Perspective:  The start of something big?

Pria Diagnostics could be the first high-tech company spawned by late-night TV.

Stanford University grad students and Pria co-founders Jason Pyle and Alexander Aravanis had teamed up to develop a microelectromechanical system (MEMS)–essentially a machine on a chip–that would enable doctors to more clearly examine brain cells suspended in a liquid.

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, along comes someone with a goofy idea that could be worth millions.

During a TV break one night, the two saw an ad for male virility enhancers, Douglas Erwin, Pria’s CEO, said during an informal chat at Silicom Ventures‘ monthly gathering of start-ups and investors in Mountain View, Calif. A consumer would need a test to see if the pills worked, they thought. Light bulbs began to go off.

The end result is the Element home fertility-testing device for men, which contains the MEMS chip. A sample is deposited into a cup and, within 40 minutes, a bright green arrow tells the man whether his sperm meets the motility and concentration norms for fertility set by the World Health Organization.

“This could be the first high-volume MEMS device,” Erwin said. Still, getting men to use the cup is “a challenge,” he added.

Start-ups like Pria are the lifeblood of Silicon Valley. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, along comes someone with a seemingly goofy idea that, upon deeper analysis, could be worth millions of dollars. Web-based e-mail, blogs–they all sounded somewhat pointless at first. (Nano-Tex, the coating for stain-resistant pants, started out as a cancer drug technology.)

Silicom Ventures acts as a conduit to bring together entrepreneurs and those with money. Companies pitch themselves at the group’s monthly events and, ideally, organization members subsequently invest. Success stories include DVD software maker InterVideo, which went public earlier this year, and WebAppoint, which got acquired by Microsoft.

The group also serves as something of a social club for the local Israeli tech community. Unlike investment banking conferences, where you see name tags labeled “Garrett,” “Van” and “Denton,” here it’s all “Zvi,” “Yigal,” “Moshe” and “Gadi.”

Here are some of the companies that appeared at this month’s event:

• ST-InfonoxSensors that will gather data on temperature, atmospheric pressure and foot traffic, and that will even take pictures, are expected to become a significant business. But how do you keep track of the data?

Silicom Ventures acts as a conduit to bring together entrepreneurs and those with money.

Enter Santa Clara’s ST-Infonox, which has come up with an application that aggregates sensor data harvested in the field and then tells human operators about unusual events and other trends. The software could be used, for example, to send a warning when sensors in a reservoir detect a change in ambient chemistry or forward pictures from remote cameras monitoring an oil pipeline.

Naturally, the company is closely allied with defense agencies. The U.S. Coast Guard is currently tinkering with the software in a trial. The CEO, Sam Araki, previously worked as president of Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space, and one of its senior advisors is Bill Crowell, a former deputy director of the National Security Agency. ST-Infonox will likely pull in $2 million in revenue this year but hopes to raise that figure to $25 million by 2006.

Despite the cloak-and-dagger overtones, the basic technology is rooted in the casino. Parent company Infonox makes software for casinos that immediately assesses a person’s credit worthiness, said Peter Verbica, ST-Infonox’s chief financial officer. It has to work fast, he explained, so that credit can be issued while the patron is standing at the cage, waiting for chips.

• Otopy: Search engines simply deliver too much information, according to Dan Kikinis, the chief technology officer at Los Altos, Calif.-based Otopy. “It might take one to two clicks to find your results,” he said.

Otopy is working on an application that will filter Web search results based on the user’s intent rather than on the popularity of the links. The software, which is being designed to work with all of the major search engines, relies on semantic logic to ferret out the intent behind a query. The company plans to reveal more next month.

You probably use Kilkinis’ technology every day. While at a European company in the early ’90s, he invented the software that automatically turns off computer monitors, once people stop typing. “I got a little bit of money,” he said.

• Pria: Pria (named after the ancient god of fertility Priapus–you’ve seen the doodads) answers a pressing medical need. A couple’s inability to conceive can be attributed to the man about 30 percent to 40 percent of the time. Yet only about 3 percent of men ever get tested.

Currently, testing costs about $350 and is often not covered by health insurance. Pria’s device will cost about $40 dollars. Lab tests have an accuracy of about 99 percent, while the Element is 95 percent accurate, Erwin said. Clinical trials begin in a month and a half, and it may hit the market in 18 months, he added.

The technology combines microfluidics–small machines that can test biological samples–and optics. The sample vial is coated with fluorescent chemicals that bind to the sperm when the mixture is shaken. While the newly fluorescent sperm swims through the MEMS chip, a light-emitting diode inside the unit detects the concentration and motility of the sperm.

STMicroelectronics and Intel are currently working on similar microfluidics MEMS for taking blood samples.

• Sensant: Think miniature drums. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company has developed a MEMS containing several tiny silicon drums that bounce signals through an organ or part of the body. The signals are then reassembled to create 3D images that are more accurate and crisp than those generated by MRI machines, said Sensant CEO Igal Ladabaum, who came up with the idea while at Stanford.

“We grow our transducers right on electronics,” he said.

Medical imaging is a multibillion-dollar industry, but it’s dominated by Siemens, Royal Philips Electronics and General Electric. As a result, Sensant expects to become acquired. Right now, it is in active acquisition talks, Ladabaum said. In the meantime, Sensant is seeking bridge funding, he acknowledged.

• A9.comA9 doesn’t face the usual start-up money woes. A wholly owned subsidiary of, the company wants to simplify the search process. (CEO Udi Manber attended the meeting to give a talk, not to hit people up for funding.) The Amazon feature Search Inside the Book, which lets users hunt through the contents of more than 120,000 titles, became the inspiration for Amazon to create a separate technology unit.

Search Inside combines new and old technology. The contents of all pages are indexed, just as Web pages are indexed. However, each book had to be cut open and its pages scanned separately to get them into the system. While some publishers keep electronic copies of titles, scanning the pages preserved the look and feel of a book, Manber said–an important consideration.

While Search Inside the Book has been lauded by analysts and some press outlets, it has its share of bugs. Manber showed off one scanned page found by a customer. Right at the bottom of the page is a squished beetle.


Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas. He has worked as an attorney, travel writer and sidewalk hawker for a time-share resort, among other occupations.