Monday, July 30, 2007

Times Magazine Piece on Sociable Robots

This Times Sunday Magazine piece, which ran yesterday, focuses almost exclusively on "sociable robots" being developed at MIT...and includes some cool video demonstrations. From the story:

    Bill Gates has said that personal robotics today is at the stage that personal computers were in the mid-1970s. Thirty years ago, few people guessed that the bulky, slow computers being used by a handful of businesses would by 2007 insinuate themselves into our lives via applications like Google, e-mail, YouTube, Skype and MySpace. In much the same way, the robots being built today, still unwieldy and temperamental even in the most capable hands, probably offer only hints of the way we might be using robots in another 30 years.

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Buzzwire launches: Yet another attempt to improve the video experience on cell phones

Local firms Spark Capital and Matrix Partners put $4 million into Buzzwire, a new start-up launching today (in "beta," of course.) The company's goal is to make videos viewable on a wide range of cell phones -- until, that is, they start cozying up to particular providers. (You can also create playlists on their Web site of videos you want to watch later, and share them with other users, which is a cool feature.) Buzzwire has offices in Denver and Bedford, MA.

The coverage:

- Boston Herald
- Wired News
- MoCoNews
- Xconomy
- And the press release.

Both Wired and Xconomy note something strange about Buzzwire's strategy. It'll at first be available on any 3G phone, but in the future may be limited to certain mobile operators. From Wired's piece:

    For now, Buzzwire is free to use on any internet-enabled phone with an unlimited data plan. However, the company plans on eventually locking the service down to certain carriers -- an unfortunate strategy for users, despite its popularity with entrepreneurs and cellphone service providers.

PodTech has a video interview with Buzzwire CEO Andrew MacFarlane.

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Looking Good is Getting More Expensive

Today's Globe column focuses on aesthetic medicine, and some of the companies developing drugs and devices to help us look better. From the piece:

    A cluster of New England companies is developing drugs and medical devices that will reduce wrinkles and cellulite, grow hair where you want it and remove it where you don't, and help you manage your impulse to overeat.

    And while keeping you young and slim may not be as socially redeeming as, say, devising a vaccine for the next flu pandemic, millions of dollars in venture capital funding are flowing into the sector dubbed "aesthetic medicine," puffing up local start-ups like a shot of collagen injected into a pair of lips.

    In 2005, the US market for aesthetic devices and therapies was $2 billion, according to Windhover Information -- a number that is expected to grow to $4.2 billion by 2010.

Leerink Swann & Co., a Boston investment bank, put out this report (PDF document) earlier in July. It's titled "Anti-Aging Breakthroughs: Future of the Aesthetics Market." It mentions a few companies with Massachusetts links that aren't in my column, including UltraShape (based in Israel but funded by Polaris Ventures) and Juniper Medical (built on science from the MassGeneral lab of Rox Anderson and funded by Advanced Technology Ventures, but headquartered in California.) Thanks to Leerink vice chair Dan Dubin for sharing it.

Here's the video from my conversation with Daphne Zohar, founder of PureTech ventures and interim CEO of Follica, a company that aims to develop a drug/device combination that will stimulate new hair follicle growth. We talk about the aesthetics market in general, some of the marketing and reimbursement issues, and the cultural divide between aesthetic medicine companies and more "serious" biotech and device companies.

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Ray Kurzweil Planning His Silver Screen Debut

Coming soon to a theater near you: Ray Kurzweil and his alter ego, Ramona.

Futurist and inventor Kurzweil is working on a movie version of his latest book, "The Singularity is Near." It'll combine interviews with big thinkers like Marvin Minsky with a narrative about Ramona (Kurzweil's foxy female alter ego) crusading to earn respect and recognition for artificially-intelligent beings.

Here's the plot summary from the Internet Movie Database (written by Kurzweil's pal Martine Rothblatt, who is the pic's executive producer):

    The brilliant inventor Ray Kurzweil creates a computer avatar named Ramona (Pauley Perrette). He raises her like a modern-day Pinocchio, and she gradually acquires consciousness. Ramona detects a secret attempt by microscopic robots to destroy the world, but her warnings are ignored by everyone because she is not recognized as a person. Her computerized nature lets her stop the robot attack but lands her in trouble with the law.

The tagline is "A True Story About the Future." Kurzweil is hoping for a theatrical release next year.

(Here's some background on Ramona.)

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Friday, July 27, 2007

How iRobot is Like Intel

TIE-Boston put on a really interesting event last night at the MIT Museum: "Mobile and Sociable Robots: At the Leading Edge of Computing."

Cory Kidd from the Media Lab was there, demoing his robotic weight loss coach, which he's hoping to commercialize once he leaves the Lab. I talked with the CTO of Bluefin Robotics, Christopher Wallsmith, about some of their new underwater 'bots that can glide for long periods of time, or hover in place. (Hiawatha wrote a great piece in the Globe earlier this month that included Bluefin.)

