Saturday, September 25, 2010

EmTech@MIT 2010: More than just 35 young innovators giving their "elevator pitch"

Afternoon sail on the Charles River; downtown Boston background.
Boston, the Charles River, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology provided a beautiful setting for the iPad-toting crowd of VCs, inventors, technology gurus, students, business execs, and curious individuals and investors searching for inroads to our technological future. This year’s Emerging Technologies Conference, which took place September 21-23 on the MIT Campus in Cambridge, focused on important innovations (identified by MIT's Technology Review magazine) in the key sectors of communications, energy, biotech, IT and materials.

Len Polizzoto
There was discussion about the innovation process including defining the difference between a business plan and model (eg: the iPod started as a music business model; not just technology) and a presentation by Len Polizzoto of Draper Labs that included his 10 guiding principles of innovation: (1) A patent does not an innovation make; (2) 90% of new products fail each year; (3) Innovation does not have to be based on new technology; (4) It takes a diverse team; (5) It requires the generation of real value; (6) Value is determined by the end user; (7) The competition is always better than you think; (8) Organizations become less innovative as they grow; (9) VCs don't take risks; and (10) Innovation takes discipline, commitment and dedication.

EmTech@MIT 2010: 35 Innovators Under 35
An awards ceremony honored the 35 outstanding men and women under the age of 35 chosen for 2010 by Technology Review who exemplify the spirit of innovation in business and technology. This year’s winners included Philip Low, Founder and CEO of NeuroVigil, for advances in patient self monitoring of neurological disorders, Wesley Chan, Investment Partner for Google Ventures for developing the Google Toolbar, Google Analytics and Google Voice, and David Kobia from Ushahidi, who received the Humanitarian of the Year Award for his work creating web programs for communities around the world faced with natural disasters or social upheaval.

Each of the 35 gave their "elevator pitch" about their product or service and, more importantly, were available for in-depth conversations during the receptions and networking sessions. Nevertheless, their presence was somewhat anti-climatic because the magazine had already come out fully detailing each innovator and innovation.

Communications and Information Technology:
Although the actual number of cellphone subscriptions worldwide is an estimate ranging upward from 3.3 billion (Informa), the bottom line is the same: it's a mammoth marketplace, larger than the combined worldwide total of PCs, autos and TVs!

Fewer and fewer people have land-lines. Cellphones are more convenient and are providing the necessities plus fun and games and, in some cases, personal identity, eg: in rural or storm damaged places where there are no home addressing systems (or no homes).  

Taking advantage of the movement from simple to smart phones and pads was at the core of many of the Tech 35 Innovations. Some of the more altruistic pursuits include using cell and smart phones to place grocery orders for small stores in India, or to report incidents, requests for help and provide tracking in places faced with natural disasters or social unrest, or providing low-cost self-contained solar-powered satellite communicating VoIP base stations (Vanu) for extreme rural areas.

Matt Grob, Qualcom's head of Corporate R&D and other R&D presenters from Bell Labs and Alcatel/Lucent showed some of the anticipated capabilities including augmented reality projects like road sign translation (imagine how that would help you navigate in Japan, China and Egypt where few signs use English characters), product identification, and gaming, and also short-distance communication, so that appliances can communicate with base stations and become part of a smart grid or network.

Sprint CEO Dan Hesse
Progress in providing faster networks is complex and includes the necessity by the provider companies to recoup their investment (a 3-year process at the least) before they expend the billions it takes for next generation speeds.

Sprint's 4G network release in the Boston area was displayed in many forms at the conference (outside, multiple booths, etc.) - including in a talk from Sprint CEO Dan Hesse where he said that, although Sprint's 4G data plans offered unlimited service, it is reserving the right to rescind that for very heavy users.

With faster networks, many healthcare apps become more realizable as therapeutic need mixes with technology to quickly move color medical images and files around the community, campus and world.  Educators look forward to being able to similarly push content and interactive tutoring in ever faster ways to improve the online learning experience. And gamers and consumers, with their streaming and shopping needs, drive system use and create demand for ever more speedy networks.

Energy and Batteries:
Processing power versus battery life and cost; net-based processing versus local; games and high-bandwidth streaming entertainment versus a limited or differently-priced plan; the costs of scaling up to demand - these were some of the complexities discussed in the IT and communications sphere.

A very similar discussion was hashed about by senior technology scientists and planning advisors from Shell, Exxon and MIT regarding changing how we get and use power. In the energy/power sphere, intermittent power sources such as wind and solar add to the complex decision making process by their desirability versus their inability to store power thus requiring the grid to be smart enough to reduce other sources flexibly... a not-in-the-immediate-future situation.

Energy complexity, with no real solution (or even a national strategy and policy) in sight, is causing uncertainty, speculation and even fear, with a result that hesitation and indecision is slowing down incremental progress.  By this inaction we end up waiting for a miracle solution to come from the labs. This will surely happen, but the questions are when and whether we can we afford to wait.

Consumers choose Kindles over iPads because of battery life. Payment plans, another element of the business model, also plays a role. Amazon eliminates the need to choose a data plan and is a consumer favorite as a result.  Eliminating irrelevant or bothersome choices (eg: which data plan) is going to be important in forthcoming products and their business models.

