Wednesday, April 2, 2008


InnovationBeat - the training newsroom for the Innovation Journalism Fellowship Program at Stanford - has been completed for this round. Big thanks to the readers and the newsroom: the Injo Fellows 2008 and the coaches, G. Pascal Zachary and John Markoff!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Semiconductor Innovation Requires National Support

Henry Kressel, senior managing director of Warburg Pincus, says the US is in need of a public innovation policy. The industry can no longer afford running the big labs that are needed for innovating materials, other structures are needed, involving an important role for national government. Kressel was instrumental for the development of semiconductor lasers and solar cells.

The Crankiest Geek sees television's tommorrow

John C.Dvorak, legendary technology commentator and host of “Cranky Geeks” comments on future of Broadcast television being replaced by IPTV.

Google starts bubble-blowing

Statistics can seem numbing -- column after column of grey, boring numbers. But statistics can also be represented through animations, such as colorful bubbles dancing over your screen.

Last year, Google aquired the statistics animation program, Trendalyzer, from the Swedish Gapminder Foundation. Now the basic functions are available as small software gadget, that lets you put color and motion to your own datasets.

Trendalyzer started as the brainchild of Hans Rosling, professor in international health at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. He searched for a way to tell his students that the “world was getting better;" that differences in standard of living, life expectancy at birth, child mortality and so on were diminishing. His son Ola Rosling and Ola’s wife Anna Rosling-Ronnlund developed the animation software.

At the TED conferences in 2006 and 2007 Hans Rosling got a lot of attention for his lectures on world development, in which he used Trendalyser to illustrate the message. (He also got some extra attention for swallowing a sword-- or to be precise, a 19th century Swedish army rifle bayonet -- on stage.)

The development of Trendalyzer was organized by the Gapminder Foundation and financed with grants mainly from the Swedish International Development Agency. Last spring, Google acquired Trendalayzer from Gapminder; the company also retained the services of Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling-Rönnlund.

The two Swedes have since worked on a new version of Trendalayzer that can be used to visualize and animate all sorts of datasets, from stockmarket statistics to population demographics. Last week Google released the group's first product, a small gadget that can be used together with the Google.doc spreadsheet.

“It is very basic," says Ms. Rosling-Rönnlund. "But you get bubbles and color, you get motion and you can use your own data."

Solar Cells 2.0: in clothing, camping gear -- everywhere?

Imagine being able to charge your laptop on a two-week trek, far away from electrical outlets. That will be possible by the end of the year using organic technology, claims the plastic solar cell company Konarka. What would that mean for people in the underdeveloped world, who live far away from electricity grids?

Konarka is right now building a plant for mass production of printable electronics. The company's technology is flexible plastic photovoltaics, which converts the sunlight into electricity that can be used directly to power electrical gadgets.

It will be possible to weave these fibers into clothes – to keep you warm in the winter – or to cover electronics with them.

This new generation of organic solar cells emerged from the discovery of conductive polymers. In 2000, Professor Alan Heeger at University of California, Santa Barbara, won the Nobel prize in chemistry for this breakthrough.

Conductive polymers, or plastics that conduct electricity, can be liquified into inks and printed onto materials like plastic film. They are manufactured using nano techniques.

After his discovery, Mr. Heeger set out to commercialize the organic photovoltaics and co-founded Konarka.

Konarka is one of many companies who are working intensely on finding the right molecular structure for plastic solar cells, making them cheaper, more effective and mass producible. Konarka says it will be first to market its findings, but critics are saying that the company has raised tens of millions in venture capital and is lagging behind its time table -- and still has no products.

Plastic solar cells have been called the next generation solar technology and have many potential advantages over classical solar cells, made out of silicon wafers, as well as the thin film-approaches.

Silicon cells expensive

"The traditional solar cells are made out of big silicon crystals," says Paul Alivisatos, a pioneer in nano solar technology. "They need to be perfect and huge. You can compare them to a diamond. If you want to coat the desert with diamonds, then that is going to be hard to do."

Hard and costly. Prices for silicon have risen sharply in recent years, partly because manufacturers of the material did not anticipate the spike in demand for silicon solar cells.
“So we thought, instead of coating diamonds so big, what is the absolute smallest size we can make?” asks Mr. Alivisatos, who is a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

He and his Berkeley research team are working on nanocrystals, both in thin film and in plastic solar cells.

Thin film cheaper but less effective

Thin film -- the other competing solar technology for home users -- mostly uses layers of copper, indium, gallium, and selenium CIGS, as a semiconductor. Thin film is not as effective at converting light into electricity as silicon solar cells, but it is cheaper. Thin film is more susceptible to moisture than silicon though, and therefore wears out more easily. On the other hand, silicon is fragile. Hail is the main reason silicon solar panels break in the field.

What Konarka is attempting to do in organic photovoltaics, companies like Global Solar and Nanosolar have already achieved with thin film technology -- the flexible solar cells. You can order Global Solar’s flexible, portable chargers for $14-15 per watt online. It comes with a plug the same as a car cigarette lighter. To charge a cell phone, you need a cable appropriate for your phone brand (i.e. Nokia) which can be plugged into a cigarette lighter.

Charging laptops is not yet possible. The portable charger lacks enough power.

Although Global solar still has a long way to go in some of its technologies, its vice president of sales and marketing, Tim Teich, is optimistic. “Thin film won’t take over the silicon industry, but we will burst the market with news in architectural- and building integrated products,” he says.

Thin film technology has the edge in maturity over plastic solar cells. But the technology is grappling with the problem of durability, just like plastic photovoltaics. A lot of the thin film companies are spreading the CIGS on glass, which is dense enough to solve the durability problem, but at the same time is the most expensive part of the solar cell.

Another problem is the rising cost of the material Indium, one part of the CIGS formula. “Some people say Indium will run out in 7 years, other say they will discover more with mining,” says Nathan Lewis, a professor of Chemistry at California Institute of Technology.

Whether the mineral is scarce or not is debatable, but researchers are trying to find substitutes for it anyway.

Efficiency solved problem

Ability to harvest the energy of the sun is the most important factor in photovoltaics. But it is not always the most relevant parameter for judging the competitiveness of the different solar technologies. “In some sense the ability of making an efficient solar cell is a solved problem," says Mr. Alivisatos. "Today we have reached even 42 percent efficiency.”

“The big problem is to make a lot" of very efficient solar cells, he continues. "This is very, very hard to do. Nobody knows how to make huge amounts of solar cells."

Instead of efficiency, solar-cell technologies are often measured in dollar per watt, or the cost of the effect they can deliver. The benchmark is one dollar per watt, which is the price for conventional energy sources like coal. Crystal silicon panels of good quality cost 3.50-4.50 dollar per watt. Thin film on the lower end has a price of 2.60-3.30 dollar per watt, according to the thin film company Global Solar.

“Cost per watt is not what matters in the end, because people are buying electricity, not capacity,” says Mr. Lewis.

In order to calculate the cost of the electricity - or energy – that the different photovoltaics deliver, two important aspects should be taken into account: their lifetime and the cost of installation. The installation costs, including hooking up the cells on the roof and attaching them to the grid, actually amounts to half of the cost for the solar cells, in traditional silicon wafers. Traditional wafers last for 30 years, but thin film and plastic solar are still far behind. In order to compensate for that, they have to be cheap to manufacture.

Finding new material

One of the research groups trying to lower the manufacturing cost of plastic solar cells is led by Michael McGehees, a professor at Stanford University's Materials Science and Engineering Department.

On a recent visit to Mr. McGehees' group, there is a buzzing sound from in the Gabelle laboratory for advanced materials, where the group conducts its experiments.

“Here are the glove boxes,” says Alex Mayer, a post-doctorate researcher who is giving a tour of the lab to a visitor.

These are six-feet tall metallic vacuum boxes, into which scientists are sticking their arms into big latex gloves in order to carry the tests. The researchers are trying to find the most effective materials for the active layer of the plastic solar cell. And they are trying to replace Indium Tinoxe, which is the most common transparent conductor that the plastic cells are being coated with.

“You see, different materials absorb different portions of the light," says Mr. Mayer. "We are stacking them onto one another in order to get the best possible effect."

The plastic solar cells that the research group is working on have huge potential, but also face big challenges. One of the toughest problems is the low efficiency, right now at 5.4 percent.

