Thursday, December 18, 2008

Why didn't I think of that??

Great ideas can come from many places. Some result from years of work and/or education while others are a result of trying to identify a unique solution to a consumer or business problem. Of course, there are those that are completely ridiculous (think Pet Rock). We recently had our Neat Ideas Fair, which is my favorite annual event of our Silicon Valley Center for Entrepreneurship at SJSU.

The NIF (in it's 5th year), is essentially a science fair for entrepreneurs. A science fair conjures images of excited middle school kids standing in front of their poster boards explaining which type of paper decomposes the fastest or in my daughter's case, the longevity of chewing gum flavor. Not sure whether she was truly interested in the answer or just thought it was a great way to get her parents to buy her a big stack of gum.

Many entrepreneurial programs feature a business plan competition, which is a great exercise. At SJSU, we also have a business plan competition in the spring, which ideally allows the students to build a viable business model around their NIF projects. However, the NIF forces the students to focus on their idea and ability to communicate it's need, kind of like the Demo conference is all about the product.

The NIF brings together students from all parts of the university (business, computer science, mechanical engineering, design, life science, etc.) to share their passions and projects. Some have developed working prototypes, while others are still at the concept stage and only on posterboard. I really enjoy the collaboration among students in different parts of the university and the excitement of talking about their ideas and thinking through the business potential, particularly for the non-business students.

One of my favorite projects from 2007 was a solar power wetsuit. This was a collaboration between students in industrial design, electrical engineering and business. This team had a working prototype of the first solar powered wetsuit using nano-solar technology. They had done a lot of research talking with surfers and divers, as well as working with O'Neill, one of the leading wetsuit design and maufacturers.

Some of the most popular projects from this year's NIF were:
  • I.C.E. - Solar thermal collector that functions as an ince generator to provide cooling through a building
  • Tenebra - device with cryptological communication protocol that revolves around a cheap hardware random number generator to enable consumers and businesses to communication with military-grade protection
  • Snack Caddy - Reusable tray for carrying snacks and drinks at the movies or other events
You can see a description of these and other projects at the NIF site.

Here are a few of the budding entrepreneurs that I chatted with at the event:

Jeff Gibboney, a graduate mechanical engineering student, developed a battery operated skateboard for cruising to school or work. This new mode of transportation included a go-kart wheel, a motor and battery pack from an electric scooter, and sensors from a Nintendo Wii.

Manija Ansari is an undergraduate business student (currently in my Entrepreneurial Finance course), working on a social entreprenurial venture. She has developed a new twist on the micro-lending concept. Unforgettable treasures will provide micro-loans to third world crafts artists to enable them to build their business and will also market their wares through the Internet. She is planning on starting the business upon graduation.

There were a number of green projects at the NIF, including environmental studies major Alan Hackler's Zero Waste Solutions. Alan's concept is a foot pedal operated sink (to save water) that automatically separates compostable and other waste. While many people would have a hard time doing without a garbage disposal some municipalities have banned the use due to the impact to the water treatment systems.