Navigate / search

Devices, gadgets, robots, virtual worlds and selfie-sticks: some thoughts on CES

I recently attended my first ever CES show in Las Vegas. I was only there for a few days, and frankly, found it entertaining and useful. I know there are many SV folk who look down on CES. Oh well…I do plan to go back there next year if I can.

CES is a crazy place simply because there are so many people there. Long lines for taxis or shuttle buses, booked up hotel rooms from months in advance, ginormous exhibition hall floors and lecture halls from the Las Vegas Convention Center to the Sands Convention Center and Venetian. All mixed in with Las Vegas lights, music, casinos and street artists. I stayed two days, walked many miles equivalent each day and was pretty tired by the end of it.

IMHO CES is great for a few reasons:

  • It is a really a tremendous concentration of all things technology in one place. From next gen TV sets, cameras and robots to phones, PC peripherals, cars and gadgets. Some times one has to see the hundreds upon hundreds of companies innovating in technology to realize SV is not alone in moving technology forward, and there is tremendous supply and demand from consumers all around the world. Some of the most interesting companies I met there frankly came from Israel and France.
  • Unlike some other conferences, one can actually see founders and senior executives of companies often on the exhibition floors or in nearby vicinity. Its not just marketing folk surrounded by booth babes (ugh!).
  • CES is not just about large tech companies and their megabooths. Its also about the little guys tucked away in corners who might be doing something unconventional, something that may not make news this year but is bound to see more attention in the future. At the same time, major sponsors like Intel had actually also opened up much of their booth spaces to smaller startups that had incorporated their technology in the products.
  • So many different types of people attend CES. I met several fellow VCs, CEOs, product development folk, marketing consultants, young and old consumers, Las Vegas locals, and press/media. It was interesting to be able to somewhat compare and contrast the opinions formed by different people on the same products.
  • Its not a bad place to meet people if planned in advance. I mostly met people who live further away from SV – people from the East coast, Canada, Europe, and as far away as Russia.

Some other observations even though there are excellent CES summaries now published online.

  • TVs occupied a huge space. Everything was 4K and above. Curved TVs still occupied shelf space but it was clear their use-case is unclear to even their inventors themselves, and most TVs touted some level of connectivity. God only knows how many different Asian TV manufacturers were there, and fwiw, it would be hard for someone to tell a difference if they had slapped a more well-known label across their product. Some companies showed off glass-less 3D TVs as well, but they stayed a novelty. TV industry is certainly grasping for something to hang on to as its share of our attention erodes.

  • Virtual reality was present in full bloom. It wasn’t about the devices themselves as much as it was about experiences created within VR. From shared VR experiences to flying drones inside VR. Some interesting 360-degree camera systems were on display as well for video filming from 3D/VR/immersive content.
  • There were dozens of drones and drone-related companies. While US continues to muck around with the FAA regulations, drone companies are sprouting elsewhere in the world, esp in Asia. In fairness, besides DJI and Parrot, US companies still seemed to have a lead on hardware, software, UI and applicability of the small drones.
  • There was a gigantic section showing of Internet of Things devices and systems. One could not have counted how many such companies were present. Many still remained as point solutions (use an app to turn a device on/off/measure etc). I think as far as VC investments go, we may be reaching past the stage of “lets connect this device to the internet”. Next up is how these devices perform important tasks together by exploiting their collective intelligence and networking. Nest, IFTTT, Smart Things etc are early experiments in that space.
  • I was honestly a bit disappointed to see the fitness trackers/health device spaces. I may have missed some important sections otherwise what I saw was unimpressive. I am not sure what utility there is any more in simple fitness trackers embedded inside fancy looking watches and devices. We need better vitals, better integration between devices and what physicians might know/measure periodically, and then AI engines to help translate all the body of knowledge into actionable insights.
  • There were several robotics companies but only a few stood out. I don’t fully understand the market opportunity around simple remote presence systems but some of those companies had a significant presence (e.g. Suitable Technologies). Their systems certainly entertained the audience for at least a short while.
  • One thing that really stood out at CES was the need for distance wireless charging systems. Unfortunately I did not see a good solution. Witricity had a big booth, and given the company has been in stealth for years, I expect to be more wow’ed by their product manifestations than I actually was. It feels they might have an int’g business in licensing their technology to larger product companies, but much work remains to be done to turn it into something that leaves consumer with a ‘wow’ experience.
  • 3D printing has certainly come of age and now a well understood, growing field. Small printers showed how to print in composite materials, including carbon fibers, and there were plenty of companies utilizing 3D printing to mass customize their products. This trend will not stop and investing behind it is probably a wise thing to do. At Lux we continue to look for opportunities downstream in the 3D printing value chain.
  • Some other interesting technologies were around cameras/imaging (certainly mobile is eating the DSLR world which is shriveling back to really high end systems mostly for professionals), gesture recognition & eye-tracking systems for use in gaming and VR, heads up displays for cars are definitely slowly making their way towards becoming commercially available, novelty items like heated shoes, solar bag-packs etc, and tons of phone cases, screen protectors, and ah-yes, the selfie sticks! If you think of a product, somebody likely has something at CES in that category. And its more likely to be a Chinese company than from anywhere else.

