Where Industry Meets Innovation

  • Contact Us
  • sign in Sign In
  • Sign in with certificate
mit campus

Resources

Search News

  • View All
  • ILP News
  • MIT Research News
  • MIT Sloan Managemet Review
  • Technology Review
  • Startup Exchange

News

May 27, 2019

BROWSE NEWS RESULTS

48 Results | Prev | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | Last Page
 
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.
StartupExchange
November 23, 2015

Oxalys Pharmaceuticals: Defending the Brain

Oxalys Pharmaceuticals discovers drugs with robust cell-culture models of neurodegenerative diseases.
There are no drugs that stop the progression of Huntington’s disease, a rare and fatal genetic condition that afflicts about 30,000 people in the United States. Ditto for Parkinson’s disease, affecting about a million people in this country, and Alzheimer’s disease, now seen in 5 million people in the U.S. and on a massive upswing.


Katharine Sepp
Co-founder & CEO

Oxalys Pharmaceuticals


Current drugs for these neurodegenerative diseases, which can help to reduce some symptoms, work by tweaking the signaling that occurs between neurons. “The problem with those therapies is that as the brain ages the neurons become more and more unhealthy, so this approach is like trying to optimize the running of a broken machine through greasing parts, but what is really necessary is replacement or restoration of the broken components,” says Katharine Sepp, chief executive officer and co-founder of Oxalys Pharmaceuticals. “What you want to do is create a healthier brain overall.”

Oxalys aims to do just that, using an advanced cell-culture platform developed at MIT for finding compounds that slow or stop the advance of neurodegeneration.

The Toronto-based company has received an orphan drug designation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a drug candidate for Huntington’s disease, and expects to launch a clinical trial for its drug within two years.

“There’s a tremendous unmet medical need for Huntington’s disease,” Sepp points out. “Huntington’s is a complex neurological disorder that involves psychiatric changes, cognitive decline and changes in motor coordination. There’s only one FDA-approved drug, which lessens motor symptoms but does nothing to improve the cognitive decline or the psychiatric changes. Patients really struggle. It’s very devastating. We need to find something that will treat the disease in an acceptable way.”

Models of Degeneration
Scientists have made major progress in understanding the genetic mechanisms that drive diseases of the aging brain such as Huntington’s, but creating in vitro models of the conditions for testing drug candidates has been challenging.



One earlier “cell-free” method of drug discovery searched for compounds that could break up the aggregations of disease proteins that appear in the brain cells of people with these conditions. However, the compounds these studies identified often were toxic to cells, and there’s an ongoing scientific debate about the roles the aggregates play in the disease. Another approach created neurons that could grow indefinitely in culture, but it didn’t reflect the normal aging process in neurons.

Working in the lab of Troy Littleton, MIT professor of biology, at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, Sepp and Oxalys co-founder Joost Schulte developed a very different cell-culture technique, which expresses a high proportion of the human Huntington’s disease gene within Drosophila fruit-fly neurons.


Joost Schulte
Co-founder & CSO
Oxalys Pharmaceuticals


In these cultures, “you can tell clear differences between the freshly prepared neurons expressing the human disease gene versus neurons that don’t carry the human disease gene,” Sepp says. Neurons that express the human disease gene display axons and dendrites that are shorter and more likely to branch, as well as aggregations of the disease protein.

These starkly visible differences between healthy and diseased cells allowed the neuroscientists to create a highly robust assay for screening compounds that help keep the cells healthy.

Moreover, the assay was an excellent candidate for volume screening of drug candidates. The scientists could image the live cells by a robotic microscope, and then analyze them with advanced image-analysis software to find these changes in structure in an automated and unbiased way. “It takes a lot of the labor out of the work, so we could upscale our platform to screening tens or hundreds of thousands of compounds,” Sepp says.

In a first round of volume screening of chemical compounds, the researchers found four compounds that turned the diseased cells back into normal cells, Sepp says. The compounds also worked well in a fruit-fly model of the disease.

“We wanted to screen many more compounds because we saw how robust the assay was, but the facility we were using was more suited to running smaller drug libraries,” she says. “So that really got us thinking about starting a company.”

Platform Payback
Sepp and Schulte originally envisioned a startup that would offer the screening platform itself. But biotech and business experts in the MIT Enterprise Forum suggested that the platform’s benefits could be demonstrated best by a drug that succeeded in clinical trials.

Following this path, Oxalys is a “virtual company” with the two founders as the only full-time employees. “We will keep it small for the next few years, because as you commercialize a drug it goes very quickly through various stages of drug development that require diverse expertise,” Sepp explains. “The most efficient model is outsourcing, where you bring in consultants and contract research organizations who specialize in these various components as you move along.”

As the startup broadens its funding, Oxalys also looks for backers with expertise. The most suitable venture or pharmaceutical partners will have teams that are experienced in pharmaceutical development, ideally in neurology and more ideally in neurodegeneration, she says.

Moving ahead with pre-clinical development, last year Oxalys achieved the key step of the FDA approval for orphan drug designation for its lead Huntington’s disease therapeutic.

The orphan drug designation brought access to research grants, tax credits for clinical trials and other incentives aimed to smooth the path into clinical studies. Given the rigor of the FDA process, the approval “opened a tremendous number of doors for us,” says Sepp, especially in gaining the attention of leading neurologists around the world who specialize in Huntington’s disease.

Among the neurodegenerative diseases potentially attacked by Oxalys drug candidates, Huntington’s made a logical first target for trials because it is a dominant genetic disorder, driven by mutations of a single gene.

“If one parent has it, then their children have a 50/50 chance of inheriting the disease gene, and if you have the disease gene then you have a 100% chance of developing the disorder,” Sepp says. “We know exactly who will develop the disease, and usually the severity of the disease is similar in these families.” That means that when researchers enlist patients for a clinical trial on Huntington’s, researchers can choose those who will give clearest results on a drug’s effectiveness.

In contrast, scientists can’t predict who will develop Alzheimer’s and how their disease will unfold. “That means you need huge patient populations over a long period of time, which is very cost-intensive,” she notes.

Oxalys is actively developing drug candidates for not only Huntington’s disease but Parkinson’s disease, and hopes to broaden its focus to Alzheimer’s disease as well over time.

The three diseases all are tied to aging, when cell mechanisms such as the ability to control protein quality start to decline, Sepp points out. “If you can find compounds to improve protein quality control, those compounds are likely to be broadly neuroprotective so they will be applicable to all of these major neurodegenerative disorders,” she says. “Treating all of these diseases is our ultimate goal.”



