Take a look at 10 companies reinventing America's energy infrastructure. Changing the way we use energy is going to require more than just new ways of generating electricity. At an innovation summit organized by ARPA-E (a research branch of the DOE modeled after DARPA that looks at high-risk, high-reward ideas), most of the finalists for funding had the lofty ambition of reinventing the entire energy system, reports Wired. Check out Wired's list of ten companies leading us to more a sustainable future. Phonic Devices makes thermoelectric materials that converts "waste heat," the byproduct of industrial processes directly into electricity. Graphene Energy figured out a way to get more energy density out of graphene, a one-atom thick configuration of carbon. And Makani Windpower, the brainchild of mad scientist Saul Griffith, uses large kites at high altitudes to get the most out of wind power. Check out our recent feature on the incorrigible inventor, Saul Griffith's House of Cool Ideas.
For first product, the fewer features the better. You know all those product managers obsessed with feature-rich first products? Steve Blank would like to have a word with them. In his most recent post, he explains how the goal should be the exact opposite: "the minimum feature set." "The reality," he writes, "is that the minimum feature set is 1) a tactic to reduce wasted engineering hours (code left on the floor) and 2) to get the product in the hands of early visionary customers as soon as possible." Google, for one, is a believer.
Small business plea for direct lending. AIG, GM, and scores of banks have received bailout money from the federal government. But recovery efforts directed at small businesses have stalled out at the lender level, where large corporations continue to get preferential treatment. Back in October, legislation that would require the SBA to help companies willing to find lenders and, as a last resort, lend the money directly was passed in the House. But it's currently facing a tougher time in the Senate in part due to ongoing skepticism from the current administration, reports the Wall Street Journal. On the campaign trail, Obama proposed expanding the SBA's ability to give direct funds to companies hit by the recession. But then recanted, saying direct lending would create a "massive bureaucracy." On Friday, entrepreneurs testified at a congressional hearing that the $30 billion TARP initiative to help community banks lend to local companies would be better spent by giving it to the SBA to lend out.
Raising money, with a little help from your friends. Interesting video on the RISE Austin site from Maggie Miller, a social entrepreneur and founder of the micro-finance organization, DiscoverHope Fund. When raising start-up capital, Miller says she would talk to everyone she saw and "literally make 100 friends a day." Those friends helped her raise an initial $60,000 for the project, often $100 at a time. Her advice to other entrepreneurs is to, "Surround yourself with people who will cultivate that hope in you. You never really know who is set up to support you in that particular inspirational goal that you have." In other news from the RISE Austin conference, Inc. editor Jane Berentson took some time away from her magazine duties to serve on a panel of judges for a quick-pitch competition. The winner was Steve Barcik, CEO of FireFly LED Lighting, a maker of energy-efficient light bulbs.
The 2-minute opportunity checklist for entrepreneurs. If you have a business concept on the back burner but you want to test it for holes before trying to sell friends, family, and VCs on the idea, the Harvard Business Review has an 18 question checklist that can help. It starts out with the basic and essential question "Does your idea soothe someone's pain, discomfort, frustration, or dissatisfaction?" and grills you on other key particulars such as whether you can sneak by big competitors unnoticed for a while. The post also offers some counterintuitive advice: if everyone loves your idea, you're in trouble. "Unless you have at least one major detractor, then you are probably not onto something big. In fact, if everyone thinks it's a wonderful thing to do, then probably a legion of competitors is on the launch pad."
Apple bans a popular iPhone app ... again. The review process for the App Store has become rather notorious for its strict and seemingly arbitrary guidelines, with Apple quashing thousands of apps within the past few months, citing reasons that puzzle developers. According to TechCrunch, the latest on the chopping block was Tokyo-based Tonchidot, whose augmented reality app Sekai Camera is Japan's most downloaded iPhone app to date. The app, which allows users to tag their surroundings with virtual content like text and video, employs a GPS function that collects nearby Wi-Fi signals, which Apple apparently no likey. Click here for more info on the augmented reality craze, and one investor who was particularly wowed by Tonchidot's TechCrunch conference debut.
Protect your business from corrupt employees It's easy to think of employees as family. But that can be a risky mindset, reports the WSJ. Employee frauds at businesses with fewer than 100 employees--which tend to use fewer internal controls, security cameras, and other defensive tactics--cause a median loss $57,000 higher than the median losses of larger organizations. Business owners can help protect themselves from these losses by installing an anonymous employee hotline, requiring all employees and managers to participate in inspection procedures, and requiring employees who are handling money or inventory work in teams of two or more.
How cities and states develop programs to help small businesses. Rather than wait for the federal government to figure out how to get funding to Main Street, several states and municipalities have initiated programs to help local businesses and save jobs, The New York Times reports. A small business council in the Cleveland area created a program to encourage consumers to buy products from locally-owned stores. Likewise, North Carolina began a pilot program called BizBoost last year, in which the state gave $600,000 to help the Charlotte area rebound from big bank layoffs. Since last fall, the program has been able to provide financial guidance to 158 small businesses.
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