I am sure CES is not for everyone. Sometimes it reminded of my visits to crowded Japanese electronics malls in Tokyo, but I actually enjoyed those places as well….so maybe I am an odd person who enjoys such setups, but it was certainly a useful spend of my time. I hope there will be Uber there next year!


Tribes, clans, groups, religions, unions, societies…a rant.

Most humans like to belong to groups – we belong to tribes and clans, we are patriotic and national, religious in our beliefs including atheism, and affiliate ourselves with certain churches or sects, we have labor unions and political action committees, identify ourselves as Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, and call ourselves libertarian or communist, so on and so forth…I don’t know why but there is clearly an innate interest in us to be communal, to ‘belong’ to a larger faction, and form societies with rules and regulations that we may or may not like if we thought about them some more. There is much good, and much bad, that results from this group behavior.

This is not a philosophical post even though it is the end of the year and time to ponder on things like this. This stream of thought came to my mind as I was talking to my kids about our own identities, and realized how complicated it is. I told them we were humans first, boy and girls, Muslims by faith, Pakistani-Palestinian-American ethnically, part of the larger Zuberi and Rimawi families, relatively liberal in our views as a family, affiliated with MIT/Yale/Wooster/McGill alumni groups, members of the Red Sox nation and the Palo Alto library and and and…gosh, so many affiliations, so many cultures to learn about and adhere to, customs to practice, rules/regulations to follow, communities to give charitable giving to, and so much more. Oh, and is there a rank order for these in terms of what takes precedence?

That last sentence is an important one that I have been grappling with recently. 2014 was in many ways a terrible year for Pakistan, country of my birth. It was hit by terrible acts of violence perpetrated by terrorists.  But what’s been most incredible is that these acts were carried out by people from inside the country, acting in the name of the same religion that more than 98% of the country ascribes to. Muslims around the world were haunted by images of terrorism committed in the name of Islam…and wondered are those guys really Muslims? Do we really want to be a part of the same group that these murderers also happen to be a part of? Do we denounce them and kick them out, and can we do that? Did people forget that we are humans first and belong to any religion afterwards? Can we create our own group of reformed Muslims and walk away without being seen as heretics?

I have been thinking for the past few weeks/months that what internet has allowed us to do now needs to become more commonly practiced: namely, creating ad-hoc groups and affiliations as needed and moving/walking away when not needed or not in line with our individual points of view. Just like on Facebook or Youtube or Google Groups where we are able to Subscribe or Unsubscribe from groups and email lists, why can’t we do the same thing in life. Join a religious sect that may preach peaceful existence and leave one that starts to incite intolerance towards people of any religion, sex, class, race or sexual orientation. Form a labor union composed of both workers and customers to demand higher minimum wage from corporate overlords, but then walk away if the same union starts to put hurdles in the path of operational efficiency. Essentially, find a way for people in the real world to come together around causes and issues they care about at a point in time and easily disperse when priorities don’t align.

