Friday, October 31, 2008

MIT VC Conference: December 6th

The MIT Venture Capital club just opened up registration for the 11th annual MIT Venture Capital Conference. It happens on December 6th, and while registration costs $245 for early birds, there's also an entrepreneur showcase in the evening that's free for anyone to attend.

I'll be there, moderating the closing session with Harmonix Music Systems co-founder Eran Egozy. And I'm going to try to arrive early to see Dan Primack's opening session with Paul Maeder and David Fialkow, from Highland Capital Partners and General Catalyst.

More on the event:

    ...Every year, the conference brings together over 400 venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and industry leaders to discuss current opportunities and challenges in Venture Capital investing.

    This year, the conference theme is Reinventing Venture Capital. A Keynote Panel of founding partners from leading venture capital firms will open the conference with a discussion of evolving strategies of the venture capital community and the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the dynamically changing industrial, financial, and economic conditions around the world.

    Dr. Jamshed J. Irani, Director of Tata Sons, one of India’s oldest, largest, and most respected business conglomerates, will deliver lunch keynote address. The conference will close with a fireside chat with Eran Egozy, CTO and Co-Founder of Harmonix, a MIT Media Lab startup which created Rock Band and Guitar Hero.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Some Notes from Ideas Boston 2008

I spent the day at the Ideas Boston conference, held every fall at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. It's a really interesting slice of what's happening in our town across the realms of science, technology, the arts, non-profits, and academia.

It's a fun event, in part, because of who you see and meet -- an unusual cross-section of Bostonians. I ran into Bob Krim from the Boston History and Innovation Collaborative, several folks from the Museum of Science, a number of Boston Foundation people, a programmer from Microsoft, the guy who runs the Lemelson-MIT program, Northeastern University roboticist Joseph Ayers, John Lester from Linden Labs, Julie Graham from YPO, Denise DiIanni from WGBH, Joyce Plotkin from the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, and Don McLagan, formerly CEO of EqualLogic.

Some of the talks I enjoyed most were those that had nothing to do with technology... like the artist Paul Goodnight talking about the monument to the Middle Passage he is trying to build in Boston and guy Noah Feldman talking about the future of Iraq and Afghanistan...Paul Watanabe talking about immigration and the way that America has treated Asian-American immigrants specifically (like his own family)...photographer Robin Bowman discussing her travels around the country to talk with and photograph American teens...and Sara Seager of MIT talking about what earth-like planets in other solar systems will be like (and predicting that we'll find one within the next five years.

IBM researcher Martin Wattenberg got the most laughs of the day by showing how he has been trying to create useful and surprising ways to visualize words information, instead of just numbers. He showed how various baby names have waxed and waned in popularity (the 1970s were a great decade for "La" names like LaTonya, LaToya, and Lakeisha.) He analyzed the Presidential candidates' word choice in the debates (not surprisingly, when John McCain uttered the word "my" it was most often followed by "friends.") And, preceded by the disclaimer that this particular Web site was not built using IBM dollars, he talked about a personal project to analyze the body parts most often mentioned in song lyrics. Jazz lyrics tended to focus on "eyes," and gospel lyrics the hand. Hip hop lyrics? Very obsessed with the behind, he found.

Wattenberg was followed by MIT prof Dava Newman, who is designing a next-generation space suit for voyages to Mars and a return to the moon. The suit, she said, was less like putting someone in an air-tight Zip-loc bag and inflating it (that's been the approach thus far with NASA's space missions) and more like "shrink-wrapping someone." It's designed to offer the wearer far more mobility and dexterity than current models -- which will be important when we go prospecting on the red planet. She said that some of the suit's "exoskeleton" features (like helping the wearer move or lift things) might be useful on earth, for people who suffer from diseases like cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis. Newman had one of her grad students model the tight-fitting suit on stage, and on a walk through the audience, and I am sure no one at all was thinking about hip hop lyrics.... at all. At all.

John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, ended the day by talking about simplicity, design, technology, and humanity. He suggested that we've arrived at a moment where we've had a big too much of technology -- like gorging on meatloaf -- and we are ready for more humanity and authenticity. There was a lot of nodding in the audience.

