Questions raised over startup’s integrity
Clean energy prize winner CoolChip faces scrutiny, MIT will ‘review the facts’
Winning the Grand Prize in MIT’s $200K Clean Energy Prize contest in May was only the beginning of an MIT startup’s success. CoolChip Technologies, which develops cooling systems for electronics, was automatically entered as a finalist in the MIT $100K Business Plan Contest as a result of winning the CEP. CoolChip has also been covered by CNN Money, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and Electronic Engineering Times since their CEP win. At the end of August, however, an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education cast a shadow over the success of the young company.
The Chronicle pointed out that CoolChip’s prizewinning cooling technology was actually Sandia National Laboratories’ own device, designed by researcher Jeffrey Koplow. According to the article, CoolChip CEO William R. Sanchez ’05 approached Koplow in February asking to use the unpatented Sandia cooler for CoolChip’s CEP submission. Koplow told Sanchez he did not have the authority to make that decision and directed him to Sandia’s technology-transfer department. According to a Sandia spokesman, that was the last “substantial communication” Sanchez had with Sandia — no deals were made and no permissions were granted to CoolChip to use Sandia’s cooling technology. The technology was also not open for licensing at the time.
In a presentation as part of the MIT $100K Business Plan Contest, Sanchez did not refer to Sandia while he used Koplow’s illustrations to explain the technology. Sanchez said the presentation was meant to be lighthearted and “something for fun,” according to the Chronicle.
Sanchez also said that Sandia officials told him CoolChip could not use Sandia’s name publicly, preventing him from giving them proper credit. But Sandia spokesman Michael Janes told the Chronicle that Sandia insists its images be credited properly.
Also at issue is the philosophy behind the CEP. When interviewed by the Chronicle, CEP chairman and Sloan professor William Aulet referred to the contest as an “academic exercise,” more about creating a business plan than the underlying technology. However, Michael J. Pomianek, one of the CEP judges and an intellectual-property lawyer, told the Chronicle that judges did not approach the competition as a “class exercise,” — they considered the participants’ viability and relationships with customers and clients in addition to their business plan.
CoolChip Technologies was founded by a team consisting of MIT graduate students: Sanchez, currently an EECS doctoral candidate; Steven J. Stoddard ’06 of the Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) program jointly run by Sloan and the School of Engineering; and Sloan MBA student Daniel A. Vannoni. The team grew out of the energy ventures class taught by Aulet.
Sanchez, Stoddard, and Vannoni did not respond to requests for comment.
“When we became aware of the circumstances with CoolChip, we alerted both the Department of Energy and MIT of the situation,” wrote Janes in an email to The Tech. “[MIT] will conduct any follow up that they deem appropriate regarding the Clean Energy Prize, as this is clearly an academic issue best handled by MIT.”
Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80 said he will be working with the leadership of the Clean Energy Prize to review what happened.
“I want to emphasize that this is not an investigation,” said Grimson. “Allegations have been made, and we want to review the facts to see what really happened.”
He also said the community should keep in mind that “everything might not be as described.”
The rules for the Clean Energy Prize refer to the MIT’s academic integrity policies and to the Institute Regulations on Intellectual Property Rights. The CEP rules state, “it is the responsibility of the entrant to ensure that no third party […] has any rights on the contents, which may prevent its exploitation.”
According to Janes, Sandia has “informed [CoolChip] how to easily reference Sandia work in the future without implying our endorsement for their work.”
After communicating with MIT and CoolChip, Sandia deemed the attribution issue closed. The cooling technology in question is now patent-pending and open for licensing, and according to Janes, they have had “dozens of inquiries and more than twenty companies indicating their interest in the technology.”
CoolChip will “have the same opportunity to license this technology as other companies,” wrote Janes. “They will be evaluated on their own merits, i.e. their business plan and ability to successfully manufacture the technology and get it into the marketplace.”
As for the future of the CEP, “we will be working to decide on and clarify the goals of the competition and help the organizers capture those in the rules,” said Grimson. “There are always ways in which we can improve, specifically for the Clean Energy Prize and for other student-run competitions.”
Students weigh in
Members of the community who have read the Chronicle article have drawn analogies between the Sandia-CoolChip situation and regular term papers at MIT. Term papers are also considered “academic exercises,” and any plagiarism in that context would, according to the MIT academic integrity website, lead to “failing the assignment, failing the course, and/or being suspended from the Institute or expelled.”
MIT students who knew of the situation by reading the Chronicle expressed some confusion.
“From a moral standpoint, it’s unclear,” said Ravi M. Charan ’13. “We should allow the possibility that there was some misunderstanding on the part of CoolChip as to what was acceptable.”
Some said that monetary rewards change the nature of what would ordinarily be just an “academic exercise.”
“Sanchez’s team may or may not have realized that they were essentially poaching someone’s work, but the cash prize for the competition makes this much more than an ‘academic exercise,’” said Katie Allsop ’13.
“It’s fairly mind-boggling to me that a high stakes, very visible competition could be viewed as only an ‘academic exercise,’” added Tejas A. Navaratna ’13.
Still, some felt there was room for discussion.
“I would like to hear CoolChip’s side of the story from CoolChip instead of just from the Technology Licensing Office (TLO), Sloan, and other MIT institutions before I’d be willing to indict them,” said Charan.