Monday, March 23, 2009

Debugging the Elephant: My Aha! moment at IIT Clean Tech 2009

Have you heard that elephant story? When 4 blind people touch different parts of an elephant and they just can't figure out how it can possibly function? Software designers are required to laugh at this story to make the grade but it is relevant for all new endeavors. When it comes to figuring out the clean energy space- yep I didn't have the big picture. Aha! All is changed. On March 21, I attended the IIT Clean Tech Forum: "To inform and educate attendees about opportunities for jobs, businesses, investments, research and development in the emerging new energy economy." But I got more. I got to visualise the elephant. A software person, at such events, I position myself as a dilettante- its a defensive posture. The conversation quickly moves into PV cells, Silicon stuff, Nano or Giant windmills, even biomass (a polite word for waste matter among other things). Else its about policy, big government programs and so on. The Forum featured great talks (Solar energy, Biofuels, Energy Storage etc. ) but I was really interested in the talk by Raj Vaswani, Silver Spring Networks, on Energy Management. It was great - overview as well as details; not to mention entertaining. The energy crisis is real - NIMBY -> BANANA -> NOPE (not in my backyard, build anywhere nothing anywhere near anything, not on planet earth). He also called software the "Fifth Fuel" (I love that) and mentioned demand side management several times. I got the trunk of the elephant - I knew how software skills could be applied. But I still didn't have the big picture - Who cares enough to help me build my dream? The real AHA moment came during the panel. It came from Adam Grosser, Foundation Capital. In a nutshell: "Demand side applications are more amenable to VC funds than supply side- e.g. storage, transmission, data management - like Raj's company". So the companies that focus on "efficiency" are the "low hanging fruit" - and that is what VC's fund. Infrastructure energy projects are supply side - which is where solar, wind etc come in - payback (and witness increase in government funding) comes after a little longer period of time and required different capital strategy. That's it- this is how I can slice/dice the space - tell the tail from the trunk and what's in between. So, if you are in clean tech or thinking of getting into it- create a framework that works for you: ask - Supply side or demand side? Where is my expertise a strength? Low hanging fruit or long term payback? and then develop your funding and execution strategy. An oh, by the way, Raj's company is growing and hiring like crazy - write hr@silverspringnet.com . A word of caution - Raj says "my customers are the big Utility companies and they don't even like low hanging fruit; they will just pick up the fruit if its laying on the ground."

Thursday, March 19, 2009

IBM Water Services Business will open doors for green innovation

I love this latest announcement from IBM Global Services - a new business in water purification and management that could become $20 billion in 5 years - and not just because it makes great headlines (Blue goes Green, IBM Dives into Water, Water is the New Oil... - there are tons of links out there). Its about scale. IBM's announcement leads the way for large corporations to think entrepreneurial; think "smart" - find a big problem that needs solving, apply a healthy dose of technology, innovate and get a new business going. Entrepreneurs have been thinking smart in this space; but when it comes to infrastructure kinds of issues, there is a big gap in innovating smart and taking the innovation to market and repeat the cycle. Because the business model is a little more convoluted and sustainability takes longer to achieve there is not enough VC money around and there it is too much risk for government funding other than the slow university channel. IBM will be able to bring technology, staying power as well as a business model to the green business. So it will endure and scale- hopefully. And a host of new businesses will emerge in this space. This announcement reminds me of the early days of the software industry; I am from the time when software had no business model - we were subsidised by hardware dollars. It just needed Microsoft to get big - and that spawned a whole lot of innovation in software. At that time, startups had one exit strategy - get bought up by Microsoft - and VC dollars became available. Not to mention all the other big businesses that got into the space. So that is why the IBM announcement is so great - its great for IBM (especially since water is just one of a host of other infrastructure services they are looking at) and great for launching innovation to solve a critical environmental issue. Apologies to folks who wanted to hear more about the technology - which is absolutely fascinating - maybe later..This time it is about my favourite subject - How technology+business = social impact scaled. And the fact that big business is getting into it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

How would you advise a friend who wanted to get promoted from manager to director level?

Typically at the Director level, leadership is reflected in having additional breadth - including scanning external factors and making new proposals. What I would do, in such a situation is: scan organisation for director level people I admire; list typical things they do; list the sorts of things I do - make a match and identify gaps if any between the two lists. If gaps are there, develop proposal to fill gaps. Approach your manager to let them know that the organisation will benefit with your proposal; you are the best person to follow on proposal; explain why this is a good thing for the organisation - work off of your list- be concrete - its about the work. If no support from manager (could be because they don't have the authority), inform that you want to go to next level etc - make presentation and ask manager to be there to show support. Meanwhile garner support from peers and employees for initiative.
The same method works for leading change management - which social entrepreneurs must deal with.
Question - posted by Betty Lamarr on WITI group -

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Campaign using Social Networking

Ever since I wrote about Obama style campaign for India politics, I have been gtting email asking for details. So check this WSJ article "How a young tech entrepreneur translated Barack Obama into the idiom of Facebook" written by Amy Schatz in May 2007 - useful pointers on how things got started.

Friday, March 6, 2009

By the Numbers: An Obama Style Digital Makeover for India Politics?