Mr. Heeger, the Santa Barbara professor, succeeded in constructing a more efficient organic cell, a so-called tandem cell. He put two light absorbing layers on top of one another, shaping the cell like a double hamburger. The construction raised the efficiency of light harvesting to 6.5 percent.

Printed electronics the future

But if some of the plastic solar cell problems could be solved, they have the potential to change the world. “Printed electronics is going to be the next wave of electronic products,” says Dan Williams, vice president of product development at Konarka. “People will use printed electronics for displays, battery technology and photovoltaic materials. It is a revolution, I think the whole area of printed electronics is going to explode within four-five years."

The flexibility, light weight and low production cost of organic photovoltaics could make them useful for a wide range of products, which are currently powered by batteries. “Just think about it," Mr. Williams says. "Today the battery is the biggest part in every product, it takes up thirty to fourty percent of the space."

“If we only had a mili part of the power, the gadgets would look differently” he continues.

Mr. Williams hopes that technology development will go hand in hand with the plastic solar cell evolution and that future products will be able to run on much less energy. They would be able to operate through sun power, like some calculators are doing today, or like newer products like for instance One laptop per child-computers.

Konarka’s R&D is today focusing on increasing the durability of the cell, which is now merely five years. The company is trying to discover new encapsulation layers that will better keep moisture out of the cell.

Tesla hits the road

This week Innovation Beat went for a test ride in the all-electric sports car Tesla Roadster that went into full-scale production a week ago.

The silver-gray car is one of 27 prototypes being built prior to production. It accelerated promptly from 0 to 60 mph in several seconds as we entered highway 101 near Tesla’s headquarters in San Carlos.

Tesla assembles the car at a leisurely one-a-week pace at its production site in Hethel, England. The goal is to speed up assembly to 30 cars per week in a couple of weeks, reaching a total output of 600 vehicles for the 2008 calendar year.

The cars are shipped from England to Tesla’s headquarters in San Carlos, California, where the battery pack, transmission and motor are installed. First deliveries are expected in April, with the very first car going to Tesla’s co-founder Martin Eberhard. His car is to be painted dark gray with orange stripes.

Some eye-catching paint is probably a good idea, since the car itself does not generate attention by making loud noice. Compared to a roaring muscle car like the Mustang Shelby, a ride with the Tesla feels like a stroll on the beach in Half Moon Bay – the wind is the only sound you hear.

About 900 people have placed deposits for the $100,000 car. Tesla hopes to increase yearly production to 1,800 cars in 2009.

The 27 prototype vehicles are just made for test purposes. If you expected they would sell as discounted product samples, I am sorry to disappoint you. Another video of the test ride might cheer you up:

Silicon Valley is going solar

Tanja Aitamurto, Moi Mukkolat Photo Agency, for Innovation Beat

Anyone who thought solar energy was all about latte-drinking, Prius-driving green-bums, think again.

Nowadays, solar enthusiasts and clean-tech investors alike only reluctantly speak about the environment. They're in it for the money - and so are the consumers.

"It's kind of funny actually," says Kevin Ruszel, installer for Solar City, as he finishes his work on twelve solar panels atop a roof in San Rafael. "Sometimes we install for people who have two SUV:s standing in their garage, but I guess they just want to save some money."

As far as Solar City's founders Peter and Lyndon Rive -- two brothers from South Africa -- are concerned, there is only one thing you have to watch before going solar - and that is not a movie by Al Gore.

"Just look at your electricity bill," says Lyndon Rive. "In the last years, the prices have gone up with more than six percent each year. And nothing speaks for that to change. We expect solar to be profitable in a non-subsidized environment as early as 2010."

And perhaps the Californians have been scrutinizing their electricity bills lately. Solar City is so busy that their customers have to wait for two months before getting their panels installed. And installers like Kevin Ruszel can cash in.

"I used to work for another solar company," he says while taking a break in the shadow of the ever warmer sun. "But Solar City offered me a higher wage. There is a great demand for people who know how to do this."

Solar City wants to be the "Starbucks of the solar business," as Peter Rive puts it. That means that service and prices are more important than efficient solar panels

"We've actually just started using a new type of panels," Peter goes on. "We install cheaper ones now. They're not as efficient, but that is not the issue. If the customer wants more power, we just install another panel. We rarely have to cover the whole roof anyway."

Solar City is one of the fastest growing solar company in California, and Peter Rive thinks it's the right time to be sprinting.

"At this moment, there is a window of opportunity to establish powerful brands in the solar business," he says.

There is indeed something happening now. Last year saw the biggest amount of cash ever flowing into the clean-tech sector. With more than $ 2.6 billion of investments, the sector has increased eightfold in two years, and most of it is going one place: Silicon Valley.

Why? Well, first of all, the money's already there.

"California has always been in the lead when it comes to venture capital," says Emily Vendell at the National Venture Capital Association, "and the clean-tech sector has all the attributes a venture capitalist is looking for, like public demand and possibilites for innovation."

So the same brains and wallets that sparked the information revolution are now trying to save the world - or at least making money while trying.

Just a few miles from Solar City's offices, a company called Ausra is planning the world's biggest solar-thermo plant. The company's biggest investor is Vinod Khosla, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems. He lured the Australian founders of Ausra to Silicon Valley with a $50 million check.

"California is where the market is," says John O' Donnell, Ausra's executive vice-president. "This is where all the smart and fearless investors are."

Like most other cleantech people in the Bay Area, O'Donnell prefers talking about financial opportunities than about global warming. "When we open up our Las Vegas-factory in May, we will be producing 1000 MW of installations a year," he says. "That's twice the size of anyone else in the industry."

Ausra's business model relies on existing, but cheaper, technology. Importantly, the company's way of storing electricity is cheaper - just simply storing the heat

"It's like a coffee thermos," says O'Donnell. "A coffee thermos stores the same amount of energy as a laptop battery, but it's one hundred times cheaper."

Right now, Ausra is planning a solar farm in San Luis Obispo. The output - 177 MW - is enormous by previous solar standards. That translates to more than 100 new windmills -- and the power plant "only" occupies 484 football fields of farmland.

"With this technology," enthuses O"Donnell, "we can power the entire nation with eight percent of Nevada."

So what about the recession? And what if, for some unforeseen reason, global warming won't be as hip in a few years?

No problem, says the Rive brothers at Solar City. All it takes is for the electricity bills to keep climbing - and people will keep buying solar.

Says Pete Rive, "We've had some customers who've asked us: 'You don't believe in this global warming bull, do you?'"

John O'Donnell's Ausra uses stored thermal heat to
power the grid during peak-hours.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Quickening Race in Video-streaming from Cell Phones

Being a TV-producer is getting simpler. Just point your cell phone in the right direction, and moving pictures will be sent to the web in real time. And that's whether you are filming your cousin’s wedding, the final in the local pub quiz or your own poetry readings.

All you need is a small piece of software uploaded to your phone, and an account with an ambitious new company named Qik.

Qik, of Foster City, California, has developed technology to broadcast video live from most mobile phones to the Web. The company offers a free service -- available on an invitation-only basis for three months. There are several thousand registered users from more than 55 countries, according to Qik co-founder Bhaskar Roy.

Broadcasting live over the Web, from cell phones, is such a new activity that its social, political and economic implications are hard to identify. But they might be comparable to what blogging tools -- and the vast proliferation of bloggers -- have done to traditional media over the past few years. Today, newspapers and magazines face unprecedented competition from self-publishing, chiefly in the form of blogs. Live, inexpensive broadcasting by anyone with a cell phone could create a similar big upheaval in mainstream television.

The success of sites like Flickr, Myspace and Facebook proves that a lot of people want to share pictures -- and their whole lives -- with others. A lot of the content on Youtube is also produced by individuals. Live video adds an extra dimension to current personalized media. Instead of documenting what has happened, you invite other to share the experience in real time.

“The good thing is not just the webstream, but also the interaction,” says Mr Roy.
“We can send messages back to the phone. A blogger doing a video interview can ask the audience for questions to put to the person he is interviewing.”

Three former Oracle employees founded the company less than two years ago.

“We knew video was going to be big, and mobile was going to be big, so this was a natural combination”, says Qik CEO Ramu Sunkara.

He sees live video as a way of communicating that will find users in many different situations.
One example is the way he himself used it, when his seven year old daughter woke up in the middle of the night. A screw in her braces had come loose, causing a wire to pierce her flesh.

