Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Is there such a thing as a viable 21st century newsstand?

That's what I was wondering when I read this piece. Boston is great at preserving history... and I wouldn't mind if Out of Town News continued on forever in its current incarnation.

But what would a 21st century newsstand be like? There'd be great coffee, of course, along with gum and candy. Large plasma screens with pay-per-minute Internet access? Cell phone and laptop charging? WiFi, and a few stools to perch on? It's hard to imagine a way to really have the same volume of traffic and activity that Out of Town News once had...

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Redefining New England's Brand Image

Last Sunday's column was headlined "Let's Redefine New England's Brand Image."

It was based on a blog post here from earlier in December, which has sparked lots of great discussion and debate.

Sunday's video featured Jamie Tedford of Brand Networks talking about sending the message that New England is a petri dish of innovation.

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Friday, December 26, 2008

Which MA Stocks Had a Good 2008?

The answer may surprise you... it was biotech companies like Vertex, Cubist, Momenta, and Idenix (up 138 percent this year, despite being unprofitable).

Small local banks, in places like Springfield and Western Mass., also did OK.

The Globe's Steve Syre writes:

    There are just 17 Massachusetts stocks that have gained ground this year. That's 17 out of 234 stocks, which means about 93 percent have lost value in 2008. Another perspective: Eleven Massachusetts stocks have lost more than 90 percent of their value in 2008.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Video from the 2008 MIT Venture Capital Conference

The organizers of this month's MIT Venture Capital Conference, headlined 'Reinventing Venture Capital,' just posted the videos from the event.

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Success in the toy biz is no game

I've long been a fan of the kinetic sculptor Arthur Ganson, who serves as artist-in-residence at MIT.

But until last week, I knew very little about the toy company he helped found fifteen years ago, Hands On Toys.

Sunday's column focused on the story of Hands On, from 1993 to this holiday season. From the piece:

    Fifteen years later, with somewhat rueful chuckles, they describe the toy business as "a real roller coaster ride," in [CEO Andrew] Farrar's words. The Lawrence-based company is about the same size it was when it started, and still struggling to get its products into toy chests around the world. They have seen hot products ripped off by others; not-so-hot products dropped by big distributors; new ideas summarily rejected by big toy companies like Mattel; thousands of toy retailers go out of business; and the incredible rise of video games and electronic toys. Also, one of their products killed a dog.

    Success in the toy biz, says [COO Rustam] Booz, "is not an easy equation. It's very tough."

    One of their advisers and board members, strategy consultant David Wright, says he occasionally asks the founders, "Guys, do you still want to be doing this? But they are two of the stubbornest people I know - and I mean that in the best way possible."

Here's the video, in which Farrar and Booz show off a Ganson-designed toy prototype, the Catapult, and talk about bringing it to market:

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

What Does 'New England' Mean in the New Global Economy?

Here’s a quick city-association game for you.

When I say Hollywood, what industry comes to mind?

If I say Silicon Valley, could you name a couple companies based there?

Nashville conjures up country music chords, and Seattle connotes e-commerce, coffee roasting, and monopolistic makers of operating systems.

So here’s an experiment to try the next time you meet someone at a party in San Francisco, or sit next to a non-New Englander on a flight from O’Hare.

Ask them what their associations are when you say “New England” or “Massachusetts.”

I think you’ll be surprised how often you get responses like “the Boston Tea Party,” “the Revolution,” “covered bridges,” “Ben & Jerry’s,” “the Red Sox,” “history,” or “Kerry, Kennedy and Dukakis.” (I know – I’ve been trying this for the past year or so.)

This leads me to the unfortunate conclusion that what we have here is a failure to communicate. While denizens of the six New England states may be aware how much goes on here – from developing new drugs to deploying advanced robots to designing new videogames – the rest of the planet is pretty clueless.

I think that our great opportunity for 2009, as the world figures out how to emerge from its fiscal funk, is to come up with a strategy for telling our story. This is a hotbed of innovation, and we need the smartest people everywhere to know that. The smartest students already come here to get educated, but we need the smartest entrepreneurs to come here to set up shop; the smartest investors to set up branch offices; and the smartest big-company execs to establish manufacturing, R&D, or sales and marketing presences.

This is not a project for government. They don’t have the money, and we don’t have the time to wait for the six New England states to figure out how to coordinate a joint economic development initiative. (The end result, anyhow, would probably just be a press release.)

This is also probably not a project that our trade associations can lead; each of them has their own priorities, and limited staffs and budgets. (But we can urge them to get on board once we’ve got a plan.)

Instead, this is a project for people who work in the innovation industries around New England. I think we need to stop thinking about how to pitch Portsmouth, Portland, Burlington, North Adams, Cambridge, or Providence as a globally-relevant business hub – and instead come up with a strategy for positioning the entire region as a beacon of innovation and entrepreneurship.