The event was sold out this year, by early October. They'll need a bigger venue for 2009. By way of disclosure, I served on the advisory board, which involved suggesting a few speakers.

The main thing I'd improve for future editions is subtracting one or two speakers and making way for a few questions from the audience and moderator Tom Ashbrook after each presentation. Also, a live Webcast would be great (though I do think the event gets recorded for eventual viewing on WGBH online.)

Update: Here's the Globe's coverage of the event.

[ Photos: At top is John the middle is the spacesuit. ]

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Student Entrepreneurs: Schmoozing Opportunity, Next Friday

I'm looking for two student entrepreneurs, ideally focused on developing a product or service for consumers.

Here's what you get: a chance to schmooze with successful entrepreneurs next Friday morning (Nov 7th), and get a tour of an interesting company.

Here's what you need to do:

1. Have a car (or Zipcar, or a car you can borrow/rent/steal), and be able to get to Bedford, MA by 8 AM next Friday, and stay until 10 AM.

2. Be operating or planning a consumer-oriented product or service.

3. Be a currently-enrolled student.

4. E-mail me with a quick note about your company or business plan or area of interest. I'll contact you by Monday if you're chosen.

Feel free to share this opportunity with others...

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

An Update on WiTricity, the Wireless Power Company

WiTricity is a new MIT spin-out hoping to make electricity just like WiFi -- beam it through the air, and allow all your electronics to "tune in." (I've previously covered them here.)

An update... they've got offices now in Watertown. They're hiring RF engineers. Right now, the company consists of "10 PhDs and me," according to CEO Eric Giler. ( Giler had previously been CEO of Groove Mobile and Brooktrout Technology.) Marin Soljacic, one of the original MIT researchers, remains involved. They got $4 million in Series A funding in the second quarter of this year, from Argonaut Private Equity and Stata Venture Partners.

Giler says they're building a "real world" prototype (IE, something that will work more reliably than the initial lab prototype), and they're beginning to talk to potential customers.

This is a potentially big company...keep an eye on them...

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Portable Eye: Ray Kurzweil's KNFB Reader Mobile

It was great fun earlier this month to have lunch with Peter Alan Smith, a John Hancock employee who is also a gadget hound. Smith showed me how he uses the KNFB Reader Mobile software on his Nokia N82 cell phone to read restaurant menus and other printed material. (Smith is legally blind... and he has also run the Boston Marathon a couple times...and raced tandem bikes.)

This excellent assistive technology is the focus of today's Globe column.

As some bonus material, here's the MP3 of my conversation with Ray Kurzweil about the Reader Mobile... and his history of developing technologies for the blind and visually impaired that eventually "trickle down" to the rest of us.

Smith has a Web site of his own.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Fresh From My Tour of the Left Coast...

I've just spent a fascinating and fun week out in California, giving talks about my new book at Disney, Netflix, Google, Industrial Light & Magic, and the Hillside Club.

The book, Inventing the Movies, is a technological history of Hollywood, from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs. It includes several stories about how Boston-area companies and people (such as Avid Technology and 'Tron' director Steven Lisberger) influenced the evolution of the movie industry.

I'm giving several talks locally, and if you're a cinephile, or you're interested in the ways that new ideas and new technologies are resisted by any established industry, I think you might appreciate the presentation. It includes lots of historical photos and movie clips. Here are the upcoming events:


Monday, October 20, 2008

It's a Car...It's a Plane...

For Sunday's Globe column, I wrote about an incredible young company called Terrafugia, located in Woburn.

Since visiting the company, I've been showing everyone I meet the video of the company's "roadable aircraft"/flying car. The reactions are interesting -- from "wow!" to "I'm gonna learn to fly so I can get one" to "who needs that?" (The company has a finely-honed list of reasons why pilots might prefer an aircraft that they can drive, and park in their garage at home.)

The video is below. I'm eager to see the plane fly later this year. I think the headline and subhead that ran with the column on Sunday ("Fighting to take off...small customer base and dearth of investors...") made it sound like the company is in some sort of trouble. I don't think that's the case, but there are obviously big challenges in getting this vehicle to market successfully.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

NH Senate Candidates Will Talk Innovation, Next Monday

This event is geared to TechNet members and students at the University of New Hampshire, but I'm told that any other interested parties are welcome on a space-available basis.