I would imagine an opportunity to practice above might result in at least incremental good in the world. Without this we are living in a world where people are either born into, or find their way into, affiliations and ‘memberships’ that often have to be maintained even when it is not the right thing to do. Hey, you can be killed if you denounce Islam, or lose your job if you leave a union. I have had members of labor unions tell me that they tolerate the crap labor unions sometimes engage in simply because they have no other way to voice their valid concerns about workplace environments and benefits. I have heard devout Muslims keep quiet when murder is committed in their name because they can’t be seen as airing dirty laundry in public, and I have seen people turn a blind eye on racism, bigotry and sexism because it was one of their ‘own’ that perpetrated the injustice. Similarly I wish there was a way to easily build an affiliation with people who cared about poverty alleviation, or those who had a liberal streak in their practice of Islam, or create a social movement with those willing to commit time, money and political capital to work on exciting ways to improve how we all lived.

I am hopeful even though I know there is no silver bullet, and what I wrote above now reads more like a rant. Yes, the decision to join or leave any and all groups is, after all, in our hands. But it is not so easy at the moment…But I am hopeful that lessons learnt from ad-hoc real-time networks that we have seen come together on the internet will make this much easier in the future. Then we will be able to simultaneously satisfy the innate need to be a parter of the large ‘whole’, and still remain independent. It will be a truer democratization of our society.

‘Twas the year of the Drones. Did you get to fly one?

What an amazing year 2014 was for the drone industry. Amazing highs and frustrating lows. Lots of new companies, new startups, many kickstarter success stories, and an ecosystem of technology companies developing to service the new industry. It is safe to assume most people probably heard about drones this past year (even those who planned to shoot them down from the sky), but question is, did you get to fly one? If not, find a friend that got one as a Christmas present. You will be delighted to see even your own home in a never before-seen perspective.

I got involved in the industry several years ago as an investor when commercial drones were illegal (unfortunately they remain so), FAA had no real plan to allow for commercial drone operation (seems to still be the case) and hobbyist drones were niche toy items (that has dramatically changed in 2014). A friend of mine emailed recently when he himself got a drone as a christmas present…and asked if we had reached #peakdrones. Or was there more excitement to look forward to in 2015. I told him things were just starting to get busy in the drone world and here are only some of the things I expect to see from the industry in 2015:

  1. Hardware, software, data or service – industry remains unsure where profits will be had. On one hand this means we are seeing innovation across the value chain, on the other it also means companies are hedging and trying to change their tune on a monthly basis. Hardware companies opening up platforms for software developers and software companies trying to lock in hardware manufacturers to use their systems. Data guys tried to take the higher ground but not much data available without owning hardware & software solutions. Its a mess out there and will take a while to clear up. I like Helen Greiner’s (CyPhy Works‘ founder & CEO) opinion on this: “Customers don’t buy hardware, software, data or services. They buy solutions to their problems”. A lot of the rest is sloganeering that is more relevant to silicon valley more than anywhere else. [disclosure: CyPhy Works is a Lux portfolio company]
  2. That said, we are starting to see some fantastic companies emerge in and around the drone ecosystem. I expect 2015 to bring more data analytics (+mapping + visualization + crop models), camera (high resolution, 3D, infrared, multispectral) and service (imaging as a service) companies.
  3. Optical stabilization/computational imaging – Most UAVs are being designed for use as imaging platforms. 2015 is bound to bring the latest in computational imaging to the drone world. From onboard computational imaging to stabilize the drone itself, to computational imaging to stabilize and crop the image and real-time video editing. For example BrightSky Labs is already working on this. [disclosure: BrightSky Labs is a Lux portfolio company]
  4. Precision navigation – even though it is used on almost all drones, GPS navigation is still far from ideal for drone use. Drones often find themselves in GPS denied environment, close to buildings, under bridges, in electronically noisy environments and indoors. In the coming year or so we will see some new technologies brought into commercial world that use RTK, SLAM and other techniques to aid, and in some cases replace, traditional GPS navigation. Just as important will be sophisticated (but low cost) sense and avoid systems built around lidar or optical imaging systems which will rely on on-board intelligence for autonomous flying.
  5. True consumer drone – Yes DJI is expected to do $500M or so in revenue and others like Parrot, 3DR and others are offering consumer drones, I still believe these drones need help with form/function ease of use. They still look and feel like hobbyist playthings, rough on the edges hardware-wise and relatively complicated software to work with. Many still rely on external cameras (such as the popular GoPro) but we are already starting to see built in cameras, and rumors are ripe that GoPro is working on its own drone as well. 2015 might finally bring us that elusive pocket drone that would be cute, friendly, really easy to use, and a sexy selfie/follow-me drone that one can take on their next trip even to Disneyland. Market is still looking for the iPod of the drone world, one that I could give to my 6 year old daughter to play with and even take into the pool with her.
  6. Virtual Reality space is taking off at about the pace and fervor as drones. And I am super excited about the two coming together in the near future. While we have already seen demos of drone-view through Oculus etc, I am looking forward to VR specific camera systems getting mounted on-board so a true VR experience can be created. How awesome was this video of a drone flying through fireworks? Now imagine feeling like you are flying through it in 3D yourself.
  7. Application specific drones – some companies would have you believe a drone is a drone is a drone. That is certainly not true and I think as the industry grows up a bit we will see segmentation and application specific drone development. We may already be seeing signs of that. The $500 drone you gifted to your uncle is probably not best suited to be used by a farmer in the field or on an offshore oil & gas platform. Just because you can put solar cells on a drone doesn’t mean it is able to carry the weight needed for high resolution imaging for agricultural uses, and most likely neither the traditional multicopter or the fixed wing is the right solution for drone delivery. Similarly, while its OK to put all computational capabilities and intelligence on a cell phone for a selfie drone, a security/remote monitoring drone many need on-board real-time image processing for it to be fully effective. We are also starting to see interesting work arounds to the battery limitation problem. For example SkyCatch has shown a battery replacement system while CyPhy Works is using a micro-filament tether for power and communications. So on and so forth with many applications, especially in the commercial/industrial sectors.
  8. Management of drone fleets – Right now customers are buying what they would themselves consider prototypes, in onesies and twosies. But expectations are that if the promised value is there, drones will be operated in fleets, no different than cars, trucks and other specialized equipment. Not only will we see software tools for fleet management (especially with all kinds of sense and avoid technologies) but also a secondary service industry to grow up around repair, maintenance of fleets and management of insurance and expert pilots (until drones are allowed to fly fully autonomously).
  9. Cost - we have started to see a bifurcation in the pricing of consumer vs commercial drones. Consumer drones are priced around $1,000 (as low as $500) while commercial drones are priced anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000. There is a lot of work to do on cost reduction of drones, and in business models to make drones available for general use. I would like to see consumer drones priced at <$500 with retail store margin built in. On commercial front we should soon start seeing more drones as a service companies vs the traditional buy, maintain, manage own fleet of drones.
  10. Internationalization of US drone industry – we are already starting to see that happen. While 3D printing was touted for bringing manufacturing back to America, FAA inaction and in fact hints of regressive regulation, is forcing our fledgling drone industry to look for markets, partners and even investors abroad. Australia, Japan, France, Dubai etc will be beneficiaries of technology leadership that US held for a while. I am already starting to see foreign companies pitching investors in the US for startups bringing commercial revenues outside the US. Lawyers facilitating commerce department and ITAR clearances stand to benefit. Unless FAA can soon bring a common set of principles to govern drone use, we will unfortunately continue to see loss of local talent, technology and business leadership in this space.

2014 was definitely the year of the drones. This year the conversation changed from “drones kill” to “drones affect privacy”, and hopefully 2015 will bring conversation to “drones do good”. I am a big believer in drones, especially because drones are basically flying robots and there are so many things robots can do better, faster, cheaper than humans…we have seen what amazing things robots can do in our homes (e.g. Roomba), in commerce (e.g. Kiva) and even in hospitals (e.g. Intuitive Surgical’s Da Vinci). At Lux Capital we expect to continue to look for additional investments in this exciting space in 2015.

