Local company, global solution

MicroMidas spun out of a UC Davis lab when four students graduated in 2008 and, two weeks later, attended our Green Technology Entrepreneurship Academy.  A few months later, they incorporated and set up their research lab in West Sacramento.  It's a great story for UC Davis, which has a vast inventory of research-born technologies addressing environmental challenges yet in need of commercialization.

The MicroMidas team was recently covered by Discovery News in a post aptly titled "Poop Plastic Puts Waste To Work

Usually wastewater treatment facilities separate the liquids from the solids in a large settling tank, [CEO John] Bissell told me. He and his colleagues presented their innovation at the PopTech conference currently underway in Camden, Maine. The heaviest nastiness at the bottom is incinerated or sent to a landfill or used to grown non-edible crops that are tilled. Not great options. Micromidas can take that sludge and turn 50 to 70 percent of it into plastic by feeding it to their own special microbes.

The team continues to make progress, and continues to demonstrate the (profitable) market potential for bio-materials outside the sexy but elusive biofuels market.



A global innovation challenge

The Malcolm Baldridge Award has, since 1988, recognized performance excellence among U.S. organizations.  More importantly, though, the many companies that compete for this award do so not only to win (certainly not the first year) but to use the process as a means for setting a clear priority for performance, learning the tools and language of performance excellence, and benchmarking themselves against others. Having worked with firms that went through the process, the benefits were clear.  What’s needed is a similar program on innovation.

I’m involved with one such opportunity, the Katerva Challenge, that is launching as a yearly competition aimed at “inspiring and applauding world-changing innovation.” The focus this year is on reducing greenhouse gases—in other years those topics will change.

Like the Baldridge Award, this competition focuses on providing organizations with the tools they need to strengthen their innovative capabilities.

Unlike the Baldridge Award, the Katerva Challenge also recognizes and supports the networks that bring truly revolutionary innovations to market.  Competing teams don’t come from a single company but rather from a set of partners who bring a range of skills, resources, and perspectives to the problem at hand.

In this way, the teams learn, develop, and demonstrate the essential role that networks play in turning ideas into realities.


Green Technology Entrepreneurship Academy 2010 (GTEA)

Green Technology Entrepreneurship Academy
June 28 – July 2, 2010 @ the Tahoe Center for Environmental Science
Lake Tahoe, Nevada

Moving Sustainable Technologies Out of the Lab and into the World

The one-week intensive academy is open to science and engineering faculty, graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, and senior undergraduates working on research in green technologies. The academy combines seminars and networking sessions in an innovative format to help you learn how to commercialize your technology.

Why You Should Attend:

  • learn to communicate the broader potential impact of your research
  • explore commercial opportunities surrounding your technology
  • develop a network of professionals in clean tech who can help mentor and connect you as you move forward with your career or new venture.

Accepted applicants receive fellowships to cover room, board and tuition. Open to applicants from national and international universities.

The workshop is taught by venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, faculty, industry executives and angel investors from across the country that serve as mentors as well as guest faculty, providing participants with the knowledge and networks needed for taking the next steps toward commercialization.

Previous GTEA mentors and faculty included leaders from DFJ Frontier, Element, Mohr Davidow Ventures, DMC, Nth Power, Sierra Angels, Morrison and Foerster, Pillsbury, NIEHS, USDA, National Instruments, NIREC, Pacific Gas & Electric, Sempra Utilities, Edison International, CalCEF Angel Fund, and Chevron Energy Solutions.

Apply online by May 14, 2010 >> http://entrepreneurship.ucdavis.edu/green

Sponsored by Nevada Institute for Renewable Energy (NIREC), Chevron, PG&E and Superfund Research Program. Presented by the UC Davis Center for Entrepreneurship.

Spurring Business Startups and Innovation in Clean Technology

Live Webcast – Spurring Business Startups and Innovation in Clean Technology

Hosted by the Kauffman Foundation and the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices
Wednesday February 24, 2010 at 2:00 p.m. – 3:30 p.m. EST

across the country are looking for ways to build their economy by
supporting new businesses and spurring entrepreneurship—newly created
companies and young startups are the primary drivers of job creation in
the United States. At the same time, they are looking for ways to build
opportunities in emerging industries such as clean energy, a sector in
which sound state policy is a necessary precursor for business growth.
This webcast will feature three ways in which states can use existing
scientific and business talent to spur the creation of new clean energy

(1) By providing scientists and engineers with the skills and knowledge they need to start companies.