Using Qik, Mr. Sunkara contacted his orthodontist, who was able to watch what was happening to the child over the Web. The orthodontist then told Mr. Sunkara how to fix the problem.

Qik's technology is still in “alpha-phase”, according to the company. One challenge is to develop the software for more mobile phone models. Today Qik only works with certain Nokia handsets.

Another challenge is to make it work seamlessly in different mobile telephone systems, with different communication protocols and bandwiths.

But the biggest challenge for the company might come from other companies developing similar services. After all, it is not only Qik that sees live video-streaming as a natural step in the evolution of mobile phones.

Among the other entrants in the race is an Israeli start-up, Flixwagon. Judging from the presentation on its webpage, the service seems very similar to Qik's. Both companies let their users archive the videostreams so they can be watched many times or posted on Web sites.

Like Qik, Flixwagon only works with certain Nokia models. However, Swedish Mobycator -- developer of the video-uploading service, MobyPal, for several different mobile phones from Nokia, Samsung, Siemens and Sony Ericsson -- is now working on live streaming versions.

According to Mobycator management, their live streaming service will be out for beta testing within the next six months.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Breakfast with Steve Jobs, or something of the kind

The other day I had breakfast with Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

Or actually he was not Jobs at all; he was the blogosphere personality, Fake Steve Jobs.

And for the record; I was not alone, but sitting with hundreds of Eclipse software developers in the ball room at the Santa Clara Convention Centre.

We were listening to the Fake Steve Jobs, who is really Forbes magazine columnist Dan Lyons, author of the now legendary satirical blog that tries capture through fiction the real spirit of Apple's chief executive officer.

Lyons calls his blog "The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs," and, though a work of imagination, the diary has a strong following, especially among fervent Apple customers who both adore and are awed by the real Steve Jobs.

In an innovation economy, where overblown egos hype new products in search of a temporary advantage, and corporate spin is the weapon of choice, observers might think that exaggerated claims deserve to be ridiculed.

From this perspective, historians looking back at the latest high-tech bubble in Silicon Valley may come to read Mr. Lyons' blog in much the same way that people trying to understand the Wall Street boom of the late 1980s read Tom Wolfe’s "The Bonfire of the Vanities."

The Secret Diary first appeared on the computer screens in the summer of 2006. The writer was anonymous, and speculation over his or her identity began almost immediately. There was even some who believed Mr. Jobs himself penned the blog. Last year, The New York Times revealed Mr. Lyons as the author of the diary.

For Mr. Lyons, 47, writing the diary has been an educational journey. He went from life as a traditional print journalist to a celebrity. While less celebrated than Mr. Jobs himself, Mr. Lyons is today one of the best-known tech journalists in the world.

“I was covering things like IBM," he told his audience on Tuesday. "I was really bored; it was not a compelling job. I felt I could do it in my sleep."

He switched to blogging for Forbes, then -- inspired by the British magazine, Private Eye -- he decided to satirize Mr. Jobs, who after all is only the most fascinating -- and controversial -- personality in Silicon Valley.

“Why Steve Jobs? It’s obvious, I love Apple,” Mr. Lyons said. “But even if I do like their products I think the company is really strange. Their fans are really strange; they are like a cult that makes products."

In this diary, Jobs is presented as a narcissistic corporate titan with strange habits and a totally egocentric way of looking at what happens around him. The fake Steve Jobs, as presented by Mr. Lyons, is such a compelling character that some readers mistook the fake one for the real Jobs, asking for free products, coming up with ideas.

“The best part is that he doesn’t seem to realize that everyone around him hates him," he said. "Jobs is a notoriously bad manager.”

Writing the blog has also been an experience in how much a journalist can actually gain by getting into close contact with the readers, who came up with the name Fake Steve jobs.

“Right now a lot of the blog is actually driven by the audience and their comments," he said. "The audience interacting in real time is something new. It is very live, very dynamic. I get 25-50 emails a day, people doing movies and animation.”

Readers of Fake Steve Jobs already know all the ways he describes friends and foes. Microsoft is “The Borg” and Bill Gates the "Beastmaster". Jonathan Schwartz of Sun Microsystems was “the Pony tail”, until someone from the inside called and said that they call him “Pony boy”. Steve Ballmer is Uncle Fester and Apples own customers -- iTards.

But Mr. Lyons is not without enemies himself as some in the high-tech community thinks he is a lackey for Microsoft -- and an opponent of the open-source darling, Linux. As a Forbes reporter, Mr. Lyons, for instance, wrote favorably about the attempt by the SCO Group to obtain money from Linux users through the threat of litigation.

In a cover story for Forbes 2005, Attack of the Blogs, he also described some of the bloggers in less than favourable terms, with sentences such as: "They destroy brands and wreck lives. Is there any way to fight back?”

The role of humor in the innovation eco-system is the terrain that Mr. Lyons explores. In an industry that often takes itself too seriously, humor can be in short supply -- making Mr. Lyons refreshing.

Here are a few of his quips:

After visiting Macworld for the first time this year, he said, “Windows is like going to be normal again.”

On the plight of struggling Sun Microsystems, he said: “Every other week when Sun announces a new thing, it is always some line of bull.... I mean, how meaningless can you possible be?”

“I covered IBM for years," he observed, "and those were the worst in my life, is still having to go to a shrink to talk about it.”

And what would does the Fake Steve Jobs say about Nokia? "I heard about them but I don’t know what they do," he said. "I think they are some random company from Finland or stuff – or he gets it wrong or says they are from Sweden or something, he always gets countries wrong.”

What about Jim Cramer at Mad Money on CNBC – another media personality who has turned business journalism into entertainment?

“He is terrible," Mr. Lyons said. "I think you only have to look at him as entertainment and, he is an idiot, I can’t believe that he is on TV, I am appalled by it.”

Mr. Lyons' current favourite topic is the fetish over Apple's iPhone.

“I was appalled by the iPhone hysteria," he said. "A $600 phone, I thought it was stupid but also very scary, people waiting outside in the rain for five or six days.”

Fake Steve Jobs can be seen as innovation in journalism, but Mr. Lyons still has a day job to return to at Forbes.

Afterwards, when the roars of laughter from hundreds of nerds had gone by, we talked about the state of business journalism in the U.S. He thinks is too much CEO celebrity, too little serious journalism, except at Forbes, Business Week and Wall Street Journal. The Economist is his big favourite.

“I tried it a little bit in this column with the Forbes; to use a little bit of the humour and voice in what I do for Fake Steve in that forum, but no, I understand its different things, it’s a different mode writing that column.”

So in Forbes the writer you meet is a very traditional tech journalist. No wonder it took people so long to figure out who the real Fake Steve Jobs is. Driving the search was his own publisher at Forbes, Rich Karlgaard. Dan Lyons thinks this is a bit embarrasing -- considering, he said, that at least 50 people knew his identity.

MedApps goes for the Gold (Medal)

This week an unknown company won the business plan competition Mobile Rules in San Jose. Next summer the company will take the pulse of the Olympics in Beijing, China. MedApps, of Scottsdale, Arizona-based company, is launching with style.

The idea behind the Mobile Rules competition is to find new innovative mobile solutions for consumers made by start-up or medium-size companies. There were almost 150 applications to all the categories.

MedApps sells a system that monitors a patient's health by collecting, analyzing and sending data to the health care providers. The system, for example, sends information of the glucose level and blood pressure to the doctor and stores the data to the patient's file. The health-care professionals can monitor the patient's health and react to the problems as they occur.
It's mainly for people suffering from chronic diseases like diabetes, but it also looks for customers with good health to prevent the diseases.

"People need to have their health record with them especially nowadays when people move from one doctor to another," says Kent Dicks, the President and CEO of MedApps.

The system requires a small, blue plastic device that will be sold through drugstores in the next three to four months. The patient's data is sent from the device via Bluetooth to his or her cell phone. The phone sends the data to a central server that the doctor can access.

Mr. Dicks says that the prize will be 120-400 dollars depending how sophisticated system the patient wants to have. There will be also a monthly fee for the service, probably some tens of dollars.

In future, MedApps would like to offer its service through any mobile phone. The information will be stored on the phone's memory card.

The system also takes care of the patient's health by speaking, in one of many languages, such phrases as, "Did you exercise today?" or "Have you taken your medication?"

