Friday, April 28, 2006

Ideas2Products – Technology Innovation

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the semifinals of the Ideas2Product competition. It was started at the University of Texas six years ago and now has grown into a series of events held in 13 countries across 5 continents culminating in an International competition.

Idea2Products is part of the National Collegiate Inventors & Innovators Alliance which fosters innovation at the collegiate level through courses, grants, and awards. The NCIIA is sponsored by the Lemelson Foundation as well as National Instruments.

The winner last year was the Micro Dynamo which makes human-powered battery chargers capable of recharging devices and providing energy to soldiers in the field with a simple cranking or pulling motion. What’s interesting about Ideas2Products is how many of the ideas turn into products and then companies. Micro Dynamo is now called UPower.

In the semifinals round I attended last week, eight teams competed by taking a technology and working it from concept to prototype. The goal is not necessarily to make a business plan but rather to vet out a technology that could be used to build a technology-based business.

The first team presented a software tool to meter software as a service so companies can bill customers based on a pay as you go model. Salesforce.com and other companies are using the “software as a service” or SaaS model, but it takes a great deal of effort to put metering, pricing, and billing capabilities into a software package.

The second team called Chips2Gas showed a concept that converts woodchips into fuel through a gasifier technology. This technology dates back to WWII and was used in Sweden when gas rations were short. The idea is to attach a gasifier to a truck (in this case a tree service truck) and generate an alternative fuel to gasoline by using the woodchips the tree service generates to fuel the gasifier. As the price of gasoline continues to soar, alternative fuel technologies are finding renewed interest.

The next team consisting of a cross-departmental team of Biomedical, Mechanical Engineering, Computer Science, and Semiconductor, focused on developing target site-sensitive nanocapsules that could deliver contents to specific sites in the human body with a stimulus-triggered release. This was one of the unique innovations on display but also one of the most challenging to bring to fruition.

Another team presented an all-optical router. Currently, optical networks use routers with electromechanical parts which become a bottleneck in achieving high-bandwidth for the network. They came up with an ingrained optical logic gate that can process an optical signal directly on the silicon. It wasn’t clear how fast the industry would adopt the technology given the amount of dark fiber in the ground, but the technology was innovative nevertheless.

I look forward to the finals in November and many more innovations.

Best regards,
Hall T.

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