An Experiment to revolutionize and democratize science

I conducted undergraduate thesis research at a small liberal arts college in Ohio (College of Wooster). That experience was vastly different from the Ph.D work I later completed at MIT. During undergrad I had limited resources, little to no funding, and much of the equipment was donated/hand-me-downs where the work to fix them was likely itself thesis worthy. But despite shortage of resources, there were not shortage of research ideas – both big and small. I often joke with friends that my MIT research group’s pizza budget was probably larger than the money that was available to me for undergrad research.

Funding for science research has only become worse since I was in school. There is certainly a scramble by faculty to find research dollars for their programs and even though average grant sizes tend to be larger, they’re now best fought for as multi-faculty, multi-department, and even multi-school consortiums. Scientific research seems to have become more consensus driven, which is a pity. The days of a young grad student working independently on an interesting area that nobody else believes in, and coming up with an aha discovery, appear to be numbered. Situation is even worse if you are not affiliated with a major research institution, or are literally working out of your garage.

At Lux Capital, we have been thinking about this general space quite a bit. As investors in science/engineering based startups, we are significant beneficiaries of research that leads to breakthrough inventions at major research centers. But above trends are troubling. Below are some other observations: Read more

Looking for a business co-founder? Some things to look for

A significant percentage of our investment at Lux Capital are thematic. i.e. we find an area of particular interest (e.g. computational sound) and then investigate the space to find people and opportunities that could lead to incredible investment opportunities, including formation of newcos. We sometimes find our way to strong technical founders and then work with them to find strong business co-founders as a part of the startup sausage-making. May not always be the case, but usually it takes two to tango. Or as my friend Dharmesh Shah (founder of HubSpot) has said in the past that companies need at least two people to start. One to build the product and another to sell it.

This morning a technical co-founder and I were chatting about what to look for in business co-founders. This could be a long post, as certainly this might be the most important decision he is about to make…but here’s the gist of what I told him.

Evaluate these people for:

  • interest in, and knowledge of, the space
  • their ability to attract and retain the best talent
  • their networks in potential customers and partners
  • their entrepreneurial DNA, drive
  • thinking big strategically. Wanting to hit it out of the park and win
  • management sophistication, esp in early stages when there is much ambiguity
  • nice people to work with
Would love to hear what others might add to the list. Or how others think about finding business co-founders.

Electronics/hardware retail stores bouncing back with the hardware tsunami?

There was a time when Best Buy, Circuit City, CompUSA, and their smaller cousins like Frey’s (Bay Area) and MicroCenter (Cambridge) etc, were awesome places to visit. These stores carried, above all else, the latest and the greatest in electronics and hardware products. I used to go and spend hours in such stores.

And then these stores got into trouble. Some went bankrupt, others shrunk in size/scope, and others continued to struggle on with enthusiasts and hobbyists frequenting them. There were lots of reasons for their demise but that’s not my concern here…what is to be noted is that while these stores’ futures were sinking, another amazing chain of hardware retail stores was surging at the same time: Apple. Yes, Apple stores had an amazing futuristic design which attracted an eclectic audience, but its hard to miss the fact they also had amazing products. Beautiful, simple, consumer-friendly devices that consumers wanted.

I spent a few hours at a Best Buy store this weekend (San Carlos, CA). I have to say I was quite surprised at how different it actually looked from what I remember of such stores. While the store looked different, and more modern with LED lighting, wider aisles and neatly laid out sections, what was really cool was that the stores prominently displayed and carried tons of products that were actually exciting! It wasn’t just all various sizes of TVs and DVD players, rather similar home entertainment systems, and aisles upon aisles of CDs and DVDs…the large sections were dedicated to aspirational, practical stuff people actually want. The hardware tsunami had clearly invaded the electronics retail store.

