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MassChallenge awards $1 million to 16 start-ups

Competition offers assistance to entrepreneurs

Sixteen start-ups were awarded a total of $1 million from MassChallenge Inc. Tuesday night to help them develop products such as an all-terrain wheelchair, a job networking site for military personnel, and a nonstick coating that allows food to slip out of packaging without leaving a residue trace behind.

The top four companies won $100,000 apiece, and 12 were given $50,000 each in the third annual competition sponsored by MassChallenge, a Boston nonprofit that provides resources to entrepreneurs.

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This year’s contest attracted 1,237 applicants from 35 countries, more than the first two years combined. A panel of more than 300 judges picked 125 ­finalists, which were ­selected for a four-month accelerator program that provided them ­office space, networking opportunities with investors and ­potential customers, and legal support at the MassChallenge offices in Boston’s Innovation District.

The competition was fierce, according to John Harthorne, founder and chief executive of MassChallenge, noting that all 125 of this year’s finalists could have qualified for the top 26 spots in the previous years’ contests.

Harthorne, a 2007 graduate of the MIT Sloan School of Management, said he takes an “evangelical” approach to the start-up competition. The United States’ status as a global leader has been derailed by fear and greed and entitlement, he said, and restoring it will take the kind of ingenuity and ­entrepreneurship exhibited by these companies.

“Last night, we had the presidential candidates debating America’s position in the world. And honestly, this is the answer,” he said Tuesday. “We will take the world’s problems and we will solve them.”

Of the 361 start-ups MassChallenge has assisted since 2010, the organization estimates they have created 2,910 jobs, generated $95 million in revenue, and raised $360 million in funding.

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Innovations by this year’s winners, who were unavailable for comment, also included an ergonomic vest to prevent lifting injuries; legal software for resolving disputes; technology that can detect cancer early; and wind turbines that can withstand hurricanes and ­extreme cold.

Six teams split an additional $100,000 in grant money to be used for: work involving ­assistive technology (the all-terrain wheelchair, which also won one of the $100,000 top-four prizes, and a hand-held device that prescribes glasses); social impact (redistributing unserved food to soup kitchens, and an NBA board game that teaches math skills to urban youth, both of which also won $50,000 prizes); and for projects that could benefit New York City (a storm-water management system to prevent flooding, and sensors that allow police and soldiers to see hazardous areas remotely — which won a $50,000 prize as well).

Brian Mullen of Therapeutic Systems in Amherst, one of last year’s $50,000 winners, said the MassChallenge competition gave his company critical exposure to customers and investors. Mullen, a graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, developed a vest for autistic children that can be inflated to provide a calming pressure, like a firm hug, when they feel anxious.

“It gives a credibility to us as a company,” Mullen said, “because we are doing something that’s really unique.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.
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