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
October 26, 2015

Astra IDentity: Creating the Next Line of E-mail Security

Astra IDentity offers holistic solutions for individuals and enterprises to defend against targeted e-mail attacks.
Technology continually updates. Connections get faster. Phones become more powerful. And, unavoidably, computer attacks get smarter. What was once spam as the point of entry has moved to phishing, with hackers elevating their efforts to personalize fake messages.


Gagan Prakash
Co-Founder & CEO

Astra IDentity


Neutralizing this methodology led Gagan Prakash to start Astra IDentity after graduating from the Sloan Fellows Program in 2011. His software compares new email to old ones, developing behavioral fingerprints for each sender to flag suspicious messages. More than providing training programs, his contextual approach solves not only phishing but also the newer problem of spear-phishing, protecting companies’ information, productivity, and profits.

Pointing out the Pretender
Prakash is a software programmer, and, in 2002, he co-founded an IT company in which the flagship product hosted Microsoft Exchange e-mail as a service. After selling it, and, in hopes of finding his next venture, he enrolled in the one-year MIT Sloan Fellows Program in 2010 and got exposed to novel approaches to business and technology problems. One issue was the changing nature of e-mail attacks. Over the previous 10 years, spam had dropped from 90 percent to 70 percent of all e-mail, while the number of large companies attacked with targeted phishing had jumped from 15 to over 50 percent, he says.

With this new data and his previous experience, Prakash found his next venture and co-founded Astra IDentity with his friend and software architect Shyama Gavulla in 2013. Working with their team of engineers, they developed and patented Impostor Detection. The technology determines if a sender’s new e-mails exhibit the same behavior of past ones, looking at hundreds of message characteristics, such as the sender’s email client, location and whitespace style, “thereby forming a dynamic behavioral whitelist rather than the commonly used blacklisting method,” says Prakash, adding that spam filters only screen bad emails sent to hundreds or thousands of people.

By being lower-volume, phishing is more elusive. It also appears less threatening, while being more dangerous, as it looks like it comes from known entities, such as Bank of America or PayPal. Astra IDentity’s software not only catches phishing, but it also focuses on the growing threat of spear-phishing in which the hacker sends out a personalized message using the name and possibly the email address of someone known to the receiver. Given the greater lack of frequency, spam filters particularly struggle with these attacks, Prakash says.



The standard prevention strategy is employee training. Prakash says that the shortcoming in that approach is people soon forget what they’re told, another session is held the following quarter, and the net result is lost work hours without meaningfully increased protection. More than that, the people who have the most to lose, executives, are the most training-averse, partially due to their busy schedules. Prakash says that the Impostor Detection technology is more pro-active, snagging a questionable email before it enters an inbox and either quarantining it, moving it into a junk folder or flagging it for human review. “In essence, we verify if a sender is who they say they are,” he says.

The Downside of Generosity
While anyone with email is a potential customer, Prakash says that he focuses on the commercial market. Consumers are reticent to pay for software, and size plays a factor — attacks happens on those who have large amounts of data. His clients are typically looking to protect trade secrets and sensitive customer and employee information. Along with blanket installations, Prakash says his technology is applied in pockets, such as in human resources, information technology, finance, and the executive department, since these areas have more access to information and are the targets for spear-phishing attacks.

There are a myriad of reasons for breaches. One growing factor is the use of social media. Employees are sharing work-related information across platforms, providing more details for hackers to use in crafting emails, and often doing it on devices that have no installed protection, Prakash says. Not only has it contributed to a rise in spear-phishing, but, in a sector that constantly looks for vulnerability, the over-sharing has also created a new strain of attack, this one on cell phones. The name? Smishing.

While employee training sessions don’t provide automatic filtering, Prakash says that they do teach mindfulness. October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month, and, as part of the effort, Astra IDentity has on its website a 10-tip guide on not getting spear-phished and a simulation called “Can You Spot the Impostor?” With the game, the company generates personalized emails; the visitor tries to determine if the scenario is legitimate. It sounds simple, but Prakash says only 1 out 7 people score perfectly. “I think there’s a little bit of overconfidence in many of the users,” he says. Among the easy-to-miss elements: a different email address for a known sender, a slight misspelling in the sender’s name, and a different address for the link in the body of the email.

But there’s another reason as well. Hackers go to great lengths to achieve authenticity. In one recent instance at a public company, Prakash says that a hacker pretended to be a senior executive and sent targeted messages to the finance department, requesting a $46.7 million transfer. It was approved and only a small fraction of the money is known to have been recovered.

The Campus Effect
While Prakash’s first experience in studying at MIT was at Sloan, the effects were pretty immediate, he says. He ended up taking classes outside the business school and spent time talking to MIT engineers at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, along with going to events in the neighboring Kendall Square area. It was in this environment that he was exposed to advances in machine learning and natural language processing. Astra IDentity was formed, he says, by combining the knowledge of these advances with his experience in business e-mail, software as a service, and big data technologies.

Prakash has lived in the Boston suburbs since 1998, but since graduating he’s taken more advantage of endemic MIT talent and resources. “The education is data-centric. It’s very process oriented,” says Prakash, adding that quality is a key benefit where technology information is regularly being produced. It’s especially useful with email security in which new threats quickly outdate established solutions. “People at MIT are able to focus on the details while looking at the big picture,” he says. “We ourselves keep coming up with tactics to prevent the next attacks.”



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 28, 2015

Neumitra: Taking Stress to a New Level

MIT spinoff Neumitra brings an innovative approach to quantifying, understanding, and managing stress.
Robert Goldberg never spent much time thinking about fashion. All that changed six years ago, however, when as a visiting neuroscientist at John Gabrieli’s lab in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Science, he co-founded a Boston-based company called Neumitra. The company develops wearable health sensors and analytics software that provide biofeedback on stress, a condition that Goldberg says costs us $150 billion in lost productivity and more than $190 billion in healthcare costs every year.


Robert Goldberg
Co-Founder & CEO

Neumitra


“I’ve probably looked at over 100,000 wrists over the last few years,” says Goldberg, Neumitra’s CEO. “I look at wrists everywhere I go.”

The experience reinforced a realization that helped define the trajectory of the company. “People don’t all like to wear the same thing,” says Goldberg. He realized that in order to meet Neumitra’s goal of compiling a large data sample for studying stress, and helping as many people as possible gain control over the condition, the technology needed to be integrated into as many wearables as possible. It was unlikely that millions of people would choose to wear a new health bracelet from a small startup.

The cofounders set out to collaborate with a wide variety of wearables manufacturers in order to build their analytics software into health-monitoring devices ranging from smartwatches to fitness bracelets to jewelry. The strategy – and the Neumitra technology – have been a hit with investors. Early investments came from Rock Health, Yahoo, General Magic, Peter Thiel’s Breakout Labs, and more recently, NetScientific.

