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Archive for the ‘investment’ Category

A new kind of market empowered social innovation

Posted by evolvingwheel on March 9, 2008

While on my way to work last week I was just browsing through my fresh copy of BusinessWeek magazine and came across a small article. On the first pass, the publication seemed insignificant lying almost at the middle of the magazine, in a less than obvious spread. As I kept on reading line after line, a sudden scintillation struck my nerves! Something sounded very very right with a fantastic potential. Before I go any further, here’s the article: A New Kind of First Responder.

So what’s so special in that one page publication. Not going into too much detail, which you will find anyways in the link, I will briefly touch on some key notes. One of the global insurers, Swiss RE, has created an innovative insurance mechanism that covers catastrophic environmental disasters in a particular geographical area of the world. In this particular case, the company has launched a product called Globecat that provides insurance to cover early response to earthquakes in El Salvador. The coverage buyer puts a couple of millions of dollars into a special investment instrument. Globecat then sells bonds to the financial market and raises funds to cover the disbursement if an earthquake of a specific magnitude hits the area. Investors bet on the possibility of an environmental disaster. If there is no earthquake of the specifications demanded by the fund, then the investors makes interest which is paid out by the premium. ‘Bingo‘!! – what a innovative approach to connect the free market with social innovative pursuits to help the poor and the needy affected by natural calamities. bangladesh_flood.jpg

Now think of the potential of these kinds of instruments –

  1. Provides a very fast way to deliver resources to an affected area – not waiting for charities to raise money and taking days if not weeks to provide help to the people. So, that’s the logistical aspect of the equation.
  2. The instrument is allowing investors to bet on natural uncertainties – a more complicated futures market for incidents quite out of our control. What does that do? It creates several opportunities. One, it emphasizes research in atmospheric sciences and earth sciences that provides the ability to forecast such events. May be that is another way to raise the R&D money outside the blessings of NSF, DOD, NASA, and NOAA. Second, the future will create a rating system of different regions prone to activities by analyzing historical data. This natural disaster instrument will then directly affect the agricultural futures in those particular regions. Considering macroeconomic factors directly connected with such attributes, the hedging can control the distribution of agricultural investments in different geographical areas.
  3. Next, I assume, this investment will enrich the market of social innovation by bringing real talent and resources to the plate. Analysts, scientists, and economists could bring a new vigor into the game too. More such innovative approaches will allow the foundations work parallel to the market in orchestrating mechanisms to deliver help to the underserved communities in a more efficient manner.

The hope is ON!

Posted in Environment, Innovation, investment, social innovation | Leave a Comment »

Miniature projector coming to make large display ubiquitous – MEMS mirror to help

Posted by evolvingwheel on January 13, 2008

I was surfing through some CES 2008 news this weekend with an eye for some new, upcoming technologies that could change the ways we behave. And, I came across this new pocket sized device, a mini laser powered projector that can display pictures and videos to a size of 100 inches on a wall! It is again the MEMS (microelectromechanical system) tool (a scanning mirror on a silicon chip) that is enabling this innovation. The product is Microvision’s PICO SHOW Projector. For the CES report in Popular Science, read [here]. For Microvision’s product detail, click [here]. accessory_big.jpg

First, thinking about the applications that could derive from this innovation. Microvision has enlisted several display opportunities of their application. But the possibilities could go way beyond that. The whole benefit of getting away from bulky lenses, heat, weight, and cost pays for the invention by itself. However, consider what this development can enable in the mobile device market. First of all, the reality of laser powered projection systems is like a dream coming true. What Microvision did (or doing) is taking the ‘sharpening of the technology’ opensource, well partial opensource at least. They are working with mobile device companies to integrate their tool into the OEM’s interface. Now, what this leads to is collective investment, R&D, and marketing support of PICO’s rapid commercialization and acceptance in the market. I kind of love this method – create a new technology and empower it on other accepted platform with devices from partner businesses powering your own growth.

Next comes MEMS. Again, I am slowly turning into a MEMS’ fanatic and in next 5 years would possibly end up opening a whole cult group for this :). I am pasting here one line from Microvision’s site about the advantage of MEMS in new age – ‘Inherent advantages of MEMS devices are high reliability, low power operation, small size, low cost to manufacture, and high scalability to volume production. If you read the method of projection delivery using these MEMS scanning mirrors, you will really feel the power of these miniature systems… http://www.microvision.com/technology/mems.html. Micro electro-mechanical systems amaze me with their reliability in such small sizes. Further, the scalability and volume integration do not compound the energy requirements like we observe in conventional electrical or mechanical objects!

