View From the Valley iconView From the Valley

A Circuit (or two) for Christmas

My favorite part of holiday shopping (for me, that refers to Christmas, insert your favorite winter holiday here) is the hunt for stocking stuffers. The requirements—cute, compact, not too pricey, instantly usable , and ideally (at least when my kids were younger) providing non-screen entertainment during holiday downtime. Even though my kids are getting too old to be interested in some really cool markers or colorful stickers, I still am a sucker for potential stocking stuffers.

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Semiconductor Start-Ups Get Their Own Accelerator

Silicon Valley used to have lots of places that incubated new technologies. They were called research labs, and they were funded and nurtured by big tech companies, like Xerox and Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft. Those research labs have shrunk dramatically, and have moved away from nurturing new technologies to bringing more mature technologies to market.

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A Private Social Club for Silicon Valley VCs and Entrepreneurs? Simply Cuckoo.

A couple of Silicon Valley venture capitalists think that the Valley needs a place “where entrepreneurs can find each other and hang out.” That, according to Fortune Magazine, is what Tim Draper, managing director of venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, is telling the people he is recruiting to join The Cuckoo’s Nest, a soon-to-be-realized social club. He and his cohorts plan to lounge in the former Menlo Park offices of robotic research lab Willow Garage.

Point man on the club’s creation is Tony Perkins, a VC at Draper Fisher Jurvetson who runs the AlwaysOn conferences. (Full disclosure—my husband was editor-in-chief of Perkins-founded and Draper-funded Upside Magazine for close to five years.) The club is officially a joint venture between AlwaysOn and VC firm BootUp Ventures. It plans to recruit, according to its website,  “1,200 thinkers and actors pioneering the future of innovation and culture,” including “founders and CEOs of top private break-out technology companies and the risk-taking investors backing them.”  Membership will cost $2,500 for members 30 and older and $1,000 for those under 30.

There’s so much wrong with this plan I hardly know where to begin.

But let’s start here. Draper and Perkins have been around the Valley for a long time; don’t they get how the Valley works? The sparks that start companies aren’t generated by a small, incestuous group of people, isolated behind a velvet rope, with a doorman who is instructed not to let in anybody who doesn’t have a membership card. Sparks happen when: diverse strangers connect and ideas cross-pollinate; when a conversation is overheard at the next table at a coffee shop and prompts a discussion of possible synergies; when an entrepreneur connects with an interested investor during halftime at a kids’ soccer game; when startup employees wearing different hoodies with different logos compare notes at a crowded bar on a Friday night; and when companies throw their doors open and offer a free lunch to engineers from across the street. The Valley culture is about all doors being opened, not closed.

Other issues may dog Perkins’s plans for a private club. The location looks good on a map—about halfway between the Facebook campus and the Sand Hill Road offices that house many VC firms—and the former Willow Garage building has a few amenities including a pleasant, shrub-surrounded patio out back. But no matter how you dress up this suburban outpost, it’s still going to feel like basic office space, and I don’t know too many people who want to leave the office to go hang out at another office. In fact, the biggest draw for this site has been the nearby pedestrian bridge that crosses the creek and gets busy techies quickly to the real bars and restaurants in downtown Palo Alto.

And consider the name. Perkins says he picked it to pay homage to Ken Kesey, who found his inspiration for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the nearby Veteran’s Hospital, and to honor Steve Jobs, who said, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” But let’s not forget that real cuckoos are called “brood parasites” for a reason: they lay their eggs in nests built by other birds. I wouldn’t think Silicon Valley’s VCs and entrepreneurs want a mascot with that kind of reputation.

So why do it? Here’s one clue from the Cuckoo’s Nest Club’s website: “The Club is a place where the entrepreneurs leading this change may present their vision of the world in an open dialogue with representatives of established industries and institutions, including aspiring presidential candidates.”  Perkins likes politics—he served on President George W. Bush's Information Technology Advisory Council and was the founding chairman of the Churchill Club in Palo Alto. He likely wants to be a player in the next round of presidential primaries, and the Menlo Park location—on a quiet but wide road that would be easy to close off—would handle security forces and motorcades better than just about any spot around.