Startup by Collision
Goldberg met his future cofounders in 2009 at an MIT course called Neurotechnology Ventures. “The class was the kind you could really only find then at MIT,” says Goldberg. “Neumitra was made possible by the collisions between different disciplines that MIT enables.”

Anand Yadav is a biotechnologist, and Safiyy Momen is an algorithms engineer who had been working on ballistic missiles at MIT’s Lincoln Labs. With Goldberg, the trio decided the time was right to develop low-cost devices to measure and analyze stress. Then and now, the key neuroscience research tool was neuroimaging, but the technology still has its limits. “It’s amazing what neuroimaging can show you, but it only gives you about an hour of information at the cost of thousands of dollars,” says Goldberg.

At the time, healthcare wearables were limited and very expensive. Yet Goldberg realized that with increasing miniaturization and dropping sensor prices, the consumer wearables market would soon take off. “Some people told us we had to choose between being a medical or consumer device company. We decided we could be both, and we were proven right. These two worlds are quickly converging.”



The company began developing stress detection algorithms and designed a bracelet prototype called Bandu that primarily depended on skin conductance sensors, also known as galvanic skin response (GSR) or electrodermal activity (EDA). The project led to the realization that “building good hardware is very difficult,” says Goldberg.

The Bandu was scrapped for an improved, Bluetooth enabled Neuma BioWatch, which added ambient temperature and 3-axis motion detection to EDA readings. By the time the Neuma came out, Neumitra had already shifted to the new strategy of focusing on analytics instead of hardware. The company is now developing a series of biomodules using an array of sensors including EDR and heart rate that can be easily integrated into commercial wearables.

“We’re working with device makers to embed our biomodules in devices they’re already building,” says Goldberg. “What we offer at Neumitra is our algorithms, which depend heavily on data fusion, so our hardware partners get better quality data.”

Getting in Touch with Stress
Stress, which reflects the sympathetic “fight-or-flight” part of the autonomic nervous system, “is a basic fact of biology that keeps us alive, but it’s been a problem for us throughout history,” says Goldberg. “Stress affects heart function, breathing, digestion, even fertility. From animal models and neural imaging, we know that stress limits the ability to form new memories, to focus, and to make creative decisions. Under chronic stress, we tend to be less happy and more volatile.”

There are times when stress is advantageous, whether you’re being chased by a lion or cranking on a deadline, but there’s a cumulative effect that takes a toll. “Stress is necessary at times, but the problem really comes from acute and chronic stress. If you confront tough deadlines or social encounters every day, it can whittle away at your best capabilities.”

In addition to selling its biomodules and analytics, Neumitra has a consulting business in which it works with large organizations to help them monitor and analyze the stress of their workers. “We can help companies understand how stress affects different parts of the organization or even one type of role,” says Goldberg.

The conclusions from such research, however, can conflict with business as usual. “One of the biggest challenges we face is the notion that stress is necessary, that you’re not really working hard if you’re not experiencing stress,” he adds. “Yet, organizations are coming to understand that stress affects productivity, long-term healthcare costs, and morale.”

Stress affects most professions and both the rich or poor. Yet, knowledge workers are at a particular disadvantage from chronic stress because they’re expected to use the best capabilities of their brains day in and day out, says Goldberg. Neumitra is working with a software company, for example, to research how stress affects its programmers. “Programming requires a balance between short and long-term memory combined with problem solving skills. When programmers are stressed they are more likely to submit bugs, which are expensive to fix. So this is a cost driver.”

One of Neumitra’s key innovations is its integration of contextual data with the fusion of data from multiple sensors. The Neumitra service provides a smartphone app that links sensor data with contextual information like calendar data and GPS location. The algorithms are also self-learning – if your Neumitra bracelet vibrates to alert you about a high stress level while you’re exercising, you can click on the equivalent of a thumbs down button to instruct Neumitra to ignore a similar signature in the future.

“Stress detection isn’t reducible to one sensor or algorithm, which on their own aren’t sufficient to provide useful feedback,” says Goldberg. “Luckily we all have these computers in our pockets called smartphones. When you combine smartphone data with physiological data, you can learn a tremendous amount about how people, places, and events affect us.”

People are less aware of what stresses them out than they think, says Goldberg. “As a neuroscientist, I thought I understood stress, but I had no clue. I was amazed to find that social situations stress me out. I’m most relaxed when I’m at home quietly working with large data sets.”

While we all have our own particular stress triggers, the data collected from Neumitra users suggests there are certain fairly universal factors, such as participating in a tense meeting or facing a tough deadline. There were some surprises, however, such as the high levels of stress created by eating lunch at your desk while you work.

Just getting to work in the first place can crank you up to a stress level that is hard to dissipate in a workday where meetings and deadlines add to a snowball effect. “The morning commute is one of the most stressful times of the day,” says Goldberg. “People are literally fighting to get into the office on time. When you get there, you’re so overwhelmed by stress, you’re not able to do your best job.”

Neumitra does not presume to tell you whether you should avoid particular stress triggers. “We don’t believe it’s up to us to differentiate between good versus bad stress,” says Goldberg. “Instead, we give the information to the individual and let them decide.”

Goldberg offers the example of people who are stressed out by going on dates. By avoiding such situations, they may lower their stress, but miss out on future happiness. He goes on to note that as the CEO of a startup, he has no choice but to spend much of his day in potentially stressful social situations.

“Sometimes you can’t do much with the feedback, but you can still come back later and address it,” says Goldberg. The mobile app provides users with visualizations and stress management tools such as playing music or games, or suggesting activities like taking a walk. “There are many ways to manage stress, so we try to help users find out what works best for them and when. Sometimes you have time to take a nap, or do meditation or yoga, but other times you only have enough time to play a song.”

The Neumitra wearables can be worn day and night, thereby revealing connections between stress and sleep that “were a real surprise to me,” according to Goldberg. “We’re beginning to see how stress affects the way you sleep, and how the lack of sleep affects the stress you feel the following day. Stress and sleep are two sides of the same physiological coin: the sympathetic vs. the parasympathetic nervous system. They are constantly at tension and not always in ways that we understand.”

Boston Stress Study to Quantify City’s Stress
As the number of Neumitra users grows, the company is learning a lot about the differences in stress among organizations, professions, genders, socioeconomic classes, and even countries. “It surprised me that stress rates are not only higher in cities than rural areas, but higher in some countries compared to others,” says Goldberg. “Ultimately, that’s how we’re going to solve stress, by looking at data across all humanity.”

