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Archive for the ‘Product / R&D’ category

Innovation for the Fashion-impaired (Fanny packs save lives)

September 8th, 2012

I was strapping on my Fanny Pack (FP) last week, and my youngest (college-bound) daughter looked horrified …”Oh, my god Dad, whadaya doing?”, shes thinking, as she rolled her eyes upward.

Daughter #2 had less kinder words for me…”yeah , it’s practical, but it’s FUGLY Dad…”.

Designed for Practicality:  the Fanny Pack

Wikipedia’s definition is: is a small fabric pouch secured with a zipper and worn by use of a strap around the hips or waist.  They are also known as buffalo pouch, belly bag, belt pack, bum bag, banano, pochete, and moon bag (my favorite descriptor).

I maintain that The FP is one of the all-time great inventions for the male gender of the species.  Sure, bows and arrowheads were helpful, Chinese gunpowder was an impressive achievement, and even belts and suspenders helped keep us on the up-and-up.  But The FP solves many dilemmas for the modern male.  I fail to understand how this modern innovation has been killed by eye-rolling teens and dismissive spouses.

What’s in Your Fanny Pack?

My own FP allows me to:

  • remove the bulky wallet from back pocket
  • keep me from losing my umpteenth pair of sunglasses
  • hold my compact camera safely
  • contain bulky house/car keys  (they look horrible in pants pockets)
  • organize 4 sets of business cards (that’s right , four….don’t ask) for quick presentation
  • keep foreign currency organized, and hold various sizes of foreign money (I have traveled all over Europe and China without missing a Euro or a Yuen)
  • hold my iPhone safely, along with several iPhone peripherals
  • keep tickets, admissions and discount coupons organized
  • store maps freshly (I hate wrinkled/torn maps on an excursion through )
  • hide earphones and  – choose from among 3 types
  • iPad AC adapter  (that damn iPhone runs out of juice by mid-day if you REALLY use it properly)
  • keep hotel keys safely
  • hold loose change (keeps falling out of my pockets)

The FP is good for city use, sports workout use, travel, in-car coordination, airports, and weddings.

Oh sure, I could wear cargo shorts, but who wants to distribute this loot across my derrière?  Or, I could get a shoulder bag, but most are built for computers or iPads , not 3-dimensional items like keys, phones, wallet, or headphones.  And, in my case, that solution would clearly balloon over time to a 5-lb fiasco.

In short, the FP saves lives.

Excuses, excuses…

Need I say, as we get older, we are already testing the limits of our clothing – hanging on to old pants, jeans and shorts that USED TO fit (and what has happened?).  Who needs this additional bulk to highlight those few extra pounds we’ve gained.  The FP saves clothing.  It extends the use of those jeans we have from college years, those slacks that looked trim on our first job, those shorts that have been to Santa Cruz and back dozens of times…

Innovation trumped by fashion?

Why are  millions of men now suffering from innovation-deprivation at the expense of fashion? When is the last time you saw a woman without a purse, pocketbook, or shoulder bag nearby or on her body?  To be human is to juggle possessions no our bodies, to hold on to things that nobody else wants, and to walk on 2 legs, carrying our lives with us.

I noticed that many men are still wearing watches (look for a future blog post by me on the stupidity of this).  Our cell phones track the time better than most watches, and can display it in 20 different variations, voice-synthesis, any zone in the world, stop watch format, and timer.  Why are men still porting watches.  This is vanity at its worst.  Society has pushed these poor men to wear a watch that is no longer necesary, yet give away their Fanny Packs to good will.   This seems perversely reversed.

I can not make it in a foreign city without my FP. I cannot hit the gym properly without my FP.  I cannot go on a weekend trip to Napa without my FP.  The Fanny Pack has fallen pray to the fashions of the millennium .  It isn’t COOL to wear this anymore, I’m advised , or one could be dated back to the time of cavemen (or at least to the time of ABBA or the Bee Gees) .

Perhaps I’m getting old (or just losing too many sunglasses per week) but it seems to me that we’ve lost one of the greatest innovations know to man.  So, who will invent the next FP?  Will another “Wright Brothers” or serendipitous “click moment” occur for the fashion impaired.

I hope this happens in my lifetime.

In the meantime, roll your eyes all you want. I’m opting for practicality.

Searching for Synthia – hottest innovation of the 21st century

August 22nd, 2010

Introducing Synthia

So popular is she, that 3 months after her birth, she already has her own Wikipedia page. Synthia may be the hottest innovation of the 21st Century.Yet, for many of us, we read about it casually on May 21st on our iPads  or home-delivered newspapers, next to stories about the latest Giants-A’s series showdown and local murder trials.  If you happened to miss the news that day, read on, as you might want to become familiar with this innovation.

