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Monday, March 28, 2011

Solutions in need of problems, and venture capital investing at university start-ups

I always find it interesting when I come across solutions to problems that I didn’t know existed, and apparently I am not the only one. This past week I attended a panel discussion for budding entrepreneurs, and finding solutions in need of problems seems to be one of the main goals of venture capital (VC) funds in Silicon Valley.

The institute I work at, The California NanoSystems Institute, houses a technology incubator for start-up companies coming out of UCLA. As part of the efforts to help these entrepreneurs (there are currently seven companies incubating) the institute has organized a series of panel discussions with experts in various areas applicable to start-ups. These panel discussions, the Thirty-Thirty Incubator Panel Series, feature thirty minute presentations followed by thirty minutes of questions from the audience. With a bit of pride, I must add that I created the ‘Thirty-Thirty’ name when the organizers were looking for something catchy to brand the series with. See past topics and video clips here.

The discussion last week featured three people from venture capital firms in Silicon Valley and Southern California. These panelists were discussing ways that start-ups can position themselves to get funding and giving insight into the thought process of investors.

One of my main takeaways from the discussion was how much the venture capital funds want to change the world. A couple times during the discussion panelists emphasized that they are looking for solutions to big problems; they don’t bother with iterative improvements. One of their favorite topics was companies that create their own market, providing a solution to a problem that people didn’t realize they had, or ‘greenfield’ investing.

The realist take on this subject would be that the highest returns on investment come from a company that pioneers and dominates a market. But there are lots of ways to make money, and it seems to me that these venture capital professionals are interested in greenfield investments for more than the potential money.

A very virtuous alignment seems to be in place with the agendas of venture capital funds. They are interested in gaining fame and fortune through their investments. One of the fastest ways to this fame and fortune is through funding a technology that a great many people will pay for, i.e. something that will really help people’s lives.

Another element that struck me was how people intensive the venture capital and start-up world is. I had thought that ideas and technology were the main focus, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Entrepreneurs often can’t even get in the door with venture capital investors without the people skills to get a referral, apparently cold calls aren’t well received in Silicon Valley.

One of the panelists talked about how his favorite investments are in solutions in need of a problems. He explained that his firm is really good at finding markets for good ideas and developing businesses, but they need that raw idea to shape. They are constantly in search of people who have a good idea/technology in development, but who don’t know what their market would be. This development of an idea into a business is a long process though, and he stressed how vital it is for the inventor and the venture capital fund to work well together.

The incubator program at CNSI is very exciting for me. It represents a clear path for some of the great ideas from UCLA to make it out to the market. Before starting at CNSI I had no idea of the difficulties involved in transitioning ideas out of research labs. Without commercialization programs, great ideas, which are often supported by federal, taxpayer provided funds, would not be transformed into real products capable of making a difference in people’s lives.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Ray Kurzweil: Solar Will Power the World in 16 Years

I can’t decide whether to love or hate technology predictions. They do help to get conversations started and to generate thoughts about the future and how to prepare for it. But technology trends are so unpredictable that sometimes prognosticating even six months out can be precarious.

So I was intrigued when I came across a solar power prediction post from the Think Tank blog on Big Think. The post discussed an interview with predictor extraordinaire Ray Kurzweil. The crux of the interview is that Kurzweil believes that solar power is on an exponential curve upwards in usage. Despite the fact that solar power only currently supplies less than 1% of the worlds power, its output has been doubling every two years. He thinks this upward trend will continue and within 16 years, solar power will meet 100% of the world’s energy needs.

Solar power does seem to be the most promising alternative energy out there, but this prediction seems to be slightly optimistic. Maybe solar energy conversion technologies will continue the trends of increases in efficiency along with decreases in price. But the technology to move around power will also have to also be improved. In the United States, power would need to be piped from sunny areas like the South and Southwest to darker areas farther North.

