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SensAble Devices wins $10K business contest

SensAble Devices--a maker of a novel computer interface conceived at MIT that allows users to "touch" and "feel" virtual objects displayed on a screen--won the $10,000 grand prize last week in MIT's annual $10K Entrepreneurial Business Plan Competition for students.

A blue-chip panel of judges drawn from the business community announced this year's winner of the David and Lindsay Morgenthaler $10K Prize at the contest's awards ceremony hosted by the MIT Enterprise Forum.

Five finalist teams presented summaries of their plans at the ceremony. They had been culled from a field of 45 teams that brought together students from MIT's School of Engineering and the Sloan School of Management. In the keynote address, Daniel Schwinn '83, co-founder and chairman of Shiva Corp., which recently made its initial public offering, provided advice on the top 10 mistakes to avoid in starting up a company.

SensAble Devices' product-called the Phantom-is an ingenious desktop mechanism originally designed and built by mechanical engineering graduate student Thomas Massie under the supervision of J. Kenneth Salisbury, principal research scientist in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. By inserting fingers into special swiveling thimbles mounted at the end of small computer-controlled mechanical arms, a person can "feel" and "manipulate" objects of different shapes, sizes and textures, ranging from rubber balls to keyboards.

"This has been more than a contest, it has been a network of people who have helped me start a new company and get it off the ground," said Mr. Massie, who actually started SensAble Devices in his Westgate apartment 18 months ago.

"Back then, I just jumped in head first without thinking it through as a business. Now I realize how important it is to get a plan on paper and to focus on appropriate markets," he said.

Among Phantom's chief advantages, Massie says, are its small size, low cost and superior capabilities compared to other similar devices. Potential early applications range from surgical training to computer-aided design programs that allow designers to touch or interact with their designs. Eventually, the device may lead to an entirely new generation of video games.

Other members of the the SensAble Devices team included Rhonda Massie, Anthony Cirurgiao and DeWitt Clinton.

Runners-up in the competition were:

  • Impulse Systems and Services-A company formed to develop and market a recently patented compact thin film measurement tool for semiconductors and other materials.
  • NanoWave-Developers of an ultra-high precision position measurement and control system with applications in the semiconductor industry.
  • Agents, Inc.-Developers of an automated word-of-mouth system with broad potential application in direct marketing.
  • net.Genesis-A supplier of software and services that integrate Internet and World Wide Web-based services into the business and communication infrastructure of a wide variety of companies.

In addition to the innovativeness of the product, criteria for selection included feasibility, the quality of the plan, team dynamics and the likelihood of success.

"This was not an easy decision," said Joseph G. Hadzima, a partner in the law firm of Sullivan & Worcester who is a visiting scholar at Sloan and one of the contest judges. "But everyone knows that the real judge is the marketplace, and we are encouraging all these teams to press on."

After the award ceremony, Mike Cassidy '86, co-founder and CEO of Stylus Innovation, presented his plan for the further development of his company in an MIT Enterprise Forum case presentation. Case presentations, which include an evaluation by a panel of experts, are a special service of the MIT Enterprise Forum, a nonprofit organization that provides advice, support and educational services to innovative technology-based companies of all sizes. It was founded in Cambridge in 1978 by a group of MIT alumni, faculty and business leaders.

In addition to Mr. Hadzima, this year's judging panel included representatives from MIT's Technology Licensing Office, AmeriData Consulting, Morgenthaler Ventures, Price Waterhouse, and Atlas Venture.

Sponsors and advisors of the $10K Competition include Sullivan & Worcester, AmeriData, Atlas Venture, George Hatsopoulos, David and Lindsay Morgenthaler, the Price Waterhouse Entrepreneurial Services Center, the Young Entrepreneurs Organization, the MIT Technology Licensing Office, the MIT Sloan School of Management, and the MIT School of Engineering.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 17, 1995.

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