Palo Alto Research Center creates program to foster startups

Startup-LogoThe Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), located in Silicon Valley, has recently launched a program called Startup@PARC that’s focused on incubating promising tech startups. Founded by Xerox in 1970 for the initial purpose of conducting internal research, PARC was incorporated in 2002 as an independent research business. The center is credited for being the birthplace of a variety of significant computing inventions: the mouse, the graphical user interface, laser printing and Ethernet all got their major start at PARC. Not to mention their first commercial GUI product was the Apple Macintosh.

According to PARC, the startup program is “a novel initiative to join forces with entrepreneurs and investors to bring transformative technologies to the marketplace. The Program will help selected entrepreneurs: crystallize opportunities; accelerate time-to-market; enhance competencies; provide facilities resources; and create unique, competitive advantages that leverage our track record in applying scientific insight to real-world opportunities.

According to Mark Berstein, PARC’s president, they aren’t looking for startups based on run-of-the-mill “me-too” ideas, most likely referring to the recent flood of flimsy “Web 2.0″ companies searching for VC money. “We’re looking for people who really have unique ideas [that] match the competencies that we have here,” Bernstein said. “It’s actually looking at bringing entrepreneurs in at a fairly pre-investment stage to develop their ideas.”

The press release mentions PARC’s recent partnership with SolFocus Inc., a solar energy company that they helped transform from a 2 man R&D team to a 50 employee company. The greentech company has raised $84 million in funding to date.

It will be interesting to see what comes next from PARC. Based on past experience, I think its safe to say these guys are good. Although most of the innovations this group is famous for were created 20+ years ago, many of them still play an integral part in the computing landscape to this day… a rare feat in the tech world. I think this proactive invitation to entrepreneurs is a great decision on their part and should really help foster some creative ideas and companies.

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Do Entrepreneurs have ADD?

Finely honed instincts, the ability to make split second decisions, and the agility to change directions in an instant - these characteristics are all the hallmarks of a great entrepreneur. But these are also the attributes of the classic “hunter” profile of a person with ADD.

egyptian hunterThe Hunter Vs. Farmer hypothesis was proposed by Thom Hartmann in an attempt to explaining possible origins of the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The classic “hunter” profile describes a nomad, who is always on the lookout for the next big kill. For the hunter, the excitement lies in planning the hunt, and executing the strategy. After the thrill of success, it is time to move on to the next hunt. A nomad at heart, the hunter is rarely satisfied with resting on his or her laurels for very long.

egyptian farmerIn contrast, the “farmer” profile portrays a person whose life is centered around a predictable life of sowing and gathering. Risk is mitigated through meticulous long term planning.

Over the centuries, farming populations have generally enjoyed more prosperity and stability over nomadic tribes. On average, farmers have more wealth, whereas the distribution of wealth among hunters is highly variable. While hunters move between feast and famine, there are, indeed, the small numbers of super-hunters who will make the big kill, and reach the pinnacle of success.

It is indeed the lure of the big prize, that motivates and drives most entrepreneurs, and makes them strive towards reaching greater heights. At the basis of the hunter-farmer theory is the feature of “hyperfocus” that successful entrepreneurs seem to universally posses. Hyperfocus is a form of mental concentration that is a benefit of ADD, and enables a person to accomplish very specific goals.

While hyperfocus is actually a gift, it can give a person a bad reputation as being absentminded because of ignoring events around them that do not pertain to reaching the goal, or for kids with ADD to be considered as “disrespectful of authority”.

egyptian farmerThe hunter-gatherer hypothesis seems to find parallels in the field of entrepreneurism. There is the prevalent feeling that an entrepreneur who starts a company might not indeed be the right person to continue to lead it once the organization has grown to a certain level. While a VC attempting to remove a founder from a company, and bringing in the “right kind of CEO” to lead it, is looked down in general by entrepreneurs, there might, in some cases, be a good reason for doing this. The “hunter” personality - the visionary - who initially leads the company, might one day need to hand the reigns over to the “farmer” - someone who excels at building teams, rules by consensus, and believes in meticulously planning where the company will be in a few years.

The lifecycle of many companies might indeed demand that it be driven by a hunter in the early part of its cycle and transition on to being led by a farmer as it matures - such as Ebay chairman Pierre Omidyar handing over the reigns to Meg Whitman, when the company got to a certain size. However, there have been as many examples of entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, who lead Microsoft from a garage (dorm room) startup to a monolithic company. Yet again, there are examples of visionaries such as Steve Jobs and Michael Dell who left their companies (Apple, Dell) and then returned to re-innovate and re-invigorate their respective enterprises.