“Synthia” is the nickname for a brand new bacterium developed by Craig Venter and his J. Craig Venter Institute.  You may recognize Venter’s name – he led a team at  TIGR (The Institute for Genomic Research) which in is credited as first to fully decode the genome sequence for a free living organism, Haemophilus influenzae in 1995;  in 2001, Venter and his team along with Celera Genomics decoded the first human genome entirely.  After leaving TIGR, Venter went on to form the the J. Craig Venter Institute and several related companies, such as Synthetic Genomics.  Bottom line:  Venter is among the leaders in understanding how to decode the basic building blocks of life and has a significant advantage in combining creative ideas on how to use this information commercially in the future.  It’s no wonder several investors and VCs like Steve Jurvetson kept close to him.

Her Story

The story of Synthia is truly something out of a Robin Cook novel – but in this case, the technology that has been perfected may truly have lasting effect on our lives and the lives of our progeny. It’s no simply science fiction.

Synthia was created by a synthetic genome. The team at Venter’s institute essentially pieced together from DNA fragments a modified version of a natural genome (mycoplasma mycoides - a chromosome with some 1.2 million base pairs) and implanted the hand-made genome into the shell of a  bacterium.  The new organism essentially came to live and is self-replicating.  That means that it essentially takes on a life of its own.

Uses and Abuses

One can only image the possible uses of this new approach to synthesizing life, as Synthia only represents the very beginning in a likely long exercise in creating new life forms.

Other areas that Venter and his team are apparently already exploring, and hoping to use their approaches on are:  fuel/energy, vaccination production, pollution control/clean-up,cell production,

Since genomes are the building blocks of heredity and proteins, and proteins are the building blocks of cells, and cells are the components of complex systems (organs, etc) within living organisms, the implication is that a synthetic self-replicating organism can become the basic building block to almost any change in life one can imagine.

Shades of “Singularity”

The question that many have had is whether biologists will soon be playing God with this new-found approach.  The new technology ultimately leads the way to new forms of genetically produced bacteria, viruses, plants and animals – and since they would be new to our world there would be no way of predicting how they might affect our global environment, ecosystem or biosphere.

What  might occur when eventually the recipe for synthetic life falls into naive or evil hands?

This is the essentially the first time that an artificially-created organism can self-replicate. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the predictions by author Ray Kurzweil who has written numerous books predicting new innovations that will explode from the intersection of biology/biotech/genetics, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology around the year 2030 (for more on this read The Singularity is Near by Kurzweil).

Love Her, Hate Her

So, that’s Synthia.  The bacterium you will come to love and hate.  Either we’ve unleashed a new “Manhattan Project” or we’ve got the beginning of a new Era in science.   Or, both.

I’d like to hear your impressions on this important innovation.

The New Garage Renaissance and emergence of C2B businesses

April 10th, 2010

As a Silicon Valley software entrepreneur and “mentor” capitalist , I like to look for bets in new spaces and keep on top of industry trends…and historically I’ve placed my bets on software- and Internet-oriented companies, with the occasional excursion into biotech, med device, or cleantech.

What’s caught my attention lately is a shift I perceive in manufacturing and hard-goods spaces - perhaps something set to become a revolution in the coming 10 years – one that could potentially lead some traditional venture capital away from software and back to manufacturing and hardware.

The revolution is in the global manufacturing space and in the ability of “micro-entrepreneurs” to design products from their home/garage, easily prototype their ideas, and eventually produce the products in small lots using a global supply chain that is available, for the most part, online.  This revolution has recently been enabled by a global marketplace (enabled by the Internet), 3D design and printing technology,  and a more flexible approach to manufacturing in the US, China and other parts of the world.

This was the “Old Paradigm” for producing physical products :  an inventor comes up with a concept – sends ideas or sketches to product design house which uses sophisticated CAD programs to design the blueprints for the product – then sends designs off to China to have a prototype build and shipped back. If prototype looked good, show to distributors/channels and take advance orders (or raise money for manufacturing on spec) and use advance orders to hire a manufacturing facility (in East) to produce first run of products. If first run sells out, expand capacity, take additional advance orders and make more goods.  Overall time to market – months or years.

The “New Paradigm” emerging is radically different:  inventors and designers anywhere in the world collaborate over the social net on new designs, and use crowd-sourcing to come up with the best ideas – then rapidly prototype their ideas using 3D printers.  The prototype is modified to match market needs and individual parts are ordered from a global smorgasbord of manufacturing options, assembly occurs in China or perhaps locally (“en garage“), and enough product to fulfill real-time need is producted in JIT fashion.  Products can be modified, customized in small batches. Overall time – weeks or months.

