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Graduate students win $50K, defend theses on same day

The Angstrom Medica team won the $50K competition. Left to right: Anne Shehab, Darren Obrigkeit, Sudhir Borgonha and Edward Ahn.
The Angstrom Medica team won the $50K competition. Left to right: Anne Shehab, Darren Obrigkeit, Sudhir Borgonha and Edward Ahn.
Photo / L. Barry Hetherington

May 16 could have ended with either "the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat," as they used to say on The Wide World of Sports. But Edward Ahn and Darren Obrigkeit of Angstrom Medica successfully capped six years of hard work with a winner-take-all day by capturing the MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition's grand prize as well as successfully defending their theses to earn doctorates in chemical engineering.

"Against the backdrop of the $50K competition, three of our team members had to write and two had to defend theses," said the newly anointed Dr. Ahn. "If we could do that now, what will we do in the future?" Another member of the winning team, Sudhir Borgonha, will earn the SM in management and technology from the Sloan School this spring. He already holds the MD.

Angstrom Medica plans to produce and sell synthetic bone for use in spinal fusion and fracture reconstruction surgery. The nano-sized synthetic bone pins can be surgically inserted to fuse two bones and then left in place, unlike the usual metal pins and screws which require subsequent removal.

Dr. Ahn came to MIT in 1995 with the goal of starting a company. He credits the $50K competition with supplementing his education in a way that helped him to achieve this goal. "I got a strong education as a technologist and built skills as a businessman and entrepreneur through the $50K. We were able to do this without any risk and without hurting anyone, including our investors," said Dr. Ahn, who believes that scientists and engineers often need help learning the business side of business.

"A common problem in engineering and science is learning to define the market need," he said. Creating technologies "is intuitive. We can do it in our sleep, wake up in the morning and say 'Hey, I had this dream.' But how do we sell it?"

This was his third attempt to win the $50K with his thesis research. In the first two years, he gradually learned how to build a business plan around technology and to minimize risk. This year the team got focused, defined the product, defined the market and generally pulled it all together.

Dr. Ahn, Dr. Obrigkeit, Mr. Borgonha and their other partners -- Professor Michael Wong (PhD 2000) of Rice University and Anne Shehab, who has a PhD, an MBA and has worked in the orthopedics field for 15 years -- received $30,000 as winners of the Robert P. Goldberg Grand Prize. The two runner-up teams, Iptyx and PantaRei, each received $10,000.

Tom Jermoluk, former president and COO of Silicon Graphics, former CEO of @home and former chairman of Excite@home, seemed perfectly at ease giving the keynote speech in front of the crowd of students and entrepreneurs filling Kresge Auditorium. Now a partner at the venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins, Caufield & Byers, Mr. Jermoluk doled out pithy commentary and advice to the entrepreneur-wanna-bes in the audience:

"The most important trait to learn is to make a decision and move on. More important than what the decision is, is to make a decision. Just get on with it... Rapid reaction to change is important. And things will change. Dinosaurs were doing great, then the comet came along... Sometimes things don't work. In our business, failure is an option... You're playing in the pinball machine of business, and you're that little ball... This is the period that separates the weak from the strong."

The seven finalist teams that presented business plans last week were selected from 36 semifinalists, which were culled from a group of 135 entries. The six other finalist teams were:

  • Iptyx (runner-up), an organic materials research and development company that designed new dyes and polymers to be used in making smaller, brighter liquid crystal displays (LCDs) requiring lower power consumption than present LCDs.
  • PantaRei (runner-up), a company that designs proprietary technology to deliver system-wide optimization and yield management to help well and pipeline operators in the natural gas industry access more and better market transactions while reducing operational costs.
  • Ageless Filters, Inc., which designed a filter that reduces carcinogens in cigarette smoke without affecting taste.
  • SiteSpecific Pharmaceuticals, which created a drug discovery platform that will increase the specificity of drugs, therefore reducing side effects and improving the chances of successful clinical testing and drug efficacy.
  • The SmartCure company, which designed a special sponge that wlil help chronic wounds heal faster, reducing hospital stays and saving money for hospitals, insurance companies and individuals.
  • Sunchar, which offers decision-support software based on yield management and data-mining techniques to help telecom service providers manage revenues and predict demand and traffic volatility more efficiently.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 23, 2001.

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