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Archive for May, 2010

Plumpy'Nut Goes International via Franchising

May 31, 2010 2 comments

We have talked about the Plumpy’Nut product on this blog before, the food product that is designed as high protein food for crisis situations. The French company (Nutriset which was founded in the 1980’s) is now planning to develop international factories to create the product, obviously to shorten their supply chain but with the benefit of creating jobs in the developing world. The company is now led by the founders daughter, Adeline Lescanne. It plans to open a plant in earthquake-hit Haiti later this year.

On their website they state that: ‘Due to the success of RUTF (ready-to-use therapeutic food) for the home management of severe malnutrition, Nutriset has wished to ensure sustainable availability of the plumpy range in user countries, without having to rely on the supply by one producer only (Nutriset).  To date, plumpy products are the only RUTF that can be produced locally. The franchising system seemed to be the best to set up the “plumpy’nut in the field” network: it is based on the transfer of Nutriset’s know-how (production, management and distribution) to a local, independent producer known as “Franchisee”.’

The company now has franchisees in a number of African countries. Franchising a social enterprise system is a great way to scale the product in a way that can have a faster impact and sometimes can help with the financial cost of expanding the company. It also helps control quality of product and/or the brand in the field. An interesting lesson for Irish social enterprises.

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Emerging Trend: Revival Innovation

It will warm the heart of many camera purists. Polaroid Instant Film is back. The rise of digital camera’s led the original company Polaroid to announce in February 2008 that it would cease production of all instant film. But a group including ex member of Polaroid have created a company called the Impossible Project, which has acquired Polaroid’s old equipment and factory in Holland and plan to continue to develop and sell instant film. On their website they state that:

“The Impossible mission is not to re-build Polaroid Integral film but (with the help of strategic partners) to develop a new product with new characteristics, consisting of new optimised components, produced with a streamlined modern setup. An innovative and fresh analog material, sold under a new brand name that perfectly will match the global re-positioning of Integral Films.”

There are other examples of what we are calling Revival Innovation – the idea that one can go back to old technologies long abandoned and revive them using modern technologies and processes. The recent, somewhat sudden, rise of 3-D is another example of this, with a number of 3-D televisions coming out this summer, hot on the heals of success for 3-D movies such as Avatar. Companies such as Sony are taking this very seriously, sensing a big opportunity to revive their fortunes, by developing a product line of Bravia Plasma HDTV televisions as well as games for their games platform the Playstation 3, an additional benefit of their Blue-ray disk technology being that it can handle the memory needed for the modern version of 3-D where there are actually two versions of the film, one for each eye.

We expect that there will be additional examples of Revival Innovation in the coming years.

Has the Interactive Book Really Arrived?

Although the idea of an interactive book has been around since the dawn of the computer age, and those of us who grew up in the 80’s may remember books that allowed you to make decisions for the characters and therefore take the story in one of several ways, now it seems this idea’s day has really come. A new company called Subutai, led by Seattle-based sci-Fi writer Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear and others, has built an ebook that the company calls “… something of an experiment in post-book publishing and storytelling.”

The Mongoliad is an app written for mobile devices such as the iPhone and iPad. The story is set during the Mongol invasions of Europe and seems to have inspired the name of the company, as Subutai was one of Genghis Khan’s leading generals.

The collaborative software behind the story is termed by Subutai as a “personal ubiquitous literature platform,” or PULP. The interactive elements include an interactive discussion window, where people can leave a note or enter into a discussion, ability to add to the book and write one’s own additional storyline or rate pages, chapters or the whole book. The App will be offered as a six month service, with new content being added each week.

What we seeing here is the continued convergence of different technologies and sectors. Collaborative writing has been around in the business world for quite a while, as global companies work on projects and proposal documents in several locations and time zones. For example I am working with people in Dublin, Belfast and Scotland on one such project at the moment. But bringing this element into the ‘book’ (loosely called), and allowing for almost a social media element, shows that the level of innovation in traditional sectors such as publishing is starting to flourish.

The team gave the world a peek at an alpha version of The Mongoliad as part of the San Francisco ”App Show’ that was held last week.

Its About the People, Activision

May 29, 2010 2 comments

One of the key areas that venture capitalists look for in a start-up is the team. It is not unusual for the real intellectual property to reside in the people rather than the ‘protected’ patent. History is littered with examples of the future IP or product pipeline leaving the company when these creative people leave. One of the most famous is the move by Bob Noyce and associates from Shockley Semi-Conductor to Fairchild and eventually to found their own company, Intel.

Such points seem to be lost on the leadership of Activision, one of the leading games producers, as a rift between them and the senior leadership of Infinity Ward, has led to a mass exodus of the developers and software folks following in the footsteps of the leaders of Infinity Ward, Vince Zampella and Jason West. These two have now launched a new company called Respawn, linked strongly with one of Activision’s competitors, Electronic Arts.

