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Imaging Search Engine Emerges Victorious in $50K

By Zareena Hussain
associate news editor

Imagen emerged victorious in the eighth annual $50KEntrepreneurship Competition with its plan to create an image-based search engine.

The team, which was composed of Pamela R. Lipson SM '93, Satyajit Rao G, and Pawan Sinha SM '92, received the $30,000 grand prize. They plan to begin marketing the engine, which they call "the golden retriever of image databases," by the end of the year.

Advisors to the team were Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science W. Eric L. Grimson PhD '80, Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences Tomaso Poggio, and Chris Daly.

Following close behind was the e-pen team, which hopes to provide software to enable the efficient transcription of notes from marker boards. The other runner-up, Eastern Delta Corporation, plans to develop and market 3-D display systems. Both won awards of $10,000.

The $50K entrepreneurship competition is entirely organized and run by students. It is intended to encourage those within the MIT community to use their own talents and draw upon outside resources to launch business ventures.

Imagen creates new visual search

The members of the Imagen team saw a huge marketplace for the database technology they proposed.

"In recent years we had been developing new systems that could automatically classify images based on their content," said Lipson. "While we were working on the technology two significant trends developed. The first was that the number and sizes of digital image libraries were growing rapidly. The second trend was the increasing popularity of the World Wide Web, which placed vast graphical content at the disposal of the general users," he said.

E-pen aids board transcription

The idea for e-pen came to its creator, Yonald Chery '93, while he was a Teaching Assistantfor Digital Systems Lab (6.111) critiquing students' project ideas.

"During many of these design review sessions, it would be necessary to work out more details of project subsystems. I would spend at least an hour per team, often filling a chalkboard with notes and schematics," said Chery. "At the end, students would manually transcribe the board's contents to paper. Invariably, omissions and transcription errors would occur, resulting in delays and needless problems for some teams," he said.

Chery worked with Michael R. Dixon G, Andrew Kelly G, David B. Krakauer G, William P. Moyne G, and Matthew D. Verminski G, to bring the idea to the competition.

The idea of creating better 3-D imaging system came to Eastern Delta Corporation member Gregg Favalora G while he was an undergraduate at Yale.

"I somehow came up with some exciting display technology that is more cost-effective than stuff the military is using. That invention, coupled with my desire to run a high-tech firm, are the seeds for what we're doing now," he said.

Linda Ustueta, Sandra L. Batista, Belinda Juran, George J. Keramas G, Jorge L. Menendez G, and Lori Park, worked with Favalora on the project.

Teams benefit from competition

"The competition is a great educational experience, but also a way to launch real companies," said Will N. Clurman G, the lead student organizer for the competition.

In the eight-year history of the competition, 26 companies have been formed as a result of the contest. Over $40 million has been invested in these companies and over 200 jobs have been created, Clurman said.

Many team members found the experience invaluable. "Entering the $50K Entrepreneurship competition seemed like a great way to learn how to write a business plan and understand what is involved in starting high-tech entrepreneurial ventures," Chery said.

"This year's competition had a tremendous amount of instructional support with manageable contest milestones," he said. "That made the whole process of writing a business less intimidating to a non-business- savvy engineer, like me."

"The $50K competition was a perfect way for us to formalize our ideas about taking our academic research in the area of machine vision and transforming it into a commercial product," Lipson said. It "provided a clearly laid-down timeline for development of a business plan and offered invaluable support and advice to help us achieve each milestone along the way"

Many of the teams in the competition were comprised not only of MITstudents, but also of students from other schools and of people already working in businesses. MITstudents were encouraged to seek outside resources in order to create well-balanced teams, Clurman said. The rules' only stipulation was that at least one current MITstudent must be a principal contestant on each team.

Judging entries difficult

All teams who submit entries are given a critique of their business plan. "We want to make sure we give good, real world feedback to contestants," said Joseph G. Hadzima Jr. '73, a judge for the contest.

Teams are judged on the basis of the size of their estimated market, the ingenuity of their idea, and the clarity of the business model, as well as the likelihood of success based on the written plan and oral presentation.

Of the winners, "each one had some real positive things and each had some flaws but, they were all very good," Hadzima said. "The judging was easier in previous years because only a few teams would stand out."

"We've created a monster with all the great plans," Hadzima said. "In the real world these would be right up there with the best."

The judges "liked the fact this year that the organizing committee did a lot to get more balance on the teams," Hadzima said. "The student organizing group did a phenomenal job, from the judges perspective."

Undergraduate students can benefit from the competition by being on the organizing team. "$50K is like a little company," Clurman said. "It's a great experience for those who want entrepreneurship experience themselves."