But the thing that struck me as most interesting was Helen Greiner's opening talk. (Helen is the co-founder and chairman of iRobot.) Two things struck me, actually.

First was how authentically iRobot has been living up to its mission statement: Build cool stuff, Deliver great product, Make money, and Have fun. They've shipped 2.5 million of their Roomba robotic vaccuum cleaners thus far.

The second thing was that iRobot is the closest thing Boston has to a Google, an Apple, or an Intel: a company that is so clearly the leader in its field that all the best people want to work there (aside from those who're happier in academia). Helen said iRobot now employs about 200 engineers and researchers. These kinds of "magnet" companies not only attract great people, they also make it clear that the region is a center of gravity for their particular industry -- and they start spinning off start-up companies. Q Robotics, one of the other companies on last night's panel, is just such a spin-off. Q CTO Joe Jones was one of the developers of iRobot's Roomba.

That's pretty cool.

(Photo by Jason Grow / Business Week. Chris Brady took some great photos at tonight's event.)

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Enertech Salon in Back Bay, Hosted by Bob Metcalfe and Polaris

Just back from the Enertech Salon, held at Bob Metcalfe's spiffy Back Bay brownstone and dedicated to bringing together VCs, researchers, and entrepreneurs working on new energy-related technologies. (Rode my bike there and back, since Metcalfe had asked invitees to "lower their carbon footprint by walking or taking the T.")

Some quick impressions:

- The greentech or cleantech economy in Boston seems to have two hubs. The better-established one is the MIT Energy Club. Their Energy Conference in March attracted some pretty stellar folks: GE chief exec Jeff Immelt, VC Vinod Khosla, and author/consultant Daniel Yergin, for instance. The second hub, growing quickly thanks to funding from several local venture firms like Polaris and General Catalyst, is the New England Energy Innovation Collaborative, headed by recovering tech exec Nick D'Arbeloff. Of course there are several other associations and state-sanctioned councils -- and this Mass High Tech piece explores some of the overlap.

- EnerNoc CEO Tim Healy was present for the start of the evening, but had to leave early to fly to New York. Tomorrow, he is going to press the button to officially open trading on the Nasdaq exchange. (The company went public in May.)

- Greentech Media, founded this January, is a cool new micro-media company in Cambridge that I hadn't heard about before. One of their co-founders was present.

- Boston Power founder Christina Lampe-Onnerud seems to be powered by a mysterious energy source.

- I hadn't met David Danielson before, a PhD candidate at MIT who plans to move over to General Catalyst in the fall, where he'll work alongside Hemant Taneja, that firm's energy-oriented partner. Just before informing me of that impending career move, Danielson said he worries that we're experiencing a greentech "bump" or "bubble" that isn't sustainable. But why not take advantage of it while it lasts?

- Oddly, having just posted about Marin Soljacic's work at MIT, I bumped into him on my way out. He said that he's currently exploring the potential of getting venture funding for WiTricity. I think it could be the most interesting energy-related start-up from MIT since A123 Systems...but the technology may still be too embryonic for VCs to feel comfortable with. (A123's battery work was quite nascent when it left the MIT nest, as was another MIT hatchling, Greenfuel, where Metcalfe is currently serving as interim CEO, raising funding to keep the company alive until it can prove its technology works at scale.)

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Watts by Air

Science News has a great piece about how an MIT team successfully transmitted electricity over the airwaves ... something people have been puzzling over since Nikola Tesla began exploring the problem early in the 20th century.

From the piece:

    "What they've done is take some very basic physics concepts [and] brought these ingredients together. It's the synthesis which is the novel thing," says [John] Pendry [, a physicist at Imperial College in London].

    Shanhui Fan, a physicist at Stanford University, says that the use of magnetic resonance as a means of transferring energy is a completely new concept, and "very clever." Although it's a simple principle, nobody seems to have thought of it before, he says. "Many great things look simple from hindsight."

    [MIT prof Marin] Soljacic and his colleagues have applied for two patents, and they have branded their idea with the name WiTricity to suggest an electrical-power version of Wi-Fi wireless-Internet technology.

    But if the physics is simple, why didn't anyone think of it sooner? Soljacic suggests that before the spread of cell phones and laptops, there was little need for a wirefree power source. In fact, Soljacic admits that what got him thinking hard about wireless power was the frustration of being awakened at night by a beeping cell phone that needed to be recharged.

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Which Three Boston Notables (and One Company) Will Be at the White House This Friday?

President Bush hands out the National Medals of Science and Technology this Friday at the White House.

Who's on the list from our part of the world?

