Top 10 Phat Startups of 2012

There’s nothing wrong with making phone apps or mobile games. But Jamie Goldstein thinks that startups — and their backers — should attack bigger, meatier problems. So, while many people talk up the virtues of lean startups, Goldstein thinks it’s time to focus on companies willing to take big risk — and it is risky to attack big problems. These companies are what Goldstein, a general partner at North Bridge Venture Partners, calls Phat startups. 

Here are Goldstein’s Top 10 Phat Startups in no particular order. (Full disclosure: five of the 10 are North Bridge affiliated companies and they’ve been designated with NBVP.)

1. Heartland Robotics: iRobot and MIT alum Rodney Brooks’ Heartland Robotics is making robots flexible and cheap enough to do manual tasks that most people don’t want to do. Boston-based Heartland’s success in building “teachable” robots could mean that repetitive jobs that might otherwise go to China stay put.

2. Foro Energy: Littleton, Colo.-based Foro develops drills for oil exploration that use high-powered lasers to do the job faster and cleaner. The company says its  technology will enable oil companies to drill ten times faster than traditional drill bits. (NBVP)

3. Kurion: Kurion attacks the tricky problem of remediating nuclear waste. It’s take is to encapsulate the by-products in glass which can then be buried and stored for hundreds of years more safely. Kurion technology, which GigaOM’s Katie Fehrenbacher once called the most successful greentech startup you’ve never heard of,  has been used extensively in the cleanup from the Fukushima disaster.

4. Actifio:  Most big companies store way more copies (15 to 100 of them) of their data than they could possibly need. That’s because their various systems don’t know what copies are being held by other systems. Actifio’s plan is to enable those companies to keep and manage one copy of all that stuff. Actifio is based in Waltham, Mass. (NBVP)

5. Sand 9: Cambridge, Mass.-based Sand 9 makes cell phone components that enable them to scan many frequencies to cover their LTE, 3G, GSM, WiFi bases. Boston University spin-off Sand 9 builds MEMS-based resonators to accomplish that goal. It’s crazy to have to build eight different RF chains for each band there’s a real need for flexible components to cover that range, Goldstein said.

6. DataXu:  This company uses “rocket science” (seriously) to perform real-time analysis of how effective spending on advertising — online, mobile and video — is. Co-founder and CTO Bill Simmons developed the core technology at MIT while he was earning his Ph.D. in aeronautics and astronautics.  (He helped develop and test the real-time flight software that handled guidance and navigation for the Atlas rocket program.)

7. CompassEOS: Startup CompassEOS, (aka Compass Electro Optical Systems), based in Netanya, Israel, is still in stealth mode but Goldstein said it uses an electro-optical interconnect to produce what will be a next-generation router that he said will be smaller faster, cheaper and more energy efficient than the current state of the art.  (NBVP)

8. CoolPlanet Energy Systems: This sounds to good to be true. CoolPlanet‘s technology claims to produce “carbon negative” gas” out of biomass. As GigaOM reported last December, it has some pretty potent backers in BP(s bp), GE(s ge), Google(s goog) and ConocoPhillips. The Camarillo, Calif. company builds tractor-trailer sized machines, that are clustered around biomass sources — farms, forests. They ingest corncobs, woodchips, whatever biomass is available, and spit out gasoline. (NBVP)

Makani's tethered wing9. Makani Power: Makani creates airborne wings that it says can generate power much less expensively than traditional wind turbines. The company’s “tethered wings” can be deployed at high altitudes over land or sea, wherever wind is stronger and more consistant, according to the Makani website. Wing design eliminates 90 percent of the material used in conventional wind turbines.

10. Plexxi: Still in stealth mode, Cambridge-Mass.-based Plexxi isn’t saying much about what it’s doing other than it has to do with revamping data center networks to make them more flexible. Goldstein said the goal is to “make traditional 3-tier networking architectures obsolete.” The company is just now kicking off a road show so stay tuned. (NBVP)

Goldstein is not the first to call for more, um, gravitas from startups, but it’s good to be reminded that startups can — and should — attack the big problems.