Here’s another clue: The website says, “The stated club goal is to reach a membership that is 51 percent women, with 20 percent of the members under the age of 30 years old.” My interpretation? The founders are worried that they are losing touch with the new wave of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and it’s just too awkward to go hang out at the hot new bars this crew frequents, like downtown Palo Alto’s Lure & Till. So the Cuckoo’s Nest founders are building a mousetrap for young entrepreneurs (members under 30 pay far less to join than regular members). I hate to be snarky about the club’s posted plan to limit its male membership to 49 percent (which on its surface is a laudable attempt to break with the Silicon Valley boys’ club mentality), but I fear this is also part of the mousetrap aspect.

Or consider this need The Cuckoo’s Nest might fill: the wannabe rockstars of Silicon Valley have bands, but rarely have gigs. Examples? Elevation Partners’ VC Roger McNamee’s Flying Other Brothers/MoonAlice/Doobie Decibel System, Magisto’s Reid Genauer and the Assembly of Dust, SnapFish’s Raj Kapoor and CoverFlow, Randi Zuckerberg and Feedbomb, and others. From the website: “Silicon Valley has very few venues that regularly feature professional and amateur musicians and artists. The Club fills this void by purposely identifying and recruiting top talent for its membership, and working with them to produce regular live music.”

Given that many of these bands tend towards 70s and 80s rock, I’m not sure they’ll be youth-bait.

The Cuckoo’ Nest is scheduled to open in early 2015.

Suitable Technologies Opens Store Staffed Only by Robots

Most of us have gone into a store or restaurant in which the nametags worn by employees identified their hometowns. It’s a friendly touch.

But this week, for the first time, I went into a store in which the members of the sales staff weren’t only identified by their hometowns, they were actually working from their hometowns, via telepresence robots. Their names and locations appeared on their screens, and on the day I visited there were employees based in at least three different states.

Other than that, my visit to the Beam store at 425 University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto seemed like a completely ordinary retail experience. It was Monday—a generally slow day in this area—and there were few customers, so two of the staff members, Ben Day from in Brooklyn and Alexa Inga in Clayton, Calif.—or actually their robots—were standing just outside the front of the store, idly chatting.

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Startup Lets You Track Electricity Usage of Every Device in Your Home

“It’s Mint for electricity.” That was my reaction when I first saw Curb at Demo 2014 last month in San Jose, Calif. It’s a Silicon Valley thing, to see how quickly one can classify new tech according to old tech—or at least last year’s tech. Sometimes it’s a joke (“Pandora for cats”) or a slap (don’t say “Uber for” anything right now, Ubergate has made that moniker toxic). But in this case, it’s absolutely right—and very cool, because a having a Mint for electricity would be a very useful thing, in many many ways.

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San Jose Sharks Shake Your Booty

Would you spend US $300 to feel—instead of just see—the impact of hockey players hitting the boards? Comcast Sportsnet California, the San Jose Sharks hockey team, and the Guitammer Company are betting at least some rabid hockey fans will. They’ve wired up the SAP Center, the home ice of the San Jose Sharks, to detect the vibrations of hockey players crashing into the boards.

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High School Students Launch Automatic Escrow System at Demo

If you’ve ever had an idea for a startup and didn’t follow up on it, you now have absolutely no excuse, because these teens are making it look easy.

Jamie Young and Brendan Duhamel, the founders of Pavilion.io, kicked off their presentation at Demo 2014 last week by saying: “We’re both 17 and we go to high school” and “one day we ordered a skateboard on eBay and our board never arrived.” My initial reaction—this will probably be cute but nothing to take seriously—was quickly replaced by respect. These kids have a pretty good idea, appear to be able to implement it, and definitely had thought through may of the potential problems in at least as much—and in some cases more—detail as any adult presenter.