As a next step, Neumitra is launching a Boston Stress Study in late 2015, with first results expected in early 2016. The company has already signed up over 1,000 Bostonians to wear Neumitra bracelets, with plans to expand that. The participants include a diverse range of roles, from students to police officers to CEOs. Partners include hospitals, companies, and other organizations, such as stressed out universities like MIT and Harvard.

“We’re working with a wide range of partners to help make it a much bigger study,” says Goldberg. “Our model is the Framingham Heart Study, which started in 1948 with 5,209 people. It’s now on its third generation, and has taught us pretty much everything we know about the heart.”

The Boston Stress Study will examine how stress affects the city of Boston at large, as well as specific organizations, both in real time and long term. “We will develop a map of how and when we experience stress by commute type, profession, location, gender,” says Goldberg. “By working with us on the study you’ll not only learn how stress is affecting your organization, but how stress affects us all. For the first time, we will begin to understand how our daily lives are driving ourselves just a little bit crazy.”



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
July 13, 2015

Jisto: Computing at Full Capacity

Jisto helps companies optimize utilization across all available computing resources with real-time deployment, monitoring, and analytics.
According to a 2014 study from NRDC and Anthesis, in 2013 U.S. data centers burned 91 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, enough to power every household in New York City twice over. That figure is expected to rise to 140 billion by 2020. While improved energy efficiency practices could go a long way toward lowering this figure, the problem is greatly exacerbated by the underutilization of servers, including an estimated 30 percent of servers that are still plugged in, but are no longer performing any services, says the study.


Aleksandr Biberman
Co-founder & CEO

Jisto Inc.


In another 2014 study, tech research firm Gartner, Inc. found that data center systems collectively represent a $143 billion market. With enterprise software adding another $320 billion and IT services another $963 billion, the overall IT industry represents a whopping $3.8 trillion market.

Companies are increasingly seeking new ways to cut costs and extract the largest possible value from their IT infrastructure. Strategies include placing data centers in cooler climates, switching to more affordable open source software, and virtualizing resources to increase utilization. These solutions just scratch the surface, however.

An MIT-connected startup called Jisto offers businesses an interesting new tool for cutting data center and cloud costs while improving resource utilization. Jisto manages existing enterprise applications by automatically wrapping them in Jisto-managed Docker containers, and intelligently deploying them across all available resources using automated real-time deployment, monitoring, and analytics algorithms. As the resource utilization profile changes for each server or different parts of the network and storage, Jisto elastically scales its utilization in real time to compensate.

“We’re helping organizations get higher utilization of their data center and cloud resources without worrying about resource contention,” says Jisto CEO and Co-Founder Aleksandr (Sasha) Biberman. So far, the response has been promising. Jisto was a Silver Winner in the 2014 MassChallenge, and early customers include data-intensive companies like banks, pharmas, biotechs, and research institutions.



“There’s pressure on IT departments from two sides: how can they more efficiently reduce data center expenditures, and how can they improve productivity by giving people better access to resources,” says Biberman. “In some cases, Jisto can double the productivity with the same resources just by making better use of idle capacity.”

Biberman praises the MIT Industrial Liaison Program and Venture Mentoring Service for hosting networking events and providing connections. “The ILP gave us connections to companies that we would have never otherwise have connected to all around the world,” he says. “It turned us into a global company.”

Putting Idle Servers Back to Work
The idea for Jisto came to Biberman while he was a postdoc in electrical engineering at MIT Research Lab of Electronics (RLE), studying silicon photonic communications. While researching how optical technology could improve data center performance and efficiency, he discovered an even larger problem: underutilization of server resources.

“Even with virtualization, companies use only 20 to 50 percent of in-house server capacity,” says Biberman. “Collectively, companies are wasting more than $100 billion annually on unused cycles. The public cloud is even worse, where utilization runs at 10 to 40 percent.”

In addition to the problem of sheer waste, Biberman also discovered that workload resources are often poorly managed. Even when more than a half of a company’s resources are sitting idle, workers often complain they can’t get enough access to servers when they need them.

Around the time of Biberman’s realization, he and his long-time friend Andrey Turovsky, a Cornell-educated tech entrepreneur, and now Jisto CTO and Co-Founder, had been brainstorming some startup ideas. They had just developed a lightweight platform to automatically deploy and manage applications using virtual containers, and they decided to apply it to the utilization and workload management problem.

Underutilization of resources is less a technical issue, than a “corporate risk aversion strategy,” says Biberman. Companies tend to err on the side of caution when deploying resources and typically acquire many more servers than they need.

“We started seeing some crazy numbers in data center and cloud provisioning,” said Biberman. “Typically, companies provision for twice as much as they need. One company looks at last year’s peak loads, and overprovisions above that by a factor of four for the next year. Companies always plan for a worst-case scenario spike. Nobody wants to be the person who hasn’t provisioned enough resources, so critical applications can’t run. Nobody gets fired for overprovisioning.”

Despite overprovisioning, users in most of the same organizations complain about lack of access to computing resources, says Biberman. “When you ask companies if they have enough resources to run applications, they typically say they want more even though their resources are sitting there going to waste.”

This paradox emerges from the common practice of splitting access into different resource groups, which have different levels of access to various cluster nodes. “It’s tough to fit your work into your slice of the pie,” says Biberman. “Say my resource group has access to five servers, and it’s agreed that I use them on Monday, and someone else takes Tuesday, and so on. But if I can’t get to my project on Monday, those servers are sitting completely idle, and I may have to wait a week. Maybe the person using it on Tuesday only needs one of the five servers, so four will sit idle, and maybe the guy using it the next day realizes he really needs 10 or 20 servers, not just the five he’s limited to.”

Jisto breaks down the artificial static walls created with ownership profiles and replaces them with a more dynamic environment, says Biberman. “You can still have priority during your server time, but if you don’t use it, someone else can. That means people can sometimes get access to more servers than were allotted. If there’s a mission-critical application that generates a spike we can’t predict, we have an elastic method to quickly back off and give it priority.”

Financial services companies are using Jisto to free up compute cycles for Monte Carlo simulations that could benefit from many more servers and nodes. Pharma and life science companies, meanwhile, use a similar strategy to do faster DNA sequencing. “The more nodes you have, the more accurately you can run a simulation,” says Biberman. “That’s a huge advantage.”

Docker Containers for the Enterprise
Jisto is not the only cloud-computing platform that claims to improve resource utilization and reduce costs. The problem with most, however, is that “if you have a really quick spike in workload, there’s not enough time to make intelligent decisions about what to do,” says Biberman. “With Jisto, an automatic real-time decision-making process kicks in, enabling true elasticity across the entire data center with granularity as fine as a single core of a CPU.”