    Our Future in the Innovation Century: An Evening with U.S. Senate Candidates Jeanne Shaheen and John Sununu

    Monday, October 20th
    University of New Hampshire
    Huddleston Ballroom
    73 Main Street
    Durham, NH

    Arrive: 4:00 – 4:45 pm
    Program: 5:00 – 7:30 pm

    You are invited to participate in a unique forum on the Innovation Economy with former Governor Jeanne Shaheen and U.S. Senator John Sununu, candidates for the one of the nation’s most competitive U.S. Senate races.

    The event will feature consecutive, individualized one-hour forums focused on the issues of the economy, energy and green jobs, entrepreneurship, and economic insecurity. A centerpiece of the forums will be dialogue with UNH students and questions from New Hampshire business leaders.

    Seating is limited. To reserve your seat, please email no later than October 17th. Parking will be available in Lot C. To view the UNH parking map, see

Sununu is an MIT-trained mechanical engineer who once worked for inventor Dean Kamen; Shaheen once talked about how much she loves e-mailing on her BlueBerry (OK, this was back in 2001, but still.) In 2007, Sununu was the only New England senator to vote against lifting the Bush administration's ban on funding stem cell research. Wonder if that will come up...

Hoping this gets recorded or blogged and posted online somewhere...

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Hitting Turbulence at Linear Air

I've been wondering for a while what's up with Linear Air, the pioneering air taxi service operating out of Hanscom Field in Bedford.

... First there was the crazy spike in oil prices.

... Then the FAA temporarily grounded the zippy new Eclipse 500 jets that make up part of their fleet, pending an inspection of the throttle.

... Then there were questions about whether the FAA's certification process for the new Eclipse "very light jet" was conducted properly.

... Then, last month, one of the biggest air taxi operators flying the Eclipse, Florida-based Dayjet, stopped flying "as a result of the company’s inability to arrange critical financing in the midst of the current global financial crisis."

All tough breaks for a start-up.

I spoke with Linear CEO Bill Herp last week. He told me that "fuel prices are not as much of a problem. They're coming back down." The throttle inspection was completed in a couple of hours, he said.

Herp said that the demand for flights in July and August was much greater than the company could satisfy.

Part of the problem is that the Eclipse jets have proved tough to maintain. "There has been a lack of support for the aircraft from [the manufacturer], and problems with spare parts supply," Herp said. That hasn't been helped by a restructuring at Eclipse Aviation that, according to Herp, has consumed its maintenance staffers. On a typical day, Linear has only one or two of the four Eclipse jets in its fleet available for flights. (The rest of Linear's fleet consists of three Cessna Caravans, which are single-engine turboprop aircraft.)

Linear recently laid off about one-third of its staff, Herp said, or about 15 employees.

He still believes that the air taxi model can work, and is currently trying to raise $1 million to $1.5 million in financing to keep the company running and give it "12 months of breathing room."

I wrote about Linear and the Eclipse in the Globe last August; also shot some video of the first Eclipse the company acquired for its fleet.

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The Next Big Idea in Online Payments?

Sunday's Globe column focuses on two recent Boston College grads who are focused on developing a better way for groups to handle expenditures. The company is called WePay, but the service isn't yet up and running.

Here's the video:

My favorite quote comes at the end, from Lee Hower, a veteran of PayPal and LinkedIn who now works at Point Judith Capital in Rhode Island:

    [Hower] says he believes there are opportunities for entrepreneurs to find important problems to solve, even in tough times. After leaving PayPal, Hower went on to help start LinkedIn. The founders began brainstorming in 2002, with much of the tech world and the larger economy still in a funk; the company went on to grow into the largest social networking site for businesspeople.

    "Negative macro trends are a bad omen, for sure," Hower says. "But they also affect things like finding office space and hiring people. The nuts and bolts of building a business can actually become easier when the overall economy is trending downward, as opposed to when it's in a bubbly state."