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Startups Get the Kinks Out of Drones, Online Shopping, Mobile GPS and Other Techs

The Demo conference is no longer a unique launchpad for startup companies. These days it seems like there’s a startup launch event every couple of weeks, and plenty of opportunities in between these to get a new-product fix by visiting Kickstarter or Indiegogo. But because Demo attracts a broader range of companies than many of the startup launchpads—hardware and software, consumer and enterprise—it is a good place to take the temperature of the latest trends.

At this fall’s Demo, held last week in San Jose, my thermometer read cool in terms of breakthrough technologies or product categories, but hot in the area of fixing problems with the technologies already broadly used or rapidly proliferating. And fixing a problem that nobody else has addressed, even a small one, isn’t a bad way to build a successful company, PayPal founder and now-venture capitalist Peter Thiel pointed out to the thousand or so attendees.

A few examples of potential kink-straightening techs from Demo 2014:

The problem: The flight time of today’s small drones is too short for many potential applications

The company: Top Flight Technologies

The proposed solution: a hybrid motor for drones.

Top Flight introduced small drones powered by hybrid electric motors; the company says these propulsion systems provide eight times the amount of energy as lithium batteries of the same weight. Top Flight is currently beta testing its Airborg Hybrid, and in six months to a year expects to start shipping drones that can carry nine-kilogram payloads for two hours, at a list price of $20,000 to $25,000. Top Flight’s expects its first buyers to include companies in the agriculture and insurance industries, not consumers.

The problem: Lots of apps use GPS these days, but GPS use quickly drains mobile phone batteries

The company: PathSense

The proposed solution: Used data from onboard sensors to do inertial navigation, tapping into the GPS signal only when necessary.

The idea for PathSense came out of a problem faced by the founders’ previous company—Trapster, an app that alerted users in real time to speed traps, red light cameras, and the like. Trapster’s app ran GPS in the background, quickly draining phone batteries—once users figured that out, many deleted the app. PathSense is hoping to help other app-makers avoid this pitfall by creating a mostly inertial navigation system that taps the multiple sensors on the phone, and pairs that information with map data and the company’s own algorithms to pinpoint location; only checking in with GPS when the algorithm’s conclusions and the map data conflict. The company says it can provide accurate location information using 90 percent less energy than GPS alone. PathSense is planning to offer its technology to app developers, and says it can be inserted in any app with just a few lines of code.

Inertial navigation, of course, is nothing new, but in the past has had accuracy issues.  PathSense representatives told me that the time is right to take another look at the technology, because devices carry more sensors today than ever before, the accuracy of those sensors has improved, and available street map data is vastly better than it was just a couple of years ago. And, they indicated, PathSense is putting a lot of effort into calibrating the sensors of the various brands and models of phones, a project that, they hope, will make jumping into this business harder for competitors.

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Tesla's X-Men Robots and Lyft's Pink Pool Noodles Bring a Touch of Whimsy to the Workplace

We recently caught a glimpse of both Tesla’s and Lyft’s freshly remodeled digs, courtesy of a Tesla blog post, a San Francisco Chronicle article, and a Curbed report post. Though Tesla’s just-updated space is a factory floor, and Lyft’s is a three-story building in San Francisco’s Mission District, what they have in common is Silicon Valley whimsy.

Over at Tesla’s factory, overhead steel structures previously used to move cars and parts during the assembly process have been replaced by robots named after X-Men characters. In Tesla’s blog, the “Tesla Motors Team” explained that, “To us, these robots are like superheroes, so we figured they deserved superhero names.” (Tesla CEO Elon Musk is no stranger to the world of superheroes; he reportedly was the model for the Tony Stark character as portrayed in the Ironman movies, and makes a cameo in Ironman 2.)