Jisto not only monitors CPU usage but other parameters such as memory, network bandwidth, and storage. “If there’s an important memory transfer happening that requires a lot of bandwidth, Jisto backs off, even if there’s plenty of CPU power available,” says Biberman. “Jisto can make intelligent decisions about where to send jobs based on all these dynamic factors. As soon as something changes, Jisto decides whether to stop the workload, pause it, or reduce resources. Do you transfer it to another server? Do you add redundancy to reduce the latency tail? People don’t have to make and implement those decisions.”

The platform also integrates rigorous security provisions, says Biberman. IT directors are understandably cautious about bringing third-party software into their complex data center ecosystems, which are often protected by firewall and regulation settings. Jisto, however, can quickly prove with a beta test how the software can spin its magic without interfering with mission-critical resources, he adds.

Jisto’s unobtrusiveness is largely due to its use of Docker containers. “Docker has nice APIs and makes the process much easier, both for us as developers and for Jisto customers,” says Biberman. “Docker is very portable—if you can run it on Linux, you can run it on Docker—and it doesn’t care if you’re running it on a local data center, a private cloud, or on Amazon. With containers, we don’t need to do something complicated like run a VM inside another VM. Docker gives us a lightweight way to let people use the environment that’s already set up.”

Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Jisto was the first, and remains one of few, Docker-based startups in this region.

Moving Up to the Cloud
Companies are increasingly saving on data center costs by using public cloud resources in a hybrid strategy during peak demand. Jisto can help bridge the gap with better efficiency and flexibility, says Biberman. “If you’re a bank, you might have too many regulations on your data to use the public cloud, but most companies can gain efficiencies with public clouds while still keeping their private cloud for confidential, regulated, or mission-critical tasks.”

Jisto operates essentially the same whether it’s running on-premises, or in a private, public, or hybrid cloud. Companies that exceed the peak level of their private data center can now “burst out” onto the public cloud and take advantage of the elastic nature of services like Amazon, says Biberman. “Some companies provision hundreds of thousands of nodes on Amazon,” he adds. The problem is that Amazon charges by the hour. “If a company only needs five minutes of processing, as many as 100,000 nodes would sit idle for 55 minutes.”

Jisto has recently begun to talk to companies that do cloud infrastructure as a service, explaining how Jisto can reprovision wasted resources and let someone else use them. It’s only a matter of time before competitive pressures lead a cloud provider to use something like Jisto, says Biberman.



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
June 8, 2015

Luminoso: Text, Context, and Insight

Luminoso brings adaptable contextual awareness and common sense to automated text analytics for insight into digital conversations of all kinds.
When navigating our proliferating digital interfaces, one might be forgiven the suspicion that humans are out of the loop in a society run by computers. Yet consider for a moment how paranoid computers must feel.


Catherine Havasi
Co-founder & CEO

Luminoso



Human communications are filled with nuance, metaphor, jargon, double entendre, context, and murky oceans of assumed knowledge. When interpreting speech or text, especially the casual chitchat of social networking, computers are often clueless.

A text analytics software company called Luminoso aims to keep computers in the human loop. “We help computers understand people better and help companies understand their customers better,” says CEO and co-founder Catherine Havasi. “Companies are trying to understand the text their customers generate and how they talk about things like flavors, senses, colors, and textures. They want to do this in a quantitative way so they can make data-driven decisions.”

When she’s not working at Luminoso, Havasi helps improve the “ConceptNet” open data model project behind the software at the MIT Media Lab in her role as research scientist. The ConceptNet database currently stores some 17 million concepts in all major languages in a way that makes sense to computers.

Luminoso’s SaaS-based Analytics Platform builds on ConceptNet with analytics tools and visualizations that help build actionable insights from unstructured text data. Primarily sold to marketing departments, the software analyzes text derived from Twitter feeds, email, survey forms, tech support logs, and other inputs. Luminoso recently released a solution called Compass that analyzes text in real time.

From Search to Text Analytics
ConceptNet wasn’t originally focused on marketing but rather on building a better search engine. In the late ‘90s, Havasi was working at the Media Lab with Marvin Minsky’s Society of Mind group when it set out to help computers interpret human search input.



“Internet search had just gotten started, and people tended to type in statements like ‘My cat is sick’ and would get nothing helpful in return,” says Havasi. To help bridge the gap, the group launched the Open Mind Common Sense Project (OMCS), whose mission was “to collect all the things people know but computers don’t,” says Havasi. This common sense or “world knowledge” includes relationships between physical objects or attributes, as well as human motivations.

Over the years, the search problem was largely solved, primarily by people learning how to pose questions the way a computer might. Yet, OMCS realized that teaching computers assumed knowledge had much broader applicability, especially in text analytics.

Common sense statements had never been collected in a comprehensive way, and the task seemed daunting. To speed the process, OMCS developed a technique, later known as crowdsourcing, which they referred to as “harnessing the power of bored people on the Internet,” says Havasi. “We put up a public web page with an input box and a prompt that said ‘Teach the computer.’ Each morning, we checked the statements, and decided which ones were true. Later, we developed automated ways to check the knowledge.”

As people found better things to do on the Internet, the OMCS motivated participants by integrating the inputs into games. “People would play Verbosity and teach the system without thinking about it,” says Havasi.

The researchers enhanced the resulting ConceptNet database by integrating other world knowledge. For example, they taught the computer to automatically scan Wikipedia and import common sense relationships.

ConceptNet Gets Multi-lingual and Multi-cultural
Much of the current ConceptNet research involves encapsulating how common sense is perceived and expressed in different cultures and languages. “How we think of a cat can be very different depending on your culture,” says Havasi. “The same goes for the way we describe what we want from a hotel experience or even the concepts of flavor or the expected hour for dinner. You need to add cultural and linguistic nuance.”

Even when the task is limited to a single language, computers are challenged by passionate, creative, or playful text. “We use all these metaphors and try to say things in new and interesting ways, especially online, because we want people to listen to us,” says Havasi. “Our world knowledge helps us understand this language, and it can do the same for computers.”

One company asked Luminoso to help them decipher a customer comment claiming a product smelled “musty,” relates Havasi. “They needed to understand whether this was something isolated or systematic.” A typical text analytics system would stop after searching for the word “musty” or other synonyms. However, ConceptNet and Luminoso might extend that to notice a post saying “the product smells like an old house,” she adds.

Launching Luminoso
The idea for Luminoso emerged when Havasi was directing the MIT Media Lab’s Digital Intuition group, working with member companies to help apply ConceptNet to text analytics. She quickly realized ConceptNet alone could not serve typical business needs.

“ConceptNet showed promising results, but companies wanted to use it in a more data-driven way,” she says. These insights resulted in the launch of Luminoso in 2010.