1. Chuck Vest, former president of MIT
2. Bob Langer, head of MIT's Langer Lab and founder of numerous biotech and med device companies, among them Alkermes, Alnylam, Pervasis, and MicroCHIPs
3. Daniel Kleppner, an MIT physicist whose work led to ultra-accurate atomic clocks and the global positioning system
4, Genzyme Corporation.

A Globe blog post on the winners is here.

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Facebook faces the music

Today's the day, in US District Court in Boston, for a hearing in the legal dispute between ConnectU, a social networking site with 70,000 users, and Facebook, a Palo Alto company with about 31 million users. Both sites were founded at Harvard, by undergrads. The issue in dispute is whether Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg stole ideas from ConnectU's founders, for whom he was writing software code, and then created Facebook.

Valleywag has a chronology of the charges and the legal wrangling, and the Cape Cod Times has an AP story.

The social networking site is experiencing hyper-growth ever since it opened up registration to anyone -- not just high school or college students. Zuckerberg moved Facebook from Boston to Silicon Valley in June 2004. This lawsuit was initially filed in September of that year.

Update: Judge seemed unimpressed by ConnectU's argument, according to, and case won't see much more action until the fall.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Some reaction to Sunday's column

Sunday's Innovation Economy column was headlined, 'Will Boston ever catch up?' It begins:

    The explosion of consumer-oriented technologies, from YouTube to the iPhone, has been pushing the pistons of the technology economy for the past three years. That's great for California, and a real problem for Massachusetts, which has specialized in building technologies for corporate use since the mini-computer boom of the 1980s.

    "The legacy here is more enterprise-focused, all the way back to Wang and Digital and Prime and Apollo," says venture capitalist Todd Dagres, referring to a crop of computer makers long dead and buried. "That was where you wanted to be in the last millennium. It's just not where the real juice is right now."

    The juice, as Dagres puts it, is in all kinds of tech products for consumers, from new handheld devices and television set-top boxes to online videogames and so-called "social networking" tools like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter, which allow people to connect and communicate with friends using free software.

    ...Having just boomeranged back to Cambridge after spending two years in San Francisco, the lack of consumer tech activity here is startling to me -- it's like going from a noisy, hot, crowded bar to another across the street where the bartender has plenty of time to wash glasses and gab with the three regulars perched on stools.

The folks at TripAdvisor e-mailed to note that they've had phenomenal consumer success with their Needham-based travel portal. I wrote about them in 2000 when they were just getting started and then again in 2004, when they were sold to Barry Diller's IAC. After raising just $4.5 milllion in VC money, the sale price was $200 million. Not bad. A spokesman says their profit margin is better than 50 percent, and that they're hiring like mad.

Matt Westover of Newton Peripherals e-mailed:

    Having been in technology for 20 + years and spending over 12 years on the West Coast, I think there are significant opportunities in the East. The mentality of the local VC’s are different in my opinion from the West Coast VC’s and can have corresponding positive/negative effect on the young companies. We have stayed away from accepting any venture capital to date.

Nabeel Hyatt, quoted in the piece, thinks I'm being overly dire.

And Antonio Rodriguez, a serial entrepreneur who recently sold the consumer-oriented Tabblo to HP, posted this response to the piece on his blog.

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Interview with George Zachary of Charles River Ventures

Charles River Ventures is a 37-year old venture capital firm headquartered in Waltham, MA. The firm has a west coast office in Silicon Valley, on the same street where all the big VC firms huddle: Sand Hill Road. And one of their portfolio companies, Netezza, just went public on Friday.

On June 28, I sat down with George Zachary, a partner who works in the firm's Silicon Valley office. Many of his investments, like GoTV and Areae, are consumer-oriented Internet plays -- the topic of my first "Innovation Economy" column this Sunday. Here's a video excerpt from our conversation -- followed by a list of five things Boston could do to help foster more consumer-oriented tech companies.

Five Things Boston Could Do to Encourage More Consumer-Oriented Tech Activity

1. Fly a banner over the Bay Colony Center in Waltham (home to most of New England's VC firms) that says, "Stop investing in the tried-and-true 50-year old alumni of DEC, Wang, and Lotus." VCs need to stop equating experience in the world of enterprise technology with bankability.

2. More people interested in consumer-oriented concepts ought to know about and attend gatherings like Web Innovators Group, OpenCoffee, Mobile Mondays, and tastybytes -- and start events of their own.

3. We need more blogs about consumer tech and Web 2.0, located all around New England.

4. We need more visibility from the few execs here with consumer experience -- they need to serve as poster children. Jeff Taylor, founder of (and now of Eons), already does a great job of this. Bob Davis, back when he was CEO of Lycos and when Lycos was a standalone company, did well, too. And I never thought I'd sing this, but "Where have you gone, David Wetherell?"

