The MIT Curse Strikes Again: Lilliputian Systems Files for Bankruptcy

I’ll be up front. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is one of the finest universities in the world. Numerous graduates have made lasting contributions to science. And the closest I could have ever got to being part of the MIT family would have probably been working as a stock boy in the campus bookstore. It is an academic beacon.

But, sometimes, start-ups just aren’t its bag.

Lilliputian Systems, an MIT spin out that raised over $140 million in its prime to bring portable fuel cells to market, has declared bankruptcy.

It is the latest in a series of well-funded companies out of that august university that has burned through tens of millions in an attempt to bring a cutting-edge idea to market. Many are in cleantech. The list also includes A123 Systems, which raised over $200 million and even managed an IPO before being sold for parts to Chinese investors; GreenFuel Technologies, which burned through millions proving that algae fuel is a lot harder than it looks; Luminus Devices, an innovative LED company that raised over $150 million to get sold for $22 million; and Evergreen Solar founded by former professor Ely Sachs. Evergreen

And look, I got through that whole article without mentioning One Laptop Per Child. Amazing.

The problem? Most of these companies were way ahead of the market and by the time they were mature the market had passed them by. The science was great, but the process of bringing them to market was arduous.

Take for example Sun Catalytix, a company founded by professor Daniel Nocera to produce hydrogen with sunlight. Producing hydrogen cleanly is one of the primary roadblocks to the hydrogen economy. Most companies produce it by cracking carbon dioxide. Sun Catalytix was working on a catalyst that would effectively split water efficiently.

It’s an incredibly challenging scientific problem. After a few rounds of funding, the company suddenly switched courses and announced it would make flow batteries, which have absolutely nothing to do hydrogen or the original catalyst. While Sun Catalytix only raised a few million — nothing on the scale of Lilliputian — it recently got sold to Lockheed Martin.

Or take E-Ink. Spun out of MIT Media Labs, E-Ink created a digital form of paper. Great idea. The downside? It came up with the idea in 1997, about seven years too early. E-Ink ultimately prevailed. It got bought by a Taiwanese company for $215 million for 2009, more than the over $150 million it raised, but you can imagine the timeline didn’t endear it to investors.

Or look at Evergreen. The company’s string ribbon technology promised to dramatically reduce the cost of solar wafer manufacturing. And it did. Unfortunately, Evergreen’s wafers were square. The industry standard was round. It was literally like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole: manufacturers would have had to retrofit substantial portions of their production lines to adopt it. Evergreen did OK when demand outstripped supply, but when the market slowed a bit, it headed toward bankruptcy.

It blamed China for its problems, but its IP got bought by Chinese investors.

Sachs is also the founder of 1366 Technologies, which makes ultra-thin cutting edge multicrystalline silicon wafers. In general, multicrystalline wafers result in solar cells that aren’t as efficient as monocrystalline wafers and efficiency is becoming increasingly important. Just saying.

Lilliputian tried to mass produce portable fuel cells so people could recharge phones and other devices on the go. Fuel cells are incredibly complex and prone to failure over the long haul. Lilliputian had to invest millions into R&D. Unfortunately, the whole purpose of its existence was eliminated when Samsung started planting free charging towers in airports. Why carry around an expensive vial of flammable liquids when you can just plug in?

Not every wacky idea that left a smoking crater in the ground came out of MIT. Konarka Technologies, which promised to produce flexible solar cells, came out of the University of Massachusetts for instance. 

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Michael Kanellos is the Vice President of Editorial and Green Technology at Eastwick, an integrated marketing firm specializing in high technology clients. Before Eastwick, he spent twenty years reporting on solar, gadgets, energy efficiency, agriculture, semiconductors and the internationalization of the tech industry for CNET, Greentech Media, Forbes, The New York Times, Computer Reseller News and other publications. To reach him, please contact him at kanellos@gmail.com

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