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3dim wins MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition

Annual business-plan contest awards $257,000 in total.
Members of 3dim celebrate after winning the grand prize at the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition.
Members of 3dim celebrate after winning the grand prize at the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition.
Photo: L. Barry Hetherington

On Wednesday night, 3dim earned the grand prize at this year’s MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition after successfully pitching its business plan to merge two of today’s most popular, and profitable, technological phenomena: gesture-recognition and smart devices.

The startup was one of eight finalists that pitched business plans to a capacity crowd in Kresge Auditorium. While only one team walked away with the $100,000 top prize, finalists received startup funds totaling $257,000.

A panel of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, scientists and industry professionals chose 3dim based on the strength of the team’s technology, business plan and presentation.

3dim, founded by a team of MIT engineers, has patented 3-D gesture-recognition technology — such as what’s used in the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Kinect — to be implemented into devices such as smartphones, tablets or Google Glass. This would allow users to interact with their devices through thin air, rather than having to touch a screen.

The need for power-hungry, specialized hardware has kept such technology from mobile devices — problems that 3dim has now rectified, co-founder Andrea Colaco, a PhD student at the MIT Media Lab, said during the winning pitch.

“What is the next interface [for mobile devices]? … The answer is gesture recognition,” Colaco said. “Every mobile-device manufacturer is scrambling to bring gesture-recognition into their devices. This is an immediate and unaddressed market.”

After the competition, Colaco, surrounded by elated teammates and well-wishers, said the victory felt “surreal.” “It took a lot of work,” she said. “Just a year ago, we were technologists at MIT with an idea. Now, we’re here.”

With the prize money, 3dim will go “full steam ahead,” Colaco said, further developing the technology for customers — namely, smart-device manufacturers — who have already expressed interest in the product.

But no one walked away empty-handed. Each of the eight finalists — out of a pool of 215 entrants this year — received $15,000 for winning its respective track: life sciences, products and services, mobile, web/IT, energy, the Segal Family Foundation’s emerging markets track, and two wildcard entries.

The contest also hosted several offshoots: a $10,000 Thomson Reuters Data Prize for the team with the most innovative data-centric business plan; the first-ever $10,000 Creative Arts Prize for the innovative use of art in a business plan; an AARP Prize for $10,000; and a $2,000 Audience Choice Award.

Since its debut in 1989, the competition has helped launch more than 160 companies, which have gone on to collectively raise $1.3 billion in venture capital, employ 4,600 people and build $16 billion in market capital.

Health, energy and infrastructure solutions

Other finalists’ innovations aim to prevent and diagnosis debilitating diseases, deliver clean energy and fix infrastructure issues.

Several teams — NoMos, QuikCatheter, SympSolutions and eyeMITRA — are developing health-care innovations. NoMos, winner of the Audience Choice Award, aims to stop the spread of mosquito-borne diseases, such as malaria, by distributing a natural, nontoxic, environmentally friendly extract that prevents mosquito-human contact.

QuikCatheter plans to manufacture modified microcatheters doctors could use to help improve patient outcomes in time-sensitive emergencies, such as stroke and arterial bleeding, and improve efficiency in a variety of non-urgent or outpatient procedures. SympSolutions is developing a cost-effective and noninvasive way to treat the carotid body — a small organ known to contribute to high blood pressure — in hypertensive patients who no longer respond to oral medications alone.

Finally, eyeMITRA is developing mobile technology that collects valuable information about a person’s well-being — such as eyesight complications associated with diabetes — via retina monitoring. “It may seem like science fiction, but this is MIT,” said eyeMITRA team member Everett Lawson, a postdoc in the MIT Media Lab.

Other teams developed infrastructure and clean-energy innovations. UPower, which won MIT’s Clean Energy Prize last week, is developing a nuclear generator for places off the power grid, such as U.S. Army bases in Afghanistan, that could replace diesel generators — reducing energy costs and, in theory, providing power for up to 12 years without a recharge.

Ant Intelligence aims to collect and interpret data from buildings and infrastructure — such as bridges, dams and excavation sites — and generate structural data to be used for remote monitoring and preventive maintenance, disaster management and big-data analytics, among other things.

Finally, C2Sense has several patents and published academic articles backing its technology: low-cost “sensors on a chip” that can be used for detecting and measuring a range of chemical substances in food, or for safety monitoring and environmental protection.

Three other teams — AugMI Labs, Kiwi and Mediuum — won the Data Prize, the AARP Prize and the Creative Arts Prize, respectively.

‘Am I making a difference?’

Keynote speaker Yoky Matsuoka SM ’95, PhD ’98 has extensive experience with life-altering technologies — from designing robotic limbs to working at Google to her current role as vice president of technology at an innovative thermostat company, Nest Labs. 

Through all her endeavors, Matsuoka said she always sought to change the world — an ideal she wished to impart upon the audience. “One of the things that I like to go back and think about is this picture,” Matsuoka said, presenting a large photo of Earth. “Sometimes I ask, ‘Am I contributing to society?’ ‘Am I making a difference?’ As long as my answer is ‘yes,’ I’ll be fine.”

As a tennis player at MIT, Matsuoka sought to create a robotic “tennis buddy”: an advanced robot for players to practice against. This led to a detour into robotics and neuroscience — a field she later dubbed neurobotics — that ultimately fed her desire to help society. “I learned there were a lot of people with neurological disorders who could use this technology,” she said.

From there, she entered academia, setting out to create artificial limbs controlled by human thought. Along the way, she became director of the University of Washington’s Neurobotics Lab and the National Science Foundation’s Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, and then head of innovation at Google. She’s now settled on creating Nest Lab’s programmable thermometers that aim to save people thousands of dollars on heating.

Matsuoka said this human-technology integration is her passion — and the future of our technologically advanced society. “That’s what just really gets me going: building these beautiful devices,” she said. “Am I doing something that’s really helping society? I think so.”

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