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Alumni and entrepreneurs team up to guide young startups

Innovation@ONE business pitch competition features startups and ideas out of Course 1.
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Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
At Innovation@ONE, the Most Inventive Business Idea was presented to Jingjie Yeo (left) of Accuro Pressure Silk; the Business Pitch Champion was awarded to Justin Chen (center) of Motus View; and the Best Early Stage Idea was awarded to Paige Midstokke (right) of Safe Tap.
At Innovation@ONE, the Most Inventive Business Idea was presented to Jingjie Yeo (left) of Accuro Pressure Silk; the Business Pitch Champion was awarded to Justin Chen (center) of Motus View; and the Best Early Stage Idea was awarded to Paige Midstokke (right) of Safe Tap.
Photo: Allison Dougherty/Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Leslie Dewan ’07, PhD ‘13 of Transatomic Power Corporation, and Professor John Williams of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, served as panelists and judges for Innovation@ONE.
Leslie Dewan ’07, PhD ‘13 of Transatomic Power Corporation, and Professor John Williams of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, served as panelists and judges for Innovation@ONE.
Photo: Allison Dougherty/Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

The Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) is at the forefront of identifying problems and finding new solutions for existing industries and infrastructures to make a big impact around the world. On Nov. 17, eight CEE students and researchers pitched business ideas to a panel of seasoned entrepreneurs at the second Innovation@ONE competition, offering solutions to problems at many scales, from public health to physical infrastructure.

Some of the student ideas, which were all in various stages of development, included video technology that identified vibrations in infrastructures to find problems before they occur, naturally electrically conductive materials for locating pressure ulcers, and affordable, user-friendly at-home tests for checking tap water for lead.

“At CEE we are committed to supporting our students and faculty in this path, and use scientific breakthroughs to come up with engineering solutions that impact people’s lives. Our students and postdocs will disrupt the status quo with ingenuity, to solve big engineering challenges. Innovation@ONE was just a glimpse into the wide variety of opportunities to change the world,” CEE Department Head and McAfee Professor of Engineering Markus Buehler said.

At Innovation@ONE, an esteemed group of panelists were brought in to ask questions, challenge the students, offer suggestions to improve the entrepreneurs’ ideas, and help the students potentially take their business ideas beyond the walls of MIT.

“Civil and environmental engineering provides an enormously potent vision of what’s going to be needed and methods to solve those problems,” said Norman Gaut SM ’64, PhD ‘67, who is a serial entrepreneur. Currently, Gaut serves as chairman of SuperWater Solutions Inc., Galactic Energy, LLC, and Semaco Pharmaceuticals, Inc.

Other panelists included Basar Arioglu ’89, SM ‘91 of Yapi Merkezi Construction, Inc.; Arunas Chesonis ’84 of Sweetwater Energy, Inc.; Leslie Dewan ’07, PhD ‘13 of Transatomic Power Corporation; Matthew M. Nordan of MNL Partners; Livio Valenti of Vaxess Technologies, Inc.; Fiona Murray, the William Porter (1967) Professor of Entrepreneurship at MIT Sloan School of Management, associate dean for innovation, and co-director of the MIT Innovation Initiative; and John Williams, a professor of civil engineering and engineering systems and director of the MIT Geospatial Data Center.

Top three pitches

The Business Pitch Champion was awarded to postdoc associate Justin Chen, who presented Motus View, a software product that identifies vibrations in various infrastructure. Chen received a cash prize of $1,500 to support Motus View as it continues to grow. Developed along with Neal Wadhwa and Abe Davis, Motus View uses video technology to magnify motion in infrastructure such as bridges and building, but is looking to expand to monitoring oil wells and structures in other industries such as railroad infrastructure, aerospace, and health care.

Previously, studying motion in bridges and other infrastructure meant placing and monitoring sensors on the bridge manually. Motus View changes that by filming the bridge, having a user select a frequency, and then witnessing subtle rocking motions. This phenomenon is made possible by using computer vision to capture the motions that exist in the bridge, even if the bridge appears completely still to the naked eye. The technology and algorithms behind Motus View are currently patented by MIT, and Chen and his team are planning on licensing the tool for their software product.

The Best Early Stage Idea was awarded to Paige Midstokke, who presented on behalf of Safe Tap and received a $1,000 prize. Midstokke and her team, including MIT alumna Marianna Novellino, tap into one of the most talked-about water issues: lead. “Lead is not something you can see and it’s really hard to solve. It is usually not detected until there are health scares,” the second year graduate student in CEE and a Tata Fellow in Technology and Policy said.

Midstokke highlighted that one in 17 Americans are at risk of consuming lead from their home faucets. Safe Tap seeks to counter this statistic by offering a simple way to detect lead in household water and suggests three next-steps once consumers determine the quality of their water. Currently in prototype development, the product is comprised of small white spheres that when placed into a glass of water will turn green if the lead level is over the allowable amount. The spheres will turn red if the lead amount is over the amount most filtration systems can filter out. The lead-detecting balls are only the first step of Safe Tap; they will be accompanied by a free mobile app that allows users to share their information. The mobile app is designed to offer three items: a filter that works for the contaminants in the user’s water; the contact information for the user’s local water agency; and the opportunity to share this information with the user’s neighbors. “If you have lead in your water, it is likely that your neighbor does, too,” Midstokke said.

In the future, Safe Tap hopes to expand and create a multi-pack that tests for other contaminants such as mercury and copper. Safe Tap also hopes to target gyms, health, and wellness stores, as well as infant and toy stores, Midstokke said in response to a question from Innovation@ONE organizer and Paul M. Cook Career Development Professor Benedetto Marelli, who inquired into the increased concern of lead exposure to infants following Midstokke’s pitch.