I attended the Accel Stanford Symposium on Feb 25, 2009, The Impact of 2008's Dramatic Events on the World of Digital Media and Technology. Like others who know about Obama's tech savvy youth following, I have been curious about the nitty-gritty of the digital (My.BarackObama.com) campaign so I was all ears for the panel "Technology Priorities in an Obama Administration: Lessons from the Campaign" with Matthew Barzun (National Finance Team for Barack Obama) and Chris Hughes (co-founder facebook who time off to be Architect of Obama's digital Campaign Strategies). But I am not just curious for the sake of curious (as anyone who knows me would guess). I have been thinking; India elections are coming up next year, with Mumbai attacks and India's growing economic abilities, India-youth is willing and able to engage with the political system to free it of corruption and bring in young leaders (avg. politician age is 70 I think).

The question is How? Viola - Like Obama did.

Barzun explained the Hunting vs. Farming Model (from Purple Cow, Seth Godin) strategy. Obama realised he didn't have a long list of large-amount donors to chase (hunting) so he decided to grow new ones (farming). Some numbers: Feb 2007 Clinton starts with database of 250,000 names and Obama has 20,000 names; March 31, 2007 Clinton supporter calls convert names to 50,000 donors (divide by 5) and Obama digital campaign converts names to 100,000 donors (multiply by 5)- How? 1. Ask never-heard-of people to get 10 donations at $25 each and get the emails of the donors- all did it. 2. Raise expectations (ask for another $25) and so on. The goal was to have email lists larger even than the donors - to increase reach. Eventually -they ended up with an average $90/person donation. Chris explained the architecture and said they did regular surveys for course correction. They found that people like to donate via email and they liked to form community over facebook. So they did both. For example Barzun paraphrased the kind of email letters that were written - designed to show - in a young people way- Respect, Empower, Include - the campaign theme. But the panel was skimpy on financial detail. So, I cornered Chris Hughes (thanks Martha!):

ME - Really Chris, so how did you do it? I want to do the same for India elections next year

CH- I don't know how popular facebook is in India. It won't work. Besides its expensive and I can't do numbers for India

ME: Just give me US numbers; I'll do the conversion. My background is software development.

CH: It took 8-10 full time developers to create the platform, $15-20 million investment, and most importantly the push has to come from the top. It couldn't have worked without Obama pushing it. and he was right to push because we raised 3-4 times that in funding; not to mention the large number in popular support that converted to votes.

ME: And you also had lots of free time donated to the digital campaign - like yourself.

CH: Ah yes. Not just me but hundreds of staffers and campaign people gave time.

ME: thanks.

And here I am thinking - for India - money can be got, expertise can be got, digital model can be adapted to allow for lack of PC penetration in rural India, BUT- who is this leader? Rahul Gandhi are you listening? Or send this to your favorite candidate - I have no allegiances yet.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Innovations in Farming and Rural Communities Competition: deadline May 13

Ashoka’s Changemakers announced today the launch of “Cultivating Innovation: Solutions for Rural Communities,” a global, online competition to seek out the most innovative solutions in farming and rural communities in Sub-Saharan Africa, India, and around the world. The competition is funded as part of a grant awarded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Using the Changemakers’ open-source online platform, the competition will be open to anyone striving to stimulate rural development and agriculture.
Today, three quarters of the world’s poorest people—the 1 billion who live on $1 a day or less—live in rural areas, and most rely on agriculture for their food and income. Many small farmers cannot grow enough food to sell or even eat. Innovative solutions like the ones Ashoka is seeking offer hundreds of millions of the people the opportunity to overcome hunger and poverty.
Over the next two months, people from around the world will be nominating those who are making a difference in farming and rural communities, or submitting their own innovative projects. The Changemakers community will be continually commenting on the initiatives entered in the competition. Entrants and nominators will be able to network with media, academics, and thought leaders. A panel of judges—Roy Steiner, Senior Program Officer for Agricultural Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Gene Kahn, Global Sustainability Officer for General Mills; Beatrice Gakuba, CEO of Rwanda Flora; Suzana Padua, Founder of the Instituto de Pesquisas Ecol√≥gicas (Institute of Ecological Research); and Raj Patel, activist and author, Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World Food System—will narrow the entry pool to 10 to 15 finalists. The global Changemakers community will then vote for three winners, who will each receive a USD $5000 award from Changemakers to fund their initiatives. The finalists and winners will receive media attention and are showcased on the Changemakers website. All entrants will gain increased access to a global network of innovators, supporters, and investors with the means to help them fund and/or scale their projects.
These innovations have many faces and can come from anywhere. For example, we are motivated by people like C.K. “Bablu” Ganguly, an Ashoka Fellow whose innovations have regenerated farmland and created jobs via organic farming and marketing cooperatives in southern India. Or, people like Adrian Mukhebi, another Ashoka fellow who created a virtual trading floor via radio and SMS messaging to link thousands of farmers and buyers and sellers in Kenya. Ganguly and Mukhebi’s work not only helped to revitalize the local farming economies but also directly met many of their communities’ education and health needs, in addition to empowering local women to actively participate in farming and business development.
The online competition will showcase innovative solutions, encouraging members to comment, network, and assist one another in making a difference. Nominations and submissions are welcome until May 13. Changemakers is powered by a strong network of partners, Ashoka Fellows, and everyone who has a desire to change the world.