Mr. Dicks says that the system can also help to prevent chronic diseases by, for example, pushing the customer to exercise.

This summer, 50 athletes on the U.S. Olympic team are expected to use MedApps devices to monitor certain body functions. This device already has received FDA-approval.

On Wednesday, MedApps won the category for the best business plan in the annual Mobile Rules competition organized by Nokia and FinNode, the Finnish innovation center in Santa Clara.

The founder of the competition and the director of the FinNode, Pekka Parnanen, said that the judges were impressed by MeApps' strong and experienced management team.

"They had a clear vision of the market and what the customers need," Parnanen says.

MedApps has been financed by an angel investor in Luxembourg. The company, which received an initial investment of $1 million, said it wants to raise an additional $8 million to $10 million later this year.

In the another category in the Mobil Rules competition -- the award for the best multimedia mobile application -- was won by a company that makes a music player that tailors its play lists to specific users. The Social Player -- from MyStrands Inc. of Corvalis, Oregon -- recognizes the type of music preferred by its owner, and then tries to anticipate and supply other music the person might enjoy.

“There is so much content today, people need tools to discover the things they like,” says VJesus Pindado, Vice President of Business Solutions for MyStrands. "The product itself isn't revolutionary but the technology behind it is.”

According to Pindado, MyStrands hopes to gain recognition, new contacts and new distribution channels as a result of winning the competition.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Mitchell Kertzman:On Power of Silicon Valley

Mitchell Kertzman, Managing Director of Hummer Winblad Venture Partners, regards entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley as its power. Here is what he tells about innovation and future trend of investments...

How one city in Silicon Valley tries to solve its bandwidth problem

Silicon Valley is renowned as the technology hub of the world, yet broadband speeds are, at best, 10 percent of what is available in markets such as Japan, Korea and Northern Europe. Why is sufficient bandwidth such a rare commodity in this global center for innovation and what’s being done about it?

“We are an innovative region, innovation is our life blood. Not having world class communications in a city like Palo Alto becomes a threat to our brand”, says Bob Harrington, a resident of Palo Alto and an advocate for the community citywide fiber initiative started in 2001.

As opposed to the copper cables of telephones and television wires, fiber optic cables convey information in the form of hyperquick laser pulses. Consumers hooked up with fiber-optic communication can get speeds up to 1000 times faster than standard DSL and Cable networks. The future promises even more. In recent experiments, broadband rates of up to 14.000 Gigabits per second have been reached over a single fiber.

While Palo Alto does have a limited municipal area fiber network and the incumbent cable and phone providers have some fiber in the city, cost and availability means that the vast majority of the residents, small and middle-sized companies have to do without fiber.

“Today the infrastructure is not in place so if you want fiber, it takes a lot of time, money, and effort to get connected”, says Brian Ward, Utilities Account Representative at the City of Palo Alto. “Residents call us all the time saying they want access to high-speed Internet so we’re eager to find a solution that works for everybody”, says Ward.

This problem is not unique for Palo Alto. Finding functioning business models to build fiber to the home in places with low population density is a challenge currently facing communities across America. Thus even though it is the self-proclaimed high-tech capital of the world with some of the highest property values in America, with only 60,000 residents, Palo Alto is too small to warrant a purely private Fiber to the Home investment.

Not having a solution for the business model challenge in low density environments is hurting the competitive position of the U.S. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. has dropped from 4th to 15th place in the world when it comes to broadband penetration since 2001. The International Telecommunications Union’s digital opportunity index which considers price and capacity shows even worse ratings with the U.S. coming in at 21st place. Broadband subscribers in the U.S. pay twice as much as their Asian or European counterparts for one-twentieth the speed.

Broadband policy in the United States is focused on driving "facilities based" competition and maintaining relatively light regulation, thus giving state agencies limited or no jurisdiction over broadband providers, including telecommunications, wireless, and video carriers and satellite providers. While this policy has succeeded in driving more private-sector investment in broadband infrastructure, it also means that it is difficult to get companies to invest in the deployment of fiber in less profitable areas.

In 1994, with strong citizen encouragement, Palo Alto first started exploring the possibility of building a city fiber network in phases, a fiber network designed to serve big companies would be built first, then if proven feasible, a citywide fiber to the home network would be added. A 32-mile city-owned fiber network was built in 1996, designed to serve big companies who could install and manage their own electronics on either end of the point-to-point fiber strand they leased by the mile by the month. It was, and is, quite successful.

In 2001, planning for a citywide "fiber to the home" network began in earnest. However, the project was suspended in 2005 by the city council because of regulatory issues and because it was considered too expensive to carry out with public funding alone. The city has been searching for a legally and financially viable solution ever since.
Now it seems they may finally have found one.

“Working 9 to 5 is not enough in a place like Silicon Valley," Harrington says. "Our most important innovative assets, the people, go home at night and we need to make sure they have continued access to reliable communications. If you want to work from home, a Mickey Mouse connection is not enough."

Through a public Request for Proposal (RFP) process, the city of Palo Alto identified a private consortium that has come up with an innovative business model for enabling the building of the network.

“The plan our group has developed has the potential to transform the way citizens in Palo Alto live, work and play with very limited risk to the city”, says Matt Wenger, President of PacketFront Inc, one of the companies in the consortium and a global pioneer in community fiber networks.

The consortium has proposed a model that would leverage existing city assets like rights-of-way, conduits, and poles to create the stimulus necessary to attract private investment in "fiber to the home" projects.

"The idea behind our approach is to enable cities like Palo Alto to achieve their vision without the financial, legal, or operational risks usually associated with community owned and operated networks,” says Wenger. “Both the public and private sectors are daunted by the expense of building fiber to the home in small communities like this. Only by working together can we overcome those obstacles.”

The consortium hopes the city will formally agree to participate in the project in the next few months. If the city does, proponents claim they will be able to connect the first residents and businesses before the end of the year.

Concentration in Web searching raises worries about fairness

During the last five years, the internet search market has consolidated into a duopoly, with very few alternatives to the two dominating services. That -- and not Microsofts current proposal to buy Yahoo -- is the real big issue for the average internet user.

Eric Schmidt, CEO Google CEO, recently said that a merger between Yahoo and Microsoft might harm the openness of the internet and the free flow of information.

But in reality, it is hard to see how the proposed merger would change the present situation significantly. Since Microsoft launched its proposal to acquire Yahoo in February, Yahoo’s management have tried to fend off the unwanted suitor. Their main argument, as repeated in a business presentation on Tuesday, is simple:

Google is big, so are we and Microsoft is far behind, and that will make us extremely profitable in the future. (Which of course is just the reason why Microsoft’s management wants to buy the company.)

If Jerry Yang’s estimates of market share are correct, the two leadings search engines already have a nearly total dominance. Which means that we have a duopoly in place, Microsoft merger or not.

That could be bad news, some say, for new approaches to navigating the web.

“I think it is worrisome, primarily because it might stifle innovation," says James Hendler, professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic in New York. "We have seen that happening before in operating systems, web browsers. I don’t think it will change our view of the world, but it means that a lot of new approaches in search that won’t get tried.”

In his own research, Mr. Hendler aims at making information on the web searchable in new ways.

“People who are trying to launch new search engines are going to have a very hard time," he says, given the concentration in the industry.

So, why would anyone want a new search engine? Well, you can regard the databases and the search algorithms used as a representation of the web, in the same manner as the photo is a representation of a piece of the physical reality. Change the angle, the lightning or the focus and the character of the picture changes. In the same way, there are differences in how different search engines find and rank pages, in their perspective of the web so to say.

One example of a different approach to search is Mahalo, an attempt to create a service based on input from users, in a manner reminding of Wikipedia. At least in theory, human-powered search could give quite different results from computerized search.

Another issue is "trust." The big search engines use their own proprietary technology to find and rank web pages. So how do you know that the results are fair?

Well, you don’t, some say.

“In particular, since there are no regulatory agencies watching how search engines determine which result should be number one and which should be number 393,551, what happens if that's not actually fair?” asks Dave Taylor, a Colorado-based blogger.

Mr. Taylor's concerns are shared by Mr. Hendler who opines, “It is easy to manipulate searches. Google has chosen to differentiate between sponsord search results from non-sponsored. But we only have their word for it.”