The store had large sections dedicated to products from large companies that define hardware (+software) technology today: Apple, Microsoft, Google, Samsung. I comfortably browsed through the various phones, tablets, laptops, computer monitors, accessories etc. In one place I was able to compare the Google Chromecast with Apple TV, and decided I wasn’t ready for either as yet. I saw 4K TVs and the latest cameras utilizing 4K sensors (e.g. GoPro Hero4). I didn’t see a 3D printer but maybe I didn’t look hard enough.

In another section I looked through a variety of robots, drones and fun things to play with. In yet another I saw the latest technologies for connected home displayed. From various types of IP cameras and associated cloud services to digital thermostats, smoke alarms, water flooding sensors, ice sensors, and connected light bulbs. I saw a young couple buying a Philips Hue internet connected LED light bulb to add to decorations for their newborn’s nursery!

I am glad to see this new generation of hardware/software products are finding relatively prominent shelf-space in big box retailers like Best Buy, Target, Home Depot etc. It is good for the stores and good for the consumer hardware industry. Kickstarter and Indiegogo have been great in promoting new hardware products to enthusiasts and to early adopters , but these companies eventually need distribution channels above and beyond the web, and choices have been limited in the past. In the process these retailers can possibly also rebrand themselves, and once again become an attractive place for young consumers to spend time (see also NYTimes: Electronics Retailers Scramble to Adapt to Changing Market). If done right, its a win-win for all parties.

My answer to Peter Thiel’s question.

In his book Zero to One, successful entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel writes that he asks every interviewee the following question:

Q: What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

Here is how I think I may have answered it:

A: Most people believe they benefit by learning from their mistakes. That may be true, but I think this whole idea of learning from your mistakes is  over-hyped, and people actually learn as much, or perhaps even more, from their successes than from their mistakes. 

Some more thoughts below, especially in the startup/entrepreneur context:

  • Success ends up highlighting what you are good at, what you know, and what heights you are capable of reaching. As noble as improving on our weaknesses might be, reality is most people tend to lead with their strengths, and it is nice to know what those are and how to flex those muscles when needed.
  • When someone has seen success before, they tend to grow tiny antennas that alert them when things are not going right, be it strategy, momentum, morale, fundraising etc…knowing when it might be time to rethink, regroup and retarget is important, esp in early stage startups.
  • Success has side effects: it leads to growth of organizations which leads to learning about managing more complex teams/systems, bigger networks (to recruit from), and more opportunities to build relationships with important vendors, partners, investors and customers.
  • Success tends to instill confidence, and having faith in your own abilities (and decisions) through the ups and downs of a startup can be a good thing.

Of course, I don’t mean to say people don’t learn from their mistakes. They do. I have learnt a lot from my mistakes…In fact I am still looking for the kinds of successes that I can truly point to and say look what I learned from them. Successes can also sometimes get to people’s head and mess with their egos. Those are the unfortunate side-effects, and regrettable.

Markhor: shoes handcrafted with love

“The only people who can change the world are people who want to. And not everybody does.”  –Hugh MacLeod

These days one doesn’t often read something positive about Pakistan. My country of birth faces a lot of problems – some that have been thrust upon it from the outside, but many that are systemic and endemic. But it is a nation of 180M people, and there is tremendous talent in its people that remains shackled. Every once in a while when such talent combines with deep passion and perseverance, a company like Markhor is born.

Markhor’s founders, Waqas Ali and Sidra Qasim, hail from the historic town of Okara in Pakistan. Growing up they witnessed shoe-makers in their town practice their craft, but were astute enough to realize that the ancient craft of hand-made shoes was dying in Pakistan. They worked diligently for 8 months to launch Markhor - a company that designs, manufactures and sells amazing hand-crafted designer shoes around the world. They didn’t just find a way to sell locally made shoes, they reinvented the craft for the modern customer, and have brought the local shoe-making industry into the 21st century. With each shoe that is sold a little bit of that ancient craft is also preserved.

I met Waqas in my office many months ago. I don’t even remember how we got introduced. He is a slim, young man with a neatly trimmed beard. He speaks fast and he speaks with an accent. He also speaks with determination. He had so many ideas when we met. As he rattled them off to me I felt he may be trying to do too much at the same time. Imagine a young lad who didn’t know what internet was 6-7 years ago was trying to tell me he could design and build better than Italian shoes in Okara, Pakistan and sell to demanding customers around the world. That he would get people like Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg to wear and promote his shoes…and that he wanted to become the biggest shoe company in the world.