So Tesla’s new robots are tagged Xavier, Iceman, Wolverine, Beast, Storm, Colossus, Vulcan, and Havok. Of that group, Storm is the only woman. That makes Tesla’s robot workforce 12.5 percent female—low even for a Silicon Valley tech company. Tesla could at least have gotten up to the engineering workforce average of 25 percent (still not impressive) by selecting a second woman from the X-Men oeuvre (perhaps instead of Vulcan, who, my expert sources tell me, has only a tenuous claim to being an X-Man, and is certainly far less qualified to represent the team of superhumans than, say, female superheroes Rogue or Shadowcat).

Meanwhile, over at Lyft, they’ve named the printers after people with great mustaches, like Tom Selleck. I guess I can’t complain about the lack of diversity in this selection.

Both companies have gone for the wide-open floor plan; Tesla, because that’s pretty much what you need at a factory; Lyft, because that’s pretty much what is cool right now. At Lyft, however, the mostly open office space hides a secret room; the door opens when you press on a certain portrait to reveal a cozy reading area with a small stash of alcohol; it has plenty of bookshelves, but only a few actual books (because millennials don’t actually read books, I suppose, but use them as platforms to stack monitors on.) If Tesla has a secret room, the company isn’t saying.

Photo walls are big at tech companies these days. Tesla’s new photo wall shows the factory building over its 54-year life, including its years as home to General Motors and then NUMMI, GM’s joint venture with Toyota. Lyft’s photo wall displays pictures of popular storybook characters, including Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, and Willy Wonka. Besides collecting photos, Tesla commissioned some art. The company had a comic artist do illustrations of the manufacturing process, and these are printed on some of the interior glass walls. Lyft’s headquarters boasts some original artwork as well: mustache-inspired paintings from Lyft’s various city launches.

At Tesla, the decorating team wrapped pillars with climbing plants (because every cool company needs a living wall). At Lyft, they wrapped 8000 pool noodles with pink fabric and covered the interior of the elevator with pink fur. Tesla’s building plan includes skylights; Lyft reached for the skies with a roof deck.

Both companies’ renovations displayed social consciousness. A barrel placed at Lyft is dedicated to collecting “hoodies for the homeless.” Tesla boasts that it recycled 50 tons of material during the remodel.

Photo walls are big at tech companies these days. Tesla’s new photo wall shows the factory building over its 54-year life, including its years as home to General Motors and then NUMMI, GM’s joint venture with Toyota. Lyft’s photo wall displays pictures of favorite storybook characters, including Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, and Willy Wonka. Besides collecting photos, Tesla commissioned some art—the company had a comic artist do illustrations of the manufacturing process, and these are printed on some of the interior glass walls. Lyft’s headquarters boasts some original artwork as well—mustache-inspired paintings from Lyft’s various city launches.

Both companies have gone for the wide-open floor plan; Tesla, because that’s pretty much what you need at a factory; Lyft, because that’s pretty much what is cool right now. At Lyft, however, the mostly open office space hides a secret room; the door opens when you press on a certain portrait to reveal a cozy reading area with a small stash of alcohol; it has plenty of bookshelves, but only a few actual books (because millennials don’t actually read books, I suppose, only use them to stack monitors on.) If Tesla has a secret room, the company isn’t saying.

Updated 11/21

Robo-Surgeon Takes on Baldness

Lots of news lately from San Jose-based robo-surgeon manufacturer Restoration Robotics. In October, the company announced that it had just sold its 100th ARTAS robotics system (at about US $200,000 each) and “harvested” its 10 millionth hair follicle. (At about 1200 to 1600 hair follicles per patient, that’s perhaps 7000 or so patients that have had the robotic surgery.)

And this month, news came out that the backers of Restoration Robotics, among them venture firms Sutter Hill, Clarus, and InterWest Partners, had just put a few more million dollars into the company, closing out a Series C round of $45 million, for a total investment to date of more than $70 million. (That’s $7 per hair if you’re counting.)

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View From the Valley

IEEE Spectrum’s blog featuring the people, places, and passions of the world of technologists in Silicon Valley and its environs.
Contact us:  t.perry@ieee.org

Senior Editor
Tekla Perry
Palo Alto
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