I don’t buy into the doubts about batteries though, this area is already undergoing dramatic technological improvements. Supercapacitors should be developed in upcoming years which can be charged or discharged very quickly and also store large amounts of power.

I do hope Kurzweil is at least partly right, and that solar power does keep steadily increasing to meet growing demands with clean, renewable energy. But getting back to the idea of predicting technologies 15, 20 years in the future. This is either a foolproof plan to look foolish when the endpoint of the prediction finally comes around, assuming that someone actually remembers the prediction made at that point, or an attempt at generating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Often, these predictions tend to have an ideological bent. Something like, if only society would adopt X strategy, world peace and happiness will surely follow in short order. Therefore it would be ludicrous not to follow X strategy, so unless everyone falls in line with the predictor’s world-view, they must be against world peace and happiness.

This example is hyperbole of course, but when you break down some of these predictions, and follow some of these predictors for a while, the hyperbole is often not that far off. While I don’t disagree with the end goals of Kurzweil in this instance, it is hard to argue against alternative energy from an ethical standpoint, I’m usually skeptical when I see technology predictions, especially ones so far in the future.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Unfavorable geometries in organic solar cell molecules

I’ve been remiss in posting lately, but at least I have plenty of excuses. My dad was visiting for a week at the beginning of March and we were busy carting him all over Los Angeles to see the sights - Universal Studios Hollywood, UCLA, and an urban farm and produce stand near us called Tapia Brothers. We took him there once to pick up some fruit and he decided they have the best strawberries he’s ever tasted.

One of the reasons that he came to visit was for our housewarming, another of the things keeping me from posting lately. Housewarmings are nice because it is a great motivator to finish up the ‘moving in’ process that can sometimes drag out indefinitely. Getting things tidied up can be time consuming though.

Then there is school, the Tuesday after our housewarming I had a midterm. I was convinced that this test would stymie me so I studied as much as I was able. But in the actual event it seemed pretty easy. Now I’m a little paranoid that it only seemed easy because I completely misunderstood it, and overlooked it’s challenging intricacies, but I think that is just the little devil on my shoulder trying to psych me out.

As for actual science, last week one of my press releases was distributed. It is for research published in Science magazine on controlling and observing complex chemical reactions. The team fabricated a nanostructure to precisely fit two molecules, and then tailed the chemistry to attract those molecules. They arranged everything so that the molecules would come together, when a light was shown on them, in an orientation not typical naturally.

Molecules have certain preferred geometric alignments, and these alignments affect the reactions that occur when the molecules combine. By creating the geometrically unfavorable alignment, in this case with photosensitive molecules used in organic solar cells, the researchers were able to study a reaction that could lead to more efficient conversion of sunlight into energy. They also succeeded in building a one-of-its-kind scanning tunneling microscope to observe the resulting reaction. Setting up interesting molecular reactions is great, but it doesn’t accomplish much unless you can closely study the reaction.

As always when I start working on a release, I took a stab at reading the academic paper to see what the research was about. But this paper was pretty dense chemistry. After staring at it for about half an hour I was sure they were were working with molecules, and not much else beyond that.

Two of the authors of the paper were kind enough to meet with me to explain, in small words, the research. As seems to be a somewhat common occurrence in academia, these two researchers, from the same lab, are also married. The husband is from the U.S. and the wife is from South Korea.

While the wife speaks fluent English, she seems diligent about trying to perfect her communication style. With this particular research the wife played a much bigger roll, but it seemed to be easier for the husband to translate the work into non-scientific English terms. This did not deter her though, she kept shushing his attempts to help. She was determined to successfully explain her work, and I must say, I was impressed by her patience in explaining the concepts to me.

Episodes like that are part of the reason I really enjoy my job. It is one thing to write about such cutting-edge research, but I find that getting to know the people behind the experiments can be just as interesting.

Check out the full release in the UCLA Newsroom, I must say I’m quite fond of the opening line.