As I often do, I took him to the white board and we worked together for a couple of hours to clean up some ideas, organize them into a few big themes, and synthesize a few key milestones for his company. Starting an international e-commerce company in a category that has been dominated for decades by well-heeled (no pun intended) competitors from fancy romantic locations in Western Europe seemed an uphill battle. I wondered if Waqas and his team had any idea how hard this was going to be. I asked him bluntly. I remember him looking into my eyes and saying “We are going to win. I may not know exactly how but I didn’t start this to fail. We will win”. At that point I knew this man was going places…

Waqas and Sidra’s dream, Markhor, is now live on Kickstarter. They are off to an awesome start and I am a customer. They have already reached more than double their kickstarter goal in less than a few days. But their ambitions are so much bigger. As Sidra said to me recently, “[we are] #notstoppingnotsleeping”. Go Sidra, Go Waqas! May you win big!

Check out their kickstarter campaign here:

Lemelson Foundation: Inspiring and enabling the next generation of inventors and invention-based enterprises

What do the following people have in common?

  • William Hewlett & David Packard (founders of HP)
  • Douglas Engelbart (inventor of the computer mouse)
  • Robert Langer (prolific bioscience inventor & entrepreneur)
  • Raymond Damadian (inventor of the MRI machine)
  • Thomas Fogarty (inventor of the embolectomy catheter)
  • Dean Kamen (prolific inventor – Segway and infusion pump for diabetes)
  • James Fergason (inventor of liquid crystal displays)
  • John Rogers (inventor of bendable silicon electronics)
  • Angela Belcher (inventor of bacteria inspired catalysts)

All of the above, and many others, are recipients of the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Prize. It is the largest prize in the US given to an individual inventor. All of the above are inventors, and their inventions have saved lives, changed how society communicates, made our industries more sustainable, and have profoundly impacted lives across the globe.

I first heard about The Lemelson Foundation in the context of their sponsorship of the Lemelson-MIT Prize when I came to MIT in 1998. It was easy to tell even back then that the foundation truly sought out and supported the most inventive people in our society – people whose scientific and technological inventions would impact millions, and perhaps billions, of people around the world and change the course of history. As a scientist researcher, then an inventor who became an entrepreneur, and now an investor in startups built around breakthrough technology innovations, it was a matter of great honor that over this past summer I was asked by the Lemelson Foundation to join their Advisory Committee. I agreed, and will proudly join their Board meeting this week in Portland where the Foundation is headquartered.

The Lemelson Foundation was created by prolific US inventor Jerome Lemelson and his wife Dorothy in 1992. Jerome (Jerry – see brief video biography here) had more than 600 patents to his name (earning more than one patent a month over 40 years), and both he and his wife were strong advocates for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education even before creating the Lemelson Foundation. Jerry’s inventions ranged from industrial robotics and machine vision to medical devices, communications equipment and toys. Jerry has now passed away but Dorothy and the Lemelson family have continued their strong support of invention, innovation and entrepreneurship in the US and in several other parts of the world. As the official statement on the website reads: “The Lemelson Foundation uses the power of invention to improve lives, by inspiring and enabling the next generation of inventors and invention-based enterprises to promote economic growth in the US, and social and economic progress for the poor in developing countries.”

The Lemelson Foundation today sponsors multiple programs to support STEM education, inspire invention and promote entrepreneurship. During time I recently spent with Carol Dahl, its Executive Director who came to the foundation via Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I learned about their focus on the following:

Education –> Invention –> Innovation –> Entrepreneurship

The above totally resonates with me as it leads to new technologies that advance humanity, save lives, protect our fragile environment & earth’s ecosystem, create jobs and improve livelihoods across the globe. Lemelson’s programs inspire youth to identify interesting problems and solve them via inventions, they provide tools to young inventors to help invent, and help college student entrepreneurs in the launch of invention-based enterprises. In doing so, the Foundation is able to maintain its vision of strengthening the US economy and helping the poorest of the poor in developing countries. 

