Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Stanford Technology Showcase is a museum of Stanford research successes

As part of the E-week festivities, the Stanford Office of Technology Licensing (OTL) hosted a showcase Wednesday night of Stanford tech research that has found success with real world applications. Held in the atrium of the Packard Electrical Engineering Building (right next to Bytes Cafe, one of the more delicious places to eat on campus) the showcase contained about 10 small exhibits that demonstrated how Stanford tech research is applied in the market.

According to the sign at the front of the atrium, the OTL helps Stanford students and professors turn their research into "tangible products" to give the inventor and the university income.

Soon after the forum on social entrepreneurship and world problems let out a steady stream of students and faculty came in and went directly to the tables that held the Chinese food. This became mainly a social and networking event, but visitors did make their way across the atrium and looked at many of the products that help fund the university.

The most popular exhibit was the FM sound synthesizer, invented by Prof. John Chowning in 1971, which mixed two pure tones together in order to get a 3rd (different) tone. OTL spent 4 years trying to get American companies interested in the technology, but in 1975 gave Japan based Yamaha Corp. the exclusive licensing. Yamaha used this to develop their 1983 DX synthesizer (which gave 80's music a whole new dimension), and in the 90's the FM sound chip was the sound generator installed in millions of PC's. This is OTL's second largest source of royalties.

When I was in front of the Genscan exhibit, a woman next to me remarked, "Wow." So I had better include it. According to the exhibit, "Genscan is a popular software tool to aid scientists around the world in the task of gene mapping and sequencing for both human and plant genomics." Invented by Professor Christoper Burge, it was one of the first technologies OTL offered as a "ready-to-sign" license, which used set conditions but resulted in discount financial terms for the licensee.

Also on the genome front was the Direct Multiplex Genotyping on Genomic DNA, created by the Stanford Genome Technology Center. This device helps with genome and DNA detection, and was licensed to ParAllele (a startup founded by the inventors) in 2001. ParAllele was acquired in 2005 by Affymetrix.

There were also a few communications technologies on display. One was the Deformable Grating Modulator, invented in 1991 by then Professor David Bloom. He started Echelle Inc. to develop the technology, which helps light beam displays. This is applicable for HDTV's, home theater systems, and handheld communication devices. Strangely, when I did a google search for the Echelle url, I only found that now it is a cosmetic company in Alabama. Weird. But according to the exhibit, the technology is being used currently by Sony for some of its HDTV's.

There was also an exhibit about the fiber optic amplifier, invented in the early 1980's by Professors H. John Shaw and Michel Digonnet, that "enables light signals to be transmitted over long distances, allowing data and voice transmissions to be sent over fiber optic cables." There have been over 150 inventions from this fiber optic research, which was sponsored by Litton Systems (which was acquired by Northrup Grunman).

Another exhibit was by the current dean of the Engineering Dept., Jim Plummer. In 1976 he invented the Insulated Gate Bipolar Transistor, whose application obviously is to help semiconductors switch large currents (on a small scale model like the washing machine, or for big power plants).

The final tech exhibit that caught my eye was the Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) research by Professor Calvin Quate in the mid-1980's. This led to more than 40 technologies, and is a way to image very small things (even a single atom). It has found uses in semiconductors, materials research, and life sciences.

Global Problems and Entrepreneuship: Bottom Up or Top Down?

A full panel of Stanford academics and successful entrepreneurs unanimously affirmed optimism about the potential of entrepreneurial thinking in solving global problems, but disagreed about the importance of strong institutions in facilitating innovation.

Entrepreneurs and those interested in entrepreneurship tend to arrive early it seems. At 4:10 PM, 20 minutes before the start of E-Week's "The Role of Entrepreneurship in Solving the World Problems," students, professors, conference attendees and the occasional wayward blogger were already being asked to fill in rows to the middle to make way for more attendees.

John Hennessy, Stanford's high-rolling President, set the stage reminding us that the sort of global problems on the day's agenda are normally approached with big bureaucracy and not innovative thinking.

Tom Byers
, the Faculty Director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program bounded up to begin moderating, introducing a panel of six, which including his brother, Brook Byers, a General Partner at venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caulfield and Byers.

Panelists' preoccupation with the importance on harnessing entrepreneurial spirit in the developing world to showed itself from the starting gun as Byers and Paul Yock, director of Stanford's Biodesign Program, stressed the importance of innovations in medical technologies in making health care delivery more efficient.

Yock noted that on an international level lifestyle diseases like cardiovascular ailments will soon become the greatest killers. Since, developed world technologies for treating cardiovascular disease are so expensive, he said, its also important to look at and learn from how those technologies get redeveloped in an international setting.

Kavita Ramdas, founder of the Global Fund for Women, agreed.

"The creation of new technology by definition must be done across counties," she said.

"The US should be putting in to place policies that will allow it to be a happy countries among other happy countries not those that will continue to make it a superpower."

The conversation shifted to energy. KR Sridhar, the CEO of Bloom Energy, a solid state fuel cell company (that, incidentally, Brook Byers' firm is invested in), stressed the importance of innovations that increase energy efficiency and provide above all for individual initiative.

For a small farmer in Bangladesh, he said, the process should be as follows.

"I have a box. That box generates electricity. I can sell it. If I want clean water I buy it from the lady next door. Everyone is an entrepreneur."

"But you need someone to enforce property rights!" said Chip Blacker, director of Stanford Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

At Blacker's admission that he is a Democrat because he believes in strengthening global governance, Sridhar shot back to muffled applause.

