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The Innovation Challenge

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"Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or do you want to come with me and change the world?" -- The famous call to action from Steve Jobs to former PepsiCo Vice President John Sculley. Perhaps today's version would be, "Do you want to sell photo-sharing apps for the rest of your life or do you want to come with me and change the world?"

When I look at lists like "The 25 Hot NYC Startups You Need To Watch," I see small iterations on the same concepts and a lack of ambitious projects that will have a lasting and meaningful impact on society. I think many startups are no better then Hollywood film-makers -- following popular trends to satisfy the average consumer and make a quick buck rather than creating greater value in the long-term and truly changing the world.

It's now cheaper and easier than ever to develop new tech products and start a company. This presents opportunity for ambitions entrepreneurs. As Scott Burken, author and public speaker, said, "An iPhone today has more computing power than NASA did in 1969. They put a man on the moon, and we throw birds at pigs."

Strong communities of entrepreneurs in populated areas like New York City and San Francisco also present opportunity for entrepreneurs by making it easier for people to share ideas and help each other. As Ed Glaser, economist at Harvard, said, "We get smart by being around each other."

Zack Freedman, a young entrepreneur, has taken advantage of the opportunity to build new and powerful technology in creating Optigon, a cyborg-like, wearable technology headset. He built the prototype in a weekend by combining an Arduino, a Bluetooth chip, video jacks, video game controller parts, half of a video headset he bought through Craigslist and a bent coat hanger.

Zack's aim for Optigon is to simplify the process of obtaining a wearable computer so that a proliferation of users can create the killer applications. As Zack says, "It's hard to obtain a wearable computer, which makes it hard to develop and use applications. This makes it tougher to find the 'killer app' that makes the hardware into a must-have." Even Zack is unsure of Optigon's capabilities. Rather then trying to create the "killer-app" himself, he's made it easier for others to do so.

Acknowledging the value of community, Zack has also started MakerBar, a "space for hardware hackers to get together and innovate." Zack's aim is to "mobilize people that would otherwise waste their evenings on entertainment and surround them with the friends, resources and a creative environment to make innovative projects."

Per Vices, founded by two recent Y Combinator graduates, has created Phi, hardware that allows software developers to write applications to interact with all types of wireless signals and wireless devices. It's a step towards a distributed wireless infrastructure capable of supporting many different applications. The company aims to build the infrastructure necessary to support a network capable of transparently bridging the gap between any wireless device and the Internet.

Victor Wollesen of Per Vices shared his thoughts on marketing a new and innovative product:

If you're building something truly innovative or disruptive, you face the challenge of convincing people that you are capable of delivering on the advertised capabilities, that people will want the end result, and that you can predict how much it will be valued.

Boldly innovative technologies, especially hardware, are often much riskier because of the challenges associated with entering a new market and because of the capital intensity of manufacturing. It's a high-risk, high-reward proposition that forces investors, as Victor says, "To judge the potential of a technology they may not fully grasp, whose impact they aren't necessarily qualified to judge, on a market that may not yet exist."

Both Zack and Per Vices have created open platforms for others to innovate through. It's a model that could spur innovation at a much greater rate than by developing internally. Time will tell what will become of Optigon, MakerBar and Per Vices, but it's great to see people taking advantage of the technological advancement, utilizing community, bucking popular trends and pursuing wild ideas.

As Victor says, "Highly disruptive, speculative and innovative technologies are founded and funded by the extreme ends of the spectrum: the crazy smart, and the crazy stupid. And crazy ideas being what they are, it's really hard to bin them." And as Zack says, "Some people want to do something they like, some people want to do what makes money and other people wan to do something different... I fall into that last category."

It's my hope that we all take advantage of the lower barriers to developing new technology, leverage the community around us to get new ideas rather than fall victim to group-think, be conscious of long-term impact versus short-term valuation spikes and aim high.

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