Archive for the 'Innovation' Category

TiECON East 2010 and Clean Tech

Saturday, May 8th, 2010

Another TiECON East is approaching.  As noted in earlier posts I find this entrepreneur’s conference to be the best value for the money.  This year I am on the organizing team helping to put together the Clean Tech track.  In particular, I’m the producer for the panel session on energy management. I am pleased to have assembled a very diverse panel that can cover many of the bases that fall under the “energy management” tent.

For regulatory matters I have Janet Gail Besser.  She was the top regulator in Massachusetts and is now the VP of Regulatory Strategy and Policy at National Grid USA.  She can also speak on the utility perspective and a global perspective since they are the largest utility in England

Gregg Dixon, the Senior VP of Marketing for EnerNOC, provides the perspective of an energy management company. He has certifications in energy management and demand side management and so can also speak for commercial customers of energy. His background includes work in co-generation as well.

I also have two entrepreneurs in the line up. Nachum Sadan, the CEO of Amperion, runs an established startup with over 100 patents and successful pilot operations underway. They provide communication over high voltage power lines that will allow utilities monitoring and control capabilities to the substation level opening up a whole new level energy management possibilities.

Roger Faulkner, the CEO of Electric Pipeline Company, is our early stage entrepreneur. EPC offers a new cost effective way of efficiently moving massive chunks of electricity over very long distances. That is gigawatt morsels over thousands of miles. This is the kind of technology that will make it possible for wind energy generated in the Midwest to be used on the East Coast. Nachum and Roger are the techies on the panel with degrees in electrical engineering and material science to handle the technical questions.

I invited John Quealy, a managing director in equity research at Canaccord Genuity. He is the head of their Sustainability sector and created their investment themes in Smart Grid, Water Technology and Clean Coal. As investment bankers in this sector they look at a lot of companies so have the big picture view. Moreover he’s been doing this over ten years so has seen the downs as well as the recent ups in the energy sector. I’m counting on him to provide the adult supervision.

You can see the details of our session here.

The panels on energy sources and storage look good as well. If clean tech and green energy are strong interests you should be well served by our track. As usual there will be other interesting things going on. For the first time they will have an entrepreneurship bootcamp, this being run by Babson College. I’m looking forward to another great event.

Hey, why not let everyone help develop your products?

Friday, June 27th, 2008

Another way companies are breaking down the barriers between themselves and their customers or other folks outside is via “crowdsourcing.” That is a way to get people on the outside to provide value to the organization on their own time. It is essentially the open source model applied to more than just software.

STRIKING GOLD
The best example I know is the Goldcorp story. Their president put all their proprietary geologic data for a mine on the web and held a contest. The winners with the best ideas of where to drill would share half a million dollars. The diversity and originality of ideas they received was far beyond anything they anticipated. Years later they were still drilling sites suggested by contestants. They were mining so much gold they were the only gold mining company that was stockpiling for better prices in the future. Furthermore, their stock price went up thirty fold. (See Taylor’s book referenced below.)

ADVANTAGES
The internet and the decentralization of expertise has enabled crowd sourcing and it is typically used to develop solutions. That is at the back end of the product development process. Companies can gain key advantages via crowd sourcing.

LEVERAGE —
achieving goals not possible with a limited fixed staff

This is the advantage of scale. For example, large companies experience many more customer demands for new products than they can keep up with. Some have formed external networks to act in an advisory role or even do project work directly (as in the Goldcorp example) to develop more new products. NASA has used volunteers to process enormous amounts of data making images available months earlier and freeing up researchers to concentrate on higher end work. Google essentially uses crowdsourcing in the way it ranks pages for its search engine.

ORIGINALITY —
access to a larger number and far more diverse range of ideas than possible in-house

I think William Taylor says it best in this chapter title from his book Mavericks at Work: Ideas Unlimited: Why Nobody is as Smart as Everybody.

Inviting people from other boxes to work on your problem is a pretty easy way to get real “out of the box” thinking.

CROWDSOURCING AT THE FRONT END
I see parallels to the kind of work we do at the front end to understand the problems you should be working on in the first place. You can use crowdsourcing methods to find out what the most important problems are for you to solve, as well as to craft solutions. That is, from voice of the customer to voice of the collaborator. We have actually done both here.

For more,
“On the Edge,” by Tim Gilchrist, PMI Network, May 2007, p32.
Mavericks at Work, William C. Taylor and Polly LaBarre, Harper Collins, 2006. (See Chapter 4.)

TiECON East 2008

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008

I’ve said before TiECON is one of the best values for the money I’ve found. It is focused on entrepreneurs and I am still impressed that the conference finds new ways to be innovative each year. It makes sense since the attendees are innovators on the cutting edge struggling to come up with the next big thing. That kind of thinking is contagious.

