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Archive for the ‘Innovative Company’ category

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?

Innovative Company – Triporati

February 9th, 2010

Jim Hornthal is a serial entrepreneur, angel, and venture investor in the Silicon Valley.  Jim is the former Founder and Chairman of Preview Travel, a company that rose within the Travel industry during the early digital days, went public and subsequently merged with Travelocity. As the Harvard Business School case by Bill Sahlman on Preview, will tell you:  this was a yo-yo ride from start to finish for Preview – but along the way Hornthal became an expert on travel and online behavior.

What is Triporati?

Perhaps that’s the reason that Jim’s mention of his new company on travelor behavior caught my attention over lunch with him last year, and even more so when he recently demo’d the applications he’s built in “stealth” mode these past 18 months.   The company is called Triporati and the product Jim has launched showcases a bit of  the technology/IP that will eventually become part of the fabric of the $trillion dollar  travel industry.

Arriving at Triperati, the user is given an option to “play the game” – filling out details on one’s personal travel preferences allows a user to narrow down a series of potentially interesting vacation destinations. The more details one provides on their interests and travel experience, the more specific the suggestions the system can make.  And the system learns as the user engages more with the system

The system works in a way similar to a  project, the Music Genome Project, , circa 2000, in which a team  broke down music listening into 400 attributes.  That IP forms the basis for a company called Pandora.

Genomes, DNA and Heredity

The team at Triperati calls this the “vacation genome” project.  In other words, it is capturing the “building blocks” built around one’s travel or vacation interests.  The “genome” in a biological context refers to the both the genes and non-coding sequences of DNA.  So, if Triporati is truly looking at the “genes” of travel/vacation consume decisions, then it must take into account both the choices that unfold from one’s interests AND the history (think:  biological history or heredity) of one’s choices in prior trips/travels/excursions.

This, according to Hornthal, is in fact the objective of the company. To capture both the ontology of vacations and the taxonomy of travel – and put the two together inot a useful IP/algorithm that helps predict future vacations of interest. Furthermore, users who are logged into the Triperati system would be leaving a digital footprint that serves as the “non-coding” portion of the equation, or history/heredity.

This intersection of multiple sciences, as it is applied to travel (a third intersection) is rather intriguing.

In theory, such a system would allow the owner to provide a much more customized/targeted system of choices to users who are not totally clear on where they’d like to go for “next year’s family fun.”

Triporati is funded by angels and CME Ventures (SF) and is currently engaging in several significant partnerships to enable its technology on others’ platforms, as well as testing out its own consumer site,

Other industries could benefit

Vacation genomes not only have bearing upon the “travel” industry, but they also could impact the “concierges” industry.  Not familiar with this industry?  It’s a growing $2B+ industry.  A sample company (disclaimer: I’m on the Board)  is Les Concierges, based in SF.  This company currently serves a whos-who of corporate clients (such as Nordstroms, Fidelity, Amex, BofA and VISA), and has recently inked a major partnership with insurance industry behemoth Axa.  The Concierge market focuses not only on travel requests, but also on events (such as concerts), gifts (such as anniversary), venues (such as ball-parks, restaurants), and other goods and services.  A genome approach to this industry would be a HUGE way to assist those calling on the concierges.

Whatever the outcome for Triporati, I find the team’s approach to travel to be a forebearer of more of this to come – understand the users profile, pattern-matching travel/trips to other “like” experiences.

Jim is the former Founder and Chairman of Preview Travel, a company that rose within the Travel industry during the early digital days, went public, and subsequently merged with Travelocity. As the Harvard Business School case by Bill Sahlman on Preview, will tell you:  this was a yo-yo ride from start to finish for Preview – but along the way Hornthal became an expert on travel and online behavior.

Back to the Future? – The Apple iPad

February 2nd, 2010

Reminiscing the old Apple Days

This week’s announcement of the iPad was “reminiscent” of my time from 1988-1993 as an Apple employee and reminded me of the difference between “Creativity” and “Innovation.”

In the mid/late 1980′s, John Sculley was CEO of Apple – and constant clashes with the head of R&D, Jean-Luis Gassee, finally led to Gassee’s departure from the company.  But they did create some magic together. One of my favorite bits of magic was the introduction of a video that would articulate the future direction of Apple – a creative vision for what Apple could be when it grew up.

But, oddly, Apple then took a series of twists and turns that took it away from vision and into the personal computer wars – wars it could not win.  It wasn’t until Jobs returned to Apple in the ’90s that the firm could go back to its old creative self and begin to innovate on a series of products that would eventually take it BACK TO THE FUTURE.