The recent Wired Magazine article by Editor in Chief Chris Anderson calls this new world of manufacturing, “The New Industrial Revolution”.  It’s democratized industry, combined with new ways to rapidly prototype and visualize solid-state models of ideas, and online approaches to open-sourcing just about any part, labor, or manufacturing process needed – right off the web. As Anderson puts it: “Atoms are the new bits“.  The diagram to the left is from the Wired article and spells out the New Paradigm.

You’ve  heard of B2C (business to consumer), and B2B (business to business) – well, this is “C2B” – Consumer to Business – millions of garage entrepreneurs who are close to the consumer , crowd-sourcing ideas for future products and THEN manufacturing them.

I spoke with Ross Stevens, world-renown designer who teaches at Victoria University of Wellington and has a passion for this new culture he calls the “Maker Revolution”. We looked at his way-cool website of design work that he and students at Victoria University are working on futures projects which you can see here.

Stevens, who teaches a course called “Materials & Processes”,  believes that in the coming years, we will be able to make or “print” just about anything we can conceptualize — right to our home  on a low-cost printer. Check out this company that Ross suggested I review:   Ponoko, based in SF calls itself: “a creative place where you can make your ideas real … and sell them to the world. The Ponoko website is like having your own personal workshop and factory … and online showroom to sell your designs.”

Other companies and sites I’ll be tracking in this “maker-market” space include:

  • Makerbot Industries – company makes open-source, low-cost 3D printers and has a great blog on the top of “garage Renaissance and 21st Century manufacturing”
  • Reprap wiki - intriguing community site for sharing “designs that create designs (or self-replicating machines)” – go hear to learn how to print a printer that can print another printer that can print another printer…well you get the idea.\
  • ThingyVerse – a site for sharing 3D printable design and connecting to the global supply chain
  • Panjiva Corp – one of the leading marketplaces for the global supply chain, particularly for small-lot work

…………………


After reflecting on this “new industrial revolution”, printers that print themselves, and the future of 3D design and small lot manufacturing, I have just one question:  when will they invent a 3D bakery printer that can print a truly great cup of coffee and top-notch bagel each morning for me?

The History of Innovation…and where ideas come from

March 30th, 2010

Once in a while, I like to get an historical perspective on Creativity and Innovation.  I found four websites that are very helpful in doing this:

1) my favorite site is The Great Idea Finder - this site looks like it was created in 1996 and in serious need of  a web 2.0 programmer, but it’s full of great research, ideas and history.  Check out It’s About Time for a day-by-day history timeline, or Invention and Inventor Lists for interesting lists of patents, inventors, entrepreneurs and more.

2) About.com Inventors - this community is full of great insights on the history of inventors (a subset of creators and innovators in my mind).  Wonderful information on the history of many famous inventions and inventors -or search by your favorite invention

–> an added bonus to the site is “Today in History” - pick any date and the site has a wiki-list of famous inventions, patent filings, and note-worthy “aha-moments” that occurred on that date.   For example, this day, on March 30th, the following happened: “1956 Woody Guthrie’s song, “This Land Is Your Land” was copyrighted.” Click on “Birthdays” and you find:

  • 1842 – Dr. Crawford Long was the first physician to use ether as anesthetic
  • 1865 – German physicist, Heinrich Rubens
  • 1876 – Clifford Whittingham Beers was a mental hygiene pioneer
  • 1892 – Polish mathematician, Stefan Banach
  • 1894 – Russian airplane builder, Sergei Ilyushin
  • 1912 – Andrew Rodger Waterson was a noted naturalist

3) the Inventors Timeline – takes you back to the Paleolithic Era then forward to present time, identifying all key inventions known to the world…a very interesting way to see how the pace of technology is quickening.  

4) the Timeline Index – a nice visual timelime of Inventors through the recent ages – also an interesting timeline for other areas such as artists, philosophers, actors, etc).  Click on any person’s name and it gives you a detailed page on their biography, related links, etc.

Where do all these ideas come from?

The big question that people often ask me about my work with entrepreneurs and innovators is “So, where do ideas come from? Conventional wisdom is that ideas come from an “AHA” moment that an inventor has – for example, the moment that Art Fry at 3M Corp realized he had inadvertently created a sticky substance that could be used on paper to create the “post-it” note,  or the moment that Archimedes sat in his bath tub and realized that the water he had displaced held an important clue to measuring density of matter.
But in looking HISTORICALLY at actual inventions that have made produced the most profound changes in human history —   the wheel, electricity, the automobile, the light bulb, the small-pox vaccination, the computer chip, the television,  the Worldwide Web — we find that there was no “AHA” moment…there were a myriad of smaller progressive discoveries leading to a key discover from one person or group that seems to solidify

I was speaking at the Computer History Museum this past week and arriving early, took the time to look at the work of Charles Babbage, who is regarded as the “Father of Computing.”  In 1822 he created an entirely mechanical “Difference Engine” (see photo I took to right, owned by Nathan Myrvold) which was meant to calculate mathematics (polynomials) and he later created a “Analytics Engine” that used punch cards. Babbage’s inventions resulted from a hundreds of years of European discoveries of how machines work, including work dating back to the time of Leonardo Davinci and the abacus dating back to Mesopotamia, Egypt and China.  It was Babbage who lived in a time where the “technology” (small metal parts) and mathematical understanding enabled him to implement the first working prototype.  Babbage worked through his lifetime to complete these designs.  The engine was a creation born from a series of historical baby steps.