SOMETHING NEW
This year the new thing that stood out for me was an entrepreneurs’ forum. I enrolled and got three half hour sessions of face-to-face counseling about my business with venture capitalists and attorneys who specialize in startup businesses. It didn’t cost me anything extra. How would I normally even get access to people like this for a little bit of undivided attention to my business?

A COMPARISON
I contrast this with my experience working with the PDMA. Even though they preach innovation, it is very much from the large company perspective. That’s where most of their members and speakers are from. Having seen both I’d say slower, more cumbersome and less risk taking in comparison. I joined the board of the local PDMA chapter briefly this year to help them develop a schedule of speakers 6 months in advance instead of the month-to-month scrambling they’ve been doing.

Essentially, I was going to do a simple VOC exercise to find out what kind of speakers the membership wanted to hear from, prioritize, and then recruit speakers with that guidance. I’ve done the same thing with great success for other organizations in the past. I didn’t really want another volunteer activity but offered that I could do that for them. They liked the idea when they recruited me to join back in January

It seems like this project was too novel for someone. After 2 months they still couldn’t email my simple 5 question survey to the membership. Plenty of announcements went out in that time. Another month later there was still no response to my weekly email queries, no attempt to communicate any issues or resolve them. I’d only get a call when someone desperately hoped I would drop what I was doing to arrange sandwiches or name tags for a meeting that night.

I am sure there was nothing personal here as I saw the same thing happening to other initiatives. I’m still waiting for someone to respond and close the loop with me. For all I know I might still be a member of the board though I’ve given up. I’m not going to let this drag out until I’m stuck scrambling each month to get a speaker at the last minute. I only got involved to extricate them from that pathology, not participate in it. (I’ve become more careful how I invest my volunteer efforts over time.) The point I’m getting to is that this is very much how I felt working at a Fortune 200 sized company. Any innovation has a lot to overcome and is often filtered out in spite of the lip service paid to it. There are exceptional bright spots throughout large organizations so a generalization isn’t fair to everyone but I think it describes the norm. Let me know if you see it another way.

RECOMMENDATION
My recommendation to people working in the innovation space at large companies is to spend some time attending entrepreneurial events and mixing with people from much smaller companies. I think exposure to this faster innovation lane will help you innovate a little better than your large compatriots in the slower lane and gain you a competitive advantage.

SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY
Back to TiECON East I was also struck by how social responsibility was an underlying theme especially from some of the keynote speakers like Bob Compton (documentary “Two Million Minutes”), Alan Rosling (Executive Director of Tata Sons), and Craig Newmark (founder of Craig’s List). A lot of these business leaders are focused on more than just making money. Ironically, I think they will make (or have been making) more money as a result. I see this in contrast to the narrow focus on the numbers in the large companies, (looking beyond what they say, to what they do).

Understanding the big picture helps you avoid costly trouble in the future. The lesson here is that success really is about people one way or another. Be it how you treat your employees, the community you operate in, or your customers, it’s good business to know that you are touching lives.

Does innovation have to be original?

Friday, July 6th, 2007

My new business cards have been flagged in a recent blog as innovative. See Business card innovation

While that is flattering, in all honesty this is just my incarnation of an idea I took from Marcus Wigan, a friend and colleague in Australia. He also includes his photo, which makes it easier for people to remember which of the dozens of faces they encountered that day correspond to his card. It nailed an unmet need of mine. Was this original to Marcus or was he prompted by an earlier influence?

I don’t think it matters. I think it is a mistake to be too proud to adopt someone else’s good idea if it is better than mine. So I created my own version sans headshot. Is it still an innovation?

(Why not the photo? I don’t know. Perhaps for the reason I was with the radio station rather than drama club in high school.)

Most dictionaries define innovation as “introducing something new.” I don’t think it has to be new to the world to count, just new to the context. That’s why I like cross-disciplinary work. Something old hat in one field can be innovative and revolutionary when finally brought into another. For example, I created a new kind of machine vision sensor for traffic detection based on something I saw in robotics. So for now, most people that notice the card think it is novel. I introduced something new to them, to our environment … though Marcus certainly had the more original idea and in my opinion is the real innovator here.

An invention has to be original, an innovation does not.
An innovation has to be useful, an invention does not.

Let me close with a quote from They Made America.

“An innovator’s essential contribution may be to realize the promise of the known.” — Harold Evans

A Tale of Two Conferences

Thursday, June 28th, 2007

Two very different innovation conferences: The Front-End of Innovation (by PDMA & IIR) and TiECON East (by TiE-Boston).

PDMA = Product Development Management Association
IIR = Institute for International Research
TiE = The Indus Entrepreneurs

I’ve attended the last few FEI conferences and have also helped organize the VOC conference for PDMA/IIR. After attending last year, I helped work on this year’s TiECON East. Since I have had the perspective of an attendee and an insider now of both I thought I might be able to make a useful comparison.