Much of the energy discussion was removed from technology - except for a nifty display of MIT's urban car project and the EmTech 35 innovations involved in new battery materials and methodology - and bordering on the political - very confusing from the point of view of expectations about the conference.

Robotics, Biomedical and Materials:
Polymer-based SDM Hand
Aaron Dollar, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Yale, has developed a plastic hand able to grasp a wide variety of objects without damaging them, which replicates the flexibility and gentleness of a human hand. As a result he is exploring whether it can be used as a prosthetic.

New battery technology and materials was a hot topic - in fact, batteries were at the core of many topics -  and included Hany Eitouni and his solid polymers SEEO company, acoustic printing of solar cells from SunPrint/Alion, cost-reducing methods for OLED displays, the previously mentioned neural monitoring device for sleep apnea, and a novel armband interface from Microsoft Research to detect gestures.

Conspicuously missing from the conference were representatives from major hubs of emerging technologies, eg: Apple, Amazon and Google.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Optimism: A conversation with Heartland Robotics' Rodney Brooks

He is a robotics entrepreneur and Founder, Chairman and CTO of Heartland Robotics, a stealthy start-up of robotic solutions for small and medium-sized factories. He is also a Founder, Board Member and former CTO (1991 - 2008) of iRobot Corp. He was the former Director (1997 - 2007) of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and then the MIT Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).  A leader in the industry and a man I've long wanted to meet.

Yesterday morning Rodney Brooks and I had a conversation that covered many of the current issues in robotics. Throughout the conversation, he remained positive and upbeat, maintaining a viewpoint that the next few years will be the tipping point for this emerging industry, particularly here in America. Of course, that's part of his current job as entrepreneur/owner of Heartland Robotics.  As he said, "Entrepreneurs need to be optimistic." Nevertheless, it was a refreshing and informative conversation which I very much appreciated.

On the subject of manufacturing, Brooks cited the breadth of the American marketplace: that there are 300,000 small to medium-sized (less than 500 employees) non-auto-industry factories in America... almost none of which use robots, thus a very large marketplace.  He also said that the US is still the biggest manufacturing country in the world even though the trend is to move factories to where labor is plentiful and cheap (a moving offshore target). Also, that the US has the highest productivity rates -- mostly without robotic assistance.  Thus, to stay competitive and beat the trend to offshore sites those productivity rates will need to increase.  How better to do that than with robots?

We talked about the European SME Robotics project - an 8-year public-private effort to provide robotic solutions to keep EU manufacturing from going offshore. Certainly the project yielded needed constructs for safety, ease of use and trainability but no tangible disruptive product(s). Naturally Brooks hopes that his new company will be providing that disruptive product in the immediate future.

We talked about the efforts of many parties all over the world in the field of agriculture.  Companies, universities, P-PIP's and consortium's -- all searching to automate farming.  In the US, a good percentage of farmers are beginning to do what they call "precision farming," ie, using satellite, soil samples, production data, GPS, and other digitized data, to precisely know where and when to place seeds, fertilizers and chemicals to maximize crop production.  Wikipedia's definition of the process is:
Predicated on the concept of in-field variability, precision agriculture requires the use of new technologies, such as global positioning, sensorssatellites or aerial images, and information management tools (eg: GIS) to assess and understand in-field variations. Collected information may be used to more precisely evaluate optimum sowing density, estimate fertilizers and other inputs needs, and to more accurately predict crop yields. It seeks to avoid applying inflexible practices to a crop, regardless of local soil/climate conditions, and may help to better assess local situations of disease and low yields.
John Deere and Caterpillar already enable precision farming and also driverless operation of their tractors.  John Deere offers a whole range of GreenStar™precision products including an auto-steering setup.

Looking into the future, with an eye toward increasing productivity while reducing cost, one can imagine a present-day multi-purpose farm tractor -- big engine, bigger tires, an air conditioned, cushioned operator cabin, lots of gadgets and controls in the cabin, radically changing.  What would it look like if it were driverless?  The operator cabin is expensive and has a lot of devices that would no longer be necessary if the tractor were unmanned. [Why keep it?]  What would an unmanned farm vehicle (UFV) look like? How would it be redesigned? And how much less would it cost?

Slowly but surely John Deere and Caterpillar will be providing farmers with more extensive precision farming products and solutions including driverless tractors. Autonomous vehicles for precision farming by any other name is robotics.

Research and Funding:
Since the beginning of the Obama Administration, there's been nary a word about robotics.  All of a sudden things are beginning to happen. The Whitehouse Office of Science and Technology stated that “robotics is at a tipping point in terms of its usefulness and versatility” and is backing their belief with a fund to spur small business research. The recent Joint Agency SBIR funding announcement for robotics technology development and deployment is just one of many funding sources giving momentum to America's robotics industry.  Venture firms are returning and providing money.  So are DARPA, NASA, ARPA-E and the DoD.  A robotic solution to an existing, definable problem which reduces cost and hazards and increases productivity is very likely to get funded from multiple sources.

Also, Brooks sees movement toward a National Robotics Initiative working its way through Congress and getting into the budget and thereby providing additional funding for robotics research and development.

Looking at all this activity, all in the US, with solid US manufacturers like John Deere and Caterpillar, knowing more about his own companies and other ventures than he was willing to divulge to me, all this provides Brooks with a solid foundation for his optimism for continued robotics growth in America.  Definitely an uplifting conversation.