        Andrew Hargadon,
Center for Entrepreneurship, University of California, Davis, will
discuss the Green Technology Entrepreneurship Academy, a one-week
business development intensive that teaches science and
engineering students and faculty how to commercialize research and
start new ventures.

(2) By transitioning entrepreneurs and executives from other high-tech sectors into the green energy sector.

        Peter Rothstein,
New England Clean Energy Council, will discuss the Clean Energy
Fellowship Program, an entrepreneurial development program that rapidly transitions experienced entrepreneurs and executives into the region’s clean energy sector.

(3) By working across states to take existing small businesses to scale.

        Kimberly Loui,
Arizona State University, will present the soon-to-be launched Energy
Innovation Network, which aims to catalyze interaction between states
and other stakeholders to create the conditions necessary for the growth of existing startups in clean energy.

To view webcast check back here
Wednesday February 24, 2010 at 2:00 p.m. – 3:30 p.m. EST
(Microsoft SilverLight plugin will be required to view.
Registration on the player is required to submit questions.

Event Information:
Start Date: February 24, 2010
Start Time: 2:00 p.m. EST
End Date: February 24, 2010
End Time: 3:30 p.m. EST

Event Location:
Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Kauffman Foundation role:
The Kauffman Foundation is a sponsor and host for this event.

A nice summary of energy efficiency’s low hanging fruit

McKinsey has published a good summary of the options for improving our energy efficiency that exist (already) for homes, commercial, and industrial settings: US Energy Savings: Opportunities and Challenges

Essentially they divide homes, commercial and industrial settings between infrastructure and process demands (in homes, it's shell and HVAC versus devices and lighting) and consider the capital investment required and the net present value of the savings from EE investments in each of these areas.   

The article also does a nice job pointing out some some of the barriers associated with EE retrofits and improvements.  They don't address the principal/agent problem (someone creates the energy demand, someone else pays for it) but otherwise capture many of the key barriers.  

Of particular note is that, while energy efficiency improvements are the most cost-effective, technologically mature, and easiest to scale of our options, they also address the most fragmented and embedded of our markets.  The solutions all require coordinated efforts between researchers, entrepreneurs, investors, and policy makers. 

These are not problems that will be solved by two guys in a garage, jet-setting venture capitalists, or federal policy makers acting alone.  Much of the coordinated effort will have to happen at the local and state levels—in the forms of financing, utility initiatives, business incentives, and building codes and standards. 

Central Asia and the long view of innovation

Frederick Starr wrote a brilliant essay, Rediscovering Central Asia, which provides a perspective on the current quagmire in Afghanistan that predates, by several millenia, the post-9/11 version currently guiding public opinion (and policy).  Starr has impeccable credentials as an expert in this region and its history, and I leave any policy disagreements to him and others equally qualified.  This was one of those essays, however, that has as many implications for innovation and innovation policy as it does for statesmanship and central asian policy. Centmaps


Central Asia is, in Starr’s words, the “vast region of irrigated deserts, mountains, and steppes between China, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and the Caspian Sea,” with Afghanistan traditionally considered the heart of the region. Despite its backwards appearance in the press, with war correspondents standing in front of deserted plains or smoldering cities, Central Asia was once one of the most intellectually vibrant communities in world history.

From this region came “mathematics, astronomy, medicine, geology, linguistics, political science, poetry, architecture, and practical technology” that influenced the west and the east alike in both its logic, empiricism, aesthetics, and faith. As Starr argues,

Between 800 and 1100, this pleiad of Central Asian scientists, artists, and thinkers made their region the intellectual epicenter of the world.  Their influence was felt from East Asia and India to Europe and the Middle East.

What makes this essay on Central Asian culture so vital to understanding innovation lies in Starr’s reasons for both why such an intellectual wellspring emerged and flourished and why it dried up.

What we now see as a hinterland (both geological and intellectual) lay on trade routes that connected the east and west, north and south:

[Central Asia] was also richer, thanks to continental trade. Merchants from Balkh and other Central Asian commercial centers journeyed to the Middle East, Europe, China, and deep into India. Traders from those lands brought goods to the sprawling commercial entrepôts in Greater Central Asia. Since slavery thrived throughout the Muslim world and beyond, the bazaars also included large slave markets. Gold, silver, and bronze currency from these thriving hubs of commerce traveled all the way to Gotland in Sweden and to Korea and Sri Lanka.

