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An Incubator That Hatches Businesses

Part two: More innovation at Photonics

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In the video above, Frank Bobe, president and CEO of Entra Pharmaceuticals, talks about how BU’s incubator program helped his staff develop battery technology to control drug levels in a patient’s body. Bob DiMatteo and Brandon Johnson photos by Vernon Doucette.

Second of a two-part series.

In 1884, the Englishman Sir Charles Parsons connected his new device, called a steam turbine, to an electrical generator, producing 7.5 kilowatts of power. Today, the same basic technology — steam turbines connected to generators — produces 80 percent of the world’s electricity. In a small office at the far end of a sixth floor corridor in the Photonics Center, a handful of engineers think they have a better idea.

“Energy isn’t easy,” says Bob DiMatteo, CEO of MTPV. “If it were, we wouldn’t be driving cars that work basically the same way they worked 100 years ago.”

DiMatteo’s crew is using solar panel–like technology to generate electricity from “waste heat,” such as heat that emanates from a car’s exhaust system or from an industrial furnace. From an environmental standpoint, the new technology is a twofer: it produces more electricity from the same amount of fuel, trapping and exploiting heat that would otherwise enter the atmosphere.

The firm is one of the 13 young companies occupying office and lab space provided by the Charles River Campus Business Incubation Program. In the last three years, the 23 companies that have entered the incubator program have raised more than $90 million and created more than 150 jobs within the incubator. Counting 16 companies that have left the incubator in recent years, the number of new jobs jumps to more than 1,500, and the dollars raised leaps into the hundreds of millions.

The Photonics Center incubator is a boon to investors, with opportunities in nanotechnology or computer software, and for resident companies, which find shared lab space, conference rooms, and in many cases, interns. Since 2006, more than 80 BU students have worked as interns for incubator companies, and 10 have been hired as full-time employees. The University also has taken in more than $2 million in fees annually, basking in a good-sized serving of prestige in the world of venture capital.

Most solar cells can’t compete with steam turbines when it comes to converting thermal energy to electricity. But MTPV has found a way to crank up the efficiency of its cells. DiMatteo says the company’s technology increases by tenfold the number of photons that flow from a heated surface to the solar cell, jacking up the maximum theoretical efficiency from 41 percent (for existing technology) to 85 percent. “Theoretical,” he says, is the operative word. As far as practical efficiency goes, he is shooting for an efficiency of 50 percent, but he admits that prototypes are not yet at that number.

MTPV’s secret sauce includes, among other things, a radical reduction of the space between the heated surface and the cell. When that distance is collapsed to something less than the unimaginably small wavelength of the emitted light, photons no longer bounce from one surface to the other. They move freely from surface to surface, taking their energy with them. Simply put, says DiMatteo, the technique pulls much more energy from much lower temperatures, creating an energy source that had been stuck in the realm of the theoretical.

Today, with more than $10 million invested by several technology entrepreneurs, the company is building its first real product — a square-foot panel designed to produce one kilowatt of power — which is expected to hit the market next year. If things go well, MTPV will construct arrays of 100 panels — commercial-scale installations that could be placed in the exhaust port of an industrial furnace. DiMatteo says the company is now testing its components in commercial environments.

DiMatteo, a graduate of Harvard and MIT and a Sloan Fellow at MIT, started commercializing his photovoltaic innovations three years ago in space rented from Draper Lab. He brought his group of 10 to the Photonics Center in June 2007, enticed by office space, a dedicated test and assembly lab, a clean room, a shared semiconductor fabrication shop, and a shared metrology lab equipped with scanning electron microscopes that measure flatness to nanometer precision.

Only after setting up shop, DiMatteo says, did he discover another benefit to working in the entrepreneurial village of the incubator: once a month, leaders of the early-stage companies gather for a CEO Roundtable in one of the two large conference rooms. Over brown bag lunches, they share advice about how to make the best impression on venture capitalists and how to build an effective sales force and overcome other business challenges that can stymie even brilliant engineers. Sessions are often led by experienced execs who have guided their own firms along the trails of start-ups.

“Someone will have a question about anything from human resources to IT to marketing,” says DiMatteo, “and someone else will have an answer.”

Peter Russo, an SMG executive-in-residence, who many years ago sold his company, Data Instruments, to Honeywell, moderates the sessions. “People talk about intellectual property, the best ways to involve investors, hiring practices, where to find good people, or what is a reasonable compensation package,” he says.

Russo sees the advice offered by outside experts to incubator CEOs as one side of a doubly rewarding equation. “I feel very strongly that having those companies on campus significantly enhances the educational opportunities for our students,” he says. “And the CEOs of those companies are very generous with their time.”

Some incubator CEOs have found the roundtables so helpful that they continue to show up after their companies have flown the coop. Brandon Johnson (ENG’04), the president and CEO of Boston MicroFluidics, a medical assay company that left in June 2008, remains a regular at the business jam sessions. “It’s great to have a place like that to get advice and sort out problems,” he says.

Johnson’s path to and from the incubator is a tidy case study of what the place does best. Five years ago, when the biomedical engineering student was in need of a suitable class presentation, he wondered if some of the ideas tossed around in a class discussion of microfluidics could be used to build a one-time use handheld device to test for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

“Some of the people in my group thought it was crazy,” he recalls. “But my professor thought it was a good idea.”

Johnson sketched a plan for a self-contained, disposable testing system that, infused with a drop of blood, could deliver near-immediate results in testing for multiple STDs. When he graduated, he had two choices: he could take his work to someone else or try to go it alone. Johnson went to Jonathan Rosen, now the executive director of SMG’s Institute for Technology Entrepreneurship and Commercialization, who introduced him to Clifford Robinson, incubator program director at the time. Robinson recognized that meeting Johnson’s space needs would not be a problem: the entire company consisted of Brandon Johnson.

“When we were raising money, it was great to have an office at BU,” Johnson says. “It might seem like it’s not a big deal, but it makes a difference just to be able to bring investors into a conference room.”

In Johnson’s case, the conference room and other resources made a $2 million difference, enough to get his ideas off the ground and set up his young company across the river in East Cambridge. This fall, he is planning to release his first product, a finger-prick blood test that in minutes can let someone know if they have herpes simplex 2, chlamydia, or syphilis.

Johnson spent only a year in the incubator, and while he learned a lot, he’s the first to admit that he still has a lot to learn. That’s one reason he keeps coming back.

Art Jahnke can be reached at jahnke@bu.edu. Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu.

This article originally appeared in the fall 2009 issue of Bostonia. Read part one here.

3 Comments

3 Comments on An Incubator That Hatches Businesses

  • Anonymous on 10.14.2009 at 9:41 am

    “phototonics????”

  • Anonymous on 10.14.2009 at 11:24 am

    it’s the same video as part I?

  • Timothy on 10.14.2009 at 3:14 pm

    another awkward headline.

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