Typical text analytics solutions fail to meet the needs of marketing departments, says Havasi. “Statistical software that does things like look for how often words appear together requires a lot of data, and hand-coded ontology, or ruleset, systems lack adaptability,” says Havasi. “As the world changes along with the way people talk, the ontology can’t keep up, especially since it usually requires manual updates. You’re taking the person out of one part of the process and putting him into another part, which really isn’t solving the problem.”

By contrast, Luminoso’s Analytics Platform integrates self-learning algorithms that reduce the need for human updates. The software analyzes text ranging from survey open-ends to social media logs and builds actionable insights that can be applied across the product lifecycle.

“We can look at things that are hard to pin down, like intent to purchase or openness to new technology, or what improvements might help people advocate for a product,” says Havasi. “Our software can help figure out whether or not a brand can authentically build a certain kind of product or answer questions like what kind of SKUs drive somebody into a retail store.”

The Analytics Platform examines how a word is used, and then makes relations or analogies with the way other words are used. The software also finds contextual clues in customer metadata, geographical region, or the time a tweet was sent. The software can identify the number of stars a customer clicked on for a hotel review, and stir that into the story, or look at Twitter feeds to guess whether someone is a Republican or Democrat, says Havasi.

Marketing departments have invested heavily in analyzing social media, yet they often miss out on other text sources, says Havasi. “There’s incredibly rich information about your product online that is not in social media,” she says. “For example, there are forms devoted to shaving or cars, or how to optimize airline travel. One of the Analytics Platform’s strengths is that it doesn’t matter where the text comes from.”

Compass: Real-time Text Analysis
In early 2015, Luminoso released Compass, which analyzes streams of text data in real time. “Compass lets you understand trends as they evolve, giving you early warning,” says Havasi.

In 2014, Sony used a Compass prototype when sponsoring the World Cup. Sony’s digital agency Isobar built a second screen experience called One Stadium Live that let fans watch World Cup updates on a tablet, and then comment via social media. It was the largest social media event in history.

The huge volume of “big text” generated by One Stadium Live was a challenge for Luminoso, but it was not so much the volume as the variability, says Havasi. “If someone scored a goal, everybody tweeted about it, which could overwhelm the experience. We needed to find who was contributing uniquely and interestingly, and determine which topics people cared about.”

Compass also needed to respond dynamically to new developments. When Luis Suárez of Uruguay bit Giorgio Chielleni of Italy, the topic of biting “suddenly became relevant to soccer, which was something we couldn’t anticipate,” says Havasi. “Compass had to react quickly.” For the most part, Compass was able to do that without human intervention, thereby greatly reducing reaction time.

Plugging In, Reaching Out
Moving forward, Luminoso will continue to enhance its algorithms to help computers get the gist of ambiguous human communications. Yet, much of the focus is now on customer integration, including back-end IT plumbing and graphical visualizations.

Luminoso recently released APIs for the Analytics Platform that let users classify and tag text data without using the software’s GUI. In this way, customers can integrate the analytics into their existing software.

The software is currently a cloud-only platform, but Luminoso will soon release an on-premises version that will “go behind firewalls or handle highly secure data,” says Havasi. “This should open up new markets like financial services, pharmaceuticals, and law enforcement.”

A growing focus for Luminoso is to effectively communicate the sometimes subtle insights from the Analytics Platform or Compass. Like Luminoso’s core analytics, this process involves bridging the communications gap between computers and people.

“Visualizing the conclusions is almost as hard as coming up with the conclusions themselves,” says Havasi. “We’re always searching for different ways of visualizing our data, for example using different types of word clouds and heat maps, so that people can use it to make actionable decisions. We need to convey the conclusions to people all over the company, not only to analysts.”



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 11, 2015

Aerva: Making Digital Content Management Fast and Simple

Aerva offers browser-based content management for digital assets anywhere in the world.
Innovation can spring from a lab, classroom, or weekly meeting. In the case of Aerva, it came in a tunnel. Sanjay Manandhar was on his usual train ride about 20 years ago when he realized that all the signs and posters would inevitably be digital. The MIT graduate, BS ‘89 and Media Lab MS ‘91, went about developing a kind of blank canvas that would allow for real-time content interaction from any location, with any device, and on any scale.


Sanjay Manandhar
Aerva Founder & CEO


Since its founding in 2005, the Cambridge, Massachusetts company’s technology has been used by the military for employee communications, Dr. Dre and Anheuser-Busch for retailing, and universities for message managing. The range isn’t an accident. From its inception, Aerva wasn’t looking to be flashy or pretty, just practical. “We constantly listened to the marketplace and we went to where the demand was,” Manandhar says.

The Power of Little Money
During the mid-1990s, Manandhar was working in European technology finance. He rode the London Underground and saw impressive signage, but it was all print. It was going to have to be digital, and there was going to need to be a way to manage and coordinate such non-static information, he says.

While the idea was born, Aerva didn’t come about until Manandhar moved back to Cambridge in the mid-2000s. In a chance encounter at the Media Lab, he met a recent MIT graduate who knew software and was disenchanted with his first corporate job. Manandhar hired him, and, in 2005, they built a technical foundation that would use a browser, the Cloud and universal connectivity. The creation could manage any digital asset at any digital endpoint, such as billboards, indoor screens, tablets and mobile devices, on a platform that was “very wide, very deep and very much a horizontal plane and quite global,” Manandhar says.

To achieve that, Manandhar says that he made some key initial decisions. One was to be customer-funded. Venture capital can allow a company’s early survival, but it can also provide false confidence. “The prime driver in any business, I think, is market demand. If there’s no demand, it won’t work,” he says.



The choice to not chase seed money came with limitations, namely limited funds, and required wise allocations. Trade shows would have provided needed visibility, but five-figure attendance fees were prohibitive. Instead, Manandhar says that he put money into software development and creating a supportive workplace culture, one move being fully covering employee health insurance. It was a cost, but a necessary one in order to not only build a stable team but also retain it. “My best assets have two legs. They may not come back tomorrow,” he says.

The funding route also brought a certain freedom. Rather than worry about investors, Manandhar says that he could focus on customer needs. As he says, the company makes a generic platform – the user decides the application and manages the content. With no geographic restrictions, initial success came in Europe where mobile technology and SMS messaging were more prevalent. Anheuser-Busch used Aerva to run a polling campaign in European sports bars. A question would come onto the screen – Who’s the MVP of tonight’s game? Patrons would text their answers, and pint glasses would fluctuate with the incoming results. That visualization of data, at a time when social media was less developed, gave Aerva an early foothold, he says.

