A Bumper Crop

Around about this time of year, the fields of our local farms are green with newly-sprouted plants, mostly fruits and vegetables which will show up at farmers’ markets and restaurants in a couple months.  This is also the time of year for the local entrepreneurship contests to sprout their spring crops, timed in part, I guess, to the end of the academic year since many are based in academia and involve student proto-entrepreneurs.  While there are and have been many business plan contests where the writers of the “best” plan gets a cash prize (e.g., MIT’s $100K contest started in 1989 and now awards a total of $350K to multiple teams, MIT $100K), a newer variation are competitions that give the winners more of a runway to becoming a real company.  During the contest or as part of the prize package, these “accelerator” programs include coaching/mentoring assistance, office space, and professional legal or fund-raising advice with the goal of starting fundable, viable companies and some are nurturing a handful of global health ventures.

One such program I wrote about in 2010 is VentureWell East (VW East) that started the year before by the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA) and offered mentoring and modest startup funding of tens of thousands of dollars (“Watering the Grass” 2/18/10).  Alas, the program may be out of business since I found no recent news.  It was helpful to one global health company, Sproxil (Sproxil), which uses codes and text messaging to verify the authenticity of drugs, a major problem in developing markets.  The company is growing, has a number of major pharma companies as clients, and recently announced an extension of its partnership with IBM to use IBM cloud computing to service its clients in countries with limited infrastructure.

A new local accelerator program this year is The Indus Entrepreneurs- Boston’s Challenge (TiE Challenge) which  has the goal “to help promising first-time entrepreneurs to turn great ideas into real companies.”  It recently announced its five winners who will get an advisory team, office (desk) space, and introductions to angel investors.  Unfortunately (to me especially for an organization with its roots in the developing world and a social venture interest group), none of the ventures have global health aims and all but one have pretty trivial products (dress shirts, chickpea snacks, on-line “gift wrapping,” and wine selection).  At the other end of the social improvement spectrum is MIT’s IDEAS Global Challenge (MIT GC) which is a contest for MIT student teams to design products and services to improve the world and therefore not an accelerator program.  The aim is for the teams to use the modest cash awards over the summer to field test their work with potential users, typically in under-served communities, and, if so motivated, find other resources like MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service (VMS), to help with venture launch.  That being said, four of the ten awardees this year have global health aims (2012 GC Awards):

  • inSight which is developing a mobile technology to photograph the human eye retina for early diagnosis of diabetic retinopathy;
  • Otto Clave which is improving the use of sterilizers through remote monitoring via SMS;
  • The Beth Project whose product is a prosthetic socket that offers a custom fit without custom fabrication; and
  • Wi-care which is developing an inexpensive negative-pressure bandage to promote wound healing (mentioned in my post, “MONGO Bingo” 4/12/12 and a VMS mentee).

The best-run and –funded accelerator program in these parts is the MassChallenge, itself a start-up by two former finance guys and now in its third year (MC).  The MC uses a large number of volunteer judges and coaches (I’ve been one) to screen and select about 100 ventures from the initial field more than 1000 applicants (must be a seed- or early-stage startup).  For the next three summer months, the founders of these finalist ventures get cubicals and elbow room in a nice building by the harbor, lots of interaction with each other and the entrepreneurial community, and events with beer and pizza.  They then go through another round of pitching and judging and about 25 receive awards of $50K and $100K, totaling $1 million.  The best features of the MC are that a good number of the entrants get value from participating (the 111 startups from 2010 raised over $100M in capital and created 500+ new jobs), its funding source is diverse and therefore sustainable (including some state money), and it has a social impact category to boost ventures not likely to be the next Facebook (but may change the world anyway).  Of course, MC can and may get better, for example, by better educating the media, public, and state about entrepreneurship, especially that “failure” is likely but not permanent, and by strengthening the advising given the social impact participants.

The 2012 finalists were recently announced (2012 MC), and I was pleased to see that five of the 125 finalists have global health ambitions:

  • IoVista will improve eye care using an inexpensive, handheld device that prescribes glasses with the click of a button;
  • RetiCue (RetiCue) will provide early detection of diabetic retinopathy, the world’s largest cause of blindness (not the same venture as inSight above);
  • Quantametrix has “a novel device platform that would deliver solutions for unmet needs in diagnostics and monitoring in medicine and environmental safety” (not much information at Quantametrix);
  • Vaxess Technologies is creating low-cost, thermo-stable vaccines; and
  • Nanoly Biotech (NB) is developing a nanoparticle-based chemical formulation for vaccine stability.

A promising crop ready for more tending and watering.


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