“Revolutionary ideas since 1776” might be a nice slogan.

But more than a signle slogan, I think we need a raft of ideas (most of which would be free or cheap to execute) about better branding New England and explaining what we do here.

A few I’d toss out, just to get your creative juices flowing:

- A series of YouTube videos profiling New England entrepreneurs, live Webcasts with pioneering academic researchers, or iTunes podcast interviews with angel investors and VCs.

- A small logo that New England businesses would add to their Web sites, linked to a page offering information about the innovation economy here, and the particular sector they’re part of.

- A Google map showcasing all of the robotics companies here…medical device companies…cleantech start-ups…venture capital firms.

- A page of “talking points” for execs and entrepreneurs, offering high-level info about all the different innovation industries in the region, and a few salient stats about company creation, venture capital activity, patents issued per capita, etc.

- A Flickr photoset of company headquarters, labs, academic institutions, etc.

- A Facebook group or Google calendar to keep people apprised of major conferences, seminars, trade shows, and industry events in the region.

2009 is going to be a “rebuilding” year for every state, every industry, the global economy as a whole. Everyone is going to be trying to figure out where new growth can come from.

I think that creates an incredible chance for those of us in New England to talk about what we do, make our case, brand our region, and as a result, attract people, partnerships, and business from far and wide.

This post is only intended to get us thinking together about the opportunity: spreading the message globally about what our region is about. If I were forced to encapsulate it, I’d say, “New England is where scientific breakthroughs and big ideas turn into start-ups, big companies, and entirely new industries.”

But I know you’ll serve up some better ways to say it… and great strategies for communicating it.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Karen Gordon Mills: Who???

So Obama apparently is about to name Karen Gordon Mills to run the Small Business Administration. Mills is apparently a venture capitalist who splits her time between Maine and Manhattan.

Check out the hyper-informative Web sites of her two firms, Solera Capital and MMP Group.

Doesn't this woman know the Obama administration is all about transparency?

Solera, according to some quick Google searches, owns the mac-and-cheese company Annie's Homegrown and has also invested in a chain called Calypso Christiane Celle, which sells women's apparel and accessories.

According to this piece from the Harvard Business School alumni newsletter, she worked for McKinsey & Co. and the leveraged buyout firm E.S. Jacobs & Co.

From that piece:

    Solera, which Mills cofounded in 2000 with a group of other investment professionals, has $250 million under management and specializes in later-stage invest-ments in companies that could use a boost in capital to grow substantially. “Our operating philosophy is to invest about $15–20 million in each deal and take a controlling interest,” notes Mills. “We like to be the capital that comes in to grow the business to the next level — build the next plant, make an acquisition, or expand the brand.”

    What makes Solera unique, she adds, is its research-intensive focus and the fact that its four managing partners are women. “But we're not a firm that invests only in women-owned companies,” says Mills. “What we've done is build a network — beyond our usual network — of powerful women executives, including HBS classmates Orit Gadiesh and Ann Fudge, who help us in deals with knowledge and access.”

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Apple Sells Out IDG

Framingham-based International Data Group, with its Macworld magazine and Macworld Expo trade shows, has long been a supporter of Apple, helping to build the company's brand and community through good times and bad.

But Apple just sold out IDG by announcing that it no longer plans to participate in the San Francisco-based Macworld show... and that Steve Jobs won't be giving his regular annual keynote there next month. (Here's more coverage.)

Three years ago, Apple pulled out from the East Coast edition of Macworld, which used to take place in the summer, after IDG decided to move it to Boston from New York City. That killed that trade show.

This is not a happy day for IDG chairman Pat McGovern. Steve Jobs, apparently, does not feel a whole lot of loyalty to long-time allies....

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Flybridge Makes It Easier & Cheaper for Students to Network and Learn

I hope this isn't seen as just a Flybridge initiative.... but the Boston VC firm has launched "Stay in MA," a program that offers students a free or cheap way to attend industry events and conferences. The VC firm is creating a $5000 scholarship fund as a test; students can get up to $100 per event to attend the events they're interested in and get plugged in to the innovation economy. That's excellent.

Here's the official Web site and here's the Xconomy coverage.

Students: start your engines, and take advantage of this!

Update: Unfortunately, most of the associations participating in this initiative don't actually seem to want to let students know about it. It'd be a no-brainer to list on their Web sites and event pages that students can get 'scholarships' to attend. None are doing that yet, though at least MassNetComms has posted the press release.

Also, it's interesting that two of the biggest trade associations around, MassTLC and Mass Biotech Council, aren't participating. Maybe getting students involved is not part of their mission?

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Boston VCs Hope for Sunnier Days Ahead

From Sunday's Globe: 'Releasing Capital for Rays of Energy.' It deals with two of the newest-vintage photovoltaic start-ups in the Boston area, 1366 Technologies and Wakonda Technologies.

