One of the best innovations to come out of longtime hardware maker HTC is actually software. Its TouchFLO interface built on Windows Mobile has enamored many handset owners. But it’s not the only game in town. SPB has long made its Mobile Shell application for customizing a WinMo interface. Windows Mobile Louisville took the latest Mobile Shell version, v3.5, for a spin, and I came away with the impression that it rivals HTC’s offering in many respects. And in some areas, Matt Coddington liked SPB Mobile Shell better. The multiple Home screens and widgets remind me of the Google Android interface, while the 3D message viewer is a close cousin to HTC’s solution. However, it appears more functional in terms of taking action on messages.
The extensive review covers much more, and I recommend the read if you’re tired of the basic Windows Mobile look and feel on your handset. SPB Mobile Shell costs $29.95, but you can download a free trial.
Windows: LAlarm uses the USB port or power port of your Laptop as a sensor to detect when your laptop has been disturbed.
While a piece of software is no substitute for keeping your laptop directly in your hands at all times, when it isn’t immediately practical or convenient you can use LAlarm to give you a heads up if your laptop is on the move.
Once installed you can set LAlarm to perform a variety of tasks if your laptop is unplugged from its power cable or the wall, or if the USB drive—which you would need to use a strap to secure to something—is removed from the USB port. What task it will perform is up to you. LAlarm can sound the alarm, literally over your laptops speakers, launch applications, delete files, or recover them. In recovery mode critical files can be sent to you remotely if the thief uses your laptop.
Have your own favorite application for laptop security? Let’s hear about it in the comments. LAlarm is free for personal use and available for Windows only.
The estimated sales for the Pre topped out at 375,000 somewhere in the 810,000 range (Palm sold 810K units last quarter and states most of those where Pres) at the end of August and they went from $299 $199 with contract to about $79 in about eleven weeks. While this might be normal for a feature phone – the subsidy kicks in once they’re sure that the early adopters who simply must have the LG Chocolate have had their fix – this isn’t good for a smartphone that was supposed to be the lead invasion force for a new WebOS smartphone renaissance.
The iPhone and iPod touch make for a convenient quick-look reference tool when you’re using recipes you don’t have a hard copy of. With the arrival of Dropbox for iPhone, those portable screens become really convenient kitchen tools.
You could, of course, always get at recipes searched out on web sites or emailed to you from your iPhone or iPod touch, but that requires a few clicks, and ignores the recipes you may already have stashed on your desktop or laptop computer. If you install Dropbox on your main computer and include your recipes in your synced files—whether by dropping a copy in your “My Dropbox” folder or using a symbolic link to sync any folder—you’ll have a copy of all those recipes in your Dropbox app, and it’s fairly easy to drop more in.
More convenient than just access, though, are the features Dropbox has built-in for cataloging and organizing. The app can read PDFs, Word documents, and HTML files natively, without having to launch another app. Your “recipes” folder gets organized in alphabetical order, and you can quickly mark down your culinary successes with a star for quick access later. Want to share a recipe with a dinner guest who especially loved it? Email it right from Dropbox, and they’ll get your copy of it, not a link they’ll have a hard time searching for later.
My wife maintains a fairly rich collection of recipes grabbed from all sorts of places in a desktop folder, so this is just an observation I made while hooking it up to Dropbox last night. If you’ve got another recommendation for how to make an iPod touch or iPhone into a great kitchen assistant, drop it in the comments.
Mobile apps that help drivers determine traffic patterns aren’t necessarily new but apps that combine crowdsourcing, voice-based traffic reports and entertainment are definitely worth a second look. Aha Mobile is launching a new version of its iPhone app, which takes a voiced-based, non-map-centric approach to real time traffic reports. In August Aha officially launched its free app in a few select cities but today is launching national traffic coverage and is adding a few entertainment and social media features to the app as well.
Aha’s app was designed with driver safety in mind and is fairly simple. You can record and share your own personal traffic reports to help those around you, or listen to a customized traffic channels and reports (Imported from INRIX and Clear Channel) on the roads you travel. The app itself only has four buttons and is safe to use at speeds of 65 miles per hour or less. You can preset the roads into your app before you get on the road, so you can automatically access them without taking your eyes off the road to input the information.
Aha also alerts you to nearby food and drinks; pulling in information from Yelp. But if you want to find a coffee place while you are on the road, Aha will simple pull in the four, top-rated coffee shops nearest to your locations, instead of making you scroll through listings. Aha also pulls in bathroom locations from SitOrSquat and info about the locations of red light or speed cameras from Photoenforced.com.