So while starting a company might indeed require the hunter mentality, the growth and future success of the company might call for the initial pioneer to either transition into a more “farming” mind set as the company grows, or find someone with the right skill set to take the company to the next level.

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Startup turns coal into cleaner gas

GreatpointenergylogoGreatPoint Energy, a startup based out of Massachusetts, is making waves in the energy market with its flagship product “bluegas”: clean natural gas made from coal. GreatPoint plans to build and operate conversion facilities based on their technology and then market bluegas to “regional distributors and customers in the power generation, industrial, heating and chemical sectors.” According to GreatPoint, their conversion process removes half of the carbon contained in coal, in addition to removing other harmful chemicals such as arsenic, mercury, and sulfur. The company was founded by Andrew Perlman, Avi Goldberg and Aaron Mandell, all managing partners of GreatPoint Ventures, an investment firm focused on tech companies also located in Cambridge, Mass.

GreatPoint just recieved $100 million in a third round of funding lead by Citi Sustainable Development Investments and Dow Chemical Co. According to Perlman, the money will be primarily used to construct a demonstration plant to be completed in 2009, citing Wyoming and Montana as possible locations. Previously, the company raised $37 million from Menlo Park firms Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Kleiner Perkins Caufiled & Byers, Khosla Ventures and Advanced Technology Ventures in Mass.

GreatPoint Energy was recently announced as one of AlwaysOn’s GoingGreen top 100 private greentech firms. According to them, greentech is now the 3rd largest investment sector for VC’s, with a total of $6.4 billion invested to date.

GreatPoint Energy’s competitors include Coaltek, which focuses on making coal itself cleaner in contrast with GreatPoint’s method of gassifying it, and Powerspan, which is developing a carbon dioxide capturing technology and is working closely with BP.

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Cramster creates a homework helping community

Logo Top LeftA company that was started back in February, 2003 continues to help students with homework problems semester after semester. Cramster, which provides support for math, science and engineering subjects, allows students to connect to their peers as well as professors in order to help each other solve difficult homework questions. The site provides access to textbook answers (currently supporting over 150 textbooks), lecture notes (over 17,000), sample problems and practice tests. Much of the content on Cramster is original and provided by their users, while a portion is aggregated from around the web. If a student can’t find the answer they are looking for, they can go on the Cramster Answer Board where members can ask and answer questions, all under the moderation of Cramster’s “Subject Matter Experts.” Unlike a traditional message board, responses aren’t confined to text-only; complicated problems often call for complicated answers, which Cramster supports through a custom diagram feature.

Cramster’s focus on community building really sets it apart from other homework-helper sites out there. In the past, a student looking for an answer to a math problem would search around until he/she found the answer, at which point they would most likely copy it and leave. Cramster has managed to combat this pattern by creating a rewards-based system that provides incentives for students to help each other. Its working: a quick visit to any of their Answer Boards reveals thousands of posts made by students eager to show one another how to solve problems. Here’s how the rewards work: when you answer another student’s question on the Answer Board, your response is immediately posted. From that point, other members of the site rate the accuracy and helpfulness of your answer. A high rating provides you with “karma points.” Users that have a high number of karma points are able to ask more questions per day. In addition, the questions these members ask receive higher priority in the response que, meaning they can expect answers to their problems faster (typically within 2 hours). Users can also trade in their karma points for cool stuff, from $25 gift cards to iPods and even Playstation 3’s. Combine all of these benefits with a prominently displayed leader-board system and you’ve got Cramster’s solution to creating a successful online study group.

And the site isn’t just for students: teachers, who can join for free, have a surprisingly large presence on the Answer Boards, where their posts are distinguished apart from the rest of the users. For those who aren’t teaching, Cramster offers two different membership options: free and paid. Free members get access to half of the textbook solutions on the site (only the odd numbered problems), can view all the lecture notes and practice exams, and can ask/answer questions on the Answer Board (initially limited to 1 question per day, although they can raise this by gaining karma points). Paid members can view and print all the textbook problems and are able to ask more questions per day on the boards, in addition to their questions receiving priority responses. Paid membership costs $10/month or $40/year, affordable even for high school students.

Speaking of high school, while the site is currently geared towards college students, Cramster is in the process of making itself more accessible to those who have yet to become undergrads. The site will soon offer support for popular high school textbooks, in addition to breaking down the Answer Board into subsections that are more relevant for high school students such as algebra and trigonometry.

The company, which just released a Facebook app allowing students to compare schedules and textbooks, is located in Pasadena, Calif.

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