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MIT's Legendary Media Lab Spawns Two New Companies

Posted by Scott Kirsner  August 31, 2009 07:24 AM

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kaliouby.jpgThe Media Lab at MIT has quite the track record for producing pioneering new companies. Some have been wildly successful (like vidgame-maker Harmonix), some not (like nTag, a developer of electronic badges for conference-goers), and some have fallen somewhere in the middle (Internet personalization pioneer Firefly Network.)

The two latest businesses to come from the lab are Affectiva, a Waltham-based company that will make wearable sensors for people with autism; and a still-unnamed start-up from robotics researcher Cynthia Breazeal in the toys/games space. Neither has been officially announced yet, and neither has raised funding -- though Affectiva plans to begin testing its product in the market later this year.

And there's also a new entrepreneurship program at the Media Lab, run by Joost Bonsen and Sandy Pentland, that aims to educate students about the process of transforming their prototypes into marketable products. That could produce even more new businesses in the years ahead -- though part of the entrepreneurship program's mission is to also get students working more effectively with the lab's corporate sponsors to integrate their research with the sponsors' own businesses.

Here's more on the two new start-ups:

Affectiva is calling its first product the Q. It's a kind of cloth wristband with built-in biosensors. The sensors can communicate wirelessly with a PC, and the intended users are people with autism, their parents, and the therapists who work with them. By measuring skin conductivity, the sensors can get a handle on what is happening with the wearer's emotions. (The Q is based on a prototype wearable sensor developed at MIT called the iCalm.)

"A kid may be lying on the floor, looking calm, and an occupational therapist is encouraging the kid to get up and get on with things," says Rana El Kaliouby, one of Affectiva's co-founders. "But when you see the data on the screen about what's happening with his [emotions], it's off the charts." (That's El Kaliouby in the picture above.)

"We're very interested in helping individuals on the autism spectrum cope and learn about social interactions and regulating emotions," says El Kaliouby. But she notes that the company is also thinking about broader markets: in focus groups or market research interviews, for instance, the wearable sensor may provide useful data about a consumer's reaction to a new product or advertising campaign.

The company will start by marketing the technology to academic researchers, at a price "in the thousands," el Kaliouby says. "But eventually, the goal is a product for consumers in the hundreds." Along with El Kaliouby, MIT prof Rosalind Picard helped start the company. Jocelyn Scheirer, formerly a research consultant at the Media Lab, is director of operations; Oliver Wilder-Smith is developing the hardware; and Adam Meyer is working on software and user interface.

The company, incorporated back in April, has already been getting orders for early units from researchers, and El Kaliouby says the company has been "bootstrapping from revenue" thus far, as opposed to raising money from investors. The Globe covered some of the research that is serving as the foundation for Affectiva back in 2006.

Much more nascent is Cynthia Breazeal's new company. I've been told that it's going to develop some remotely-operated robotic toys, but Breazeal will only say via e-mail that she's "doing something innovative in the transmedia space." It's not yet incorporated, and she hasn't yet started pitching investors (though one VC I spoke to last week had already heard about it through the grapevine.) "We're still working through the concept," she writes, adding that the company doesn't yet have a name.

Rodney Brooks, who was Breazeal's faculty advisor at MIT for a decade, tells me he isn't involved with the new company -- and wasn't even aware she was working on one. (Brooks was a co-founder of iRobot Corp., and is now chief technologist at Cambridge-based Heartland Robotics.) But Breazeal has been getting guidance from several entrepreneurs who volunteer with MIT's Venture Mentoring Service, including some who've been helping Breazeal make contacts in the gaming and toy industries.

Here's a talk Breazeal gave at MIT's "Technology Day" last year, which may offer some hints of what she's up to. And the robot demo that opens her talk is quite amazing:

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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