    To date, 1366, which traces its roots to MIT research, has raised $12 million from Polaris and North Bridge Venture Partners, another Waltham venture capital firm. Wakonda, which spun out from the Rochester Institute of Technology, has raised $9.5 million, much of it from Massachusetts-based venture firms Polaris, General Catalyst, and Advanced Technology Ventures. The two companies are located a few miles from one another, off Route 128 in Boston's northern suburbs.

    Polaris's involvement with two start-ups working on new approaches to wringing electricity from the sun is a little out of the ordinary but not unique; General Catalyst has funded two solar companies, and Advanced Technology Ventures has funded three. Over the past four years a roaring torrent of cash has been funneled into companies developing photovoltaic materials. According to Cambridge-based Greentech Media, a research firm, roughly $4.5 billion has been invested in about 150 solar start-ups in that time frame.

In the video, MIT prof. and 1366 co-founder Ely Sachs gives you a PV primer.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

'Inventing the Movies,' last night in Portsmouth

Andy Beaupre, the Portsmouth-based PR entrepreneur, was at my book talk at the Portsmouth Public Library last night and was kind enough to post this blog write-up.

Thanks to everyone who helped organize the presentation (and fill the hall!): the eCoast Angel network, NH Film & Television Office, New Hampshire High Technology Council, the University of New Hampshire, Borealis Ventures, Catapult, the Whittemore School of Business & Economics at UNH, and the Portsmouth Public Library. That's a lot of organizers!

The next two presentations are January 15th in Concord and February 11th in Boston. Info here.

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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Introducing the "DrinkJet" Printer

This week's Globe column focuses on OnLatte, a two-person proto-start-up that's trying to build a business around a modified inkjet printer that can print edible imagery on cafe lattes and glasses of Guinness.

From the piece:

    A video showing the first prototype printer in action has been viewed more than 800,000 times on YouTube. The founders of OnLatte Inc. have put comic strips, kitty cats, flying horses, and corporate logos on cups of coffee, and they've printed Barack Obama's face on the head of a glass of Guinness (the brew is foamy enough for printing).

    The company has been invited to the prestigious Siggraph trade show, which brings together computer graphics gurus from around the world, and received coverage from newspapers and TV shows from across the globe without the help of a public relations firm.

    But the big questions for the two entrepreneurs trying to get OnLatte off the ground are whether there's a business here, and who will back it.

Here's a video demo:

(Props to Joost Bonsen for coining the term "drinkjet printing," which is just brilliant.)

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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Keynote Interview from MIT VC Conference: 'Guitar Hero' creator Eran Egozy

At today's MIT Venture Capital conference, I had the fun task of conducting an on-stage interview with Eran Egozy, co-founder and CTO of Harmonix Music Systems, the Cambridge company that brought you 'Guitar Hero' and 'Rock Band' (as well as earlier music-oriented games like 'Frequency' and 'Karaoke Revolution').

We had a chance to talk about the creation of the company; some of their early attempts to license technology they'd developed and create a hit game; how they raised $10 million in funding from angel investors and VCs; how they almost ran out of money before their 'C' round; what made 'Guitar Hero' a hit; the company's acquisition by MTV for $175 million (in cash); what's next; and why there will never be a game called 'Clarinet Hero.'

The MP3 file is here; it includes Q&A, and is about 30 minutes long.

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Panel from MIT VC Conference: Media/Tech/Entertainment

Moderated a panel earlier today on media, technology, and entertainment at the 11th annual MIT Venture Capital Conference. My panelists included:

    Jeremy Allaire
    CEO, Brightcove

    John Lanza
    IP Practice Group Leader, Choate Hall & Stewart, LLP

    Lucy McQuilken
    Investment Director, Intel Capital

    Neil Sequeira
    General Partner, General Catalyst

We talked about Facebook, Twitter, set-top boxes, Internet video, the Kindle, Blu-ray, iTunes, copyright, piracy, videogames, and the music industry.

The MP3 is about 50 minutes long. Some of the questions during the Q&A are on the quiet. The file is here.

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Friday, December 5, 2008

Paul English, Kayak, Sequoia, and the Triple-Digit Club

My most recent Globe column focused on what I call the "Triple Digit Club" -- companies that have raised $100 million or more in venture capital funding.

The club includes Boston-area companies like E Ink, Kayak, A123 Systems, GreatPoint Energy, and Luminus Devices. (Kayak is the current club president, having raised $223 million.)

