

“The coating is thick enough to impart a huge amount of durability but also thin enough that it doesn’t have any negative impact on the performance of the heat exchanger,” Paxson says. “This is the first coating technology that can meet all of those technical requirements and is economical enough that a plant can quickly recover the cost of applying the coating.”

Steaming ahead

Seeing a massive commercial opportunity for these coatings, as well as important environmental advantages, Paxson and Borrelli founded DropWise with their professors in 2014.

MIT’s entrepreneurial culture and resources have been particularly helpful in the difficult-to-enter market for advanced materials, Paxson says. With an office in north Cambridge, “we benefit from having the intense brainpower, both the professors and the potential employee pool in the MIT ecosystem, within a ten-minute walk,” he says. Additionally, many promising applications for the coatings have come in through the MIT community.


Annica Blake
DropWise Technologies COO



Sorting out the best early applications is a crucial business question for DropWise, because there are so many potential uses for the coatings. “You can increase heat transfer, or reduce fouling or corrosion of components, and the iCVD process is so flexible that it can be applied in large scales very economically or in small components that have very complex shapes,” notes Annica Blake, chief operating officer. “The choice is, what do we focus on?”

“The end goal for us has always been to get to power plants, because of the impact on the environment and the commercial viability of that market,” Blake says. “But we realize that will take a number of years, because it is a conservative industry and it operates at a large scale. So we’re looking for smaller stepping-stone applications that we can quickly address and bring to market.”

DropWise is running pilots for several such applications with commercial partners today and is optimistic that some uses for its coating technology will start to bring in revenue in the short term.

In September, the company announced a joint-development partnership with Henkel Corporation, a global supplier of coatings and related products. Henkel gives the company considerably more credibility with potential customers, Paxson points out, since the DropWise technology has been rigorously tested by the firm that invented many of the standard tests used by industry globally.

Environmental benefits remain a key driver for DropWise. “Applying this coating to power plant steam condensers can significantly increase the efficiency of the condensers, which increases the efficiency of the power generation cycle, which in turn lowers emissions and lowers water usage,” says Borrelli. “So applying this globally could have a huge impact on CO2 emissions.”

In fact, says Paxson, adopting the coatings in power plants could lower CO2 emissions more than all the solar energy equipment installed worldwide in a year. “The personal motivation behind this startup was the realization that with a handful of smart people, we can have more environmental impact than entire global energy industries,” he says.



MIT Startup Exchange actively promotes collaboration and partnerships between MIT-connected startups and industry. Qualified startups are those founded and/or led by MIT faculty, staff, or alumni, or are based on MIT-licensed technology. Industry participants are principally members of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP).

MIT Startup Exchange maintains a propriety database of over 1,500 MIT-connected startups with roots across MIT departments, labs and centers; it hosts a robust schedule of startup workshops and showcases, and facilitates networking and introductions between startups and corporate executives.

STEX25 is a startup accelerator within MIT Startup Exchange, featuring 25 “industry ready” startups that have proven to be exceptional with early use cases, clients, demos, or partnerships, and are poised for significant growth. STEX25 startups receive promotion, travel, and advisory support, and are prioritized for meetings with ILP’s 230 member companies.

MIT Startup Exchange and ILP are integrated programs of MIT Corporate Relations.
StartupExchange
February 22, 2016

twoXAR: Disrupting Drug Discovery

twoXAR’s analytics combine radically different data sets to match up diseases with potential drug candidates.
“We’re looking to build a next-generation biopharmaceutical company that brings a data science-first approach to drug discovery,” says Andrew M. Radin, co-founder and chief business officer of twoXAR. “This is where we can have the biggest impact in reducing the time and costs associated with finding more effective medicines across many complex diseases, especially in rare diseases where there is a lack of investment.”


Andrew M. Radin
CBO & Co-Founder
twoXAR



A startup in Palo Alto, California, twoXAR integrates and analyzes massive biological, chemical and clinical data sets to prioritize drug compounds as candidates for treating specific illnesses. “We’re computer scientists solving a biology problem, as opposed to biologists trying to solve a computer science problem,” says Radin. “We have no wet labs and conduct no animal studies.”