“You have to trust Google or Microsoft," he adds. "But in the end there is the question, why am I trusting them? And if I don’t trust them, where will I go if there is only one or two of them?”

Weak dollar speeds Tesla's European plans

Tesla Motors president and CEO, Ze’ev Drori, confirmed that the company this week began regular production of its all-electric sports car, the Tesla Roadster. The 600 cars to be produced in 2008 are already sold. Tesla is currently taking orders for its 2009 model. To date, about 300 cars for the 2009 model have been ordered.

The price of the car – $100,000 – might sound high, but the falling value of the dollar rate effectively makes the car cheaper for Europeans and Asians to buy and more expensive to build, since Tesla buys parts from non-dollar countries and assembles the car in England. The euro has strengthened 18 per cent against the dollar in the past year. It continued to rise 2 per cent last week, following the interest rate cut by U.S. Federal Reserve. Prospects for further falls in the value of the dollar are likely, according to economists.

Tesla now hopes to achieve a better balance between income and cost currencies, by starting to sell the car in Europe.

“We have always wanted to distribute in Europe, but with the low dollar we are going to move quicker,” says Darryl Siry, Vice President of Sales, Marketing and Service at Tesla. “The introduction date for the Roadster in Europe will be announced in a couple of months.”

The U.S. and the European car markets operate under different regulatory frameworks.
In order to sell the car in Europe, Tesla has to cope with a whole new set of emissions and safety standards.

“Emissions regulations we have no problem meeting,” Mr. Siry says with a smile.

Tesla hasn't selected its initial target countries in Europe yet, but Sweden and Norway are considered attractive. While these countries are small, they are early adopters of environmentally-friendly technologies. All-electric cars definitely fall in this category. In addition, Norway and Sweden offer tax incentives to domestic buyers of low-emission cars that effectively will reduce the price of the Tesla model.

The car runs on a lithium ion battery that allows it to go for 220 miles on a single charge. These estimates are derived from climate conditions in California. Lithium-ion batteries might not last as long in a cold climate.

“A big challenge for electric cars in cold countries is to resist the low temperature,” says Niklas Gustavsson, environmental spokesperson for Volvo, which is using the same type of battery in its hybrid prototype vehicle. “We know that the capacity of lithium ion batteries decreases in lower temperature.”

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Volvo, Saab team up on "green" hybrids

Two Swedish carmakers, Volvo Car Corporation and Saab Automobile, have joined forces in a unique co-operation to develop hybrid-electric cars. The initiative, announced this week, aims to build a new family car that combines the power of an advanced lithium-ion battery with a conventional diesel-fuel engine. The prototype vehicle – introduction date unknown – has four electric motors, one for each wheel. The novel design aims to improve energy efficiency.

“We have a unique opportunity to take the lead when it comes to innovations for advanced green-car technology,” said Fredrik Arp, President and CEO of Volvo, in a prepared statement.

It is noteworthy and important when two fierce automobile competitors team up to design future cars. Besides both being Swedish, the two companies share another common trait: both are owned by American companies. Volvo is owned by Ford, and Saab is owned by General Motors. The collaboration in research between Volvo and Saab still permits each company to sell different hybrid models under their own names.

“There are a lot of technologies to explore and by co-operating we can afford to try different alternatives,” Niklas Gustavsson, environmental spokesperson for Volvo, said in an interview. “And through General Motors, Saab has valuable knowledge about hybrid cars."

All over the world, auto-companies are accelerating the development of electric alternatives. The appealing idea is to reduce the use of carbon-emitting combustion engines and, at the same time, reap profits from a new generation of popular cars. Volvo-Saab also reflects another important trend in innovation: rivals cooperating in order to gain a competitive advantage – a tactic borrowed from major players in Silicon Valley. And finally, the partnership represents the newest attempt by American car-makers to catch up with Toyota and Honda, who together dominate the hybrid market in the U.S.

Volvo and Saab say that hybrid vehicles make the most sense over the next eight years. Unlike the all-electric concept car from Tesla Motors that went into production earlier this week, the planned Swedish concept car is only partly electric – and proud of it.

“An all-electric car still faces too many limitations of range, acceleration and top speed,” says Mr. Gustavsson.

The Swedish hybrid, which has green wheels and a white body color, has a battery-only range of 60 miles. But when the battery is depleted, a four-cylinder diesel engine kicks in. The diesel engine also recharges the battery for another electric drive, by transmitting energy back to the battery pack during braking.

“Today’s hybrids use the battery only for short periods to assist the combustion engine,” said Ichiro Sugioka, a Volvo project manager, in a prepared statement from the company. “Our solution is designed for most people to run on electric power all the time, while providing the extra security that comes with having a combustion engine as a secondary source of electrical power."

A person driving less than 60 miles a day with the Swedish hybrid will produce zero emissions. According to Volvo, almost 80 per cent of the drivers in the U.S. do not travel more than 60 miles a day. For a 100-mile drive with full batteries, the first 60 miles will be with no fuel consumption and the remaining 40 miles will be at 60 mpg. No more than 0.67 gallons of fuel is needed to go 100 miles, which is equivalent to 150 mpg.

Silicon Valley-based Tesla Motors has just started production of its $100,000 all-electric sports car, with first shippings targeted at a wealthy crowd of actors like George Clooney and corporate celebrities like Google's Larry Page. Volvo does not believe that an all-electric solution is yet realistic for the mass market, but appreciates the wide variety of projects around electric car development.

“The more electric car-manufacturers on the road, the better,” said Mr. Gustavsson. “It provides incentive to battery producers to improve power efficiency, price and quality."

The Swedish hybrid has a lithium ion battery, which is lighter and more energy efficient than traditional led-acid batteries. Batteries can be recharged via a regular electrical outlet, which takes about four hours and could be done over-night in a garage or a parking lot. The electric socket is placed between the two front wheels, to make it easy to plug into the mains wall socket. This differs from Tesla’s design, where the socket is placed on the left side where normally gasoline goes into a car.

“Re-charging an electric car is not a matter of re-fuelling,” said Mr. Gustavsson. “Tesla’s design could actually give the wrong impression that charging is faster than it really is. Even if we bring charging-time down to an hour it is still way longer than a stop at the gas-station."

The Swedish hybrid does not have a transmission – another attempt to reduce energy waste. Acceleration from 0 to 60 mph takes 9 seconds and top speed is 100 mph. However, several questions remain to be answered before Saab and Volvo are ready to bring the plug-in concept-car into full production.

The cost and durability of the battery is a main area for improvement. In addition, Volvo and Saab want feedback from test drivers before they select the final design. A test-fleet of ten hybrids will be produced and used by test drivers all across Sweden, keeping close track of how they drive, charge and approach the car.

“Inventing environmentally friendly technology is not enough,” Mr. Gustavsson said. “You also have to convince the customers to buy it, and preferably pay more than the price of a traditional car.”

The prototype vehicles will cost between $150,000 and $300,000 each to produce, Volvo says. The high cost is due mainly to the expensive battery technology (Volvo wants to bring down the cost substantially before marketing the car). The actual selling price is not set, but is expected to be higher than traditional gas-driven cars. Nevertheless, from a fuel consumption angle, an electric car is friendlier to the car owner’s wallet since electricity costs less than gas.
“With today’s prices, powering your car by electricity costs about one fifth of powering it by gas,” said Mr. Gustavsson.

The hybrid will make a substantial break-through in the global automobile market in about four years’ time, Mr. Gustavsson predicted. He said that a breakthrough for an all-electric car may not occur until after 2015.

“Most customers will not accept an all-electric car as a substitute for a traditional car," he said, "even if there is only one trip per year when they need the car to go far."

Monday, March 17, 2008

Doug Engelbart: "Collective IQ Can Save Us"

Doug Engelbart, father of the mouse and human computer interaction, tells InnovationBeat about how collective IQ will be needed to save the world.

Nano can Revolutionize Cancer Therapy

For most scientists having a venture capitalist or a representative from a big company on the phone, calling to discuss investments in your baby-project, is a dream that rarely comes true. For Gunilla Jacobson, researcher in the Department of Chemistry at Stanford Univesity, investors are beating a path to her door.
Investor interest in her is so great that she tries to avoid them.

“I want to get more results before deciding how to commercialize this,” she says.

Dr. Jacobson works in the hot field of nanomedicine. She is one of many scientists exploring how minute nanoparticles could be used to deliver a drug to certain locations in the body. If successful, this technology could revolutionize, for example, cancer treatment.

