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Mass. tech start-ups excel in Texas competition

Trio from Cambridge capture top prizes at SXSW Interactive

The SXSW Interactive Accelerator recognizes advancements in social media, mobile applications, and Web entertainment.rodolfo gonzalez/Austin American-Statesman/ap

It was a good week in Texas for the Massachusetts tech community.

Cambridge companies took three of the top six prizes in the Accelerator competition for start-ups last week at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, the sprawling multi-day conference widely known as SXSW Interactive.

The local prizewinners were among 670 contestants in the fourth annual SXSW Interactive Accelerator, which awards “advancements in social media, mobile applications, Web entertainment, and more,’’ according to the conference website.

“It was quite a showing,’’ said Ryan Panchadsaram, manager of customer and product development at Ginger.io, a developer of apps for hospitals and drug companies that won top honors in the Health Technologies category. “The message was: Cambridge is on fire.’’


At a time when California’s Silicon Valley dominates the digital innovation discussion, to have three grand prizes in the prominent national competition snared by local start-ups, all with roots at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shows that Greater Boston is a significant hotbed of new technologies, said industry advocates.

And with social media and mobile apps being touted at the conference as innovative groundbreakers, the awards highlighted one of the attributes of Boston’s start-up community: rock-solid technological expertise.

The strong showing at South By Southwest “says something about the curiosity that drives innovation around here,’’ said Debi Kleiman, president of Massachusetts Innovation & Technology Exchange (MITX), a nonprofit trade association for digital marketers and other Internet businesses.

Kleiman said the SXSW winners demonstrated “that ultra-geekiness that drives our engineers and inventors to just play with technologies to see if something cool happens,’’ placing the emphasis on discovery rather than a business plan.

The three Cambridge winners were:

■Viztu Technologies, a maker of custom image and scanning products, which won in the Innovative Web Technologies category.


■The Funf Project, which makes data-analysis products that run on Google Inc.’s Android operating system. It won for News Related Technology.


The other grand prize winners hailed from Brooklyn, N.Y., Venice, Calif., and San Francisco.

The start-up competition “was kind of a funhouse atmosphere, with people trying to out-hype each other,’’ said Ash Martin, a recent MBA graduate of the MIT Sloan School of Management and cofounder of Viztu Technologies.

Martin brought a new product to the show - a software package called Hyper3D that allows users to create 3-D images from a series of photos or images, and print out the result on a three-dimensional printer.

“You cannot ignore the potential of a consumer-friendly 3-D engine,’’ he said.

This year’s event was the third South By Southwest for Ginger.io’s Panchadsaram, who said he was encouraged that there were more health-related panels and resources than in previous years. Ginger.io apps mine and process health-related data from the cellphones of patients and customers of pharmaceutical companies. He believed that the team won not only because the technology was significant, but because the “challenge was a meaningful one,’’ he said. “The idea that the phone in your pocket can be a check-engine light for your health - that resonated with the judges.’’

What South by Southwest looked like to Nadav Aharony of The Funf Project, who spent a good deal of time preparing for presentations, was “mostly my hotel room,’’ he said.

Aharony, who just completed a doctoral program at MIT’s Media Lab, said Funf “is not really even an incorporated company.’’ But South By Southwest was an opportunity to present “a whole mobile phone ecosystem, a framework for others to work on and change the world,’’ he said.


Funf is built on the concept that a smartphone is a sensing machine that is constantly processing dozens of signals, including usage, location, and proximity to other users. The goal is to create a common standard for processing that data, so different researchers and companies can use and analyze it.

Aharony attributes the success of Funf and the other two Cambridge entrants to “the really serious research and development behind these projects, and the technological ability we have to make them work in the real world.’’

D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.