A crash course in bringing lab technologies to market

The MIT dome.
The MIT dome.

Doug Hart figured he had a winner on his hands. About 10 years into his tenure as mechanical engineering professor at MIT, his lab developed a scanning technology that made cheap and accurate digital renderings of objects — a vase, a face, a bottle — in 3-D.

“People who saw it all said they wanted it,” Hart remembers.

A research institute in Taiwan was demoed a version that copied facial expressions to imprint them on cartoon figures. Dentists envisioned a tool that would make 3-D digital renderings of the inside of the mouth to create crowns and other fixtures without paste and putty. Ear doctors who fitted hearing aids asked about scanning the ear canal.

“At some point we realized, maybe we should commercialize it,” Hart said. He wound up co-founding a company in 2003, Brontes Technologies, that gave dentists the tool they wanted. Four years in, it was acquired by Minnesota-based 3M for $95 million.

Hart then turned to the ear-scanning market. Another scanning tech created in his lab was suited to mapping the contours of narrow spaces like the human auditory canal. In 2009, he presented that tech, and his target market, to Innovation Teams, a program at MIT that trains students to dream up commercial products out of fresh lab technologies.

“iTeams” is typically split fifty-fifty between business students and engineers from all over the institute. Over the course of a semester, they work in groups to sketch out business plans for new tech made at neighboring buildings. When the course is over, the tech returns to the lab that made it.

“It starts out like the beginning of a joke,” Luis Perez-Breva, who taught the first iTeams course in 2007. “A doctor, lawyer and engineer walk into a business plan contest.”

Typical students tend to be entrepreneurial types who are “not scared to see technology in the raw,” he said.

In an age of booming valuations for social networking apps, venture capitalists have been criticized for shying away from emerging technologies that tackle hard problems. They’re more likely take a chance on a new app than an untested invention or piece of hardware.

When it comes to emerging tech — the brand-new stuff that’s published in journals, like bendable materials or biomedical tools – sometimes the path to market isn’t what the researchers envisioned when they built it. iTeams wants to give the hard stuff a chance.

In the eight years since the first course, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University, Massachusetts Eye and Ear, and US Naval Air Systems Command have visited, bringing some 150 promising inventions to students. Several have gone on to form businesses outside the institute. Perez-Breva’s estimates that a fifth of the projects that make their way to iTeams emerge to have some kind of impact.

One of Perez-Breva’s students, Andy Corzine, returned to the US Naval Air Systems Command as deputy director for research and engineering after his stint as a Sloan fellow and built a partnership with iTeams where researchers from the Navy would present projects.

“We’re investing a lot of money in the research and development in our labs and we ought to leverage the commercial potential for the public,” said Corzine, who is currently director, China Lake Ranges at NAVAIR. Programs like iTeams “allows the public to get more bang for their buck for the investment they’re making in government labs.”

It’s key that the course deals with current and real tech rather than theoretical examples. “Neither in a classical engineering education nor [in] a classical management education do you have the opportunity to learn by doing,” said Noubar Afeyan, senior managing partner and chief executive officer of Flagship Ventures.

Afeyan and Fiona Murray, co-director of the MIT Innovation Initiative, co-teach the course with Perez-Breva.

A stint like that alters the way researchers think about science. “We often don’t step back from that and put it into context of what we want to do with it and figure out how to morph into something that a company would want,” said Hart, who has submitted a handful of projects to iTeams groups over the years.

When he talked to iTeams about his scanning tech in 2009, it caught the interest of entrepreneur Shahid Azim. Azim and Federico Frigerio, Hart’s co-founder on the Brontes project, researched Hart’s tech as an ear-scanning tool. They found their market, made a plan, and started Lantos Technologies in 2009, just before Azim graduated.

Azim went on to co-found Quanttus in 2012, a wearable tech startup in Cambridge that quickly earned the interest of VCs and investors. Azim said that his time at iTeams was foundational to this. “I couldn’t have done Quanttus if I didn’t have that Lantos experience,” Azim said.

As for Doug Hart, he has already pitched this year’s class on a hydrogen fuel technology. “I’ve had good luck with iTeams so I’m sticking with it,” he said.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at [email protected]
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