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OnChip Power, aiming a shrink ray at bulky transformer 'bricks,' raises $1.8 million from Venrock

Posted by Scott Kirsner  February 21, 2011 02:35 PM

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I am fairly sure that if you manage to raise $1.8 million for your start-up while enrolled in a business school course called "Entrepreneurial Finance," you are almost guaranteed an A.

Last week, MIT Sloan student and OnChip Power CEO Vanessa Green was signing the papers on her company's first round of funding: $1.8 million from Venrock and Arunas Chesonis, chairman of PAETEC Holding and an MIT alumnus.

OnChip is commercializing new power electronics technology developed at MIT's Laboratory for Electromagnetic and Electronics Systems. Essentially, it aims to reduce the size of the transformer "brick" required by many high-tech devices to convert alternating current to direct current, and ramp down the voltage from the 120 volts that spills from a standard wall outlet. Green says the company will likely focus on LED lighting applications first, where the transformer must be integrated into the bulb itself.

"Our core innovation applies across consumer electronics segments — anywhere you have a power supply," Green says. "It lets you get similar efficiencies to conventional power supplies, but much smaller form factors. Initially, we're focusing on LED applications, particularly the A19, which is your standard, 'Edison' form factor bulb."

onchipteam.jpgGreen's co-founders at OnChip are (from left) George Hwang (who earned his PhD from MIT last year), Anthony Sagneri (still working on his doctoral dissertation), and Justin Burkhart (Master's last year). MIT prof David Perreault is serving as an advisor to the company.

The Venrock partner leading the deal, Matt Trevithick, earned his undergrad degree and MBA at MIT, where he says he spent some time in the LEES Lab where OnChip's technology gestated.

"People have been focused on LED emitters [the chips that convert electricity into light in an LED bulb]," Trevithick says. "So much money and talent has been invested there that we have some really good emitters. But we think the focus of innovation needs to be on what some people would consider the more pedestrian side, which is the power supply." Trevithick says that if OnChip can produce a power supply that is smaller and less expensive than what exists today, it'll leave room in the bulb for other features — such as an ambient light sensor that would adjust the lamp's output based on how dark or light it is in the room. Also, he says, "driving down the cost will increase the size of the market for LED lighting." (Home Depot sells a standard-sized LED bulb for $18, but says that it says can last up to 46 years.)

Trevithick says OnChip will focus first on power supplies integrated into LED lighting: "It's a great place for a start-up to be, because there aren't a lot of entrenched incumbents. LED illumination will grow into a very large market, and people are looking for new solutions." But eventually, OnChip could move into power supplies for laptops, printers, and mobile phones. Among the smallest transformers around is the cube-shaped, 1-inch by 1-inch plug that accompanies the Apple iPhone. "OnChip thinks they could do the same thing, but it'd be about the thickness of three quarters," Trevithick says. That could lead to transformers being integrated into more devices, rather than sitting around under your desk, or hogging up three outlets on a power strip.

Green says OnChip will likely develop a few early products on its own, "because there's enough design work that needs to be done on our end that is specific to the product," but the company may also license its technology to partners focused on certain markets.

OnChip is currently based in Polaris Ventures' rent-free Dogpatch Labs space in Kendall Square, but Green says that may change as the company uses the new funding to bring on a few additional employees, and set up an electronics lab. "We're working toward a number of technical milestones that will continue to be our focus over the next year," she says.

OnChip won second prize last year in the national Cleantech Open business plan competition.

In addition to raising money for OnChip, Green has been keeping busy as the managing director of MIT's annual energy conference, taking place next month.

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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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