Top innovators in Massachusetts
Innovation isn’t confined to a single industry or a city district.
In fact, innovation takes place at countless organizations all over Massachusetts. The people behind that pioneering work are creating new products, better ways to work, and different approaches to solving problems. They are the lifeblood of the state’s economy.
A dozen of them are recognized in The Globe 100’s Innovators of 2013, a list of trailblazers working in fields from medicine to robotics to social services. Their work stands out for its originality and impact.
We asked readers to reccommend candidates. We received 195 nominations and then organized a panel of judges to help us make selections from all the nominees. This year’s judges: Steve Pappa, the founder of Endeca Technologies Inc.; Joshua Boger, founder of Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc.; Russ Wilcox, cofounder of E Ink; Nicole Stata, founder and general managing director of Boston Seed Capital LLC; and Michael Morisy, editor of The Hive on Boston.com.
They faced a challenge, sifting through computer screens filled with candidates and accomplishments. The eventual list of innovators they helped us assemble highlights the spirit and potential of Massachusetts innovation.
Click on each name to read the full profile.
Michael Schmidt, Nutonian
Data scientist Michael Schmidt found a way for computers to take over some of the most grueling and complex work behind scientific discoveries.
Schmidt created a computer program called Eureqa that acts as an automated scientist, probing through endless files of data to look for tiny correlations and insight. Eureqa repeats the cycle over and over until it pinpoints mathematical equations that work. The intelligent data-mining system is already being used by 30,000 researchers worldwide.
“With all the Big Data being generated, what we really need today is a data search engine that acts as a guiding rod to gain insight from all this information,” said Schmidt, 31, founder of the Cambridge start-up Nutonian, which launched the first commercial versions of Eureqa last year.
Anant Agarwal, edX
Teachers often worry about the size of their classes. Anant Agarwal was surpised and thrilled that nearly 155,000 students enrolled for a course he taught last year.
Agarwal, 53, is the president of edX, an ambitous online higher education collaboration created in 2012 by MIT and Harvard University. He agreed to teach the very first edX course, Circuits and Electronics, and was greeted by a student body logging in from 160 countries.
But that was only the beginning. More than a dozen other universities have joined the edX collaboration to make a range of interactive online courses available to anyone, anywhere. The venture now counts more than 820,000 unique users from 192 countries.
EdX is growing with a goal of democratizing education and eventually reaching a billion students worldwide — “anyone with a laptop, Internet connection, and the will to learn,” said Agarwal, former director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
Gui Cavalcanti, Artisan’s Asylum
Artisan’s Asylum has been called many things: hackerspace, vibrant artist’s community, new age factory, community workshop, makerspace, and even Santa’s workshop.
The 40,000-square-foot facility in Somerville fulfilled Gui Cavalcanti’s dream of a shared space for small workshops with big tools — milling machines, lathes, sewing machines, welders, and more. Artists and engineers alike hack, build, and design in the DIY incubator, whether it’s a toy developer creating a portable 3-D printer or a mod sculptor working with traditional media.
Cavalcanti, 26, is a robotics engineer who freely admits he started the cooperative for selfish reasons: He wanted a place to build his own robot. The founder and president of Artisan’s Asylum decided to experiment. What if he shared the tools with other like-minded tinkerers?
Sheila Lirio Marcelo, Care.com
Care.com is often called the Amazon of care, and Sheila Lirio Marcelo, the company’s founder and chief executive, couldn’t agree more. “We’re the one-stop shop for all different kinds of care, whether for nannies, tutoring, housekeeping, pet walking, and more,” she says.
As a working mom, Marcelo started the online caregiver marketplace when she needed help caring for her two sons and dogs. Marcelo, 42, has grown the Waltham company in seven years to the largest online care destination in the world, with 7 million members.
She jokes that her proudest accomplishments of last year were that her son turned 21 — and also that Care.com expanded globally to more than 15 countries, beefed up online security and safety filters, and added payroll services. Marcelo also led the company through a $50 million venture funding round last year, one of the five largest investments in a digital business in 2012, according to Rock Health, a start-up incubator.
Omid Farokhzad, researcher at Harvard Medical School
Big thinker Omid Farokhzad is thinking small.
How small? “The typical nanotechnology we develop is on the order of 100 nanometers in size, enough to put a thousand side by side on the cross-section of a hair,” said Farokhzad, 44, a biotech pioneer who believes he has found the silver bullet in medicine — targeted nanoparticles that encapsulate drugs and deliver their precious cargo directly to diseased cells. His mentor, famed MIT scientist Robert Langer, counts Farokhzad among a new breed of visionary physician-scientists who translate academic innovations into vital biotech start-ups.