(Avid Technology has a number of consumer products...but its recently-departed CEO, David Krall, lived on the west coast (even though the firm is headquartered in Tewksbury.) Privately-held Bose Corp. is a big consumer tech player, but its founder, Amar Bose, doesn't often show up anywhere other than Framingham -- and doesn't allow any of the company's younger execs to do much speaking or schmoozing at local tech events.)

5. We need to stop taking ourselves so seriously. Not all technology needs to solve a business problem or address a pain point.

James Currier, the founder of Tickle, told me a great story this week. His company was founded in Cambridge, and later moved to San Francisco. He raised $9 million in funding, and later sold the company, which focuses on online tests and quizzes, to for $100 million. Here's what he said:

    We started Emode [Tickle's original name] seriously. We had tests about depression and anxiety, which had been vetted by the American Psychological Association. But no one cared. The APA thought we were doing it right, and the people at Harvard respected it, but it wasn’t until we launched totally superficial quizzes like "what breed of dog are you?" and "who is your celebrity match?" that the site took off. It was totally flippant. But we had gotten to the point where we were off salary and about to go out of business. So we said, "What the hell, let’s try this. Maybe people will respond to fun." And they did.

Currier's new venture is called Ooga Labs -- and it is working on several start-up ideas simultaneously (the sort of thing people used to call an incubator). His first new site is GoodTree.

"Business in Boston is professional and trustworthy," Currier says. "People are deep technologists, and when it comes to building a new kind of networking switch, that's great. But all this digital media or consumer Internet stuff tends to be more creative and optimistic. You have to believe that people are going to want to do all this crazy stuff online."

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Back in 02140

I moved back last weekend from San Francisco to Cambridge after a two-year sojourn. (I still expect to be making about a half-dozen trips a year to California, and blogging about the convergence of technology and the entertainment industry at CinemaTech.)

But I'm switching gears at the Globe once again, starting a new column this Sunday called "Innovation Economy," which will focus on start-ups, venture capitalists, research labs, inventors, and big companies here in New England.

It's a patch of ground that I haven't been roaming much since my @large column ended in November 2005...but one that I've really loved exploring in the past. Some ancient history:

    From 1995 to 1997, I was part of the founding team of At, we also worked with the first generation of Internet companies in Boston (a few I remember were net.Genesis, Net Daemons Associates, Firefly Networks, and VirtuFlex.) Occasionally, I contributed to a Globe column called Boston.comment that ran Thursdays on what was then called the "Plugged In" page. (Frank Hertz and Chuck Chow were my co-conspirators who, luckily, knew how to write.)

    In 1997, I started covering New England-related stories for Wired Magazine and Wired News. (Here's one of my first pieces for Wired, about Forrester Research, and a piece of similar vintage from Wired News, about Cambridge's annual IgNobel Prize ceremony.)

    In 1998 and 1999, I started a monthly column called "Tech Talk" for Boston Magazine and wrote a series of features for the monthly about local Internet celebs like CMGI chairman David Wetherell. (That job was where I met my wife, Amy -- who just this week began working at Boston Magazine once again.)

    From 2000 to 2005, I wrote the weekly @large column on Mondays, which covered tech, biotech, medical devices, and venture capital throughout New England. We also ran a series of panel discussions at the Globe's auditorium called ".COMversations," which were excerpted in the Globe. (Here are the first and last columns in that string.)

My goals for the Innovation Economy column are to tell the most interesting and important stories about what's new in New England -- and to provide some added context here.

I'm eager to hear about the stories *you* think ought to be told. (My e-mail is scott - at - My bias, as always, is toward stories that haven't already been told elsewhere.

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Blog Disclosure Statement

My goal is for Innovation Economy to be a useful, opinionated, and fair source of information about technology, life sciences, entrepreneurship, and venture capital in New England. When I receive corrections or amplifications from readers or people I’ve written about in the blog, I’ll include them in the original post. Differing points-of-view are always welcome in the comments area of each post.

I consider myself a full-time journalist and writer, although I am also paid for speaking, moderating, and helping to develop the agenda for conferences and other events. When I’m writing about an event to which I have some sort of financial tie, I’ll make note of that. I don’t work as a consultant. I don’t accept gifts worth more than $50, or hold onto “review products” that I’m sent to evaluate. (I suspect that I’ve been to a few media dinners where the journalists present have ingested more than $50 worth of food and wine, but in those cases, I’ve skipped dessert.)

I do own some stock in individual companies, though none that I cover regularly. If I do mention one of these companies here on InnoEco or in any other venue, I’ll be sure to note it.

InnoEco carries advertising from Google; I don’t have control over the advertising or any interaction with the advertisers. Links on InnoEco that point to books or other products on also generate a small amount of revenue for me. Links here to any books I’ve written might also be considered advertisements, since the purchase of these generates a royalty for me.

If you have a comment or question about this policy, please e-mail me: kirsner - at-