Today’s chemotherapy treatments are limited by serious side-effects of toxic drugs that hit the wrong target and wipe out healthy cells.

“What you really want is a target-specific delivery where the drug only reaches the cancer cells, “ says Dr. Jacobson.

To achieve this, Dr. Jacobson is developing a nano-sized Trojan horse, which won’t attack until it’s inside the tumor. She encapsulates the chemotherapy agent into a biodegradable nanoparticle, which she subsequently covers with molecules designed to stick to cancer cells. When injected into the bloodstream, the particle will travel freely until it hits a tumor and sticks.

Eventually the cover of the particle will degrade and its toxic load will leak out within the tumor area.

There are many competing versions of this approach developed by scientists at labs around the US. They may use different covering materials and different production methods. The advantage of Dr. Jacobson’s system, she says, is that she only uses FDA approved substances, which increases the chance of getting the drug approved. Furthermore, the manufacturing method is scalable and does not involve any expensive or unhealthy organic solvents. “At the lab we are making milograms nanoparticles, but if needed we could easily start to make kilograms,” says Dr. Jacobson.

Not all scientists think of commercialization while designing new drugs. But Dr. Jacobson, 38 years-old, knows the harsh economic demands imposed by an industrial process. She also has experience working in the industry as well as at four different universities.

She started her carrier as a Ph. D. student at Uppsala University in Sweden. This was followed by post-doc studies at University of Texas in Austin. Then she moved to the famous Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. After four years at universities, she felt she was ready for industry. She moved to Phoenix and joined a start-up company, Supercritical Systems, Inc. (SSI), which makes equipment for the semiconductor industry.

“It was a big shock for me, but also a very valuable experience," she says. "There was a lot more pressure to deliver results, both financially and from customers."

But she loved business. “In small start-ups, it is a win or lose situation," she says. "It matters more what I do."

Her situation changed when SSI was bought by Tokyo Electron Ltd, a large Japanese company.

“Suddenly people said things like 'we have already tried this,' and it became very static,“ says Dr. Jacobson.

She moved to Stanford, where her mother -- a material scientist -- once worked. “It feels as if I have come home at last," she says.

Paul Romer On Influence of Institutions and their Future Challenges

Paul Romer, one of the leading economists of United States, was the primary developer of New Growth Theory, providing new basis for business and government thinking about wealth creation and profits. Now he is on to new theory of a Non rival goods. Here is what he thinks about the role of institutions in accordance with non-rival goods and their technological and political challenges...

Friday, March 14, 2008

It's not about the science, stupid

Innovation, anyone? R&D? University funding?

As sure as the presidential election won't be about foxhunting, it won't be about science and technology.

"We've sort of resigned to the fact that America is a funny country," says Woody Powell, professor at Stanford University and editor of the journal "Research Policy."

It sure is funny - or at least weird - that an industry spending way over $300 billion a year gets less attention than if a superdelegate decides to use the bathroom in the Clinton mansion.

But contrary to popular belief, it's not all the media's fault.

"The scientific community has very few spokespersons on the national level," Powell goes on. "Perhaps it's because we're reluctant to talk out loud about how dependent we are on foreigners at the moment. A lot of people wouldn't like that."

Another reason is that most universities hesitate when it comes to openly embracing the gritty rules of politics.

"We are supposed to be Eiffel towers," Powell says. "Eiffel towers don't get down in the mud."

So what about the candidates? Don't they have any interest in raising the issue?

"The candidates can't start talking about things where there is basically no difference between themselves and their opponent," says Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

So is there any difference in the three candidates over science and technology policies? Well, at least none that are remotely big enough to compete with more pressing issues.

"Most voters are understandably focused on the economy, healthcare, and Iraq," says Tom Kalil, who is an adviser to Hillary Clinton on innovation policy.

The candidates do have some differences on science and technogy policy.

"There is a foundation that is common," Mr. Koizumi says. "What unites them is first and foremost the strong support for federal funding and embryonic research."

Things that separate them are obviously harder to find. McCain really likes tax breaks and thinks they are also a mean to foster innovation.

More important, though, he supports expansion of the H1-B visas - in opposition to some of his party colleagues

"But mere expansion is not enough. Reforms should eliminate the artificial limits and allow the Department of Labor to set a level of visas appropriate for market conditions," Senator McCain said earlier this year.

Barack Obama also shows strong support for H1-B visas. He supports "net neutrality" and wants to establish a national Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard that in 2025 would require renewable energy sources to represent 25 percent of the US electricity consumption.

"Clinton has the most elaborate plan of the candidates," says Patrick Windham, a lecturer at Stanford University and a former adviser to Al Gore.

She wants to establish a $50 billion Strategic Energy Fund to promote renewables. More significantly, she wants to increase the NIH budget by 50 percent over 5 years and double it over 10 years.

"That would have a lot of impact," says Mr Koizumi. "But I have no idea where she will find the money."

AAAS compares the candidates
TechChrunch endorses McCain and Obama

HP opens up the Lab doors

With it’s new Idea Lab, Hewlett-Packard gives outsiders a peek into their corporate research. The aim is to attract input from users, in the hope that it will speed up the companys’s innovation process.

Imagine opening your closet and immediately finding yourself face-to-face with a fire-breathing dragon, fresh from the gates of Hell. Or that you can look right through the wall of a building and see exactly where the electrical wires and water-pipe goes.

It might all be possible, using new a technology developed at HP Labs, Hewlett-Packard's corporate research organization. Called Mscapes, it imposes a virtual environment upon the real, physical one, and uses GPS-based navigation to pinpoint exactly where you are.

Mscapes is one of a number of projects that HP Labs is exhibiting in its new web site for Idea Lab, which gives visitors a hint of what the corporation’s researchers are up to. Here, you can download examples of new software, look at demos and write your comments and submit examples of your own on the site’s forums.

The Idea Lab is part of HP’s new “Open Innovation” strategy, a major component in the radical reorganization of the labs that Hewlett Packard announced last week. “We recognize that not all smart people in the world work at HP Labs,” said Prith Banerjee, head of HP Labs, during a presentation last week.

By encouraging feedback, the HP´s management hopes to encourage users and outside developers to help the company bring new innovations to market faster.

Some examples on display at the Idea Lab include new photoediting tools, mobile printing from cellphones and a service for republishing of old books on demand. The site also shows a new way of capturing and viewing small, almost undetectable details on objects.

The Idea Lab can be seen as an attempt to emulate the success of user-driven software development and user-generated content -- like Linux, MySQL, Flickr, Picasa and Facebook. If a big corporation like HP really can acheive this remains to be seen. However Mscape is already on its way to building a user community that creates its own content -- be it travels through a mysterious time-hole or a simple game where you stamp out moles (virtual ones that is).

Patrick Windham : Doubts on America's Innovation Strategy

Patrick Windham served as Senior Professional Staff Member for the Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space of the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Holding an authority on science, and technology policy issues here is what he thinks is lacking in America’s innovation strategy and health care sector in specific...

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Apple Inspires Tesla's All-Electric Sports Car

Hey, you think that two weeks is a long wait for the latest Apple MacBook to get into stores?

Well, that is nothing compared to how long – 18 months – that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, actor George Clooney and Google's Larry Page have waited for the first all-electric sports car ever to be sold in the U.S.

The sleek $100,000 Tesla sports car goes into production on Monday – with actual deliveries starting in a few weeks. The arrival of the car, offered by a closely-watched company in San Carlos, California, will delight the many celebrities who have ordered it. The Tesla Roadster represents a new trend in electric vehicles, the merger of automotive engineering with the ethos and elan of Silicon Valley.

"The company that we strive to emulate is Apple,” says Daryl Siry, Vice President of Sales, Marketing and Service at Tesla Motoros. “We want to be a company that innovates not only on the tech side but also on the design side. It is about developing cars but also about customer experience.”

While Siry's comparison between an all-electric sports car and an Apple's product line might seem like a stretch, Tesla's car is unquestionably a breakthrough, offering the equivalent of 100 miles to the gallon – and a driving range of 220 miles before a re-charge – for roughly the same price of a conventional Porsche 911 sports car.

One morning earlier this week, a silver Tesla is parked by the entrance of the company's headquarters. The car is receiving an electric charge from a thick electric cord plugged into a socket on its left side, where normally gasoline might go.

