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Putting Innovation to Work

From Flying Cars to Tidal Turbines, Area’s Entrepreneurs Break New Ground

October 04, 2010
The Boston Globe
by Scott Kirsner

This is ordinarily a busy month for conferences, schmooze-fests, and seminars. But cramming the calendar even more this year are two new mega-events: FutureM Boston (starting today) and Boston Region Entrepreneurship Week (starting Oct. 13).
One will spotlight Boston-area companies helping to shape the future of marketing, and the other is planned as a celebration of “the entrepreneurial spirit.’’
With the focus on creating companies and propagating big ideas, it seemed like the right time to assemble a list of some of the area’s most innovative people. The criteria were simple: smart people who are working on important projects at companies of any size, or who support entrepreneurship in essential ways.
Bunmi Adekore, founder and chief technical officer, LumenZ, Boston

Adekore and a small team at this venture-backed company are developing an LED light source they hope will be inexpensive, energy efficient, and long-lasting. But the key to success, in his eyes? Producing bright light with the amber glow of an incandescent bulb, and none of the harshness of fluorescent lighting — something consumers will want to use in their homes.

Elon Boms, managing director, Launch Capital, Cambridge

Boms doesn’t run the biggest investment fund in town, but it’s the most eclectic. Launch Capital puts early money into companies including organic tofu producers, developers of iPhone apps, makers of diagnostic tests for doctors, and a new coffee shop in Kendall Square. Boms says the fund has been making two new investments a month.

Anna Mracek Dietrich, chief operating officer and cofounder, Terrafugia, Woburn

Two words: flying car. Terrafugia has attracted international media attention for its audacious effort to build a vehicle that the Federal Aviation Administration will certify, highway authorities will allow on the road, and enough people will want to buy for $200,000 to $250,000. Dietrich cofounded the company with her husband, Carl. They were educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I usually joke that in a start-up, the COO title is just given to whoever does all the little necessary things that no one else wants to do,’’ Dietrich says.

Helen Greiner, founder and chief executive, CyPhy Works, Framingham

Greiner, an MIT alumna and cofounder of iRobot Corp., has not said much about her latest start-up. But if you imagine a small flying robot with cameras built in, you’re probably not far off. The company won a $2.4 million federal grant last year to develop hover-bots capable of inspecting bridges, dams, and other civil infrastructure.

Brian Halligan, chief executive and cofounder, HubSpot, Cambridge

Halligan helped shape the idea that became FutureM Boston, seeking to establish the city as the epicenter of new approaches to marketing in the digital age.

His company advocates producing useful content that consumers will discover on the Web while they are learning about a particular product area, rather than interrupting them (with something like a TV spot or online banner ad) when they’re doing something else.

Kurt Zenz House, cofounder, C12 Energy, Cambridge

With $4.5 million in funding, C12 is developing technology to “sequester’’ cost-effectively the copious amounts of carbon dioxide produced by chemical plants, refineries, and power stations, preventing it from being released into the atmosphere.

Rana el Kaliouby, chief technology officer and cofounder, Affectiva, Waltham

A researcher at MIT’s Media Lab, el Kaliouby is helping Affectiva develop a cloth wristband with built-in biosensors. The intended users are people with autism, their parents, and the teachers and therapists who work with them. The wearable sensors measure skin conductivity, and they communicate wirelessly with a personal computer, offering a glimpse of what’s happening with the wearer’s emotions. “We’re very interested in helping individuals on the autism spectrum cope and learn about social interactions and regulating their emotions,’’ el Kaliouby says. But one future application, she hints, could be gauging a consumer’s emotional reaction to a new advertising campaign or product design.

Burt Kaliski, senior director, EMC Innovation Network in Hopkinton

Kaliski has a big job at the state’s biggest technology company: helping to “connect the dots’’ between R&D groups, the start-up world, academia, and EMC’s lines of business. The objective is to make sure emerging ideas in computing and data storage are integrated into EMC products. Three areas of focus this year are data security, analytics, and what he calls private cloud computing (helping companies monitor and manage data and computer assets that are stored or owned by other parties.)

Leonidas Kontothanassis, tech lead, Google Cambridge

Kontothanassis leads a 30-member team at Google’s local outpost focused on networking infrastructure. Essentially, they are the resident speed demons. “My team works on how to make Google and the Internet as a whole faster,’’ he writes in a typically terse e-mail. It examines everything from browsers to servers to advertisements to data protocols, trying to make Google’s Web offerings even zippier.

Stanley Kowalski III, chairman and founder, FloDesign Wind Turbine, Wilbraham

FloDesign has raised nearly $50 million from venture capitalists and the US Department of Energy to develop a new kind of wind turbine that looks like a jet engine and can potentially extract more power from each passing breeze. FloDesign is also working on underwater turbines to produce power from tides.

Adam Medros, vice president of product, TripAdvisor, Newton

Medros has been heading up mobile and social initiatives at TripAdvisor. In June, the popular travel site launched Trip Friends, which links to your Facebook connections, helping you to tap them for advice about where to stay and what to do on vacation.

Steve Mills, senior vice president, IBM, Somers, N.Y.

Mills, the only person on the list who does not work in Massachusetts, has been on a shopping spree in the state: Big Blue has bought 18 tech companies here since 2003. Most recently, Mills’s company picked up Netezza, which specializes in hardware and software for storing and analyzing vast databases. The price: $1.7 billion.

Una Ryan, chief executive, Diagnostics for All, Cambridge

Ryan, a former chairwoman of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, is developing a hybrid for-profit/not-for-profit strategy at Diagnostics for All. The company is seeking to bring to market inexpensive, paper-based diagnostic tests for diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV/AIDS. Just apply a drop of blood to the paper, and it changes color to indicate the result. (And the paper can be burned afterward to avoid contamination problems.)

Sam White, chief executive and founder, Promethean Power Systems, Cambridge

White helped open up a grungy and grass-roots-oriented cleantech incubator in East Cambridge last summer. Its residents are a handful of start-ups, many with links to MIT, including White’s company, which is building a solar-powered milk chiller that he says will help dairy farmers in developing countries get a better price for their product.

Daphne Zohar, founder and managing partner, PureTech Ventures, Boston

Zohar is one of the biotechnology industry’s most successful “packagers,’’ assembling teams of researchers, executives, and scientific advisers and helping them raise money for new ventures. (Zohar often serves as the founding chief executive.) Companies Zohar has helped launch are working on treatments for hair loss, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, and schizophrenia. One of the newest, Libra, is working on treatments “based on the emerging understanding of the human as a super-organism, given that 90 percent of the cells in our bodies are microbes and not ‘human,’ ’’ she explains.

Putting Innovation to Work

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