Pipe Dream: Harvard Team Wins First Prize in $125,000 MIT Clean Energy Business Plan Competition

Microbial Scale Solutions (MSS)-a nascent company comprised of Harvard graduate students W. Alex Goodwin (OH), Thomas (“Tod”) Perry (DEAS, PhD ’05), Jacqueline Harlow (HLS, JD ’06), Brian Pulliam (Biophysics PhD ’07), and Kathryn Tinckam, M.D. (HMS, MMSc ’05)-won first place in the $125K Ignite Clean Energy business plan competition held on April 27th at MIT. Sponsored by the Energy Special Interest Group of the MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge, local businesses, and state agencies, the event was designed to seek out emerging entrepreneurs to develop the next generation of clean, renewable, or efficient energy resources.

The Harvard team’s winning proposal offered environmentally sensitive technology solutions-an engineered strategy containing polymer-producing bacteria based on research by Perry-to literally, eat away existing and inhibit new scale formation in industrial water systems. Microbial scale forms on the interiors of pipes used to transfer heat; a mere one-millimeter of mineral build-up can increase energy costs by 7.5 percent. The losses from the reduced energy output combined with the expense of conventional tactics to rid pipes of scale costs a nation the size of Great Britain almost one-billion pounds per year. Moreover, less efficient heat transfer leads to additional energy consumption (with more pollution along with it) and the current treatment strategies produce environmental contamination.

The members of the company, who originally met in Business 2107: “Commercializing Science and High Technology”, a course taught by Harvard Business School’s Lumry Family Associate Professor of Business Administration Lee Fleming, initially had no plans to take their ideas outside the classroom. They give credit to Paul Bottino, Executive Director of the Harvard Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences-based Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard (TECH) at DEAS, for inspiring them to enter the competition and for serving as their advisor and presentation coach.

The Ignite Mass contest directors focused the event on creating and presenting business plans because, according to the entry materials, “Great business ideas will not get funded unless entrepreneurs present their ideas in a clear, compelling story that is focused on the needs of investors and customers. A common complaint of VCs and business analysts is that CEO presentations are disorganized, self-serving, jargon-filled, or irrelevant.”

Taking their cues from the multidisciplinary class and TECH’s mission of breaking down borders among disciplines, the group blended expertise in engineering, business, law, and medicine. Pitted with 11 other finalists (winnowed down from an original roster of 40), MSS impressed the judges with their broad-based knowledge, thoughtful case, and, perhaps most important, by capturing the ineffable “ah ha” factor-telling an intuitive story that gets listeners, including potential investors and adopters, excited and motivated. For the Harvard team, elegance and simplicity mixed beautifully with environmental technology: cleaner pipes mean a cleaner environment.

MSS’s first-place finish means that their strategy may end up as a powerful new way to support clean energy in Massachusetts. The company will receive financial and business support, including a $15,000 award and a one-year membership in UMass-Lowell’s Commercial Venture Development incubator, providing free office space and expert advice to jump start the winning team’s business (a $20,000 value).

The contest organizers have high expectations for the entrepreneurs: “We hope these new leaders will make our region the center for clean energy economic development, creating new jobs and growth opportunities.” Since inventor Perry intends to pursue the venture, MSS’s pipe dream is set to meet such goals. After all, future business case studies have to come from somewhere, and the Harvard classroom may turn out to be an ideal incubator for promoting integration and innovation.

May 9, 2005
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