Monday, December 28, 2009

Singularity U Days 5 & 6: Magical Mystery Tour

After four days in a drab classroom absorbing insights and information from the frontiers of science and technology, the Singularity University Executive Program busts out for a succession of field trips to real, live businesses. At their best, these places are harnessing rapidly evolving technology to a revenue model in anticipation of tectonic social and economic changes.

TechShop, an open-access DIY machine shop and fab studio in Menlo Park, California. The business model couldn’t be simpler: selling memberships like a health club. For $99 a month (plus a little more for training), you get access to lathes, mills, routers, sewing machines, welding stations, paint booths, cutters, 3D printers, and anything else you might need to produce a physical product of just about any spec.

TechShop takes advantage of the falling price of fabrication — still industrial-grade, but less so as the price of a $200,000 computer-controlled lathe has fallen to $40,000. As for members, they’re perfectly positioned to serve the long-tail market for niche goods, selling through the Internet’s global channel. One member, Roy Sandberg, runs a telepresence robotics company for $250/month plus materials, providing remote-control home care in the Netherlands.

Sandberg’s operation is competition for AnyBots, a manufacturer housed in the Y Combinator complex in Mountain View, California. AnyBots’ debut product will be a remote-controlled robot ($10,000). Singularity U students get a virtual tour of the company’s offices, watching a projection screen as an operator drives a bot from room to room. The bot is dependent on the operator, but it’s smart enough to roll straight down a hallway even if it get steered into the wall.

“It does what you want it to do, not what you tell it to do,” a tech tells me. When the contraption suddenly trundles around the corner into the room where we’re sitting, the crowd spontaneously emits a collective “Awww!” This thing is super cute. It looks like skinny Segway with a nerdy face, stereoscopic cameras peering like two eyes, a screen perched atop its head like a cap. This design is a shoo-in for day care centers; the corporate market might require a redesign.

If so, Ideo would be perfect for the job. Sprawling over a block in dowtown Palo Alto, the designers behind Ford’s hybrid vehicle’s dashboard and Kraft Foods’ supply chain practice a holistic approach that encompasses the entire product/process ecosystem. Outlining the company’s approach, Director of Technology Dave Blakely recalls a contract with NASA to make space suits less constricting.

“They’re always going to be stiff,” he says, “so the improvement was to let astronauts spend less time in them” by designing an enclosed lunar rover. Blakely sketches out a three-stage approach: Immerse yourself in the user’s world view, visulalize the solution, and prototype as quickly and simply as possible. Then repeat, and repeat again. The same steps apply, he says, whether you’re designing hardware or government policy.

Halcyon Molecular has taken holistic design to heart: Not only the product but the financial strategy, business model, and even the corporate offices are cleverly integrated to push genomics to the next level. It’s biotech innovator as garage startup — literally, with an electron microscope, on loan from the US Energy Department, among the other hardware packed into a four-car space. Led by PayPal cofounder Luke Nosek, the staff lives and works in a McMansion in Los Altos Hills, California, complete with swimming pool, jacuzzi, and an airy living room full of beanbag chairs.

Twenty-something molecular biologists stare intently at their screens, oblivious to the student brigade. The Singularity U visit is a preview — everyone signed an NDA before descending on a buffet of California cuisine, so you won’t find details here. Suffice it to say, as does, “Halcyon plans to sequence complete human genomes in less than 10 minutes at a cost of $100.”

After a final hors d’oeuvre and long look at the stream rising from the Halcyon swimming pool, the students pile back into the bus to imagine how they might anticipate and facilitate the world to come.

1 comment:

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