Crowdsourcing traffic information is another compelling part of the app. With the Aha App, drivers simply tap their iPhone, speak for up to 15 seconds and, without taking their eyes off the road, safely broadcast voice messages, known as Aha Shouts, to drivers nearby. For example, if you witnessed an accident on the 101 highway, you could tape a shout and Aha would store this Shout so that another users could access this information when he or she is driving along the same route.
In fact, the Aha App allows and encourages drivers to Shout about all types of things – from reporting on traffic bottlenecks and speed traps to venting about a crazy driver in the next lane. Or, if drivers just want to listen in and benefit from the information others are sharing, they can do that too.
Drivers can now post Aha Shouts automatically to Twitter and Facebook for others to hear. With Aha’s new Facebook and Twitter integration, drivers can customize which types of Shouts go to each of their social networks. Posts are automatically populated with the type of Shout, the user’s current location and speed (for Traffic Shouts), any text added by the user during set-up, and most importantly a link to play the Shout. One humorous feature of Aha’s app is the “Caraoke” room that lets Aha users record 15 seconds of singing along to any song in the car. Fellow Aha users can see other users’ recordings and you can also publish your “Caraoke” to Twitter or Facebook.
To date, Aha has raised $3 million in Series A funding from Venrock. The startup plans to offer mobile apps for the Android and Blackberry in the Spring of 2010.
Crunch Network: CrunchBoardbecause it’s time for you to find a new Job2.0
I am happy to report that my inability to get Pandora running on the HTC Hero phone I am evaluating has been solved. To recap, Pandora would not appear on the Hero in the Android Market, even though the app is there and could be downloaded on other phones. The community jumped all over this problem, including reps from Pandora and Android, and I now happily have Pandora running on the Hero. The solution involved Pandora supplying a direct download link to me that bypassed the Market.
The reason the Hero couldn’t see Pandora in the Android Market is best summed up by a comment left here by Dan Morill of the Android community:
Pandora has marked their app as “copy protected” in the Android Market. One effect of this is that the app will not be visible to phones that are not recognized as running a final shipping build. (Developer phones are likewise not considered shipping builds and don’t see copy protected apps, so my fellow commenters are essentially right.) Since your Hero is not available in the US, it more or less by definition isn’t shipping, and so most likely HTC has not provided us with the info we need to make copy protected apps visible. Once the Hero is finalized and shipping, copy protected apps will most likely appear.
This seems to be what happened, the Hero I am evaluating was supplied by HTC and while it appears to be a final commercial version of the phone, HTC and Sprint may not have informed everyone that it is no longer a “preliminary” version. I was not aware that apps could be submitted to the Android Market as “copy protected”, which has implications for unlocked phones and those running modded OS builds that have been in the news of late.
Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Vivek Wadhwa, an entrepreneur turned academic. He is a Visiting Scholar at UC-Berkeley, Senior Research Associate at Harvard Law School and Executive in Residence at Duke University. Follow him on Twitter at @vwadhwa.
In my last post, I explained the motherlode of innovation hidden in the huge stacks of patents and discoveries backlogged at our universities and research labs. While entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley trip over each other to create the next iPhone app, they ignore the early-stage discoveries which could lead to the next Internet, a revolutionary memory device, or a cure for infectious diseases. Researchers in university labs find vast numbers of breakthroughs which can better the world. Most of their work never sees the light of day. Hardly 0.1% of all funded basic science research results in a commercial venture.
To boost our economy, we need to bridge this gap and improve the university research commercialization system. Many are working on solutions. Unfortunately, things change slowly in academia and those solutions are years off, at best. In the meantime, there are opportunities for ambitious entrepreneurs to do what some smart VC’s do — tap into this goldmine.
To create a guide for you, I did some brainstorming with Barry Myers, a colleague at Duke University who plays the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde roles of university professor and venture capitalist. A disclaimer on his behalf: Barry would never tell you (unless under the influence of alcohol) to go around the university system but here is our roadmap for finding treasure.
First, pick a field which you are really interested in and spend the time to learn what the science really means. This will be like going back to school. Except you know the importance of what you are studying.
Now let’s be clear about what you are looking for. You will find many ideas in academia, but you want the “propriety ideas” – the ones which VC put in the “proprietary deal flow” category. These are inventions which no one else is aware of (and no one else is bidding on). You need to use your judgment to figure out whether you have one of these nuggets. Ask yourself: If the technology works, will its technical abilities be sufficiently better than anything in the market to make a big impact? If the answer is yes, bet on the technology and run with it. But make sure you have the exclusive. That usually means a materials or biological patent or a process patent that relates to an actual process.
Now let’s go mining. Start by knocking on the front door. All research universities have technology transfer offices which are assigned the task of commercializing research. They manage all of the patents and negotiate licensing deals. Some of these offices are really competent and will help you analyze their portfolio of discoveries. They’ll take the time to explain the value and help you shape your thinking. They will connect you with the inventors and may even team you up with other entrepreneurs and potential investors.