The company was founded by two Andrew Radins in 2014 — Andrew M. Radin, who graduated from MIT’s Sloan School that year, and Andrew A. Radin (no relation), a data scientist who has worked as chief technical officer for several startup firms.

twoXAR’s roots go back to a graduate school class Andrew A. took in bioinformatics at Stanford University. Given a homework assignment to extract findings from sets of biomedical data, he created a big-data algorithm to study type 2 diabetes, and produced a surprisingly successful model for predicting which drugs might work for the disease.

That success eventually led to the formation of twoXAR, which has built a commercial computational drug discovery platform based on the algorithm Andrew A. developed for that initial classroom project. Since then, they have worked painstakingly to evolve the technology and validate the results it generates.

In Parkinson’s disease, for example, twoXAR’s platform sifted through an extremely broad collection of data from pre-clinical and clinical research, along with a library of drug compounds, and produced a list of intriguing drug candidates.



At the time, the company didn’t have the expertise in Parkinson’s to evaluate these results. However, it found that one of the top candidates was being studied in the lab of Tim Collier, a leading Parkinson’s researcher at Michigan State University. After examining the twoXAR results in detail, Collier and his colleagues agreed to begin an ongoing collaboration with twoXAR. The Collier lab is now running animal studies to examine the efficacy of some of the compounds the company has identified.

twoXAR also works with scientists at the University of Chicago and Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. In these academic collaborations, researchers provide the company with data around a disease they’ve been studying. twoXAR puts that data into its system, along with related data sets from various public and private sources, and generates promising candidates. “Basically, at this stage we’ll file indication patents for these candidates, our partners will run animal studies on them, and we’ll share the upside from any discoveries we make together,” Radin says.

Additionally, the startup is engaging with a number of biopharmaceutical firms in drug discovery collaborations. “Each one of those conversations looks very different, depending on the disease in which they’re interested and the stage they’re at in adopting large-scale data sciences,” Radin comments. “We’re not looking for folks to convince; we want to find companies that recognize that the analysis of large data is the path to the future.”

twoXAR offers to help its partners identify new candidates and new targets for a specific disease, prioritize existing candidates for a disease, or validate existing compounds repurposed for another disease.

Bringing data science to bear

From a drug developer’s perspective, “you can think of our platform as similar to high-throughput screening of drug candidates, but much faster, with a much broader set of drugs and data,” says Radin. “Because, when we look at biological data, chemical data and clinical data, these are radically different data sets. Any one of those data sets independently might not provide enough information, but when we look at the overlaps between them, and we start to see the same signal out of all that noise, that’s a strong indication that a drug might treat that disease.”

The twoXAR drug discovery software platform works in a four-step process. The first step is collecting biological data from sources such as gene expression microarrays, chemical data such as molecular structural information, and clinical data to see if the drug might be protective against a similar disease. The data collection also draws on libraries of molecular drug candidates, often using one library with more than 25,000 compounds.

Next, the platform takes that data and plugs it into a network model of the illness. Third, its proprietary algorithms identify relevant features. Finally, these features are plugged into a machine-learning algorithm, which produces a list of the compounds ranked on the probability that they can effectively treat the disease.

Compounds that post the highest scores but are neither known treatments nor under study are particularly interesting candidates for study. “Some may lead to new mechanisms of action, which are what actually cures these diseases and doesn’t just treat the symptoms,” Radin says.

Although current drugs for Parkinson’s, for instance, only treat symptoms, “we can tune our algorithm to focus on things that are potentially neuroprotective — stopping or reversing the progression of disease,” he says. “We’ve filed for patents for several candidates that we’re looking to move forward in studies.”

So far, twoXAR has run analyses for compounds addressing more than 20 diseases. And as the firm broadens the scope of illnesses under study, it also steadily widens the data sets on which it draws. “The more data we have, the better,” Radin notes. “As this universe expands and more people are willing to share their data from public and private sources, we are able to make even more robust predictions.”

