4 promising startup ideas from MIT Demo Day

As someone who usually covers software and cloud, I really perk up when wannabe startups pitch actual, physical products. Something you can see, touch, hold, even wear. Bearing that in mind, here are the pitches from Saturday’s MIT Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator Demo Day that grabbed me. Keep in mind these were very short pitches with not a ton of details provided, so I’ll be following up with some of these people to fill in the gaps.

In the meantime, here’s a little appetizer.

Small propulsion systems for small satellites.

Accion Systems, the brainchild of three MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Ph.Ds, is building new, downsized propulsion systems that would enable the launch of small satellites. “The limiting factor on satellites is the propulsion system,” said Natalya Brikner, one of the founding team members, told attendees.

Today’s propulsion systems are “too big, too expensive and too dangerous” for use in small satellites which is why satellites now are the size of buses. What if there was a way to enable a new generation of much smaller craft which could boost global internet access, monitor crops, or track natural disasters?

Accion’s system will be tested in its first satellite launch later this year, she said.

Natalya Brikner pitches at MIT's GFSA Demo Day.

Natalya Brikner pitches at MIT’s GFSA Demo Day.

 Cool or warm your body, not the whole room

Tell me if this sounds familiar: You’re watching the game with friends, you’re broiling but your couch buddy is freezing: Cue the battle for the thermostat. Those are the types of tussles Embr Labs claims its new Wristify thermoelectric bracelet can nip in the bud.

The bracelet regulates the wearer’s temperature by applying alternating blasts of hot or cold pulses to the skin to warm or cool her off as needed. The prototype for what co-founder Sam Shames calls the “thermal control solution” is a breakthrough in an area that needs some. After all, since the beginning of time people have adjusted their temperature either by heating or cooling the air around them or adding or subtracting layers of clothing.

Wristify’s focus is on skin, not core body temperature, which could mean much more energy-efficiency if it works as advertised. The Wristfy prototype won MIT’s Materials Science and Engineering department’s MADMEC top prize last year.

MIT's Kresge Auditorium

An affordable power meter for your bike

Asbton Instruments sees big opportunity in building power meters for rabid bicyclists who, every year, buy 1 million high-performance bikes and another $1 billion worth of accessories for those bikes. And that’s just in this country: the European market is twice that size, said James Schulmeister, a mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate at MIT.

Power meters measure speed, heart rate and other metrics to tell you how much energy you’re expending to get up that hill. Traditional units rely on strain gauges, which are hard and expensive to make and maintain. Current models cost anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000. Schulmeister says Ashton will be able to offer a $499 power meter because it doesn’t rely on strain gauges; it’s worked its way around that strain gauge.

Ashton Instruments


Custom tailoring your diet, vitamins and meds

Every year people spend billions on over-the-counter nutrition and food supplements and an estimated $400 billion on prescribed medicines. And yet there’s a feeling that the dosages of all these things could be more finely attuned to individual needs.

Miramix has built a device to customize your vitamins and supplements; the device is now in use at 25 beta sites. “We want to help people be the healthiest versions of themselves,” said team member Megan Cox.

Cox trotted out some stats to show how big a market this could be — some $35 billion is spent on over-the-counter supplements each year. That’s tiny compared to $400 billion spent on prescribed medications, but nothing to sneeze at either.

Reached later for clarification, Miramix team member Duane Dennis said the device integrates with the databases of wearable devices, factor that data into its own nutritional algorithm to formulate what the person needs in his diet. But over time, as the company scales up to handle over-the-counter and prescription drugs, the company will work with inputs from primary care specialists.

Megan Cox, Miramix

Note: This story was updated at 6:03 p.m. September 8 with additional information on Miramix’ strategy.