Over the past 10-15 years I have been fortunate to participate in some of the kinds of activities that The Lemelson Foundation promotes at a much bigger scale. I am proud of the effort some friends and I put into launching the first science and engineering research university in Pakistan (LUMS SBASSE), StartLabs, an organization focused on engineer founders at MIT that I helped start, will be holding their annual Startup Bootcamp next week, and, a student venture fund I co-founded in 2012 has now funded nearly 25 student startups, some of whom have gone on to raise much larger venture financings. Now as a partner at Lux Capital, I am fortunate to be able to spend all of my time meeting amazing inventors, entrepreneurs, and people who wish to change the world for the better. My partner Larry Bock - founder of several companies including Illumina, leading company in genomic sequencing – subsequently founded the National US Science and Engineering Festival, and several other partners are themselves PhDs and inventors on multiple patents. All of them are equally strong supporters of The Lemelson Foundation’s mission.

I very much look forward to learning and contributing to the mission of The Lemelson Foundation. My primary responsibility will be to advise the executive leadership of the Foundation in their planning, execution and assessment of the programs. As such I will be on the lookout for new ideas and feedback. So please do share any thoughts that I can pass on to the Foundation.

Time for sensors, networked devices, automation and IoT to come to our offices.

Our homes are increasingly internet connected. Of course our computers, mobile phones and tablets are, but quickly our TVs, stereos, thermostats, doorlocks, fire-alarms. lightbulbs, and baby-cams are also internet connected. There are nifty services like IFTTT, Revolv, SmartThings etc to help us automate our lives. We can practically control a lot of things in our home via our mobile devices, and they can sort of ‘speak to each other to build an intelligent connected community of their own. While I do believe that IoT needs a new interface, there is another problem that is bugging me today: Where is the IoT for my office?

I assume many of us spend quite a bit of time in our offices. We work, meet a lot of people, move from room to room, utilize communication tools regularly, take a lot of notes, store a lot of information,  eat, stretch, rest, and even sleep in our offices. But as I look around my office, I realize that ‘under-connected’ it really is. I do have my laptop/mobile phone/tablet in the office that are internet connected – they share information across apps and devices, and sync with the cloud. And my calendar app has an unfair influence on my day….but that seems to be about it.

My desk has no clue what piles of information rest on it, my chair is comfortable but doesn’t measure, monitor or adjust as my back starts to tire towards the end of the day, our office thermostat is not internet connected, windows don’t change colors to optimize energy usage, and there is no system to automatically detect, identify and utilize info on who is coming and going out of the office. The coffee-maker gets used 10-times more than at anyone’s home but it doesn’t know and cannot predict my taste, the refrigerator needs to be re-stocked regularly but it doesn’t order refills of popular drinks and snacks on its own, the videoconferencing system elicits a collective ugh! practically every day, and the whiteboards where amazing ideas are sketched by visiting entrepreneurs stand there like a dumb white wall, only for the information to be either photographed with a mobile phone or deleted with a dumb eraser. We do have a networked printer and security system though.

Why has IoT not invaded our offices as yet? I would think office managers would jump at the opportunity to increase productivity, provide comfort for workers, and make economically sound decisions around saving time, energy and hassle. Is this a sector that largely remains ignored by entrepreneurs or are there structural issues like who owns vs leases an office building space? I think there is tremendous opportunity here that could be exploited by startups. A lot of office equipment is leased anyways, and hence it may also not be so difficult to replace and upgrade existing equipment without significant capital budget allocations by companies. Offices regularly lease printers, coffee-makers, water-dispensers, vending machines and such…All of them should become intelligent so they are able to understand usage patterns and preferences better, can customize offering as needed, order repairs, refills or replacements as needed, and move towards an overall efficient process while providing a better service. I am not asking for Rosie the robot to serve me coffee (though that future is not that far away as well), but certainly lots can be improved upon…and in a world where instant gratification companies are abound, its time entrepreneurs paid attention to the office as well.