Turning air into water or making babies, new TechStars think big

The current class of TechStars Boston startups is an ambitious bunch. They’re taking on such minor problems as creating water from air and making babies. Here are my top 5 picks from TechStars’ Demo Day. If they succeed or fail — as so many startups do —  they are swinging for the fences.

Turning air into water

Sounds impossible right? Wrong. The Namib desert beetle has done it for centuries simply by turning its back to the wind. The insect’s wings are covered with nanoscale bumps that allow it to snatch water from air. (Don’t ask me how, that’s above my pay grade but it has something to do with fostering condensation.)  The obvious irony is that this beetle has survived for ages in the desert while 1.4 billion people on this planet have no access to safe clean water.

NBD Nano co-founder Miguel Galbez said his company — formed by a small team out of MIT and the University of Illinois, Chicago — is taking a page out of that creature’s play book. “We developed coatings in the lab that mimic the beetle’s back — we don’t require a pre-existing body of water [like other water extraction technologies] only air.” Potential uses range from self-filling water bottles, countertop units for drinking water to creating water for power plants — 80 percent of which use steam plants in some capacity.

Bridging-the-hospital-rehab gap

Careport Health CEO Lissy Hu

Anyone who’s been hospitalized or knows someone who has, knows how hard it is to find appropriate rehab or post-hospital care. Eight out of 10 patients need additional care after discharge and hospital personnel scramble to arrange it.

That’s the thorny problem Careport Health is attacking. The tools hospitals now use to do this are whiteboards, fax machines, and lists of facilities. Does the rehab center take your insurance, meet your needs, and if so, do they have a bed? It can take up to 20 hours to place one patient — and that can cost $2,000,” said Careport co-founder Lissy Hu, a former Harvard med student.

Mass General Hospital is the first live pilot along with 30 of its affiliated rehab facilities. And, John Halamka, CIO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, is mentoring this project.

Reinventing the spring. Yes, the spring

NDB Nano CEO Miguel Galbez

The spring was invented a couple of centuries years ago and changed little in that time. It’s simple and incredibly useful. Springs, said MIT professor of mechanical engineering Sanjay Sarma, “are everywhere — in shock absorbers and in pens… their coil stores energy.”

Now a small group of MIT students claim they have reinvented the spring using bent carbon fiber to pack more energy into a package that’s 10 times smaller than a traditional spring. Their company, UrbanHero, is using that design to build “super human sport exoskeletons” that will enable their users to run faster and jump far higher than he or she could unassisted. “We’re turning the urban landscape into a playground,” said CEO Arron Acosta. One of his co-founders demonstrated that by launching from a spring-platform to a platform about 5 feet tall. It was impressive.

The technology could also be applicable in the automotive and aerospace industries.

Pinpointing the right prescription

BetterFit CEO Julia Winn

One of the problems with modern medicine is that it’s often hard to figure out when a prescription may be hurting more than it’s helping.  BetterFit Technologies is building an application that pairs a big data back-end with a user-friendly mobile application that lets the system query the patient — posing two questions daily — to see how they’re doing with their meds. The back-end system takes that patient’s data and queries them based on that. Their responses feed back into the database.

“This is not a questionnaire but a conversation, with questions based on your profile,” she said.

Health Access Rhode Island is aboard as the first pilot site.

Easing the road to parenthood

Ovuline is also using a combination of small, personal data (about the subject), and big data (from a wide cohort of subjects in the same situation) to help couples conceive children. The system relies on the woman wearing a tracking bracelet to collect key indicators around the clock which feeds back into what CEO Paris Wallace calls Ovuline’s “baby cloud.”If an indicator is out of whack, she is pinged immediately. The more data collected the more valuable that asset is for prospective mothers.

“Pregnant women typically see their OB-GYN 12 times in a pregnancy, but a complication can happen in hours,” so early warning is critical, Wallace said. So far the Ovuline has helped 1,100 couples conceive, he said.

Wallace hopes to work with 400 fertility clinics to help 400,000 couples have children. The company has advisors from Boston IVR, Stanford Medical Center and Mass General Hospital.