Central Asia lay at the junction of all the routes connecting the great cultures of the Eurasian landmass. This network of routes, today often called the “Silk Road,” in its heyday transported a huge variety of goods in every direction. Glass blowing spread from the Middle East to China via Central Asia, while papermaking and sericulture (the production of silk) went from China westward.

The many communities that made up the region drew riches not only from the flow of goods but also the flow of ideas. Perhaps more importantly, they did embraced, incorporated, and built on the skills, technologies, ideas—creating new combinations that were greater than the sum of their parts.

[T]he Central Asians were not passive transmitters. For half a millennium, Middle Easterners and Europeans esteemed Samarqand paper as the best anywhere, while the treasures of more than one medieval cathedral in Europe consist of silk manufactured in the Fergana Valley of what is now mainly Uzbekistan.

The same could be said for their adaptation and recombination of religious thinking, philosophy, science, and the arts.

Another reason for the intellectual bounty of this nexus civilization seems to lie, paradoxically, in its own relative balkanization—in the existence of multiple smaller kingdoms, or caliphates. There were no professional universities or other academies to support full-time scientists, scholars, and intellectuals and so many relied on the patronage of rulers (much like the culture of intellectual endeavor and patronage of the Italian renaissance). The relative independence and wealth of these individual courts encouraged an intellectual diversity, loosely coupled.

As interesting as these origins are, and they are common across many similar cultural cambrian periods, it is more enlightening to read about how this great age came to an end—not with a bang but a choked silence. Starr posits three reasons.

First, that “Nothing endures forever.” Athens, the Renaissance cities, lasted no more than a century or two. By 1100, the developed but disconnected cultures of ancient Greece, the Middle East, and India had mixed and there were no new but well-developed cultures to assimilate. Without the refinement that comes with cultural heritage, new ideas are on their own.

Second, the religions that flourished in their early stages hardened into orthodoxy. The intellectual and cultural exploration that led growth becomes threatening to the stasis of orthodoxy: “the demands of a steadily rigidifying Muslim orthodoxy gradually narrowed the sphere in which free thought and humanism could be exercised.”

Third, and related to growing orthodoxy, was the split between Sunnis and Shiites and its effects of increasingly hostile power struggles and suppression on culture:

“Fearing deviance on every side, al- Mulk proposed to establish a network of schools, or madrassas, that would instill orthodox Sunni Islam and turn young men into well- informed loyalists of the faith. Graduates would reject not only the Shiite schism but any other forms of thought that might be suspected of deviance from orthodoxy.”

Afghanistan’s, and all of Central Asia’s, past is our future. The flowering of intellectual and technological creativity that defined America from the mid-1800s to the present will recede eventually but, quite likely, in our lifetimes.

Have we tapped out the confluence of ideas, technologies, and aesthetics that came from Europe and Asia over the prior centuries? Will the modern-day “trade routes” that placed us at the confluence (now most prominently financial) sustain further growth or are they in decay. Has the nexus of cultural growth shifted again? Finally, has our own orthodoxies hardened to the extent that the benefits of intellectual and cultural exploration are outweighed by their perceived threats to the stasis of orthodoxy?

We can talk all we want about corporate cultures, garage start-ups, and our legacy of innovation but if history tells us anything, it’s that nothing endures. Moving forward, our ability to innovate hinges on how we choose to tolerate, assimilate, and build on the ideas of others—and how we manage the intolerance of others threatened by this process.

Quantam leaps, the old-fashioned way

While much of the US research establishment is pursuing the next great technological leaps forwards, it was comforting to run across one researcher, Alfred Hubler, and a great leap forward that serves as an example of where innovation really comes from.  In other words, it's easy to innovate when the new ideas are themselves dependent on other yet-to-be-implemented ideas. 

Many of the smart grid solutions are waiting, for example, until the other pieces of the system are put into place (which are, of course, waiting for similar reasons). Hydrogen will be a great energy source once we've built a renewable energy infrastructure that can profitably manufacture it, a transportation system that can profitably distribute it, and a storage system that can profitably store it. 

The Technology Review posted an article yesterday about

A "digital quantum battery" concept proposed by a physicist at the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign could provide a dramatic
boost in energy storage capacity–if it meets its theoretical potential
once built.

