I attended the MIT $50K Competition Final Awards Ceremony last night. The MIT $50K competition is one of the oldest entrepreneurship competitions in the country – it was started in 1990 well before the term “entrepreneurship” was mainstream. I was involved early on as a judge (from 1993 to 1998). Looking at the Alumni company list, it’s clear that 1995 was the year I was doing angel deals, as I became an investor in (and chairman of) NetGenesis and Thinkfish and fondly remember Firefly (Softbank ended up investing) and Silicon Spice (damn – that was a huge success). Webline was a big winner in 1996 (a Highland deal that Cisco acquired). 1998 saw two big companies emerge – Akamai (NASDAQ: AKAM) and Direct Hit (acquired by Ask Jeeves for $500m+).
The event last night was awesome. The MIT $50K has always been a student run event, which makes it both endearing as well as more powerful, as the MIT superstructure is part of the background as the students take center stage. The quality of the finalist teams (seven of them) was remarkable – much better then I remember from the mid-1990s. Interestingly, five of the finalists were life science deals (Balico, HealRight, Perviva, Tissue Vision, and Renal Diagnostics), one was a power technology deal (Nanocell Power), and one was a mech-e deal (Vacuum Excavation Technologies – it really sucked). I was really surprised to see ZERO-none-nada IT / software / Internet finalists (although there were plenty of IT-related companies in the field of 84 entries.)
The winner (and recipient of $30,000) was Balico – a medical device that helped people “balance” – their description from the web site is “Balico will develop and commercialize a wearable vibrotactile balance aid that accurately senses and displays body tilt in order to help prevent falls.” So – basically – if you have trouble balancing (you are old or have a balance disorder) wear the Balico “belt” and automatically stand upright. Very cool. The two runners up were Nanocell Power and Vacuum Excavation Technology – both recipients of the $10,000 award.
The two keynote speakers were past $50K entrants (but neither were winners). Tom Leighton – a co-founder of Akamai and a CSAIL professor of Applied Mathematics at MIT – spoke about how Akamai’s original business plan was fatally flawed, they lost the $50K competition (he speculated that they came in last), but then spent the summer working with Battery Ventures to figure out what a real business might look like (which of course – went on to a huge IPO, then crashed, and finally emerged as a sustainable, profitable business – $58m of revenue and $14.5m of net income in Q105 with a $1.5 billion market cap.) David Edwards – a co-founder of AIR and a Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Harvard, talked about starting up AIR, getting it funded by Polaris, and selling it to Alkermes for $114m in 18 months. Both were predictably inspiring but also very humble about their businesses origins (and set a great example for the opportunity that could come out of a raw startup.)
Entrepreneurship, especially in the life sciences (maybe that’s a nod to the new MIT President Susan Hockfield) continues to be alive and well at MIT.