The Most Inventive Business Idea prize, and $500 award, was presented to Jingjie Yeo who presented Accuro Pressure Silk, an electrically conductive silk-based fiber, which is electrically conductive and is capable of measuring changes in pressure and humidity. Yeo and his team hope to weave the pressure silk into other fabrics to create a commercial product to help prevent ulcers by licensing their technology to American manufacturers.

“In America alone we have thousands of U.S. veteran amputees, frail [elderly] and immobile patients who are highly susceptible to these kinds of skin problems. The fundamental issue is that there is a lack of a good monitoring system in order to measure where exactly in the body are highly susceptible to developing pressure ulcers,” Yeo said.

There is a variety of potentially widespread uses of Accuro Pressure Silk, stemming from its electrically conductive nature. Panelist Gaut suggested the potential of partnerships with producers of other commercial health products, which aligns with Yeo and his team’s next steps. In the future, Yeo and his team hope to expand their manpower, network with health product manufacturers, and develop an app and user interface to allow users to track their pressure and gather data about pressure ulcers. This data could then be used for researchers to get a better understanding of how and where pressure ulcers develop and potential solutions. Yeo is a postdoc fellow in the Laboratory for Atomistic and Molecular Mechanics.

Technological advances for ease of life

Two proposed startups presented on solving different issues through technological innovations. One group, empathEyes, seeks to make nonverbal cues explicit; the other, Automata Systems, uses data and algorithms to more efficiently translate data from utility companies into real-world solutions.

It can be difficult to evaluate the mood or emotions of strangers and even of close friends, but this is especially difficult for the visually impaired and individuals with autism, who may not be able to pick up on nonverbal cues. But empathEyes, a service created by CEE research scientist Bruce Jones and graduate students Samuel Raymond and Justin Montgomery, seeks to fill in these blanks by identifying the emotions of people in various settings. This information can also be helpful in evaluating one’s audience, and can be used for security in large crowds. “Identifying people whose responses may be unusual under the circumstance, could be very valuable information,” Jones said.

The trio created empathEyes as a platform to translate nonverbal cues into a format that anyone can understand. In a world increasingly saturated with smart devices, empathEyes hopes to be available through such modes. Acknowledging the technological limitations of reaching a wider audience, empathEyes is also planning to create an app that would be more widely available. Although empathEyes is still in prototype, the trio plans to conduct user testing. "[W]e know we can get information, the challenge is in what form to present that to the user,” Jones said. 

Scott Foster, a student in the Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) program, who is pursuing an MBA and a master's degree in civil and environmental engineering, presented for his company, Automata Systems, which seeks to use LiDAR technology and data collected by utility companies to predict and detect a variety of issues before they occur. Utility companies are starting to move towards less time-consuming methods of gathering data, such as using helicopters and drones, but not much is being done with this information, Foster said. Automata Systems reduces the cost of utility companies by putting the data into the cloud and ultimately increasing the reliability of identifying problems while lowering the costs of manually sifting through data. Automata Systems is designed for analysts at utility companies and plans to be sustainable through long-term software contracts. Before pitching at Innovation@ONE, Foster and his team received $5,000 in MIT Sandbox funding.

Green and environmental ideas

In addition to creating technological products, other startups pitched solutions to problems that seek to increase quality of life, and in an environmentally friendly way.

How can pig manure and the sludge leftover from water treatment plants turn into a reusable and environmentally friendly product? CEE researcher Fran Martinez presented Bio-Alchemy, which uses hydrothermal liquefaction to treat pig manure and the sludge, and turn it into asphalt. There are many companies that make asphalt, but Bio-Alchemy has a competitive advantage, Martinez said: It can be applied to roads at lower temperatures and it lasts longer because it oxidizes less and, thus, cracks less. Bio-Alchemy is made up of Yeo, Diego Lopez, and Zhao Qin.

CEE research scientist Zhao Qin presented on material designs and manufacturing for water filtration. After running out of water on a hike and being surrounded by undrinkable water, Qin recalls thinking, “[I]s there a way we create a material that can directly translate polluted water into safe water for drinking?” In response, Qin and his partner Shengjie Ling, who work with Buehler and David Kaplan of Tufts University, have created a multilayer silk membrane inspired by a coffee filter. The technology is still being tested, but the pair hopes to expand their product to be inexpensive and convenient for hiking and natural hazards, and also would collaborate with non-governmental organizations.

Showing the audience that it's never too early to innovate, Seiji Engelkemier, a second year undergraduate and the youngest competitor, presented an early stage idea for rethinking helium airships. Although most may think of blimps, Engelkemier shared multiple real-world uses for helium airships. For one, they can reach places that boats and trucks cannot, especially in cases where there are not roads or developed infrastructure. Helium airships are slower but more efficient than airplanes, Engelkemier said. He is currently looking for a mentor and to build a team to further develop the concept and business plan.

Entrepreneurs advise next generation of inventors

In addition to challenging the competitors and asking thought-provoking questions about their products, the panel of seasoned entrepreneurs also lent their perspectives and advice to the audience during a question and answer segment.  

Valenti offered advice for pitching a startup idea to investors by sharing his own story about pitching Vaxess Technologies. Even when one pitch was unsuccessful, it helped his team prepare for the next one. “Every time we got rejected, we learned something,” he said. If investors don’t think the startup team has enough experience in the field, Valenti suggested getting an advisor or consultant to lend more credibility to the team.

In a perfect summary of the entrepreneurial career, Sweetwater Energy's Chesonis shared how to leverage the excitement of being an entrepreneur into what is typically an evolving product or technology. He told the competitors, “If you are creating a solution to fix a person’s problem, save them money or create some other value and your solution gets the customer really jazzed and happy. That to me is what juices me up and gets the team going and gets them excited. It’s a natural high when you solve problems for people," he said.

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