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Three MIT teams mess with Texas, take SXSW Accelerator by storm

Three innovative products launched by MIT students, alumni and a professor took grand prize nods at the fourth annual SXSW Accelerator, held March 12-13 in Austin, Texas, as part of the 2012 South By Southwest (SXSW) Festival.

The success of so many Boston-area teams “really speaks to Boston” as an innovation hotspot, said Abby Fichtner, a startup developer evangelist for Microsoft who attended the accelerator finals. “Silicon Valley always gets the buzz and the noise.”

The SXSW Accelerator recognizes brand-new products released within the last year by companies, and MIT-related teams took top honors in half of the six categories. 

The Media Lab-developed Funf open sensing framework, which allows Android developers to easily collect and use information recorded using a mobile device, came out on top in the News-Related Technology category. The Funf core team for the iteration presented at SXSW includes Professor Sandy Pentland of the Media Lab, Nadav Aharony SM '08, PhD '12, ESD Technology Policy Program master's candidate Cody Sumter, and Alan Gardner SB '05., based on Media Lab technology and founded by Anmol Madan SM ‘05 PhD ‘10 (whose PhD advisor was Pentland) and Karan Singh MBA ‘11, took the top prize in the Health Technologies category. The company harnesses user data from mobile phones to make inferences about health and wellness, and is based on the same Media Lab project as Funf, according to Fichtner.

Rounding out the list is Viztu Technologies, which can take users’ photos and videos and create 3-D models to view online or to print on a 3-D printer. Viztu won the Innovative Web Technologies category. Ash Martin MBA ‘10 is a co-founder, and the company has roots in the MIT $100K Business Plan Competition from 2010, according to its website.

The three-day contest, presented by Microsoft BizSpark, offers $4,000 awards to its winners, who also receive bragging rights among the high-energy, tech-savvy crowds that converge each year at SXSW, as well as two free passes to next year’s event.

For students aspiring to win next year’s Accelerator, Fichtner cautioned against losing focus on the core goals of the students’ startups. “They should get out there and start executing, same as if they want to be a successful startup. It’s a bad idea to take your company in a different direction just to look good for a conference or demo day,” she said.

To be eligible for this year’s Accelerator event, companies had to launch their new product after March 13, 2011; teams that will launch between now and mid-June were also eligible. Companies cannot have raised more than $5 million in funding.

Forty-eight companies were selected to compete, and the field was whittled to 18 finalists after an initial round of judging.

The SXSW Festival is an annual set of events, held in March, focused on the cutting edge in the music, film and interactive technology industries. The festival is a big draw for entrepreneurs, in part because a lot of tech-music and tech-film collaborations have come out of the interactions between attendees, Fichtner said. Exposure at SXSW has also led to big gains for social media and networking startups such as Twitter, which was a little-known company before 2007’s SXSW.

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