DOUGLAS P. HART, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who sold his last start-up for a tidy $95 million, is already on to his next big thing.
On Tuesday, he expects to lock up $1.5 million in funding for his new start-up, Lantos Technologies. The company has developed a 3-D scanner that it hopes will streamline the current generation of earphones and hearing aids by precisely fitting them to the dimensions of the ear canal, right up to the eardrum.
“We’re hoping people will be able to walk in the store and have their ears scanned like people get their ears pierced today,” he says. “That’ll lower the cost because they don’t have to go to a specialty doctor.”
Unlike other academics often left to their own devices, Professor Hart was able to bring his hearing aid concept closer to reality with $50,000 in backing last year from the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, an M.I.T. entity originally funded by two private investors, Jaishree Deshpande and her husband, Gururaj.
“I wouldn’t have known the first thing about doing all of this,” says Professor Hart. “The people from the Deshpande Center led me through.”
By providing academics like Professor Hart a bridge to the business world, M.I.T. is in the vanguard of a movement involving a handful of universities nationwide that work closely with investors to ensure that promising ideas are nurtured and turned into successful start-ups.
At first glance, the centers look like academic versions of business incubators. But universities are getting involved now at a much earlier stage than incubators typically do. Rather than offering seed money to businesses that already have a product and a staff, as incubators usually do, the universities are harvesting great ideas and then trying to find investors and businesspeople interested in developing them further and exploring their commercial viability.
In the jargon of academia, the locations of such matchmaking are known as “proof-of-concept centers,” and they’re among a number of new approaches to commercializing university research in more efficient and purposeful ways — and to preventing good ideas from dying quietly. The first proof-of-concept center, the William J. von Liebig Center, was established in 2001 at the University of California, San Diego.
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