Ensuring Safety and Scope
Another early necessity was reliable security. For that, Manandhar says that he chose to build in Java for only Linux OS, rather than then industry-standard Microsoft Windows. Linux allowed code to be inspected and updated at will – Aerva wouldn’t have to wait for an outside company to send a needed patch. Because of this focus, the United States Navy became a client in 2009 and continues to use Aerva for employee communication within its facilities.

Scalability was also a central tenet. While no project was too small, Manandhar says that the platform had to be limitless for short- and long-term projects. For a short-term project, Aerva teamed with Beats by Dr. Dre in 2012 for the company’s introduction of colorful headphones. The one-day, New York City campaign involved people trying on their preferred headphones in a photo booth and choosing one personal, descriptive word. By the time they left the booth, their images were up on three giant digital billboards above Times Square.

It was problem-free for 12 continuous hours, which it needed to be, since in that kind of set-up, “You can’t have a do-over,” Manandhar says.

For a long-term project, Aerva drives Anheuser-Busch Inbev’s current network of 8-foot display coolers with translucent screens, which can be clear to show product or can turn opaque for video. Aerva technology not only manages the visuals on the doors, but also manages the various sensors that can detect proximity and customize content, which in turn help sell more product throughout the store because of the digital cooler’s overall cachet.

Manandhar says that it’s a necessary kind of targeting. In a mature market, such as beer, a company only increases sales from stealing a competitor’s customers. “You have to continue to innovate like this,” he says.

Keeping it Friendly
One other fundamental of Aerva’s technology was that the interface had to be simple. Technical products often look technical, when the complexity needs to be hidden, Manandhar says. One quality of the company’s platform is that it works with the four major browsers, and while all use HTML, all use them differently. To make it seamless, the innards of each is known and Aerva’s AerWave platform is regularly updated for its customers at no charge, he says, adding that the result is a flexible platform, feature-rich enough for the avid user but kind to the novice.

This practical attitude was a result of Manandhar’s time at MIT. His undergraduate work in electrical engineering and computer science gave him discipline and theory, but during his two graduate years in the Media Lab, he collaborated with musicians and graphic designers and learned that form and function need to have equal weight. “If it cannot be used by end users in a meaningful way, it doesn’t matter how beautiful or vast your functionality is. It’s not going to be popular in the marketplace,” he says.

That endemic approach provides a geographical advantage. Manandhar regularly travels to New York City and says that he regularly hears suggestions to re-locate. But his office is a quarter mile from campus, and, at MIT, people with established companies have access to research and expertise, and people who are building start-ups have access to those larger companies. It would be too much to give up. “We can sell anywhere in the world, but we’ll only build next to MIT,” Manandhar 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
April 6, 2015

SQZ Biotech: Putting the Squeeze on Cells

SQZ Biotech's CellSqueeze platform delivers a diverse range of macromolecules to a variety of cell types, enabling new possibilities in cellular research and therapeutics.
The CellSqueeze chip, discovered at MIT's Department of Chemical engineering, and now being developed by Boston-based startup SQZ Biotech, is so conceptually straightforward that the SQZ website effectively explains it with a cartoon. The tiny microfluidic-based, intracellular delivery device has already been demonstrated to provide a fast, effective, less destructive way to introduce foreign agents into cells.


Professor Klavs Jensen, Co-Founder
Armon Sharei, Co-Founder & CEO
Agustin Lopez Marquez, Co-Founder, President
Jonathan Gilbert, Business Development


CellSqueeze is being evaluated as a delivery platform by several dozen academic institutions and biotech firms. The technology lends itself to a wide variety of drug discovery and target validation applications, and one day, it could even emerge as an adoptive cell transfer technology to more effectively treat cancer and other diseases.

The response has been promising: SQZ Biotech received the highest honors in the MassChallenge 2014 awards, and was named by Scientific American as one of 2014’s 10 world-changing ideas.

The CellSqueeze chip currently integrates 75 parallel microfluidic channels with diameters that are just slightly smaller than the cells that are squeezed through them. Up to 1,000,000 cells per second can be pumped through the device, with plans to double or triple that volume. The cells are forced through the tight channels, causing transient pores to open in their membranes for a minute or two. This allows selected materials to enter the cell’s cytosol from the surrounding fluid via diffusion.

The technology supports over 20 cell types, including many primary cells, as well as materials ranging from genetic materials to nanoparticles. The cells emerge from the device with an 80-90 percent survival rate — much higher than with alternative techniques.

“What enabled this technology was the ability to make narrow microfluidic channels very precisely, and then control the width accurately,” says Dept. of Chemical Engineering head Klavs Jensen, who led the research. “We found a way to make multiple channels in parallel so that we could work with large quantities of cells while using standard techniques like flow cytometry to measure the introduced material.”



Though the SQZ concept appears simple, it would never have happened without a lot of complex foundational research work at MIT, primarily in microfluidics. Meanwhile, at MIT and SQZ Biotech, research continues to help customize the device for different materials, cell types, and applications.

It helped that the project had the guidance and input of two MIT heavyweights: Jensen, one of the world’s top researchers in microfluidics, as well as MIT Institute Professor and biotech superstar Robert Langer. Both are cofounders of SQZ Biotech along with Armon Sharei, who came up with the CellSqueeze concept as a doctoral student working in Jensen’s lab under the direction of Jensen and Langer. Sharei, who is now CEO at SQZ Biotech, runs the company with another MIT alumnus and SQZ Biotech cofounder, Agustin Lopez Marquez, who is President.

SQZ Biotech is now seeding CellSqueeze with academic research projects and partnering with drug discovery and pharma companies to implement it in custom applications. The ultimate goal is to turn CellSqueeze into a therapeutics platform for cancer that could replace chemo and radiation therapy.

“Our system works very well in getting materials into the immune cells,” says Sharei. “Once you’re inside you can start to manipulate their internal mechanisms and engineer them to do almost anything you want.”

Inside CellSqueeze
Intracellular delivery has been a limiting bottleneck for many biotech and therapeutic endeavors. Existing methods all have tradeoffs ranging from limiting the quantity of injected material to damaging or killing the cell.

“Traditionally, a skilled operator would use a pipette, which is very slow,” says Jensen. More recent techniques have included chemical methods using self-penetrating peptides, electric stimulation, which suffers form a high cell-death rate, and the use of viral vectors, “which has a chance of foreign DNA contamination,” says Jensen. “You can also introduce nanoparticles with particular chemical functionalities on them. Yet, each of these techniques has drawbacks, and is limited to very particular applications.”

The NIH-funded research at MIT that led to CellSqueeze tested a new idea. “We were curious whether we could design microfluidic systems in which we use a narrow channel and a jet to introduce materials,” says Jensen. The device was very complex, however, and the results were not very promising.

