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MIT Better World

By Joelle Carson

In 2022, the program received a $1 million gift from Daniel Gilbert ’91 and his wife, Judy, providing a permanent source of funding with the establishment of the MIT Sandbox Endowment Fund and ensuring that students’ creative technologies, ideas, and business concepts will have a supportive home for years to come.

Many MIT Sandbox spinouts seek to take on big challenges, such as health care and sustainability. Spectrum spoke to two recent alumni whose companies are making a splash.

Using AI to revolutionize the fight against heart failure

Claire Beskin MBA ’22 and Ruizhi “Ray” Liao SM ’17, PhD ’21
Claire Beskin always had an interest in health care and occasionally even shadowed her physician father while he worked. But it was pure coincidence that the first MIT hackathon she attended focused on the subject. It inspired her to pursue a health care-related business idea, and after meeting cofounder Ray Liao, then a computer science PhD candidate, she joined his MIT Sandbox team. Their collaboration resulted in the formation of Empallo, a software company that builds algorithms to assess health records for patients with heart failure and other cardiovascular syndromes and diseases.

Heart failure is responsible for about 1 million hospitalizations each year in the United States and $12 billion in hospitalization costs. Twenty percent of heart failure patients are readmitted to the hospital within 30 days of discharge. “This results in huge costs to hospitals and danger to the patient,” Beskin says. “We’re collaborating with several hospitals across the US to enhance and test our algorithms to improve heart failure management.” The future may bring partnerships with pharmaceutical and medical device companies, too, as the software is poised to support both clinical trial design and clinical practice.

MIT Sandbox funding has been essential in helping Empallo get off the ground, Beskin says. “I don’t think we would still exist if it weren’t for MIT Sandbox. In our first year, it was really helpful to have that support for a variety of expenses, from early consumer discovery activities to office supplies to legal advice about company formation and patent filing,” she says. “MIT is setting the pace for universities to listen to startup founders, hear what they need, and create programs and resources to support them, which helps explain why so many companies come out of MIT.”

Turning aluminum recycling waste into green energy

Rostam Reifschneider ’21
“Growing up between never-ending droughts and wildfires in California made me want to pursue a career fighting climate change,” says Rostam Reifschneider. “I decided to study mechanical engineering at MIT and use a combination of STEM and entrepreneurship to build a company that would make a big impact.” When the Covid-19 pandemic made it necessary for Reifschneider to return to California to do his senior year remotely, he reconnected with a high school friend, Julian Davis, who was completing his degree in physics and management at Georgetown University and shares a similar passion for climate action. The two ended up founding Hydrova, a company that uses zero-waste technology to recover valuable aluminum, salt, and oxide products from dross and salt cake while generating hydrogen for clean energy use in recycling plants.

MIT Sandbox was instrumental to Hydrova’s earliest stages, says Reifschneider. “In September 2020, while we didn’t have access to any campus resources, we’d been self-funding experiments in my garage,” he says. “In addition to the Sandbox funding helping us to prove out the technology, our first meeting with the Sandbox Funding Board pointed us in the right direction and helped us focus on developing a solution with a commercial potential.”

Hydrova hasn’t stopped since: in 2022, the company began a large-scale pilot trial with California’s largest aluminum recycling plant diverting 5,000 pounds of aluminum waste to Hydrova’s new zero-waste facility. Reifschneider encourages MIT students to get involved with the “amazing” programs at MIT and make the most of the experience but also to nurture relationships. “Focus on your personal life and making friends as well as the academic part,” he says. “You may even end up being cofounders or business partners in the future.”