Just another great leap forward?  So I thought when reading this:

The concept calls for billions of nanoscale capacitors and would rely
on quantum effects–the weird phenomena that occur at atomic size
scales–to boost energy storage.

But then I read something novel or, actually, not novel.  The researcher had recognized this technology could be built using only widely available technologies and materials.

[These] digital quantum batteries could be fabricated using
existing lithographic chip-manufacturing technologies using cheap,
nontoxic materials, such as iron and tungsten, atop a silicon
substrate, he says. The resulting devices would, in principal, waste
little or no energy as they absorbed and released electrons. Hubler
says it may be possible to build a benchtop prototype in one year.

Therein lies all of the difference in the world.  One year from theoretical breakthrough to prototype.  That's less time than it takes science to get a paper reviewed and published. And the brilliance is that even the concept is not all that new, just new to batteries:

In some ways, the concept represents a variation on existing micro- and
nanoelectronic devices. "If you look at it from a digital electronics
perspective–it's just a flash drive," says Hubler. "If you look at it
from an electrical engineering perspective, you would say these are
miniaturized vacuum tubes like in plasma TVs. If you talk to a
physicist, this is a network of capacitors."

Is novelty a prerequisite of good scientific breakthroughs?

As I have written elsewhere, Einstein developed a theoretical framework that combined current understandings of what were previously unconnected ideas and phenomena, building on the ideas of Boltzmann, Hertz, Poincare, Mach, Planck, and others, but combining them in a way that enabled him to take what was best and leave behind the vestiges of their origins in older scientific practices and communities.

Those closest to Einstein’s discovery, the very individuals whose work Einstein recombined, Mach, Max Planck, Lorentz, Poincare, themselves never wholly embraced his work. Chance did not favor these very-prepared minds. Quite the opposite, each was too familiar with, and too committed to, what had come before to see how Einstein’s new combination could be something greater than the sum of its parts. Max Planck referred to Einstein’s theories as merely a generalization of Lorentz’ work. And Einstein once said of Mach, whose work he admitted to closely building on, “It is not improbable that Mach would have discovered the theory of relativity, if, at the time when his mind was still young and susceptible, the problem of constancy of the speed of light had been discussed among physicists.”

Of course, it's possible that the quantum battery won't work. But if we can find that out in only a year, and using existing technologies and techniques, who cares? This is what great science is made of.

Career skills in the new (networked) world

Thomas Friedman’s piece in the NYT this morning, The Do-It-Yourself Economy talks, in so many words, about the decomposition of production that has been taking place over the last four decades.  This decomposition has financial and strategic origins as much as technological, with such milestones as IBM deciding to outsource to Intel for its PC microprocessor, and to Microsoft for its operating system. 

This buy-versus-build (or “asset-lite”) strategy was pushed, by McKinsey among others, because it offered greater financial returns and strategic flexibility.  And as outsourcing increased, so did supplier sophistication and market acceptance. Here we are, 30 years later, and nobody blinks when, for example, Amazon releases a consumer electronic product relying on cellular connectivity. After all, anybody can now find the suppliers and service providers to put that together.

The technophile in Friedman sees the half-full cup of Americans now able to do, in small offices and with contract employees, what used to take entire companies (and full-time employment—which of course is the cup-half-empty view of the same trend). Everyone loves innovation.  In this column, he credits the internet and personal computing with enabling people, like marketer Ken Greer, to produce films for a fraction of what it used to take.  And his conclusion is right:

By being able to access all these cheap tools, Greer got to focus on
his value-add: imagination. The customer got a better product for less
money. But he didn’t create many new jobs. For that, he needs the
economy to pick up. “If we could only borrow a buck and invest,” said
Greer, “we’d all be rolling again.”

The irony of not hiring employees to do your work, but needing employment (needing others to hire employees), is noted but not the point of this post. 

The actual point is about being needed—about getting hired and doing well in this “new era.” In other words, employment is changing.

Q: What’s the ideal worker of the future? 

A: It’s not going to be the imaginative ones.  Sure, they’ll be involved.  But skip over the dour, hip, designerly types and look for those who can actually execute.