But that’s Fantasy Land. Unfortunately, very few tech transfer offices are like this. Most are staffed by lawyers and bureaucrats whose purpose in life is to squeeze every dime out of a potential licensor while protecting their butts just in case they asked too little and the technology makes it big.
So, you may need to get in through the back door. Universities have departments called “centers” which focus on specific areas of research including entrepreneurship and research commercialization (which are trying to fix the system). For example, at Duke, we have the Center for Research Commercialization and Entrepreneurship (which Barry runs and I am a part of), at Berkeley, Iklaq Sidhu runs the Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology, and at Stanford, Tom Byers runs the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. These centers hold regular events and maintain mailing lists – which are open to anyone. Sign up and attend a few of these meetings. The meetings which feature academics talking about their research can be extremely boring (that’s how researchers are), but just by being there, you will get to meet key faculty and learn what’s going on at the schools. And in most cases, you’ll be the only ones of your kind there (few like you have the time or intellect to sit through these).
If you do hear of some great ideas, ask the faculty if you can learn more over a cup of coffee. Most hard-core academics don’t get to tell their stories to regular human beings and are happy to talk. Go prepared – read all the articles the faculty has written and seem smart. As you start meeting university staff, start asking to find the person(s) who knows everyone at the university and can make things happen for you. You’ll find that every university has two or three people like this. Frequently they hold non-”line” administrative positions (vice dean, associate provost of research, etc.). Find them, buy them coffee and all doors are open.
Students at universities also have entrepreneurship clubs and host events like business plan competitions. The competitions are a total waste – I can’t name one real company which has ever been a winner at one of these. (Everyone cites Akamai, but they actually lost the MIT contest.) But students, particularly PhD researchers, are usually in the know about what’s happening at campus. For example, I met Eli Chait soon after I came to UC-Berkeley and he has been introducing me to faculty and other student groups who are wired into the universities research system. Eli is a senior at the school, works part time at Alsop Louie Partners and heads the entrepreneurship group Startup @ Berkeley (startup.berkeley.edu).
When you do strike gold, then the hard part starts. Negotiating a deal with the tech transfer offices can be painful. They will ask for the world, but be aware that almost everything is negotiable. They will ask for milestone payments, royalties, upfront, patent costs. All of these are negotiable except patent costs (typically $10-50K – earlier, the lower) because this goes into a different bucket and funds further patents. Ownership demands will usually range from 0-5%, and they’ll hit you for around 2.5%-5% royalties. Late stage marketable technologies will draw 10% demand while early stage breakthroughs will only garner perhaps 1%.
If you do find worthwhile inventions, discuss licensing directly with the faculty. Faculty are open to discussion. Don’t encourage them to go around their tech transfer offices — this can create immense amounts of litigation and deferred liability risk. Be honest and open with them and they will generally be honest and open with you in return. They may be protective of their IP but that is natural. They understand the potential value of their work better than anyone else. Protect their interests and guide them through the system (the tech transfer office, term sheets, valuation, options, vesting, etc.).
Become the person who navigates this and they’ll do the world for you. But whether you succeed or fail in your mission, you’ll come out a lot smarter. If everything goes really well, you might change the world. So what do you say – do you want to launch another dumb iPhone app or shoot the moon? I thought so.
Crunch Network: MobileCrunchMobile Gadgets and Applications, Delivered Daily.
Android: When you’re asleep, at an event, or otherwise indisposed, you don’t need your battery-draining data connection, but you might still want to take phone calls. Free Android app APNDroid can selectively turn off your data access while allowing calls.
The app’s design is a clever one, as activating APNdroid from its app button simply activates the on/off switch for GPRS, EDGE, and 3G networks, allowing you to use the APNDdroid icon as a kind of widget on your Android screens. You obviously won’t be able to surf the web or sync Google services while your data services are off, or send MMS messages. You will, however, have basic phone functionality, and your battery will probably live a bit longer without having to keep a data antenna powered at all times. If you need a quick fix but want to keep cellular data services off, you can still switch on Wi-Fi to sync or send an important message.
If they could only make a plug-in so data could be turned on and off by the Locale app, we’d be living in the age of total Android control.
APNdroid is a free download for Android phones only. Be sure to note the developer’s warning: If you’re going to uninstall APNdroid, do it while your data services are on, or else the fake/non-existent Access Point Name the app uses to kill data will stick, and you’ll have to manually switch it back.
Offerpal Media announced a new way to monetize video games by allowing users to earn virtual currency in games in exchange for filling out online surveys.
The Offerpal SURVEYS platform is available for game developers and social media publishers to implement in their games. In these games, users can earn virtual currency by filling out surveys. Those surveys are sponsored by advertisers or market researchers who want to reach certain kinds of users.
