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Three Mass. startups are finalists in national inventor competition

Diverging from the tech and biotech sectors, the companies are focused on making it easier to turn existing dams into power sources, making artificial leather, and detecting brain swelling

SpadXTech is a Worcester startup devising a new way to make artificial leather. Chief executive Lina Gonzalez (left) with research scientist Azka Siddiq in the company's lab.SpadXTech

Even if you’ve never heard of James Robert Cade, at some point, you’ve probably chugged the beverage he developed in 1965: It was named Gatorade as an homage to the University of Florida, where Cade was a professor of medicine. By 1970, the coach of the winning Super Bowl team was claiming that his Kansas City Chiefs had prevailed thanks to the bright yellow sports drink.

Now, a prize for inventors endowed by Cade’s Gatorade riches is going national. It’s designed to help fledgling companies move from the prototype stage into the marketplace, and it is open to any company that hasn’t yet raised more than $500,000 from investors.


Three of the five finalists for this year’s Cade Prize, which will be awarded Thursday, are based in Massachusetts. (But good work, Florida and Texas, with one finalist each.) The three startups have roots at local universities like Northeastern, and they highlight just how much high-potential invention and commercialization activity happens outside of the traditionally well-funded sectors of tech and biotech.

One of the local startups, GenH, wants to make it easier to turn existing dams into sources of power. Only 3 percent of the country’s 90,000 dams produce electricity, according to the Energy Department. And most of those are massive dams, like the Hoover in Nevada or Grand Coulee in Washington.

A small hydroelectric generator built by the Somerville startup GenH was tested at a dam in New Hampshire. GenH

GenH founder Siddharth Pannir says that many smaller dams — “You drive past them on the way to leaf-peeping in New Hampshire or Vermont,” he says — are viable sites for GenH’s modular hydroelectric generators. And those generators could not only provide renewable power to dozens of homes or businesses nearby, or to the grid, but they’d also provide a new source of revenue for the dam’s owners.

GenH began life as Pannir’s master’s degree thesis at Northeastern in 2016. The idea, he says, is simple: using plastic pipes to divert water flow through a generating unit that sits on land. “Essentially, we are putting waterwheels at the end of a giant plumbing project,” Pannir said.


Of the 419 components in the system, he says, “386 of them can be bought at Home Depot,” which keeps costs down. The company, based in the Greentown Labs facility in Somerville, is now building its sixth prototype system and planning a test of it in Framingham.

SpadXTech, based in Worcester, is using genetically engineered bacteria, combined with biotech manufacturing techniques, to produce artificial leather. The bacteria that SpadXTech uses as its “factory” spit out cellulose — a fiber found in plants — and the company says it will tune the bacteria to make its artificial leather water-repellent. SpadXTech can also make the material in a range of leather-like colors, from dark blue to black to a reddish brown.

Chief executive Lina González says many vegan leathers use plastics, which are made from fossil fuels. “We don’t use any plastics — that’s our biggest advantage,” she said.

SpadXTech works out of an incubator run by Massachusetts Biomedical Initiatives and has raised $1.5 million in grants, including one from the National Science Foundation. She said the company is trying to expand its production process to commercial scale and figure out the best ways to get its bacteria to crank out cellulose.

The third Massachusetts finalist, CranioSense, is trying to develop a device that can accurately measure intracranial pressure, or swelling in the brain, that can accompany a stroke, brain injury, or sepsis, the body’s extreme response to an infection. Today, that pressure is often measured with a catheter or bolt poked into the skull, or a lumbar puncture to measure the pressure level of the spinal fluid.


Ryan Myers, cofounder of the startup CranioSense, which is developing a less-invasive way to detect brain swelling.CranioSense

CranioSense’s prototype device aims to measure the pressure without poking any holes by placing three sensors on the skin that can “see” what’s happening inside the blood vessels using near-infrared light. (It’s similar to the way pulse oximeters measure the level of oxygen in the blood.)

After just a few hours of high intracranial pressure, says Ryan Myers, CranioSense’s chief executive, a patient can have lasting neurological damage. So, the company’s goal is to make its device something that a nurse, rather than a neurologist, could use. One sensor sticks to the forehead, another clips onto the patient’s ear, and a third clips onto a finger, which will enable CranioSense’s handheld monitor to compare the pressure in the brain with other parts of the body.

Right now, the company is conducting clinical research to see how its measurements compare with more invasive tests. CranioSense was among 129 startups that won spots in this year’s MassChallenge entrepreneurship competition. The company is also raising money to build its next prototype.

All of the Cade Prize finalists have already won $10,000, plus free legal services and consulting from a venture capital firm. The grand prize winner will take home an additional $50,000 this week. “It doesn’t sound like a lot of money,” Myers said.


But when you’re working without pay to get your company off the ground, he added, “It would go a long way.”

Scott Kirsner can be reached at Follow him @ScottKirsner.