LOCATION
Both have been held in Boston for as many years as I’ve known about them.

TIME
Both have generally been in May or June.

PRICE
No contest here. TiECON East was $300 compared to $2300 for FEI.

VALUE
This is where it gets interesting. Both programs were essentially the same number of days, with special evening events and big name speakers. Cost did not correlate to quality in terms of the speakers. Whereas FEI had a VP from Google, TiECON East had a founding board member from Google. You can go down the list like that. FEI had a number of CEOs and VPs, some you’ve heard of some you haven’t. TiECON East had some very big names we all would know. For example, Reed Hunt, the FCC commissioner responsible for the deregulation that led to the telecom industry we have today. Or, Patrick Deval, the Governor of Massachusetts, though he had to speak via videotape at the last minute. In fact, Senator John Kerry, who was not even in the program, dropped in unannounced to speak to us for about 20 minutes! Even at the same price TiECON East would have been more attractive. At 7 times less expensive it is a real deal.

SIZE
FEI had around 700 people, TiECON East had around 1200.

PHILOSOPHY
The most stark difference was here. IIR is a large conference organizing business that has a contract from PDMA to produce several of their conferences. My experience working with them on the VOC conference is that they are in it to make money. That colors their view of what is in the attendees’ interest. They also have a lot more say than volunteers on the PDMA side. So I saw them drop benefits to the attendees (like the book of slides) without the PDMA Chairman even knowing before we arrived at the conference. This is also the reason for the high cost. It was very hard to get innovative ideas into the conference because of the way IIR staff dominates what happens over the PDMA volunteers. There was a very large corporate feel to how they work. Not innovative (like what is preached at the conference) but what does happen is generally professional.

TiECON on the other hand was almost entirely done by volunteers from TiE-Boston. They had one group whose sole purpose was to come up with new and innovative ways to add value for the attendees (a very different mindset from IIR). At one point there were 8 separate initiatives being worked on. Some I’d never seen at other conferences. That fell to 5 due to the limited number of volunteers to work them. As in any volunteer effort, the quality varied, but the energy of the people involved was impressive. It should not be a surprise that working this had a feel that was more entrepreneurial. Not always efficient, occasional glitches, but great content and value for attendees.

ATTENDEES
Most of the attendees at FEI that I met are mid-level people working in large corporations. The next largest group may have been consultants and service providers. After that a few executives from smaller companies, academics, and press.

Most of the attendees that I met at TiECON East are entrepreneurs, wannabe entrepreneurs, officers in startups, venture capitalists, and service providers.

NETWORKING
I just told you whom you’d meet at either. Both conferences scheduled time and events for people to meet and network, from breaks to dinners. Unique to TiECON East was music and dancing at the end of the dinner program.

Some of the innovations at TiECON East were to help the right people find each other. For example, at one event a number of entrepreneurs got to give short pitches or set up tables. This was for attendees, not exhibitors, to make their case and get noticed by the right people. The exhibitors had their usual arrangement nearby.

EXHIBITORS
Speaking of exhibitors, at FEI they were almost entirely consultants, a few selling software and a business bookstore.

At TiECON East a lot of the exhibitors were VCs, bankers, and business service providers. There were some consultants as well.

RECOMMENDATIONS
First, you will learn a lot from both conferences. Neither is a waste of time.

FEI is a good conference if you’ve never been before and someone else (like your company) is paying the admission. Since I’ve seen speakers from the same big name places repeated year to year I don’t think it’s necessary to go every year (like I have been) especially if money is tight. It is expensive. It is particularly suited to you if you work for a large company. You’ll meet peers from other large to mid-sized companies and hear some very good speakers with experience relevant to you.

TiECON East is focused on a different market – entrepreneurs. This one is ideal for folks from small companies or anyone on a tight budget. Again, great speakers and interactive panel sessions but with a focus helping the little guy hit a homerun. (Read that as IPO.) They also seem to get bigger thinkers on the program.

On the topic of innovation, I’d probably recommend this for anyone. The cost is minimal. Moreover, the sheer energy of people excited with very new ideas is far greater. Folks from large enterprises won’t find as many peers but they will be exposed to new ideas and people for which innovation isn’t just their job.

The chairman of the FEI conference told me once that they studied small companies like the one I was with to “teach the big boys how to do it.” TiECON is a chance to mix directly with the little guys some of whom will change our world. The problem is you’ll have trouble telling who they are. Don’t feel bad. The VCs have the same trouble.

LINKS
The conference links tend to go out of date so I’ll instead list the organizational links. You can look at their events to find these conferences.

www.pdma.org
tie.boston.org