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Panel Video: Tech @ The Movies

Here's some video taken at an event in Cambridge, MA last month called "Tech @ The Movies." It focused on the role that Massachusetts companies are playing (and have played in the past) in the technological evolution of the movie industry. Organized by MassTLC and hosted by UK Trade & Investment; thanks to Dan Bricklin for shooting it. Description and cast of characters below.

Massachusetts companies have played a pivotal role in the evolution of Hollywood. Movies might still be in black-and-white -- and we might never have had "The Wizard of Oz" -- if not for Technicolor, founded by Massachusetts entrepreneurs. And Avid Technology won an Oscar in the 1990s for introducing computers to the movie editing process. You'll hear from a panel of technology innovators who're changing the way movies get made in the 21st century -- helping directors create special effects or helping movie fans buy their favorite pics in digital form. Journalist Scott Kirsner will introduce the panel with a short, illustrated overview of his new book Inventing the Movies, which tells the heretofore untold technological history of Hollywood -- including the stories of Avid and Technicolor.


    - Jim Flynn, Founder & CEO, EZTakes and iArthouse

    - Jeff Kleiser, CEO, Synthespian Studios; Visual Effects Artist on "Fantastic Four," "X-Men: The Last Stand," and "Tron"

    - Patrick McLean, Senior Product Manager, Avid Technology

    - Katherine Hays, CEO, GenArts

    - Dave Waller, Founder, Brickyard VFX

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Monday, October 6, 2008

Internet Policy and the Next Presidential Administration

Google's Rich Miner pointed me to this event coming up on Thursday evening at the Berkman Center. The title is "The Uncertain Internet: Core Net Values for the [TBD] Administration."

Here's the descrip:

    Now is a critical moment for defining and reinforcing the best features of our communications platforms. What do we value about the internet and what should be the focus of the next administration? This event will be a discussion exploring the Net’s benefits and its increasing vulnerabilities. How do we maintain the network we know, and anticipate the network it is becoming? What issues emerge in the era of "cloud computing" and the mobile internet? How do we ensure broadband for everyone? What can be done to promote open networks and open devices? Join us for a wide-ranging discussion with leaders from the legal, technical, and political fields.

    The panel will include:

    - Jonathan Zittrain (Professor, Harvard Law School)
    - Susan Crawford (Professor, University of Michigan Law School)
    - Rich Miner (Mobile Platforms, Google; co-Founder of Android)
    - Alec Ross (Tech Policy Advisor to Barack Obama)

(Wonder why no McCain representation?)

It's free and open to the public.

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Sunday, October 5, 2008

10 Clusters of Innovation in New England

Here's my premise: even in tough times, exciting stuff is happening (and jobs are being created) in certain pockets of the economy.

That's the focus of today's Globe column. It lists 10 clusters of innovation in our region, based on their size and potential for growth. Some are already pretty well-established, and others are still seedlings. The column elaborates a bit on each cluster.

    1. Biotech and pharma
    2. Clean tech
    3. Robotics
    4. Cloud computing and virtualization
    5. Medical devices and diagnostics
    6. Video games
    7. Mobile communications
    8. E-Healthcare
    9. Web 2.0/Digital Media
    10. Consumer electronics

What'd I miss? Post a comment if you would...


Thursday, October 2, 2008

My Notes from Today's Innovation Unconference

Today, the MassTLC took a giant step toward reinventing itself...reframing the value proposition of a trade association...and reinvigorating the culture of innovation in Massachusetts. It happened at a new event that the MassTLC team and trustee Bill Warner put together called the Innovation Unconference. (Bill is the founder of Avid Technology and Wildfire, and a mentor to lots of local entrepreneurs.)

Why was this such a big deal? The event offered a pretty close to perfect "trade"... Seasoned entrepreneurs and investors were invited to come and share their insights about building successful companies, and newer entrepreneurs were invited to share the challenges they're dealing with. The former group got to hear about (and ideally assist) a new generation of companies, and the latter group got some guidance and powerful new connections.

And it was hugely important to the culture -- the entire focus of the day was creating a new wave of important, successful, innovative companies here.