Not all of these data sets are equally trustworthy, but “we have algorithms to determine which data sets are noisy and which aren’t, and we throw out the ones that are not relevant,” Radin says. “So it’s not a huge problem for us.”

Connecting and competing

MIT connections have been key for twoXAR’s launch. In the company’s earliest days, Andrew M. drew on conversations with MIT alumni in senior management positions in biopharma companies for guidance on the pharmaceutical industry. He now works with the Industrial Liaison Program, the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, and former professors at Sloan to find partners and hone business strategies.

Given the rapid changes and deep competition in drug discovery, entrants such as twoXAR have their work cut out for them. “Our competition is basically any pharmaceutical company that’s discovering new drugs,” Radin says. “But really, our biggest challenge is changing the perception of big data-driven approaches within the industry. It is still early days and a lot of skepticism remains about this radically new approach to drug discovery.”

“We're just doing what scientific researchers have always done,” he comments. “But advances in statistical methods, our proprietary algorithms, and secure cloud computing allow us to do it orders of magnitude faster across disease areas where there are real needs for new medicines.”



MIT Startup Exchange actively promotes collaboration and partnerships between MIT-connected startups and industry. Qualified startups are those founded and/or led by MIT faculty, staff, or alumni, or are based on MIT-licensed technology. Industry participants are principally members of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP).

MIT Startup Exchange maintains a propriety database of over 1,500 MIT-connected startups with roots across MIT departments, labs and centers; it hosts a robust schedule of startup workshops and showcases, and facilitates networking and introductions between startups and corporate executives.

STEX25 is a startup accelerator within MIT Startup Exchange, featuring 25 “industry ready” startups that have proven to be exceptional with early use cases, clients, demos, or partnerships, and are poised for significant growth. STEX25 startups receive promotion, travel, and advisory support, and are prioritized for meetings with ILP’s 230 member companies.

MIT Startup Exchange and ILP are integrated programs of MIT Corporate Relations.
StartupExchange
February 1, 2016

Zaiput Flow Technologies: From MIT to Startup in Seven Steps

Zaiput Flow Technologies is bringing innovative tools for continuous flow chemistry to market.
As a research associate at the at the MIT Department of Chemistry’s Jensen Lab, Andrea Adamo came up with an idea for a device that separates liquids in the context of continuous flow chemistry. Adamo’s liquid-liquid separator, which uses membrane-based separation and a novel on-board pressure controller, greatly simplifies the liquid separation processes used in pharmaceutical research. In 2013, Adamo joined with Harvard biochemist Jennifer Baltz to launch a Cambridge, MA-based company to commercialize the technology.


Andrea Adamo
Founder & CEO

Zaiput Flow Technologies


Zaiput Flow Technologies is thriving in the research market, and is now readying a larger version of the separator. In 2015, the company was announced as a winner of the Galactic Grant Competition along with Nanobiosym. The grant will help Zaiput develop a version of the separator that can be tested at the International Space Station to research the effects of zero gravity on flow chemistry.

The journey from inspiration to startup to outer space did not happen by accident. Here are seven steps in Zaiput’s journey from lab to marketplace.

The Inspiration
As a child in Italy, Andrea and his brother dreamed of launching their own company. But first they had to find the perfect name. The boys spent hours dreaming up names before they found their winner.

“Zaiput doesn’t mean anything, but we liked the sound of it,” says Adamo. “When I finally had a chance to start a company, I thought why not? Some people love it, some hate it, but people remember it.”

The Foundation
Despite his entrepreneurial stirrings, it was science that captivated young Andrea’s attention. After earning a Ph.D. in Fluid Mechanics from the University Federico II of Naples, he came to MIT 15 years ago on a Fulbright scholarship. At MIT, he added another Masters in Science degree and began working as a research associate in the laboratory of Klavs Jensen, Director of MIT’s Chemical Engineering Department.