One day, Armon Sharei realized that a much simpler device using physical deformation might prove more effective. “This led to developing microfluidic systems with parallel channels which squeeze the cells to provide maximum transfer of macro-materials,” says Jensen. Early results showed a much higher volume of introduced materials and a higher survival rate than other techniques. The process occurs so quickly that cells don’t have time to react.

Designing the right fit between cell size and channel was a key challenge. “There’s a delicate balance. If the channel is too wide, you don't get anything into the cell,” says Jensen. “If the channel is too narrow, you squeeze the cell so hard you tear it apart. You need different sizes for different cell types.”

It was also crucial to adjust the pressure perfectly for each cell type. The research team has largely solved these problems, however, and quickly ramped up to support over 20 cell types.

The next challenge was “to show we could get different type of materials into the cells,” says Jensen. “We’ve done DNA, mRNA, siRNA, proteins, and nanoparticles such as quantum dots. We worked with MIT’s Moungi Bawendi to show that these QDs can remain luminescent inside the cell. We’ve also introduced carbon nanotubes with the help of MIT’s Michael Strano, and have shown that we can see them individually.”

The researchers had to find a way to bypass the cell’s own machinery in processing the materials, which often ends up destroying them, says Jensen. “We wanted to show we could get all the way into the cytosol,” he says. With the help of Bawendi, Jensen’s team was able to accomplish this with QDs by making a special FRET complex that changed fluorescence if the particle entered the cytosol.

Another challenge was that the chip’s channels clog up with materials over time, reducing their viability. Further refinements such as adding multiple parallel channels has greatly mitigated this issue. “The chips ultimately fill up, but it takes a while,” says Jensen. “Even if some channels fill up, we always have exactly the same speed in the remaining channels, which is important for squeezing.”

Despite the simplicity of CellSqueeze, no one fully understands how the membrane disruption process works. While Jensen and Langer advise SQZ Biotech on the Board of Directors, both continue to explore the underlying biology at MIT. The project has received additional funding through MIT from the Koch Institute and Ragon Institute.



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 9, 2015

Sourcewater: A Spot Market for Water

Sourcewater pioneers an exchange for trading and recycling water for oil and gas production and other operations.
Studying energy ventures as a Sloan Fellow in 2012, Josh Adler was struck by the enormous expansion of unconventional oil and gas production in recent years. “Anything that’s become that big that fast has to have all kinds of chaos in its supply chains and operations, and all kinds of problems to solve,” he points out. Josh Adler
Sourcewater Founder & CEO
One big problem quickly became apparent: challenges in acquiring water to complete the wells. Each well requires millions of gallons of water to complete. Most hydraulic-fracturing takes place in water-stressed areas. And water supplies can be less than fluid, Adler notes.

“Imagine you’re a manager for oil and gas production in Midland, Texas, and you’re ready to complete one of your wells,” he says. “You start to send a fleet of hundreds of trucks to pick up the ground water supply you reserved months ago, but now you find out that there’s a drought and the well’s dry or the water authorities want to conserve its water. You’ve got a delay cost of $400,000 a day, and you don’t have the water to start the well completion. What do you do?”

Such difficult but far from uncommon scenarios were the genesis of Sourcewater, an online exchange founded by Adler, a serial entrepreneur in Internet matchmaking, medical devices and real estate startups. Sourcewater will provide petroleum producers and other industrial users a marketplace to source, recycle and manage the water they need — “something that’s completely new to the water industry,” he says.

With Sourcewater, Adler says, a petroleum production manager or water engineer “can go online and locate all the sources of water near them, see the qualities of those sources, see their prices, and book these different sources in whatever volume they need — basically completing that water planning and booking process that used to take days or weeks in ten minutes.”A second major Sourcewater strength is the ability to avoid the use of freshwater and instead use recycled water, often produced from a nearby oil or gas well.

“Oil and gas wells produce way more water than they produce oil or gas, and there’s really not a whole lot you can do with that water unless you heavily treat it,” Adler points out. “But it turns out that there’s very little treatment needed in order to reuse that water in place of freshwater in a new oil or gas well.”

The potential cost benefits could be significant. As one example, Adler notes that it can cost more than $20 per barrel to dispose of wastewater from oil and gas production in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale area, with the wastewater often trucked to disposal wells hundreds of miles away. But if Sourcewater shows that another energy firm nearby is ready to complete wells, the wastewater could travel just a few miles down the road.

In this scenario, one company might end up spending $5 or $10 a barrel for wastewater disposal where they would have spent $20 a barrel, and the other company might get paid $5 or $10 a barrel rather than paying $3 a barrel, Adler says. “Everybody comes out ahead, mainly because of that reduction in trucking cost.”

The primary expense for incoming and outgoing water supplies is transportation, he emphasizes. “Overall, we’re creating greater efficiency by reducing the average distance of truck travel between the source point and the use point for water, because we’re creating so many more locations from which you can obtain or send water.”

Reducing the amount of truck travel via the new online marketplace also brings environmental benefits. So does maximizing the recycling of wastewater from oil and gas production, which currently has two disposal options, neither of them great, Adler says. Water that is injected into disposal wells is removed from the hydrological cycle forever, and there is some evidence linking it to seismic events in certain geographic areas. The other option is wastewater treatment, but treatment plants generally were not built to handle oil and gas wastewater, so the discharged water may meet regulatory standards without matching the existing water quality in surrounding rivers and streams.

Sourcewater is now in beta testing, getting usability feedback from several energy companies (some contacted through the MIT Energy Initiative). The company is looking for more participants as it rolls out a pilot trial this spring that will generate real world transactions, and Adler expects that the marketplace will be fully live shortly thereafter.

He also plans to move briskly ahead to broaden Sourcewater’s infrastructure to cover the entire water management cycle. “It will be about finding the water, but also about finding the transport, the storage, the treatment and ultimately either the recycling or disposal for the water,” he says.

While the market initially is concentrating on oil and gas production, Sourcewater will help to create new sources of supply in the water market “that just weren’t findable before, and weren’t even considered assets,” Adler says. Those could include wastewater from mining operations, treated effluent from municipal and private water treatment facilities, and agricultural runoff.

Over the long run, bringing all of those non-freshwater sources into a market will help to create discount water supplies, he suggests. “We’re creating a greater supply of water by making wastewater liabilities into industrial assets, and we’re making freshwater into the premium product.”


MIT Startup Exchange is an initiative of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP) that seeks to connect ILP member companies with MIT-connected startups. Visit the MIT Startup Exchange website and log in to learn more about Sourcewater and other startups on MIT Startup Exchange.