A Creative Vision

In 1987, in Cupertino, Apple employees and press were treated to a video, which we found to be incredibly imaginative at the time and provided us with a glimpse of what would someday come. If you haven’t seen this, or had forgotten about it…check this out:

The Apple Navigator, in my mind, was an incredible creative vision for the future.  “Internet-like” access is implied in the vision, but is 8 years ahead of its time.  Also included:  a book-like interface, ubiquitous Search, voice-recognition, intelligent agents, touch screen, virtual assistant, high-resolution graphics, integrated (video) telephone, visual analysis and simulation, 3D graphics, embedded camera/video, distance-learning, virtual scheduling/calendaring, and more (how many things did I miss?).

Fast-forward to last week’s announcement of the iPad:

We all watched the announcement of the iPad this week, and it was the talk of most circles.

OK.  In 1985 the  folks at Apple missed a few things that were part of this week’s iPad launch:

- access to the world’s library of magazines, books and reading materials

- access to100 million websites, 6 million blogs and 1 million new-sites

- the integration of the music, movies, television and video in a book-like interface

- hand-movement recognition

Still, even having missed these features, it’s amazing the number of features that early Apple inventors were thinking about…Keep in mind, this is only 5 years after the launch of the IBM PC, and  8 years before the Internet came into vogue for the consumer masses, 15 years before Skype was accepted as a workable communications solution, and 20 years before I projected a lecturer onto the screen of my classroom at UC Berkeley!

Is it any wonder Apple us regarded as one of the greatest think-tanks and most innovative companies in the world?

Creativity vs Innovation

Creativity is about great new ideas – ideas that transcend our current status-quo, ideas that are “intersectional” (combining elements from 2 or more previously unrelated sources), ideas that make us see things in new ways.

Innovation is about bringing these ideas to life and making them work in the economic, social, business and market context.

I think it is pretty intriguing that  last week’s launch of the iPad brings Apple one huge step closer to turning a Creative vision of the 1985 Navigator into an actual market-place Innovation, that is likely to be sold to tens of millions of consumers and businesses in the coming years.

HIC! – is innovative

November 2nd, 2009

Last week I had the great pleasure of talking with Matt Mullenweg, of Automattic Inc.

mullenmattMatt is one of those young entrepreneurs who creates his businesses out of his love for the “game” – in this case the “game” being the blogosphere and the open source tools supporting the growth of the growing online news industry. Mullenweg is the founding “developer” of WordPress Inc.  WordPress, while not the first  technology innovator in the blog space, is certainly well-designed and refreshing in the way that it has paid close attention to the needs of its customers and has built life-long believers. Mullenweg was a big part of that.  But, Mullenweg’s mother ship, Automattic (formed in 2005) is something innovative in my mind based on the new types of tools that it is producing and spinning out each year.  In its 4 years of start-up existence, Automattic has launched many products for online writers including:

  • Akismet – open source tool for monitoring spam, that helps
  • bbPress – forum/discussion software to enable stickyness on the blog
  • IntenseDebate  (acquired)- open source add-on that super-charges reader/commentor feedback
  • PollDaddy (acquired) – an innovative online surveys/poll add-on
  • Gravitar (acquired) – portable avitars you can create/use as your persona on multiple web services
  • VideoPress – slick video encoder/player that can be used on WordPress and other blogs

All of these companies complement WordPress ….and all these entities come under the umbrella of wordpressimageAutomattic — thus, I view Automattic as the “IdeaLab” of the blogging and Opensource world (“thou shall not use the world “incubator” in 2009 in vain”).  Funded initially by angels, True Ventures (SF-based), Polaris Ventures and the NY Times are the dominant investors in this company-of-companies.  The last round of $30M in 2008 gives the company a development and acquisition war-chest…and Seems like a GREAT FEEDER of INNOVATION for the NY Times.

Recently,  Automattic announced the acquisition of  “After the Deadline“. Available under Opensource license, AtD uses artificial intelligence and natural language processing technology to find writers/bloggers’ errors.  It then offers suggestions for replacing words or gramattical errors.  What’s unique is that the technology makes use of the neuro-net to “learn” from mistakes others’ have made and so it gets SMARTER over time and the more it is used.AtD is a spell-checker. This is a spell-checker that plugs into the braincells of the Internet in a very new way…and it hints at the future of shared knowledge for writers and/or other artists over open-source.A high-level overview of AtD can be found here.

Packed with a lot of bright young net-savvy writers, programmers, and creatives – I pick as a HIC (highly-innovative company) that will be rewarded in the future by the market for its unique approach to harnessing Open Source and the broader neuro-network of the web.