Farokhzad, a researcher at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, holds 65 patents that helped create three companies developing breakthrough therapeutics, including BIND Bioscience, Selecta Biosciences, and Blend Therapeutics. These start-ups have raised more than $200 million and employ 100 scientists, bringing nanoparticle vaccines and targeted anticancer drugs to the market.
Jonathan Tilly, OvaScience
Jonathan Tilly may go down in history as the scientist who rewrote conventional wisdom about a woman’s biological clock.
Tilly, a Harvard Medical School researcher, was initially investigating why reproductive cells sometimes die in the ovaries. Along the way, the founder of OvaScience Inc. discovered that stem cells in ovarian tissue could form new eggs or be used to rejuvenate a woman’s existing eggs — a finding that could increase the chances of older women having babies.
The study unleashed a storm of controversy among fertility experts, some questioning Tilly’s methods. “His work totally upsets the norm that has been accepted for decades, and anyone that does this, especially with the confidence and exuberance that Tilly exudes, will inevitably be challenged,” said reproductive endocrinologist Kelle Moley at Washington University in St. Louis.
Molly Baldwin, Roca
Social entrepreneur Molly Baldwin stands 5 feet, 3 inches. But for thousands of troubled youth, she’s a larger-than-life presence who has helped break the destructive chains of poverty, violence, and imprisonment.
Baldwin, the founder and executive director of Roca (which means “rock” in Spanish), has laid a solid foundation for more 25,000 at-risk young people in Chelsea, Revere, East Boston, and beyond. Her unique form of activism combines grass-roots street work with data-driven analysis, using evaluation and tracking records to measure successes and failures.
Just last year, Roca was chosen as the lead service provider for the state’s first-in-the-nation pay-for-success effort, which grants funding to nonprofits if they improve communities. Baldwin, 54, has piloted nationally recognized models and is being wooed to expand to Baltimore, New York, and New Orleans.
Lars Albright, SessionM
Lars Albright is a man who knows his way around the ever-changing mobile landscape.
His latest venture is SessionM, a new angle in mobile advertising. Rather than posting passive banner ads that get lost on small smartphone screens, SessionM creates mini-games that app users can play to unlock rewards, becoming engaged audiences for brands such as Adidas, Volvo, McDonald’s, and Ford.
Albright earned his stripes in the app world by founding Quattro Wireless, another Boston-based mobile advertising company. It was eventually acquired by Apple and became the backbone to iAd. Now in just one year, Albright’s new company has attracted 40 million engaged users of apps to play videos or participate in social polls.
Rodney Brooks, Rethink Robotics
Rodney Brooks, the inventor of the robotic vacuum Roomba, is back with a nimble next-generation industrial robot he believes will revolutionize manufacturing.
Baxter is bright red, has a cute “face,” and easily learns to do simple chores, like lifting items off a conveyer belt. Built by Rethink Robotics, a start-up Brooks founded five years ago after he left iRobot, Baxter is designed with a relatively low price tag — $22,000 — to allow small and midsize manufacturers to use automation and compete with low-wage countries. It started shipping over the winter.
“Roboticists have been successful in designing robots capable of super-human speed and precision,” said Brooks, 58, former director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, or CSAIL. “What’s more difficult is inventing robots that can act as we do — to inherently understand and adapt to their environments.”
Marquis Cabrera, Foster Skills
The deck is stacked against children in foster care. No one knows that better than Marquis Cabrera, a former foster kid who beat the odds to graduate college. Now he’s trying to help other foster children achieve life success through his nonprofit social enterprise, Foster Skills.
Cabrera moved from a rough Harlem housing project to his adoptive mom’s idyllic two-story house on a cul-de-sac, but he couldn’t escape the disconnect he felt after going through the foster care system. “There are many resources and programs for foster children, but they are fragmented and often leave kids feeling powerless,” said Cabrera, 24, who believes the key to unlocking the potential of foster children is to provide practical life skills and emotional stability.
The Northeastern University graduate deferred admission to law school to get Foster Skills up and running.
Tom Delbanco and Jan Walker, OpenNotes
What is the doctor scribbling down in the chart? Many patients have probably wished they could sneak a peak into their medical records.
Being able to do so is like a proverbial shot in the arm, said physician Tom Delbanco and Jan Walker, founders of OpenNotes at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “Patients feel more in control of their care and understand their health issues better when they are able to read the notes doctors write after their visits,” said Walker.
Delbanco, 73, is a leader in the creation of patient-centered care and a professor at Harvard Medical School. Walker, 61, is a nurse researcher and longtime advocate for breaking down barriers between doctors and patients.
Together they launched OpenNotes as a large-scale experiment giving more than 13,000 patients access to notes about their own care at Beth Israel and three other medical centers.