At Jensen’s lab, Adamo worked on research such as molecular compound delivery to cells, lab-on-a-chip applications, and microfluidic-based detection systems. He was particularly interested in creating devices for continuous flow chemistry, a process in which chemical reactions are achieved by mixing them together as fluids moving through tubes.

“With flow chemistry, we try to have things react as they flow as opposed to reacting in batch in a vessel,” explains Adamo. “The idea has been around for 50 years or more — what is new is applying the approach to a smaller scale, as well as adding high-added-value molecules. Flow can deliver robustness and quality and expands the parameter space that you can use in reactions.”

Pharmaceutical companies have recently begun investing in plant upgrades with flow chemistry and other “continuous manufacturing” technologies. Such designs can cut costs and improve quality by reducing the number of steps, devices, and locations required for drug manufacturing. A Wall Street Journal story last year quoted Bernhardt Trout, director of the Novartis-MIT Center for Continuous Manufacturing, as saying continuous manufacturing upgrades can save 30 percent or more in operating costs.

Big pharma’s attraction to flow chemistry reignited Adamo’s entrepreneurial ambitions, and he began to brainstorm how the technology could be applied to the problem of liquid-liquid separation. Current separators have numerous drawbacks, says Adamo.

“In typical separators, you use a funnel shaped container in which liquids separate by gravity,” he says. “You mix things up and wait for them to separate. The problem is that some emulsions take forever to separate, and there’s a cost problem in that the containers can be quite large, and the compounds can be very expensive.”

Adamo was fascinated by a development of Jensen’s in which surface forces were used in a flow chemistry system to separate liquids rather than using gravity. With this technique, different liquids flowing through the same porous membrane react differently.

“It’s kind of like a nonstick pan, which causes different reactions with different kinds of liquids,” says Adamo. “If you pour oil onto it, it will spread out. If you pour water, it beads up.”

The Eureka
Adamo pursued a membrane-based design, but faced an obstacle between concept and workable prototype. “In order to have complete separation, you have to precisely control the pressure on either side of the membrane,” says Adamo.

Adamo soon came up with the solution: a high-precision differential pressure controller that sits on top of the device and ensures the membrane always has the correct separating condition. Adamo’s liquid-liquid-separator had the advantage of using a continuous process like an assembly line.

“The shaking and mixing is done by the flow itself, so you don’t have to wait,” says Adamo. “You can also build a cascading system so you have reaction, separation, reaction, and so on. It saves the chemist the time required to play with different pressures when working on complex applications. You assemble molecules and eventually end up with a product such as a drug or a perfume.”

Jensen, a pioneer in flow chemistry, whose recent spinoffs include SQZ Biotech, encouraged Adamo to explore the technology’s business potential. Adamo was particularly inspired when he showed an early prototype to Tim Jamison, the head of MIT’s Chemistry Department, and now a member of Zaiput’s advisory board. “He told me the prototype was really useful, and that I should have considered selling it,” says Adamo.

The Entrepreneurial Education
Over the years, Adamo had drawn inspiration from the entrepreneurial atmosphere at MIT and the surrounding startup community. Now he had to learn how to become an entrepreneur himself.

Adamo had already received Deshpande funding for another business idea he had formulated at MIT, which “provided a tremendous opportunity to interact with mentors,” he says. “At all the networking events, classes, and talks at MIT, I discovered the beauty of entrepreneurship. I learned how to start thinking about a business, how to identify opportunities.”

To prepare for the launch of Zaiput, Adamo took several business school classes, and attended industry conferences. “At one chemistry conference, I realized that my view of the product’s potential was quite narrow,” says Adamo. “So I looked for more connections and inputs to identify other opportunities.”

Adamo also signed up for the MIT Venture Mentoring Service. “VMS gave me some great advice, and helped me structure the business,” says Adamo. “When you go from theory to practice, there are so many aspects to look at. I also had a great interaction with the MIT Technology Licensing Office.”