Some notes from the event are below. The one thing that'd be nice to see at next year's edition is more execs from the more established companies here -- I'm thinking EMC, Raytheon, Akamai, Nuance, PTC, Progress Software, Evergreen Solar, etc.

Bill W. kicked things off by opining that bad times are the best times to start a company. He said he started Avid in September 1987, a month before the stock market crash of that year. "This is a time of great opportunity," he said. "This is not a pep talk. This is reality." One quip: In bad times, people do the things their spouses wouldn't let them do in good times, Bill said.

Then, the entire group converged on a few stacks of paper, and wrote their ideas for sessions in magic marker. The ideas were announced on a mike, and then posted on the wall in various time slots. Everyone went to the sessions they thought looked most interesting.

I got recruited to a session that Tim Rowe of Cambridge Innovation Center proposed on fostering more innovation in Massachusetts. Tim began by noting that we're still the #2 region in the US, as far as venture funding of tech, but other regions are growing faster while we're remaining stagnant. I drew a picture of a magnet and suggested that Silicon Valley is a giant magnet for people who want to do inventive stuff in tech. We're a magnet for people who want to get a great education. How do we get more of those people to stick around?

My suggestion was that we need to do a better job of exposing students to entrepreneurs -- with talks on campus, and visits to local companies. We need them to mix and mingle with VCs. We need to support their start-up ideas and helped them get plugged in to the innovation economy.

Recruiter Jeff Leopold said we have a dearth of experienced executives here.

I think Phil Weilerstein said that people here "behave like New Englanders. It's hard to get past their reticence." Someone suggested that we need more hot tubs to foster the free exchange of ideas. Someone else suggested personality transplants.

Someone observed that it's a plus and a minus that in Silicon Valley, you always run into people who work in tech.

I suggested that one of the advantages in Massachusetts & New England is the heterogeneousness - the mix of software, Internet, biotech, med devices, robotics, cleantech, etc. What if we redefined the terms of what we're doing... that we're the world's hub of innovation, the R&D capital, the idea accelerator...not simply a nifty little cluster of tech, or biotech, or cleantech.

Tim spent the last section asking people for specific ideas. What could we do to improve the competitiveness of the region?

Lee Hower from Point Judith Capital said that he knows some senior-level execs in the Valley who are from this region, but are nervous about coming back to New England: are there consumer Internet companies to work for; if I start one, can I hire the right people to join it; if my start-up doesn’t succeed, are there other places that I could land?

Bill McLaughlin of Lois Paul and Partners asked, How do you get biotech and tech together in an integrated way – like perhaps having a MeetUp or an event in Boston.

Jean Hammond of Golden Seeds said we may need to import investors who aren’t afraid of consumer investments.

We should highlight the networking groups that exist, and perhaps consolidate some of them to give them more influence and power, said Laura (?)

Lee Hower said we need big, stand-alone tech companies that are started here, and built here, and become big public companies. We need to encourage big thinking across the ecosystem – investors, entrepreneurs, and young people.

Margaret Olson from Plum said we should be "more rah rah about what we’ve got."

Alex Benik from Battery Ventures said we should focus more on students. He also said that there is a culture of the entrepreneur as celebrity in Silicon Valley, which is a good thing.

Michael Greeley from Flybridge suggested that we ought to create micro-ecosystems around star entrepreneurs, connecting them with VC firms and encouraging them to form lots of companies with up and coming researchers and entrepreneurs. He mentioned Bob Metcalfe at Polaris, Bill Warner, or Boston Scientific co-founder John Abele as examples. Flybridge, he said, has a relationship with Michae Cima and Bob Langer of MIT, and has funded several start-ups out of their labs.

Someone asked, why wouldn’t multi-million-dollar school endowment funds do some seed-stage investing... in promising start-ups founded by their alums?

Joyce Plotkin from MassTLC said that "public-private partnership doesn’t exist in this state." The Boston Foundation has said that we "lack the colabroative gene," and that's a problem. Branding and marketing are something we could do better.

