Konarka Technologies

Ready to make a great leap forward

By Scott Kirsner, 12/1/2003

Alan Montello's goal was to produce the world's first thread capable of generating electricity from sunlight. Montello is a researcher at Konarka Technologies in Lowell, a city that was once the center of American textile production. Konarka's headquarters are located in a brick cotton mill that dates to the 1830s. But Montello's photovoltaic fiber, a coated titanium wire encased in plastic, isn't anywhere near as soft as cotton. "You definitely wouldn't want to make underwear out of it," Montello says. What would you make out of electricity-generating thread? Imagine a soldier's backpack woven with photovoltaic fiber that would keep his night-vision goggles fully charged, or a snowboarder's parka that would keep a digital music player going all day long.

Konarka Technologies of Lowell has created a
new generation of solar cells.

Montello produced the first lengths of such fiber in March 2002, using a $250 fly-fishing reel as part of a Rube Goldberg-style production apparatus that unspooled the titanium wire into baths of dye and electrolyte solution before it was wrapped in plastic. But Konarka hasn't said much about the breakthrough -- or its negotiations with several major textile companies -- while the company waits for its patent application to be reviewed.

Konarka is part of a class of high-tech, medical devices, and biotech companies in Massachusetts that are exploring new directions and cultivating new ideas that will create industry clusters.

These companies are interested in making giant leaps, rather than incrementally improving existing technologies -- and for the most part they're not focused on serving the corporate information technology market.

In 2004 and beyond, I expect that these companies will attract serious sums of venture capital while generating jobs, and launching important products.
Here's my take on six of these emerging clusters of innovation:

Energy tech
Konarka plans to raise another round of venture capital next year -- somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million -- to bring its first product to market. It won't be solar thread, but rather flexible, low-cost, lightweight plastic solar cells. (Interestingly, much of Konarka's production equipment was bought from a bankrupt Polaroid for pennies on the dollar.)

Second Wind, a Somerville company that makes hardware and software to monitor windmill farms, has been raking in record revenue for the past four years.

And Dan Goldman and Dan Reicher are trying to raise a $100 million venture fund to support alternative energy projects, which they've dubbed New Energy Capital.

Sensor networks
We've already created networks that allow the computers on our desks to share information with each other. The next wave of networking will entail creating wireless networks of sensors. These sensors will transmit reports about the pressure of oil flowing through a pipeline, or they will be sprinkled across a battlefield to monitor the movements of enemy vehicles based on sound and vibration.

Ember Corp. of Boston and Millennial Net of Cambridge, both MIT spinoffs, are already selling tiny devices to facilitate wireless networking of sensors. Senera Corp. hopes to use sensor networks to monitor the structural health of buildings and bridges.

RNA interference is a therapeutic approach that uses double-stranded ribonucleic acid, DNA's unsung relative, as a defensive tackle to sack undesirable genes.
Earlier this year, scientists at Harvard showed how RNAi could stop the progress of genetic liver disease in mice by interfering with -- or "silencing" -- the genes that were killing off liver cells.

Local companies like Alnylam Pharmaceuticals and the University of Massachusetts spinoff Arois Inc. are trying to bring RNAi out of the laboratory and into the market -- a journey that could take 10 years or more.
Dimensional displays

Scientists, architects, product designers, and air traffic controllers all might benefit from computer screens that display images in three dimensions. They are just some of the users that Actuality Systems, based in Burlington, is pursuing with its Perspecta 3-D display. It displays three-dimensional images under a glass dome, viewable without special glasses.

Chad Dyner, now a grad student at MIT's Media Lab, is the founder of IO2 Technology, a Chicago company developing a color display that makes 2-D images seem to hang in midair.

The floating images can be manipulated with the wave of a hand -- one video of the display shows Dyner grabbing at computer-animated fish. IO2's technology, dubbed the Heliodisplay, is sure to become a fixture on the trade-show circuit. One of the first public demos of the Heliodisplay takes place this Friday in Illinois.
Implantable medical devices

It's not quite "Fantastic Voyage," but several companies are working on miniaturized devices that can be stashed under the skin to perform important tasks. Two are backed by Polaris Ventures.

One is Bedford-based MicroCHIPs, which has been working for a decade on a tray-like device capable of releasing drugs inside the body. The drugs can be released on a preprogrammed schedule, on a physician's or patient's command, or in response to changing conditions within the body.

The other Polaris-backed company, Remon Medical, was started in Israel but has been looking to establish an office and hire a CEO in the Boston area. Its product was implanted in a human for the first time over the summer, to monitor for problems that sometimes follow surgery for an abdominal aneurysm.

And Cyberkinetics of Foxborough is developing the BrainGate, an implantable device that will let paralyzed individuals control a computer simply by thinking.

Last month, Wal-Mart summoned its major suppliers to Arkansas to talk about the radio frequency identification tags (sometimes called RFID chips) now being deployed to help Wal-Mart keep track of products as they make their way from a factory into its stores.

And earlier, in July, Gillette began a test of RFID technology to monitor certain products as they left a distribution center in Fort Devens.

Long-term, RFID could replace the standard UPC bar code, allowing companies to inventory the products on a truck or sitting on a store shelf without scanning them individually.

Locally, Oat Systems, a company that makes software that collects and organizes RFID data, seems likely to evolve into an influential player -- as does ThingMagic, a company designing automated readers for RFID tags.

Obviously, my list of emerging clusters is far from comprehensive. What's on your list? Send me an e-mail.
Scott Kirsner is a contributing editor at Fast Company. He can be reached at skirsner@verizon.net.