Posted in Innovation, investment, laser, micron, optics | 1 Comment »

How Brazil made it possible with ethanol? – Consumer hedging bets at the pumps

Posted by evolvingwheel on November 24, 2007

Last week my good friend Shalabh mentioned about a CNN program on Brazil’s independence from Middle East oil. The program delineated the story of ethanol and the growth of an economy around that. I got interested about it and started digging for more information. In fact I am also looking for that video. Meanwhile, I stumbled upon an article published by the Wall Street Journal early last year. The article has a very interesting perspective. It doesn’t talk much about the stats and the numbers. However, it gives a nice case study of Brazil’s long-term vision back in early 70’s. You can take a peek at [As Brazil Fills Up on Ethanol, It Weans Off Energy Imports]. sugar_cane_brazil.jpg

What I enjoyed most from reading the article is the progressive story of one country’s vision, dogged determination, strict enforcement, and controlled cost-guarantee (more on a short-term basis) to encourage a new scientific development and eventual mass acceptance. The good thing that the military ruler Gen. Ernesto Geisel achieved was a stringent adherence to the policy of mixing more ethanol to gasoline. Over time, this adherence paid off as the % of ethanol in gas rose to more than 25%.

One other thing I loved about the development is the production of cars that are capable of running both on ethanol and gasoline, and some totally on ethanol. The government forced Petrobas to provide outlets for ethanol at gas stations. This effort had an initial effect of visibility in spite of an investment that didn’t promise a ROI right away. But this push allowed car companies to come up with ethanol based models due to the infrastructural availability to support the promise. I talked about a similar case of infrastructural support for hydrogen fuel in the US in a previous article [First hydrogen cell bus in Texas – infrastructural impediment to economy of scale]. With a continuous support from the government through tax breaks and other investment incentives, soon other car companies started launching ‘flexible fuel‘ cars. Hence, availability of the fuel, vehicles manufactured to run on it, and a solid state mandate and support resulted in a mass scale acceptance of a new form of energy. — A great story!

Picture Courtesy Washington Post: Sugar cane arrives at a plant belonging to Cosan SA Industria e Comercio, the largest sugar and ethanol producer in Brazil. Most of Brazil’s ethanol comes from sugar cane.

Photo Credit: JC Franca, Bloomberg News

Posted in Energy, Environment, fuel, Innovation, investment | Leave a Comment »

GE’s greener approach – cutting down mercury from fluorescent lightbulbs

Posted by evolvingwheel on October 24, 2007

GE has taken an initiative to cut down the amount of mercury in compact fluorescent light-bulbs (CFLs). Currently, the cock-screw shaped energy-saving bulbs carry 5 mg of mercury. A pretty small amount per unit. But with soaring sales of CFLs over the last few years (150 million just last year), the amount just multiplies to a significant amount. Environmentalists are complaining about the fact that many of these bulbs are ending up in landfills rather than the recycling facility – leading its way to environmental waste and thereby to the ecosystem.

The article can be found [here]. You can read about the initiatives and the numbers for CFLs growth. However, I would like to take the opportunity to talk about the amazing nature of industry around a growing acceptance of an innovation and its commercialization. Again, my interest lies in the development and maturity of an ecosystem around an invention. cflstandard.jpg

I have earlier wrote about CFLs [here] and their tremendous market growth where mass acceptance drives the price/unit down. This cock-screw shaped bulb saves lot of energy and limits CO2 emission considerably. However, as the CFLs catch up, so does the consumption of mercury. Meanwhile, the shear number of waste that ends up in landfill create a hazard for the garbage workers, who often come in direct contact with exposed mercury.

Considering the energy savings, several countries are starting to ban the incandescent light bulbs. However, GE and other manufacturers are still not phasing out the regular bulbs, which has the maximum penetration in the market. There is an obvious balancing act where in one hand a product is slowly reaching its demise (! well eventually) whereas another product from the same portfolio class is ramping up for fine tuning and cost adjustments. The two curves are moving dynamically in opposite directions but with different speeds. Meanwhile, another influential parameter driven by social and governmental policies enforces a greater speed in the declining curve. This can modify the ecosystem with different market players (smaller companies) who may bring new innovations to mitigate the disparity while the big manufacturer adapts.

Ecosystem dynamics is just amazing!

Picture: NPR

Posted in Energy, Environment, Innovation, investment | Leave a Comment »

Thought provoking article on biotech-cancer-cost of life

Posted by evolvingwheel on October 11, 2007

I really enjoyed reading this article on MSNBC. An open and realistic discussion of the cost of cure for cancer and other terminating illnesses in the US. I am not going to repeat what’s in the post. You can find it [here]. The article talks about one patient who was diagnosed with breast cancer and tries to focus on several pertinent but critical human issues related to the subject. The very well presented story questions the monetary value of life. It’s about the cost of biotech drug therapy – the state-of-the-art medication that targets specific proteins and is capable of expanding the life expectancy of the affected. 800px-genentechheadquarters.jpg

The primary message is the cost of undergoing such elite drugs, and how it affects the patient, his/her family, savings, and lifestyle in general. Most of these drugs are outrageously costly – ranging from $55K to $100K per year of treatment. For an average middle-class individual with a decent salary, the recurring cost of such magnitude gets debilitating. Many loose their lifelong savings, house, and other dear belongings. The human side of the story is very emotional. On the other hand, the drug companies pursue years of research and billions of dollars to bring these revolutionary drugs to the market. Once commercialized, the companies try to salvage their investments several fold. A pressure from the stock market and shareholders moulds the path of profit-making. Some outcries the tremendous cost of ~$100K to maintain a drug regimen and supports the idea of government control over such drug prices – which is right away a damper to innovation and free market impetus. So how do you balance that?