"I am neither a Democrat nor a Republican. I am a capitalists who believes you can do good and make good," Sridhar said.

Blacker responded that he does not believe that entrepreneurship should be associated with Americaness, at the same time policy architecture plays a big role.

"Why has entrepreneurship been so successful in this country? he asked. "Can you say regulatory policy? The system rewards people for taking risks."

Monday, February 26, 2007

Global Entrepreneurship: Stanford Trailblazers in China

Stanford, Feb. 26 — E-Week crossed the International Date Line today, as three Stanford graduates discussed what entrepreneurship is like in China.

To an audience of over 150 people, including such notables as Chairman of Stanford's Board of Trustees Burt McMurtry,
the panelists for "Global Entrepreneurship: Stanford Trailblazers in China" spent much of the two hours stressing the differences in the business environment between China and the US, including the role of government and local partners in creating successful Chinese ventures.

"On one hand, there's the picture of China as being a black box. On the other hand, there's a picture of China that's China being just another territory. Both of those views have proven to be very problematic," said Derek Ling, who received a master's degree from Stanford in 1995 and founded Chinese social networking service

The panelists agreed that China can be a complicated place for entreprenuers where much that is assumed in the US cannot be taken for granted.

"If the US is like a zoo, China is more like a jungle," said WebEx Communications co-founder Min Zhu, drawing laughter from the audience for a creative metaphor that captured how unexpected problems can arise across the Pacific.

One of the things entrepreneurs have to deal with in China at all levels is the government, panelists said. Calling that part of business "B2G"- in a play off of B2B, which stands for business-to-business- several of the speakers spoke about the importance of maintaining a good working relationship with the government.

"If you're tight with a son of a minister, you can do great business that no one can touch," Ling said. "But if you don't have that, it's probably better to stay away [from that business]."

Unlike in the US where people tend to stay with companies for a while, there's a large turn-over of workers in Chinese IT ventures, the panelists said. "There's a mercenary attitude there," Hong said of people who work in IT companies in China. He added that many Chinese IT companies "need to learn" how to handle this problem, suggesting that one solution may be to "hire faster than attrition."

But there were also similarities between China and Silicon Valley. Don't expect to make millions overnight, the panelists warned. "Only the ones who last longer than the other people, they will win," Zhu said.

Survival in China, like in the US, also needs good salesmanship, Zhu added. "You need a great vision, and you need to sell your dream continuously."

While the panelists agreed with each other on most points, there was some disagreement over which Chinese city is the best place for start-ups. Zhu, in particular, touted alternatives to Beijing and Shanghai, pointing instead to places like Hangzhou- the city 180 km southwest of Shanghai where he founded his company Cybernaut in 2005.

Though the panelists all have some roots at Stanford, they took different paths. Ling, for example, studied philosophy here, while his fellow panelists were in the sciences.

What they did share, however, was an appreciation of Silicon Valley and what they learned from their time here.

"There's some magic in Silicon Valley that works very well," said Jack Hong, principal and founder of SN38, an incubation fund focusing on social-networking start-ups in China and the US. "That's why I came back here in '06 for business school."

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Social Entrepreneurship Panel at Stanford

E-Week Schedule, Feb 24 - March 3

About 100 people gathered to hear about social entrepreneurship at Stanford's Wallenberg Hall, spilling out of the Peter Wallenberg Learning Theater and into the hallway.

Three leading executives from foundations that support the work of social entrepreneuers shared their insights into funding social entreprenuership projects.

The panelists included Lance Henderson, Vice President of Program and Impact for the Skoll Foundation, Kevin Jones, Principal of Good Capital, and Jenny Shiling Stein, Executive Director, of the Draper Richards Foundation.

Despite a malfunctioning microphone, there was a lively discussion.

Ms. Shiling Stein talked about the convergence of non-profit, business and government work in the growing social entrepreneurship field.

Shiling Stein also warned social entrepreneurs that the beginning stages of their work can be risky. "It's quite a hard, bumpy road. You're working with a big question mark," Stein said. But she also said that it can be very exciting to work with "daring folks from the very beginning."

Stein added that the Draper Richards Foundation looks to fund organizations that "from day one are thinking about how they are going to structure themselves for broad impact."

"You gotta sell [your idea], you gotta fundraise, and you gotta get the most capital," Stein said. "You have to be able to sell your vision."

"The nonprofit sector is tough because everytime you go into a funder's office you have to say, 'It is essential that I have this money,'" Stein said.

Lance Henderson said that the Skoll Foundation's mission is to support "academic institutions, practitioner communities, and [to provide] an enabling environment" for social entrepreneurs. "We're looking for 'the holy grail' of massive systemic change for the section that [the entrepreneur] is working in."

Kevin Jones added that Good Capital is "sort of like venture philanthrophy meets venture capital." Good Capital, he said, expects a return on the initial investment. "We give them the money, and people get the money back to do more good," Jones said.

Good Capital, Jones said, funds companies that are working on projects such as the digital divide and providing clean water to villages.

A member of the audience that previously worked at National Geographic expressed a skeptical attitude towards the social entrepreneur field. "We've already been doing this for a long time," she said.

"I don't think there's any intention to dismiss [people] that have already done astonishing work in the field," said Henderson.

Kriss Deiglmeier, Executive Director of Stanford's Center for Social Innovation, added that although this work has been happening in the non-profit sector for many years, the social entrepreneurship field started in the 1980s and 1990s.

Deiglmeir said in Silicon Valley, "a myriad of factors" came together to push social entrepreneurship to the forefront. One of the factors she pointed to was the emphasis of business principles on doing social good.