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MIT team wins Berkeley-Stanford Green Entrepreneurship Competition

Two MIT Leaders for Global Operations students and their MIT colleagues take home prize after pitching U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, center, and the PolyChroma team.
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, center, and the PolyChroma team.
Photo: Cleantech Launchpad

A team of MIT students took home the grand prize at the 2011 Berkeley-Stanford Cleantech (BSC) Launchpad, a prestigious green entrepreneurship competition.

The PolyChroma team includes Marnix Hollander (LGO '12), Kurtis McKenney (SB '01, LGO '12), Chunguang Charlotte Wang (SDM '11) and Jon Garrity (SB '11). Their venture is developing optics for next-generation LED lighting.

The theme of this year's competition was "Creating Jobs for a Green Economy." As the winners, PolyChroma received $10,000 in cash and services, the opportunity to pitch U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and a personal meeting with leading cleantech venture capital firms.

PolyChroma also placed first in the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition's Executive Summary Contest in February.

"We were elated to win BSC Launchpad," said Hollander. "It was a big risk for all four of us to fly out there. But thanks to the support of the Leaders for Global Operations and System Design and Management programs, we were able to make it.

"It was a great competition, and we're pleased we could keep riding this wave of success following the Executive Summary Contest."

Identifying a promising technology

The PolyChroma team came together at the onset of last fall's Energy Ventures course. Students in this course assemble teams around promising technologies in the energy sector and then build business plans to bring them to market.

In summer 2010, Hollander worked with the course TA and MIT's Technology Licensing Office (TLO) to investigate possible ideas. He found one technology to be particularly intriguing: an optics system that enables high-quality white light in LED lamps and full-color tunability in multicolored LED lamps.

Hollander pitched the idea to his Energy Ventures classmates, and McKenney, Wang and Garrity quickly signed on. The quartet worked on their business plan throughout the fall semester, meeting with venture capitalists and angel investors, legal professionals, future customers and potential partners along the way.

Wang, who was charged with exploring energy and green entrepreneurship competitions, thought BSC Launchpad would be worth entering. After submitting a video pitch and executive summary, PolyChroma survived the competition's first round (an online popular vote) and second round (in which a panel of industry experts narrowed the field from 20 to six).

Pitching the U.S. energy secretary

The final round took place April 8. Garrity gave PolyChroma's five-minute pitch to the judges and the crowd gathered at Stanford University's Old Union Courtyard. The victor was determined by the judging panel (50 percent) and the audience (50 percent).

Hollander wasn't sure which way the vote would go, but he could tell the judges and audience members were paying close attention during Garrity's pitch. So when PolyChroma won, he wasn't shocked. A whirlwind of activity immediately followed.

"The next day, we gave our pitch to the entire BSC Conference [attended by professionals in academia, policy/government and venture capitalists]," said Hollander. "There was a lot of interest and some great questions from audience members.

"We also had the opportunity to pitch to Steven Chu during a special VIP conference. Afterwards, he expressed interest in our plan and in the idea of LED lighting as a huge opportunity for the U.S. to reduce its energy consumption."

Support and understanding from classmates

According to Hollander, the winnings from the BSC Cleantech and MIT $100K competitions are going right back into PolyChroma. "We're putting the money toward a general fund pool for the company," he said. "We can use it to pay for any expenses we feel are important. Right now, that means generating interest in our venture and funding a developmental prototype."

The only major competition on the near horizon is the MIT $100K's Business Plan Contest, which ends May 11. And that's probably a good thing, as Hollander and company have some catching up to do.

"Our academics are definitely suffering a bit," he said. "It's been a juggling act to keep everything together. We've had to lean more on members of our class teams, and we've been fortunate to get a lot of support and understanding from our classmates."

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