I believe that in the coming years these questions need to be addressed sincerely. Not just from political and social perspectives but also from business platforms. How can these drug companies manage to continue their innovation, leverage their invaluable intellectual capital, benefit from the one-way (seller’s market) cost proposition, address the ethical and social questions, and meanwhile appease the investors to continue growth. Several challenging issues that need to be dealt by business community, political community, scientific community, and the general population.

Picture: Genentech Building

Posted in biotech, drugs, investment, Medicine | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Building technology for the poor

Posted by evolvingwheel on September 13, 2007

Some students, engineers, and professors from MIT have embarked on a path to bring innovative products to the poor of the world – people living on less than $1 a day. Most of the technological innovations of today are catered toward the rich and wealthy, people who can buy cool cell phones, watch large plasma TVs, and can afford to drive the fastest luxurious cars. That is definitely not going to stop. But what is changing is the perspective. Some of the coolest brains in the field of engineering and tech have congregated to collaborate and develop solutions that could serve the needs of women in sub-Saharan Africa and the kids of rural South Asia.

The outcome of this movement – enough electricity from cow manure to power a flash light, a backpack to hold water, and a drip irrigation system that can grow with the increasing income of the farmer. The biggest takeaway from this movement is the conception and realization of an idea that cheap technological breakthroughs can elevate the lives of people in impoverished communities, which in turn will enable them to be more productive and hence uplift their societies and lifestyles. Read the [article here].

However, there will always be a challenge to sustain this realization due to a lack of solid investor return. Will these inventions and cost of their delivery and implementation always depend on charity, endowments, and government sponsorships? How can a private investment and recuperation model be developed? What process can bring a decent amount of capital to the movement and over a relatively modest timeframe provide profit and/or cost savings both to the community and the government. Currently, poverty and the means to eradicate that poverty burden poor governments considerably. If some degree of commercial profitability could be attached to the innovations directed towards the poor people, then it will relax the burden on governments and enable them to focus more on the organized implementation of these technologies.

Posted in Environment, Innovation, investment, poverty | Leave a Comment »

Is PLANKTOS showing a new road to environmentally concious investments?

Posted by evolvingwheel on June 30, 2007

When I bumped into the PLANKTOS website yesterday, it was a different kind of experience. The read struck a special chord because of my background in environmental physics. With the recent hoopla in environment restoration, CO2 reduction, and green investments, PLANKTOS’s mission and business model seem very innovative.

The San Francisco based for-profit ecorestoration company operates both at sea and on land. At sea, they spray iron dust to regenerate depleted plankton population. Planktons absorb atmospheric CO2 and store them in their tissues. The process of carbon sequestration settles these thousands of tones of carbon dioxide at the bottom of the sea. The business makes profits from ventures sponsored by international governments, eco-agencies, and private manufacturing companies who want to by environmental credits by cleaning up their mess. Emperor penguin

These kinds of businesses benefit from the breadth and depth of environmental consciousness across the world. More people are informed about the negative outcomes of carbon based pollutants, the more they will try to make conscious decisions about economic and social activities that harm the environment. This model will be more profitable with time as we develop a consensus about the gravity of the eco-danger arising from emission. Other business areas for ecorestoration may involve innovative cheap technologies that curtail pollutions in business districts and manufacturing areas. They could range from portable emission detectors for preventive measures to aerosol and particle inhibitors installed around vent and discharge ducts. GREEN CITY types of ventures will proliferate too.

http://www.planktos.com 

Posted in Environment, Innovation, investment | Leave a Comment »

Nanoparticle to fight allergy

Posted by evolvingwheel on June 22, 2007

Its the buckyball – a soccer ball shaped nanoparticle that has been found effective in fighting allergies. Researchers at the Virginia Commonwealth University have been able to show that certain carbon based nanoparticles have been able to restrict allergic response during cell culture experiments. This finding is going to contribute to nanoimmunology research significantly.

Nanoparticle research is now the emerging gateway for new inventions in material science, technology, robotics, and healthcare. Micro-scale medicine research that involves binding agents to cells and tissues has been a very exciting domain of exploration. Particles that can attach to extremely small bio entities (like blood cells or tumor cells) are capable of activating, limiting, and catalyzing events in our favor. The buckeyball, with 60 Carbon atoms, is relatively inert and stable. This particle is capable of restrict mast cells from releasing histamine.