The Launch
Adamo’s entrepreneurial education was a big help, but it was no replacement for experience. He wisely chose a co-founder in Baltz who contributed experience in both biochemistry and biotech startups. With the help of MIT institutions like VMS, Adamo (CEO) and Baltz (COO) lined up funding to launch Zaiput in 2012.

Zaiput opened an office in Cambridge, put the finishing touches on the liquid-liquid separator, called SEP10, and unveiled it at the 2013 Flow Chemistry Congress in Boston.

The company quickly found interested customers. After lining up a manufacturer and shipping product, Zaiput added a line of more traditional bench gear: tunable, clog-resistant back pressure regulators.

Zaiput’s location has been a big benefit. “Cambridge is the place you want to be,” Adamo says. “Within a few blocks we have all the greatest pharma companies, as well as the future leaders. We can quickly get connected with opinion leaders and buyers alike, so we don’t have to travel so much.”

Adamo, who is still a part-time MIT research associate, continues to draw on MIT institutions for guidance, and he is also active at the Novartis-MIT Center for Continuous Manufacturing.

The Expansion
Adamo’s conversations with customers, mentors, and colleagues led him to realize that scalability was critical. Zaiput is now preparing a larger SEP200 version of the separator designed for a typical flow rate of 200 ml/min, compared to 0-12 ml/min for the current device, and has begun designing an even larger one. The new devices support larger-scale research efforts, and even small-scale manufacturing. Adamo envisions variously sized models for use in clinical trials, where pharma companies can scale up to larger volumes at each stage.

Zaiput is planning to build devices designed “in arrays for complex extraction cases,” says Adamo. When you separate some liquids, such as wine and oil, 10 percent of the alcohol goes into the oil. “If you want to separate out more, you would need to repeat in a cascading system,” he adds. “Today, this process is done with columns 30 meters high. We think we can do it with boxes full of devices.”

Zaiput is also exploring entirely new applications in the food industry and in water remediation. “You could use a version of this to clean up a gasoline spill in a lake,” says Adamo. “You could probably even recover the gasoline and reuse it.”

Although Adamo says the potential for separation technology is “boundless,” he is in no rush to jump into new industries. “As a startup, we are trying to stay focused.”

The Liftoff
Zaiput is now looking for space to set up its own research lab, and there are plans to launch a consulting service. The company recently partnered with Snapdragon Chemistry, another MIT spinoff, which should help it acquire “state of the art flow chemistry knowledge,” says Adamo.

Adamo is thrilled Zaiput won the Galactic Grant earlier this year from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) and the Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). The grant means more than just good PR. “The zero gravity research at the space station may provide important results to improve our products,” says Adamo. “This could also be one of the first steps to enable drug making in space, which you would need for long manned missions.”

As for Adamo’s brother who helped come up with the Zaiput name, he’s now playing a peripheral role in the company, as well. He married Andrea’s co-founder and COO, who is now Jennifer Baltz Adamo.



MIT Startup Exchange actively promotes collaboration and partnerships between MIT-connected startups and industry. Qualified startups are those founded and/or led by MIT faculty, staff, or alumni, or are based on MIT-licensed technology. Industry participants are principally members of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP).

MIT Startup Exchange maintains a propriety database of over 1,500 MIT-connected startups with roots across MIT departments, labs and centers; it hosts a robust schedule of startup workshops and showcases, and facilitates networking and introductions between startups and corporate executives.

STEX25 is a startup accelerator within MIT Startup Exchange, featuring 25 “industry ready” startups that have proven to be exceptional with early use cases, clients, demos, or partnerships, and are poised for significant growth. STEX25 startups receive promotion, travel, and advisory support, and are prioritized for meetings with ILP’s 230 member companies.

MIT Startup Exchange and ILP are integrated programs of MIT Corporate Relations.
StartupExchange
December 21, 2015

nuTonomy: Reimagining the Role of the Car

Emilio Frazzoli leads autonomous vehicle research efforts aimed at enabling driverless car-sharing fleets.
MIT Professor or Aeronautics and Astronautics Emilio Frazzoli is one of the world’s experts on autonomous vehicles, both in the air on the ground. So when we sat down to talk to him about his autonomous car technology firm, nuTonomy, we expected to hear a lot about computer vision systems, safety algorithms, real-time operating systems, and the latest sensor technologies. But Frazzoli wanted to talk about something much bigger: reimagining the role of the car.