After Tim's session wrapped, I offered a session on working with bloggers and media, with co-conspirators Bill McLaughlin, Patrick Rafter, Adam Zand, and Doug Banks. I didn't take notes... but will look for some folks who blogger or Twittered it and link to them later. I'll also try to post the few slides that I showed.

During lunch I met with two groups of entrepreneurs working on killer stuff, and we talked about how to move their ideas forward and generate buzz. Mostly, I think they enjoyed hearing from one another and swapping ideas.

My favorite session of the afternoon was led by Bob Metcalfe, founder of 3Com, former columnist and publisher at InfoWorld, and now a partner at Polaris. His session, simply, was about selling.

"Engineers have no respect for salesmen," Bob said. "Selling is every bit as complicated as designing ASICs."

Bob laid out the four phases that many companies go through with regard to selling.

First is the waiting phase: we’ve built a better mousetrap, so let's wait until someone discovers our product.

The next phase is arguing: you go out of the office and argue with people, trying to convince them that they should buy your product. It's much better than waiting, and you do sell more. But you’ll often win the argument and still not get the order, Bob said.

Next is the "suffer fools gladly" phase: the prospects are idiots, but you just bite your lip when they say something stupid. This strategy works, but most salespeople get stuck there. They disrespect their customers, and that leads to failures, like overpromising and underdelivering.

The fourth (and I presume most-evolved) phase is listening: you have respect for the customers, since they know more about what they need than you do. You ask them questions. You try to address their needs.

Bob offered some other great advice and jokes.

Some insight about approaching venture capitalists that he heard when he was an entrepreneur: "If you want money, ask for advice, and if you want advice, ask for money."

Novice salespeople are afraid of the "no"….but when people say no, you can ask them why and then work on those reasons.

Bob then offered a secret to selling that he said none of us had heard elsewhere.

How do you establish credibility? By keeping little promises. People you're selling to always wonder, will the product work like he says? Will I get the benefits? One way to do that is a pattern of keeping promises.

If you say, I’ll be there at 5:00, don’t come late, or you’ve begun to teach them that you don’t keep promises. If you say you’re going to finish on time, you finish on time. (Bob promised he'd finish his presentation by his allotted time, and he did - with time to spare.) If you say, I’ll send you my brochure tomorrow, that's a little promise, so keep it. Eventually, you say, my products will work, and they'll make your life wonderful, and people believe you.

I found this funny: Don't allow people to eat or sit down in your trade show both, Bob advised. The space is too expensive for people to do things other than connect with prospective customers.

Some other thoughts on the conference...

The mix of people was great -- and there was a nice sense of urgency from it being a one-day event... I might not see these folks for a while. And the venue was perfect for schmoozing and also offered lots of different-sized rooms for the sessions; the event was held at the Sun Microsystems campus in Burlington. Moderator Kaliya Hamlin did a killer job of explaining the concept of an unconference to everybody there. (I'd been to one or two before, but had never tried to run a session...)

If you were at the event and have comments... or want to include a link to other blog entries, twitter streams, videos, etc., please do so below in the comments.

Update: Here's some coverage of the event from Friday morning's Boston Globe.

[ Disclosure: I was peripherally involved in the planning of the event, in that I listened to Bill Warner talk about it once or twice and offered some feedback that he immediately disregarded. ;) ]

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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Three Events at MIT: Financial Crisis, Energy Debate, Energy Night

Let me point you to three excellent (free) events at MIT, happening this week and next.

The first is a panel discussion called 'Perspectives on the Current Financial Crisis,' Thursday at 5:30 in the Wong Auditorium.

The second, coming up on Monday, is the only Presidential debate being held in the Boston area. Well, it's a debate between two surrogates for the Obama and McCain campaigns. They'll be talking about energy policy. That's at the Kresge Auditorium, Monday at 7:30 PM.

The third, at the MIT Museum next Friday night, is MIT Energy Night, organized by the MIT Energy Club. It features 40 demos from MIT research groups and spin-off companies. From Patti Richards at the MIT News office:

    "Highlights include presentations/demos by the following
    - Bicycle powered laptop
    - $25K X Prize "Crazy Green Idea"
    - New floating wind turbine system
    - MIT Electric Vehicle Team"

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