As with any early research, university research teams are the pathfinders in early breakthroughs. Healthcare and medical startups in nanoparticle domain will more and more tap on these teams and their findings. However, these findings need to go through more rigorous validations in order to reduce the risk of failure in pilot studies leading to launch. The invention-to-market time for nano materials are lower than pharmacological developments (that often range from 5-10 years) for conventional drugs. This whole new area of nanoimmunology will definitely create a new business model for investments and availability of affordable advanced treatments.

Read the article [here].

Posted in Innovation, investment, Medicine, micron, nanotechnology | 2 Comments »

Sony’s paper thin video display – and with that a question

Posted by evolvingwheel on May 29, 2007

I was a day late to read the news. But the article on Sony’s paper-thin video display not only caught my attention but also made me ask few questions. Let me first talk a little bit about the innovative invention. Sony R&D powerhouse has once again delivered to a large investment on organic transistors and electroluminescent displays. They have created an ultra thin panel that is capable of displaying static color images as well as video. It’s like the one we saw in Minority Report. You will have an A4 size film that will deliver dynamic content and you will roll that up and put it in your pocket and walk away. Like a billboard in a paper.   In the race for ever thinner displays for TVs, cellphones and other gadgets, Sony may have developed one to beat them all: A razor-thin display, seen here, that bends like paper while showing full-color video.

Sony has been challenged over the recent years by Samsung and Phillips on flat panel displays and innovations in that field. They are now responding back. Sony R&D had been a great innovator from the days of walkman. Organic transistor is now a big area of interest and possible applications are boundless. Starting from dynamic newspaper and video wallpaper to video films embedded on T-shirts – endless options for marketing in the future. However, time to market and cost will dictate the product’s ubiquity. [Read the article] 

Last year I was reading some article on a startup called Eink who has acquired a decent amount of venture funding over last few years to come up with ultra thin video and dynamic image displays. They have had several buyers for their product as well. Now, when big giants like Sony and Phillips come up with competitive products and allocate their capital investment and resources towards a speedy development, and leverage their existing vendor relationships and marketing channels to enforce the product to the market, how do the startups fare? Obviously, the startups become tentative baits for buy-outs and acquisitions. But that kind of stops another innovation prospect since we never know what could come out from a development life-cycle of a new product. Collateral innovations are always the lucrative serendipities that change the world from time to time. Questions arise about possible ways to counter the mammoth while preserving a competitive advantage during the commercialization phase without being bought out.  

Will keep on thinking 🙂

Picture: Courtesy Sony via AP

Posted in Innovation, investment, materials | Leave a Comment »

Portable biosensor for detecting food contaminants on the fly

Posted by evolvingwheel on May 20, 2007

Scientists at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), with the CSIC, have developed a new electro-chemical biosensor that detects the presence, in food, of very small amounts of atrazine –one of the most widely used herbicides in agriculture and which also has very long lasting effects on the environment- as well as antibiotics in food. This portable biosensor is capable of detecting contaminants fast and cheap than the expensive and cumbersome laboratory methods used today by the food agencies. The sensor detects very minute amount of contaminants, much lower then the maximum amount allowed by the European regulations, and could be manufactured for industrial as well as personal, disposable use. Now the question is, how will the food agencies (government or certified, private) will accept the fact that such disposable units are available for consumer use. Government will have a big say in it.

  • If this invention has to reach the government agencies, will they replace the costly chromatographs? Or is this going to be a device which will be used in conjunction with the expensive testing methods? Will this be implemented with the inspectors for field testing purpose?
  • Another question arises if the governments decides to control the calibration of the device? What if you buy such an instrument and used it at home with a calibration that will just not let pass any food item currently in the market. Oh well… that will definitely create some level of panic across the consumer base. Who will then provide the standard of calibration for this device and how will that be settled?
  • Few months back there was a massive pet food recall in the U.S. The product was found to be contaminated from its origin with Melamin, used in plastics and fertilizer. How will the introduction of this device at the begining of the food processing process control contamination across the food chain? For foreign imports of food content, how will this device help detect food contamination from either the origin or the destination?

These questions will definitely dictate the business need of the invention and will eventually drive the commercialization curve of the product life cycle. If any start-up company wants to put this concept into the market, who are good investors to approach to? Cargill? Will huge food manufacturing companies (General Mill) be interested in bringing this device to the market? What are the stakes? The company will need to focus on the government approval factor considerably.

Here’s the link for the [aricle]. 

Addition [05/24/2007]: A news article came out in MSNBC today http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18841928/. I am wondering how these kinds of issues will affect the investment in food safety detection services.

Posted in Innovation, investment | Leave a Comment »