Emilio Frazzoli
MIT Professor of Aeronautics & Astronautics

nuTonomy CTO


Frazzoli believes the self-driving car will fundamentally change the role of the automobile from an extension of our bodies to a shared resource, from mechanical horse to motorized appliance. “One way we can think of autonomous cars is as appliances that happen to move from place to place, perhaps something like an elevator,” says Frazzoli, nuTonomy’s CTO.

While Frazzoli concedes that this conceptual switch “could be controversial,” and that it “will not help selling the car as a product,” he’s not particularly concerned. Frazzoli believes that the first wave of autonomous vehicles will not be sold as personal vehicles, but as services. In particular, nuTonomy is going after the ride-sharing and fleet management industries.

“It could be decades before we will be able to walk into a car dealership and buy an autonomous car and have it drive us home,” says Frazzoli, who launched nuTonomy in 2013 with CEO Karl Iagnemma, director of MIT’s Robotic Mobility Group. “But much sooner than that we will see autonomous vehicles offered as mobility-on-demand services running in well-defined locations during the day under good weather conditions. We don’t want to develop the vehicle itself, but rather provide software and system design, including the selection of sensors and actuators. We hope to eventually provide services.”

nuTonomy started as a consulting business for Tier 1 suppliers and automotive manufacturers like Jaguar/Land Rover, helping them add more autonomous functions to their human-controlled vehicles. More recently, Frazzoli and Iagnemma have set their ambitions higher, and now nuTonomy’s main focus is on developing software for fully autonomous cars aimed at the service industry. Angel investors have anted up, and now the company is looking for more substantial investments.



While Frazzoli says that both semi-autonomous and autonomous approaches will succeed in the coming decades, nuTonomy is betting on a fully autonomous model over the long run. NuTonomy’s vision is closer to that of Google’s self-driving car than the automobile industry’s numerous assisted driving projects. In part this is due to the difficulty in handoffs between human and computer drivers, but it also stems from nuTonomy’s focus on car sharing and fleet services.

“For the service model, we favor a clear demarcation between the authority of the automation vs. the human,” says Frazzoli. “When one is in charge it should not rely on the other taking over and vice versa.”

NuTonomy’s software provides a unique approach to autonomous decision-making. “Our advantage is that our cars can automatically and systematically satisfy all the rules of the road,” says Frazzoli. “Back when we were doing the DARPA Urban Challenge, we had to hand-code all the different options for all the different things that could happen on the road. This is very hard to do by hand and even more painful to debug.”

Having “vowed to never do that again,” Frazzoli and Iagnemma, came up with a more systematic solution that not only saved countless hours of coding, but resulted in a more reliable system. “We provide the software with a list of rules, and then the car automatically satisfies them without the need for hand-coding.”

The software is also flexible enough to know when a traffic rule should be broken. “We teach our cars to use judgment to violate some of the rules when it is both safe and necessary, like driving around a double-parked car,” says Frazzoli. “But there is a danger in trying to humanize the car. Autonomous cars are not meant to replicate the human. That’s tantamount to saying humans are the perfect paradigm for driving, and they’re not.”

Transforming Urban Landscapes with Mobility as a Service
After spending much of his career researching Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Frazzoli came to MIT and began working on autonomous car research. He was a member of MIT’s 4th-ranked team at the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge, and later joined the MIT SMART (Singapore MIT Alliance for Research and Technology) program on the Future of Urban Mobility. Frazzoli is now the Lead Principal Investigator at SMART’s autonomous car project, which recently demonstrated the world’s first public autonomous vehicle pilot in Singapore.