My favorite tidbit from the column is that Sequoia, one of the investors behind Kayak, apparently used them at the famous "RIP Good Times" presentation in October as an example of a company that already operates lean and mean. From the column:

    The entire start-up world...took notice last month when several partners of Sequoia Capital, the venture firm that funded companies like Google, PayPal, and Electronic Arts, called a meeting to warn its companies about the coming recession. The text on the opening slide? "R.I.P. Good Times." Spending cuts, the firm advised, are a must, and acquirers will gravitate to profitable companies.

    Sequoia, as it happens, is an investor in Kayak (A123Systems, too). According to [Kayak co-founder Paul] English, people who were at Sequoia's cautionary meeting say that partner Michael Moritz mentioned Kayak several times.

    "They were talking about us as a company with a lean profile," he says. "In their portfolio, we are the skinniest as far as costs." That frugal posture will be an asset if even gloomier times are ahead.

The video features English talking about his approach to hiring and firing engineers.

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

iWalk: Cambridge's quietest start-up?

I'd really heard absolutely nothing about iWalk, a Cambridge start-up that has been around for a couple years now, until I was doing some research for a robotics panel this week at MIT.

One of my panelists was MIT prof Hugh Herr, who also serves as founder and chief scientific officer of iWalk. The company is commercializing a robotic prosthetic device developed in Herr's lab that does the job of a foot and ankle for people who no longer have their own. They call it "PowerFoot One," and according to the Web site:

    "Two powerful microprocessors and six environmental sensors evaluate and adjust ankle position, stiffness, damping and power thousands of times a second. Control algorithms generate human-like force while traversing level ground, slopes and stairs, providing active amputees with near-normal gait and lower energy expenditure compared to state-of-the-art passive prosthetics."

Seed funding for the company came from Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte and other angel investors. HBS prof Bill Sahlman serves on iWalk's board.

Herr told me that two years ago, the company raised $5 million from WFD Ventures in New York. Right now, Herr said, iWalk is trying to raise another $7 or $8 million to get the first product finished and ready for sale.

In addition to Herr and CEO Richard Greenwald, the start-up has five employees, I'm told.

More on the technology here.

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Reviewing Vlingo's New iPhone App

I've been following the Cambridge speech-rec start-up Vlingo for a while (earlier coverage here).

Yesterday, they released their first app for the iPhone, which lets you talk to the phone to conduct Web searches, dial your contacts, update your Facebook status, and pull up maps.

In testing it out this morning, its accuracy rate seemed to be about 75 percent.

I tried to update my Facebook status to say "Scott Kirsner is playing with Vlingo's new iPhone app." It came up with " playing with Vlingo is new i phone app." So I tried again, saying, "... is playing with the new iPhone app from Vlingo," and got better results.

It quickly located the restaurant No. 9 Park on a map, as well as Diesel Cafe in Somerville and my home address in Cambridge.

With a Google search, it amazingly got "Hawaiian print quilts" on the first try, but was unable to snag the title of my latest book, "Inventing the Movies," after five or six attempts. ("In the kingdom movies"? Nope. "Investing the movies"? Close.)

The worst part of the app seemed to be voice dialing. You'd think this would be easy, since it's such a limited set of names. But the accuracy declined to about 50 or 60 percent here, in my unscientific test.

The main additional feature I'd want from this app is the ability to use Vlingo to compose text messages and e-mails. (The iPhone's keyboard is horrible!) I'd gladly pay...

There's a video demo on the company's site.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Delivering Electricity Like WiFi

Earlier this month, my Globe column profiled WiTricity, a relatively new MIT spin-out that's trying to bring to market a system for wirelessly transmitting electricity (and doing it safely.)

Here's the opening:

    In a brick building in Watertown where men's suits were once made, Eric Giler is running a company that seems to be defying the gravity of the current economic morass.

    Investors call to ask whether they can give him money. Customers request demos and suggest they're ready to commit to partnerships as quickly as possible. At January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Giler plans to rent a hotel suite in the Venetian (not a highly trafficked booth at the convention center) and schedule meetings selectively.

    His company, WiTricity Corp., is commercializing a breakthrough unveiled last year by MIT researchers: the ability to safely transmit power through thin air. Imagine electricity beamed around rooms the way Wi-Fi provides an Internet link. WiTricity could provide the power to keep a mobile phone's battery perpetually charged or operate a wall-hung flat-screen TV without cords.

Here's the video of CEO Eric Giler giving a demo of the system:

They don't yet have much of a Web site yet, but eventually it will be here.

Mass High Tech supplies more background on Giler; I provided an update on the company back in October.

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Breakfast Event This Friday for Consumer-Oriented Tech Entrepreneurs

I'm helping to organize, along with Tim Rowe of the Cambridge Innovation Center, a breakfast this Friday for consumer-oriented tech entrepreneurs. We have two slots we're holding for student entrepreneurs, and one for a "grown-up." ;)

E-mail me with a short description of what you're up to if you'd like to join us. Breakfast will include 18 people from a mix of cool companies.

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