The car being charged in the morning sun is a prototype Tesla. Not only cars are getting charged this morning, which happens to be the day when one of the company's engineers arrives with plate after plate of freshly baked cookies – hundreds of them in all, more than enough to satisfy the 180 people who work at Tesla's main office.

“Making an all-electric car go fast is the easiest challenge,” says Mr. Siry, Tesla. “Making it go far is the challenge.”

Unlike other electric cars, Tesla's model does not have a traditional lead-acid battery. Instead, it runs on a lithium-ion battery that is lighter and longer-lasting. Nevertheless, the car will need to pause for a refill halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Delays in producing its first car – production was supposed to begin last October but the company fell behind schedule after deciding to use a different transmission – have fanned skepticism about whether Silicon Valley, home to computer and Internet companies, really can nurture a new automobile maker. Tesla wants to prove the doubters wrong.

“Some are very skeptical about people in Silicon Valley producing cars,” Mr. Siry admits. “And sure, building vehicles is something very hard.”

The automobile industry operates under strict government regulation, a stark contrast with the computer and software industries, where new products can be released with serious flaws and then later be fixed with relatively painless "upgrades".

“With things like the iPhone you can just go ahead without checking with anyone,” says Mr. Siry.

Tesla is also breaking the mold by planning to build only small batches of its sport car, treating it like a fine wine rather than a mass-produced laptop computer. The company plans to produce 600 cars this year – all purchased already, Mr. Siry says – and another 1,200 next year.

Small volumes are possible because of Tesla's six-figure price – a price likely to increase over time. As a result, the company can earn money while remaining a speciality producer.

“Break-even is between 1,000 and 2,000 cars a year,” Mr. Siry says, about the sports car. He says the company also plans a 4-door passenger sedan, perhaps as early as 2010. That car, he predicts, will cost between $50,000 and $70,000.

The car's high prices comes partly from its lithium-ion battery. Each one costs about $20,000, or about one-fifth of Tesla's price. Demand for lithium-ion batteries, widely used in computers, currently exceeds supply, which explains the high prices for them. The Tesla Roadster uses more than 6,000 individual lithium battery cells, a staggering number, more than a thousand times the number used in a laptop.

On a recent visit to Tesla, a couple of engineers chat quietly as they charge five prototype vehicles in the company's small assembly area. The sports cars glimmer in colorful shades of red, orange, green and blue. They resemble big Apple iPods, the difference being that these cars are ready to take you on a 125 mph ride down Highway One.

Tesla still faces issues with its new transmission, which runs only in a single gear (most gasoline-powered cars have four or five gears). The single gear permits fast acceleration.

“It is going to take us another three or four months to start production with the new transmission system." Mr. Siry says.

The cars going into production on Monday are built on the old transmission system with two gears. Tesla is going to offer owners of the first few dozen cars the chance to swap out the old transmission and get the new one.

“It is only going to impact 30 or 40 people and we did not want to wait any longer with the launch,” says Mr. Siry. “The decision to start production with an interim transmission was not a response to critics. It was a response to customers who said, ‘give us the damn car.’”

Send Emails from your mobile -- for free!

Mobile phones have plenty of smart functions, most which are unknown or simply irrelevant to the majority of users. The useful applications you really want -- like access to your email, contacts and calendar -- are difficult to set up and costly. So even though almost all mobile phones today could be used for reading email, very few people do that.In short, emailing from a mobile phone in America has so far been limited mainly to expensive smart phones -- until now. Funambol an Italian company based in Milan, intends to offer a new email service in the U.S. that is free and easy to use.

The system will work with SyncML, a software program that is pre-installed on most mobile phones from such manufacturers as Motorola, Nokia and SonyEricsson.
Mobile email for free? Is there a catch?Indeed there is. Funambol, which has an office in Redwood City, California, on the northern edge of Silicon Valley, wants users of its email system to watch small ads when they send and receive. The idea is that ad revenues will cover the service cost.
Funambol already has a customer base of one million people, mostly in Japan. The service is free and Funambol is now in talks with American telecom carriers on how much they will charge for transmitting the data between the company server and the mobile phone. Says Hal Steger, vice president in charge of marketing: “Operators can make the data free, and we hope that this at least will be the case with new operators that have nothing to lose.”
All a user must do is register his or her phone number at an Internet portal, after which a SMS with the configuration code is sent to the mobile phone.
The software is open source, which means it can be downloaded at the company website for further development.
“Forty thousand developers have already downloaded our software," says Mr. Steger, who showed off Funambol's email service at the OSiM conference on "mobile open source" in San Francisco on Wednesday.In an interview, Mr. Steger shows a world map provided by Google Analytics that indicates where downloads have gone -- mostly to India and China. These two countries are likely to generate the largest demand in future for mobile email. India alone has 225 million mobile phones, more than even in the U.S.
Mr. Steger says there have been two million downloads of the program. That suggests that the system is well tested.
Funambol's software works with Mcrosoft's Exchange Server, which is used by many companies for corporate email. In the near future, Mr. Steger says Funambol will also announce important business deals with the mobile phone company Nokia and the content provider AOL:“But it will take a couple of more years before the development really starts going," estimates Mr Steger.

Honeymoon with open software is over, says Nokia

There has been much buzz about open software used for operating systems in mobile phones, and the expected arrival of the Google Android during the second half of this year will add to the excitement.

But despite the excitement, sales of mobile phones using open software such as Linux fell last year.

Nokia, the global leader in mobile phones, continues to refuse to give up its own operating systems in favor of open source ones. In fresh evidence of Nokia's refusal to go open, a senior company official told a meeting of open-source engineers in San Francisco that proprietary systems still held sway at the Finnish company.“The honeymoon with open source is over," Ari Jaaksi (right in the picture), director of open source operations at Nokia, said in an interview.

In a speech earlier at the OSiM conference on Wednesday in San Francisco, Mr. Jaaksi told a suspicious audience that there would be "some nasty points" in his presentation about the relative merits of "open" and proprietary software.

Mr. Jaaksi's main point was that the quality of software based on open source is not high enough for the rigors of the mobile world. There are special problems with security and usability, he noted, counseling software developers to understand how makers of mobile phones relate to telecom companies. “Customers will not accept anything but the best”, he said. “They do not tolerate the same behaviour you expect from your PC.”

Nokia introduced a device called the "Internet Tablet" in the summer of 2005. The company is about to launch a third generation of the device, which operates on open-source Linux. There were glitches in the software and Mr. Jaaksi admits Nokia made a few mistakes that led to some “horror stories.”He said Nokia has to learn more about dealing with the developers in the open software community.

He thinks that the company will work more closely in the future with coders, hackers and developers.“One hundred percent open source is not our goal," Mr. Jaaksi said. "But if we have good open source" available to Nokia, then the company will use it, he said, because "it will not be economical for us to develop it ourselves.”

Nokia have been criticised for being overly secretive when dealing with people from the outside, and Jaaksi said that there are issues such as licensing that are difficult to solve. For instance, there is “a 5000 word agreement to understand” before you sign.

Other manufacturers, with Motorola in the lead, are much more active in open source and at the 3GSM conference in Barcelona recently sixteen new Linux operated models from different companies were introduced.

On Wednesday, Morgan Gillis, who is executive director of the Limo Foundation, an alliance of forty mobile phone manufacturers and application companies, projected a great future for open source on mobile phones. Limo is trying to replace proprietary software for mobile phones.

In San Francisco, Mr. Gillis showed market research that predicts Linux-operated mobile phones will number 300 million worldwide in five years.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Paul Saffo: Robots the Next Big Thing

Paul Saffo, technology forecaster and futurist, predicts Robots to be the next big ‘Wow’ of the 21st century. Here is what he says, talking to the InnovationBeat newsroom.

All-Electric Tesla Roadsters Lined Up in Assembly Plant

Tesla's Vice President Darryl Siry takes us on a tour of the assembly plant in San Carlos, CA.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Virtual reality changing social behaviors

Maybe virtual reality is going to solve one of the greatest health issues facing Americans today - physical inactivity – by influencing their social behaviors through computer simulation.

“We have developed model that allows people to see what they are and how they look like on TV,” says Jeremy Bailenson at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University.

Jesse Fox, a candidate for Ph.D, who has actually done the studies and developed the model, says, “People who look at themselves running in virtual reality for a period of 24 hours actually exercise more in the real world”.