Why is this problematic for the owners of Infinity Ward? Because from this team of developers, Activision found itself in control of one of the biggest franchises in the game’s world (Call of Duty). The Modern Warfare installments have made serious amounts of money (hundreds of millions of dollars) more akin to a Hollywood blockbuster. Activision bought Infinity Ward in 2003 but fired the Zampella and West earlier in the year. I confess I own several of the installments myself for the Playstation3.

Indeed the story  itself is starting to sound like a film script. It seems likely creative control was the key issue for the pair and Activision. With a new installment of Modern Warfare due out in October this year (this one set in Vietnam), Activision will continue to make money from the franchise, but one wonders what the potential long run effect of this will be on their subsidiary.

Rumours have it that a large part of the creative side of Infinity Ward have now left, many joining Respawn. I suspect Electronic Arts are going to laugh all the way to the bank, and in this new arrangement Zampella and West crucially own the intellectual property.

It is not unusual for the founders of a company to be ejected within 3-5 years of the start-up. We call it ‘Founder Syndrome’. Ask Steve Jobs. And although the full detail of why Zampella and West were fired is still unclear, it may turn out to be a critical call for Activision in the long run.

Innovation System – the University

A vital part of any country’s innovation system is of course the higher education system particularly the University system. The Irish system finds itself heavily constrained in recent years between staff cuts, recruitment bans and financial cut-backs.

The worrying solution that the government seems to be hinting at is the idea of mergers for the universities. Don’t get me wrong, there is a huge capacity for bringing organisations together in the sector. It is the particular position that is worrying. For example there has been talk about merging Trinity College and University College Dublin. Having worked in mergers and acquisitions back in the 90’s, one of the key requirements is that the two organisations have a similar culture. The prime example of what happens when you don’t have cultural similarity: the ill-fated Time Warner and AOL merger (RIP). I don’t believe that TCD and UCD are culturally similar, ‘Innovation Alliance’ not withstanding.

The other issue is that in political circles there seems to be an idea that ‘big is better.’ If one looks at the world university rankings list (any of them), you will see that those institutions that are generally at the top of the list are not large universities by international standards.

At number one in the THE-QS world rankings in 2009, Harvard had 18,000 students with an additional 13,000 in its extension college. Cambridge at number 2 also had approximately 18,000 students. Yale University had approximately 12,000 students at number three in the world.

And the rest of the list is similar, for example Imperial College had less than 14,00 students (joint number 5 in the world), Oxford (joint number 5) at 18,000 students. MIT (number 9) had about  11,000 or about the size of DCU. And California Institute of Technology or Caltech had less than 2,500 students. Given that TCD and UCD, along with the other Irish universities, are in and around the students numbers listed here, the real issue is not the number of Universities but the overall number of higher educational institutions in the country.

We also need to look seriously at how these institutions will act in the innovation space. At the moment there are very few courses that have innovation, creativity or even entrepreneurship in their titles. A few bright spots here and there but entrepreneurship shouldn’t be the sole reserve of the Business Schools. In the US and elsewhere entrepreneurship often resides on the engineering side of the house. Looking at these US models we see some interesting facts – not only that you can have a world leading university with less than 3,000 students but also the MIT case where there are more postgraduates than there are undergraduates.

Higher education is a key part of the innovation agenda, in terms of education, training, skills….in terms of technology transfer and not just entrepreneurship, but an entrepreneurial mindset. We need to link engineering, the sciences, design and innovation together. We need to start looking at offering entrepreneurship, creativity and important subjects like ethics to a much wider audience at undergraduate level. The focus in government and often in a compliant media is on the wrong things. It isn’t size that is important, it is quality and innovation of thought. We can do that without betraying academic freedom (yes, there have exceptions to the rule, but aren’t there always).

We can do it because others have.

Tech Venture Programme for Postdoctoral Researchers

Some of the postdoctoral researchers attending the Venture Start programme run by the Ryan Academy for Invent DCU

Last Saturday saw the last in the series of modules for the successful Tech Venture programme which was run for Invent DCU, aimed at helping the postdoc researcher community to develop ideas from their research into viable new business ideas. The programme is part of the new product portfolio of short courses, taught by practitioners, that the Academy is developing, which includes the Innovation and Entrepreneurship bootcamp being run in June.

Are Online Games Hurting Productivity?

An article in todays BBC website states that the Google Pac-Man game has taken over 5 million hours of productive work time since it was put online as part of the 30 years anniversary of the iconic game. Google has reworked the game so the layout was arranged around letters forming its name, and having proved so popular it has now made it permanently available on its own page. This isn’t the only online distraction.

It has become obvious that many people access their Facebook pages while they are at work, and with the advent of somewhat addictive games on Facebook such as Zynga’s FarmVille , this may be a cause for concern for employers. A similarly themed article is also on the Wired magazines website. Of course Facebook are now tied to Zynga as of last week, in the hope that their virtual money or credits could be implemented to pay for items similar to the massively multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft.

The Wired article also points out that this is a big growth potential area for the gaming industry, with Electronic Arts recently acquired online games maker Playfish for $300 million in cash, with plans to bring their games franchises to Facebook. One wonders exactly what the cost of employees using such applications during work time is actually costing the economy.