By Hiawatha Bray
When home computer users have to reboot their machines to install a software upgrade, it's a nuisance. When a big company must do the same for hundreds of computers, it can cost a small fortune.
On Wednesday, a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates won a small fortune - $100,000 - for developing a way to upgrade software while the computer keeps running. Their new company, Ksplice, took top prize in the 20th annual MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition.
Rodney Brooks, former director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and keynote speaker at the awards ceremony, said the yearly competition helps inspire students to turn their bright ideas into profitable products. "My students and students all around campus are abuzz about this," said Brooks. "It really gets them thinking about what it takes to create a company."
Brooks used his expertise in robotics to help launch iRobot Corp., the successful military and consumer robot company in Bedford. Last year, he resigned as iRobot's chief technology officer to begin a new start-up, Heartland Robotics, which will build industrial robots.
More than 120 companies have been spawned by contestants in the MIT competition. The school estimates the firms created 2,500 jobs and $12.5 billion in market value. Among the notable contest alumni is Terrafugia, a 2006 finalist that has developed an automobile that quickly converts into a light aircraft. At the Wednesday event, the company displayed one of its aircraft, which made its first successful test flight in early March.
This year's entrepreneurship competition attracted 260 applications, the most ever. Six companies made it to the finals. Among them were Levant Power Corp., a Boston firm that makes shock absorbers that convert a car's vibrations into electricity for use in powering the vehicle; Cambridge Eyenovations, developer of medicated contact lenses for use in treating glaucoma; and Global Cycle Solutions, a maker of bicycle-powered devices for rural communities in developing countries.
The winning entrant, Ksplice, was inspired by a security breach on an MIT server. The break-in could have been prevented if the server's Linux operating system had been updated. Ksplice cofounder Waseem Daher said that a fellow student, Jeff Arnold, had been planning to do the update late at night, allowing him to shut down the machine while nobody was using it. But by then, the breach had taken place.
"It was a real pain," said Daher, then a master's degree student in computer science and electrical engineering.
The experience got them thinking, Daher said: "Why do we have to reboot in order to update?" Arnold developed Ksplice as his master's thesis in computer science. Then he, Daher, and several other colleagues decided to turn the concept into a business.
Ksplice can insert code updates in an operating system even as it's running, without disrupting the computer's ongoing activities. For instance, a large retail website could apply security updates with Ksplice at midday, while customers are placing orders. There would be no need to shut down the site and lose thousands of dollars in sales, or to leave the software unpatched and risk a security breach.
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