Why? Because behind Greer’s process of making a film that’s 20% the cost of traditional projects, there were roughly 5x the number of contracts with external suppliers, each of which required some form of project briefs, request for proposals, reviews and decisions, contract, work, evaluation of work, payment, and integration.  All are decisions that require initiative, independent thinking, integrity, and communications skills (to mention a few). Can you name more than 5 people in your organization that you would trust to do that at a strategic level and without adult supervision?

Contrary to popular jingoism, imagination is not America’s most important skill and saving grace. Innovation is about recombining existing resources in
new ways and always has been.  The challenge in this “new era” is not
simply imagining how old pieces can come together, but being able to actually make it happen. That’s execution (and not to be confused with the “executing-on-someone-else’s-ideas” implementation).

For us, the most important skills we stress in our entrepreneurship classes are not having new ideas but rather honing the skills to pull together networks that never existed before. Employment in this “new era”  hinges on your ability to execute across organizational boundaries, creating new partnerships in ways that traditional corporate work never involved, let alone allowed.

2010 Food + Health Entrepreneurship Academy

UC Davis Center for Entrepreneurship Announces Inaugural
 Food + Health Entrepreneurship Academy

Unilever, PepsiCo, Innovation Center Denmark and Kraft Foods Named as Sponsors

Applications Now Available Online

DAVIS, Calif., – The University of California at Davis (UC Davis) Center for Entrepreneurship today announced the details of the second annual Food and Health Entrepreneurship Academy. Presented by the UC Davis Center for Entrepreneurship, the Academy will be held from February1 – 5, 2010 at the Buehler Alumni Center at UC Davis. The Academy is a one-week intensive designed for PhD students, postdocs, and research faculty working in fields related to foods, nutrition and human health who want to learn to analyze, enhance and communicate the broader potential impact of their research, explore business opportunities and design research programs that address practical applications.

Applications are due by January 1, 2010 and are available at http://entrepreneurship.ucdavis.edu/health. All accepted students will receive scholarships to cover the program’s tuition, materials, and lodging.

The lead sponsor of the Academy is Unilever. Major sponsors are PepsiCo., Innovation Center Denmark (Silicon Valley) and Kraft Foods.  “Unilever is delighted to sponsor this event. A key component of our strong commitment to open innovation is the skills, culture and competencies that we need in our organisation to foster strong entrepreneurship and creative drive. Our vitality mission also makes the Food and Health initiative highly relevant for us,” said Phil Giesler, Innovation Director at Unilever Corporate Ventures.

The five-day academy will cover the basics of entrepreneurship, with sessions focusing on networking, intellectual property, market and business validation, elevator pitches, development strategies, developing a business pitch, and the logistics of building a team and establishing an organization. Participants also work with mentors from the venture and business community to develop their group presentations and a keynote networking dinner is scheduled for Wednesday, February 3, 2010 for participants, industry executives, guest faculty and mentors.

“To successfully bring ideas out of the laboratory and into the marketplace, emerging research technologies must co-evolve with existing market- and business-based opportunities. With this focus in mind, PepsiCo is working with the FHEA to identify and develop synergies between the fields of foods, nutrition and human health,” said Karin Rotem, Director of Innovation, PepsiCo.

Further details about the Academy can be found at http://entrepreneurship.ucdavis.edu or email Nicole Starsinic, busdev@gsm.ucdavis.edu. For sponsorship opportunities, please contact Wil Agatsein, executive director, at wagatstein@ucdavis.

Brilliantly, tragically funny side of networked innovations

When you create a product and business model that shape-shifts the entire cellular industry—your fate is tied to partners who may not share the same vision, values, or aspirations (no need for sympathy—the only thing worse, of course, is to watch it all happen from the sidelines).  A not-so-brief chat with Randall Stephenson of AT&T in the "Secret Diary of Steve Jobs" captured the experience perfectly.

The problem, according to AT&T, is that hardcore iPhone users—the customers AT&T shares with Apple—are using the "smart" in smartphones too much:

The carrier has had trouble keeping up with wireless data usage, leading to dropped connections and long waits for users trying to run
programs on their devices. AT&T is upgrading its network to cope,
but its head of consumer services, Ralph de la Vega, told investors at
a UBS conference in New York that it will also give high-bandwidth
users incentives to "reduce or modify their usage." (see story).

As fake Steve Jobs explains to AT&T's CEO:

And now here we are. Right here in your own backyard, an American
company creates a brilliant phone, and that company hands it to you,
and gives you an exclusive deal to carry it — and all you guys can do
is complain about how much people want to use it.