“This seems to indicate that program will make them do it (exercise) later or change their life pattern”, she says, speaking about a study she made about how people experience virtual reality.

Ms. Fox explains that she has created another program in which a teacher in virtual reality looks at every student at the same time. This makes the teacher appear more life-like. So students pay more attention to the lecture.

“In virtual reality, we can produce unique, new social structures,” Ms. Fox says.

Can lesson from the lab be used in business? Bailenson and Fox say they are not worried about the commercial relevance of their research. “It is not our job to do marketing,” says Ms. Fox. “We have developed a program. It is now up to the people who do business how they transform it in the market place.”

Two new players challenge the navigation market

While stopped in traffic, have you wanted to read the menu at an unfamiliar restaurant? Now you can do that -- and much more -- with new automobile navigation systems from a very young company and a very old one.

Over the next few months, Dash Navigation, of Mountain View, Calif., and the German automobile giant, BMW, plan to launch new navigation systems. Both companies previewed them at a Mobile Monday event hosted by Google at its headquarters this week.

Dash Navigation showed off a new Web 2.0-type "mashup" for cars; a Web-enabled GPS device that combines navigation -- how to get somewhere -- with information about what you can do, spend or buy when you get there. The information also includes customer ratings and low-price options.

Chris Butler of Dash handled the demonstration, deftly producing a favorite sushi restaurant from a general query. Mr. Butler also showed that the system can receive and benefit from information from a driver's personal computer.

Now Dash uses data provided by Yahoo, but "in the future we might use data from Google," Mr. Butler said, making his listeners -- consisting of dozens of journalists, engineers and business people -- chuckle in between eating slices of pizza, bought and paid for by Google.

The Dash system, presented by Mr. Butler, also shows how much traffic there is and suggests the fastest route to a destination. This is done by collecting data from other Dash users and comparing it with historical data collected, said Rob Currie, President and Chief Operating Officer of Dash.

Mr. Currie, who also was at the meeting, admitted that Dash's che challenge at this point is that there are not so many Dash users in order to provide adequate data for a complete picture of traffic flows. The system is designed to work better the more people use it.

The cost of the Dash system came as a surprise to some in the audience. The device, which will go on March 27th, will cost $599.99. In addition, there is a $10 monthly service fee.

"Why would anybody want to pay that much for traffic information system that has far too little data," wondered an engineer in the audience.

Some popular navigation systems can be purchased for under $200.

BMW, meanwhile, described new features to its existing navigation system, "BMW Connected Drive," which is currently sold in Europe. The product will be launched in the US market in April, said Jeff Zabel of BMW.

Mr. Zabel said the BMW system will make use of a Google application that includes current, accurate maps to be sent from a personal computer to the car's computer.

BMW has in the pipeline an application that allows a driver to browse the Web while sitting the behind the wheel -- hopefully stuck in traffic.

- After Dash was launched on March 27th, it has been tested by customers. Read what the Wall Street Journal's Walter S. Mossberg wrote about it.

Failing broadband policies a threat to innovation

The debate around network neutrality remains a hot topic of discussion among telecom companies and service providers. Vint Cerf, Vice President of Google, regards the lack of regulation a threat to innovation.

When Mr. Cerf and his colleagues at Stanford University built the foundation for today’s Internet back in the 1970s’, they built it as an open environment that would be accessible to anyone. The past 20 years have seen a transformation of the Internet and how people access it, from dial-up telephone modems to different types of broadband connections, either by cable, DSL, satellite or fiber.

“Many broadband suppliers suppress what should be an open media,” says Cerf. “Not only will that suppress open expression, but it will also suppress innovation. If you have to work in arrangement with every Internet service supplier in the world in order to try out your new service, it will essentially suppress the ability to invent and innovate in the Internet.”

A number of companies, including Google, became quite alarmed when the former head of AT&T, Ed Whitaker, said, “companies like Google are getting a free ride and are not paying me for their use of my broadband channels to my customers.”

“Today there is a lack of competition in broadband which makes it possible for the party that controls the physical access to the Internet to favor that company’s applications”, says Cerf.

That’s not the business model Cerf and his colleagues had in mind when they started the net.

“So when Mr. Whitaker made his assertion a number of us begun to see the potential for very biasing decisions on the part of the broadband providers of things that were very antithetical to the interests of the consumers”, says Cerf.

In the last few years emotions have been running high in the American telecom business as Congress debates whether a law should be passed saying you must not discriminate among the application providers. Suppliers of broadband promise they will not favor their own services over others, but treat everyone essentially the same.

“After the telecoms and cable companies asserted in hearing that they would never interfere with someone else’s traffic, it was discovered that Comcast was analyzing the traffic that was flowing on their broadband channels”, says Cerf. “Anyone who was running bit torrent was shut down. I don’t blame them for wanting to control the traffic, but they chose a method to do it that was chilling because it implied that someone who controls the underlying transport could decide what traffic could flow and what traffic could not flow on the basis on what kind of traffic it was.”

Cerf likens broadband access to other critical infrastructure such as roads, electricity, and water:

“In other parts of the world it is recognized that this is basic infrastructure and there may not be a natural ability to put in competitive, alternative physical facilities. In the United States facility-based competition has been the mantra of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for some time now and frankly I don’t believe it works. And in the absence of that we have to create the regulatory framework that says you cannot take advantage of your carriers to interfere with applications.”

Monday, March 10, 2008

Break-through for all-electric sports car

There are only six days to go before the first Tesla Roadster, an all-electric sports car, is scheduled to roll out from its San Carlos, California plant. The car is an important experiment in the shift towards all-electric, zero-emission automobiles.

Series production is re-scheduled to commence on March 17. Tesla Motors, a private company funded in part by a founder of Paypal, was
supposed to start production in October of last year, but problems with its car's transmission system delayed release. Laurie Yoler, a board member of Tesla Motors, confirms the introduction schedule in an interview with InnovationBeat.

The Tesla Roadster is a unique experiment, combining the style of a top-line 2-seat convertible sports car with the environmental profile of a sensible hybrid. The company wants to lead the changeover to electric cars without compromising on elegance.

Tesla plans to build only 600 cars this year. Every car is delicately put together with inputs from suppliers and partners scattered around the globe. Design and most of the assembly is made by Lotus Cars in England, motor production takes place in Taiwan, the brakes come from Germany and the chassis is Norwegian.

On a single full charge, the Tesla Roadster can roam for 220 miles. This is a little difficult to imagine, as it runs on exactly the same litium ion batteries that you find in your MacBook. Tesla's battery capacity equals the power of more than 1,000 such computer batteries. Just the battery costs more than $20,000, corresponding to one fifth of the car's selling price.

The Roadster holds a top speed of flabbergasting 125 mph. Initially it was supposed to go from 0 to 60 mph in merely 4 seconds. The car that is rolling out on Monday will take 5.7 seconds to do that move, however, in order to meet the strict durability standards. Despite missing its initial acceleration target, the Tesla Roadster still accelerates better than most cars on the road.

Ms. Yoler, the board member, is a managing director of the investment bank GrowthPoint Technology Partners. It helps entrepreneurs raise capital for their ventures and later take them public or strike merger deals. Her involvement in Tesla Motors dates back to her former colleagueship with Tesla's founder Martin Eberhard. The two assoicates went for a joyful lunch ride in the first Tesla prototype that was made in 2002.

"I believed strongly in the entrepreneurs", says Ms. Yoler. "When they asked me to take a test drive it was amazing. The sheer innovation behind it was unbelievable."

As part of Tesla's high-end marketing strategy for the car, celebrities like Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Google founder Larry Page are among the first buyers. The price starts at about $100,000, which makes Tesla more than double the price-tag of Norwegian electric car brand Think. However, Tesla prefers to be compared to traditional sports cars like Porsche, Lotus and Lamborghini rather than the other electric carts for sale so far.

To distinguish themselves further, the Tesla team will not have a traditional dealer network. Instead, the car will be sold on the Internet, with showrooms in Menlo Park and Los Angeles.
"High end sports cars do not normally test drive", explains Ms. Yoler, making it very clear in which lane she wants to steer Tesla.

No doubt there is still a long road to success for this venture. Ms. Yoler is one of 20 private investors who together with another 10 institutional investors have put in a total of $150 million.