The experience of envisioning Singapore’s transportation future helped Frazzoli realize that “this technology has a big potential for a very profound impact on our lives.” Typically, says Frazzoli, people talk about benefits such as safety, as well as the reduction of congestion and smog due to increase driving efficiency. In the case of fully autonomous technology, added benefits include improved accessibility for those who can’t drive, and the greater convenience and productivity of being able to do other things in the car instead of driving.

“Yet these benefits only improve on the status quo,” says Frazzoli. “I realized that the killer app for autonomous cars is car sharing. Cars cost a big chunk of our disposable income, and yet they sit idle 95 percent of the time, often using up expensive real estate. We pay for the privilege of not using the car. If the car can drive itself why leave it parked in the garage? Let it go pick up and drive somebody else, take your children to school or take your spouse to their job, or share it publicly.”

The problem with current car-sharing services is either the lack of availability of a car or a parking lot, says Frazzoli. “ZipCar requires you to return car to same location you picked it up, which limits flexibility,” he says. “The service is experimenting with something like Car2Go’s one-way service, but it doesn’t solve the problem of having to park the car. Self-driving cars eliminate all these problems. We envision a model in which whenever I need a car, I can book it on my phone, and it will pick me up. When I get to my destination I don’t have to worry about parking or refueling.”

Autonomous car sharing could also change the way people think about cars, says Frazzoli. “This could actually be liberating for car guys like myself,” he says. “Like many people I like driving fancy sporty cars, but because I am raising three children, I bought something more practical. What if I could share an autonomous minivan for commodity transportation, taking kids to soccer practice and grocery shopping, and then still have a fancy car to drive on weekends? Many of us can get by without a second car, and can buy the cars they like rather than the cars they need.”

If this vision of shared driving doesn’t do much to cheer car manufacturers, it’s certainly intriguing to fleet operators. “When you compare the cost of a driving service, including the cost of the car itself, with the standard way of providing the service with manned vehicles, it’s very compelling,” says Frazzoli. “Say a taxi driver makes $50,000 a year, and I need to cover three shifts, so it’s now $150,000 a year. We are amortizing the higher expense of a self-driving car over the life of the service and the car.”

At the SMART project, Frazzoli studied the potential impact of shared autonomous vehicles in Singapore. He found that about 300,000 shared autonomous vehicles could provide the same level of mobility available now with 800,000 passenger vehicles.

“You could sell those half million cars to another country, and reclaim the space of a million and a half new parking spaces, which can be given back to people for entertainment, residences, businesses, and parks,” says Frazzoli. “This is very important in a geographically constrained place like Singapore. A lot of the space in big cities is devoted to parking lots, so there’s a big potential in urban development. I grew up in Rome, which is a beautiful city, but the effect is spoiled by double- and triple-parked cars. Our beautiful hidden monuments are hidden behind layers of metal and rubber.”

The path to nuTonomy’s mobility as a service vision will take time. The company is planning a staged rollout, starting with very controlled environments, such as daytime shuttles at corporate campuses, before moving out to car sharing and taxi services over prescribed routes on public roads.

“In the short term, we are looking for the sweet spots where we can offer a service that does not require the car to face bad weather or other difficulties,” says Frazzoli. “In the long run, however, this has the opportunity to change the way people think about cars forever.”



MIT Startup Exchange actively promotes collaboration and partnerships between MIT-connected startups and industry. Qualified startups are those founded and/or led by MIT faculty, staff, or alumni, or are based on MIT-licensed technology. Industry participants are principally members of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP).

MIT Startup Exchange maintains a propriety database of over 1,500 MIT-connected startups with roots across MIT departments, labs and centers; it hosts a robust schedule of startup workshops and showcases, and facilitates networking and introductions between startups and corporate executives.

STEX25 is a startup accelerator within MIT Startup Exchange, featuring 25 “industry ready” startups that have proven to be exceptional with early use cases, clients, demos, or partnerships, and are poised for significant growth. STEX25 startups receive promotion, travel, and advisory support, and are prioritized for meetings with ILP’s 230 member companies.

MIT Startup Exchange and ILP are integrated programs of MIT Corporate Relations.