Take a more recent invention – the PDA…Palm gets much of the credit for it, but its birth was due to a number of companies all working the overall product from various angles.   Psion, Apple,Xerox, others …a visit to the Computer History Museum in Sunnyvale shows the tale. There was no “aha” moment of innovation in the discovery of the PDA – it too seems to be more Evolutionary rather than Revolutionary.

In his book, The Myths of Innovation, author/entrepreneur/blogger/professor Scott Berkun makes a pretty good case for the fact that innovations never seem to evolve in a straight line.  Ideas are formed, tested out, failures occur, competitors emerge in an area of great “hope” and eventually some lucky company emerges as the one to popularize the new innovation.

According to Berkun, ideas come from either hard work in a specific direction, or the combination of two or more (heretofore separate) ideas, or curiosity, or wealth, or necessity or luck — or some combination of all of these.

In his book The Medici Effect, my friend Frans Johansson points out that some of the most prolific bursts of new ideas (such as those found in 15th Century Italy, banked by the Medici Family in Florence) come from a confluence of different disciplines or cultures, combined in new and unusual ways.  Johansson delineates “directional” and “intersectional” innovation.  Directional innovation – like the light bulb which  Thomas Edison found through years of testing, is evolutionary with a focused linear path.  Intersectional innovation – for example the Googles combination of new search algorithms with an approach to listing advertising as words -  is ALSO evolutionary.  The research the Google founders did at Stanford was  descendant  from previous work at Yahoo and Infoseek, and the advertising approach they used was borrowed from goto.com (later became Overture).  It was the fortuitous combination of these two ideas (intersection) that led to the most innovative company of all time.   Serendipity certainly played a role for both Edison and Google founders – more on that in a future blog post.

I’m challenged to think of an example of innovation which was not in some way evolutionary – building upon prior ideas, research or thought.

I’m curious if any of my readers can think of examples…

Smart phone <--> Netbook: Innovation is Needed

November 19th, 2009

A “goldie-locks” battle is likely emerging in the space between “Netbook PC” and “smart-phone”.

My smart phone keeps getting smarter, and my portable computer keeps getting smaller….and there seems no point, soon, in my owning BOTH.

The Tablet Computer

I had a talk with a well-known CEO not too long ago…he, like myself, is an avid Tablet Computer user — I’ve been using one for 8 (that’s right “EIGHT”) years.  I like the visual element of it, and I love being able to cradle the computer in one arm, while “computing” in another. It is similar to the experience that a violinist must feel when converting from many years of playing the piano.violin2

But the Tablet computer lacks some of the advantages of a small netbook – first of all price is still sky-high:  $1500-2000+ for a good tablet.  $400 for a reasonably efficient netbook.

Second, there are times when we need to quickly get something written, or responded to, and the Tablet can be slow for these kinds of tasks.  Of course, if you like to draw, think visually, and use your hands in majestic ways, then the Tablet frees your mind and makes you an “Artifex” (Latin: “creator”).

The shrinking PC and the mighty smart-phone…the Goldie-Locks battle
Meanwhile, the little phone keeps getting more and more powerful thanks to Apple iPhone, Google Droid and others.  And, if you read Michael Arrington’s post on Nov 18th , you’ll find that the Google Phone has only been warming up.

But, from an innovation point of view, where the computer and the phone CONVERGE, something new in interface design has got to occur.  Because:

* the screen we all are carrying around for a computer is Too Large, and the screen we are carrying around for the smart phone is Too Small

* the Querty keyboard seems outdated and not of use in a form factor that can be carried on one’s person

* the typical screen is either too big (computer) or too small (smart phone) – we probably need one that expands to fit the need

What’s needed is the Goldie Locks of computer – something that is innovative in its UI and ergonomic design so that it is “just right” to a good many people.

I came across this video from an Israeli developer. It has the makings of something in the right direction ….

This prototype addresses the need for a new design or interface to the computer that is portable, expandable, versatile, and flexible – with some new approach to avoiding the traditional mouse, keyboard, and rigid screen.
Build me one!