Normally, users have to pay for virtual goods, such as more powerful weapons, with real money in games. The SURVEYS platform represents an alternative payment system. It means that gamers who don’t have the money to pay for virtual goods can still do something valuable — filling out surveys — that allows them to earn goods.
Offerpal is making the announcement at the New York Games Conference today. At its launch, developers will be able to monetize using more than 1,000 different surveys available in over 50 countries from top market researchers such as Nielsen NetRatings, comScore, OTX Research, Synovate and others.
Offerpal has done surveys before and they are among the most popular offers, said Anu Shukla, chief executive of Offerpal. The new platform is a stand-alone product that developers can use if they want to focus exclusively on surveys and start making money through them in a matter of minutes. Offerpal’s direct sales staff is constantly adding new survey offers. To date, more than 5 million surveys have been completed through Offerpal and about $12 million has been paid out to publishers as a result of revenue from the offers, Shukla said.
Throughout 2005, the year after the company went public on NASDAQ, Google commissioned multiple research agencies to run analysis on the importance of Internet search and search advertising in purchasing decisions across a variety of verticals. While part of this research – which the company probably still orders considering how important the business continues to be for Google’s bottom line – eventually finds its way to the Google AdWords product page, it’s interesting to gain some insight into what kind of studies the search giant commissioned and which conclusions the research agencies pulled from the data gathered from direct consumer surveys and other means.
Below are some screenshots from internal documents used by Google to gauge the importance of keyword search in purchasing decisions for industries like B2B technology, logistics, travel, healthcare, entertainment and more which we got our hands on. Bare in mind that this data is relatively old, with some of the research going back as far as March 2005. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating look at how Google looks at its own core business and how it apparently uses the information weeded out by research agencies to better market AdWords and related services to the verticals cited above.
Below is a screenshot of a graph used in an internal Google presentation, showing survey data collected by Global Market Insite and Media Screen. The research agencies had conducted 300 web-based interviews with consumers that use the Web to research and/or purchase telecom services. In this case, they demonstrated that portals and retail shopping sites were rarely visited first by the surveyed persons when going online to research telecommunication services. 64% went to a search engine first, double the amount of people who answered that they’d visit the website of a telecom service provider before anything else.
The second chart lifted from the docs reveals the agencies also found that more than 70% of all survey respondents preferred Google for their product searching needs over other engines.
For the Beauty vertical, the survey also yielded some insightful data on which other influential information sources respondents indicated as important to them when purchasing beauty products on the Web. Topping the list were Print (49%) and TV (46%), closely followed by search engines searches and POS displays in stores (both 43%). Sponsored links in search results was surprisingly low in the list, with 12% of respondents saying it’s an important resource for them when buying skin care products, fragrances etc.
Google also researched why people use search engines, in this case with regards to people who browse the Web in search for health-related information. The results are likely similar for most major search engines, but what I found noteworthy – considering the topic of health – is that these persons definitely don’t use search engines primarily because they consider them to be trustworthy or sources for objective information.
Here are some embeds of full documents, namely research conducted on the B2B tech, entertainment and travel verticals.
A door that refuses to stay open is a truly frustrating bit of household disobedience. Snap that door into shape with a pin bend, and learn a few other door fixes while you’re at it.
As fall turns into winter weather for much of the U.S., now’s as good a time as any to look around your house and fix doors that stick, open or close on their own, bend, or otherwise provide an imperfect seal inside a frame. For doors that swing closed or open on their own, Popular Mechanics recommends bending the hinge pin a bit with a hammer (pictured at top-left in our little matrix picture mash-up):
Rather than resetting the hinges or propping it open with a potted plant, remove one of the hinge pins, lay it on a hard surface, and strike it lightly with a hammer until the hinge pin has a slight bend. Tap the pin back in place. The increased friction will keep the door where you want it.
Popular Mechanics has four more fixes at the link, and you’re free to tell us what door annoyances you’ve repaired on your own in the comments.
We haven’t written about StickK, the company that allows you to put a contract on yourself in order to help you commit to improving your lifestyle, since the service was launched back in February 2008. Good thing the company got in touch with us and pointed out they’re doing quite nicely, which gives us a good excuse for an update on them.
StickK was founded by three Yale economists (two professors and a graduate student) and basically allows you to accomplish a goal by setting up a contract against yourself, whether it’s about losing weight, stop biting your nails, writing a novel or whatever else you feel you need to achieve in life. The site takes credit card information up front and charges it on a weekly basis should you fail to meet your self-submitted goal(s). You can designate someone to be your referee — a friend, co-worker or spouse, for example — but in the end, if they fail to do their jobs, StickK.com will take your word for it. The concept is similar to what HealthyWage recently presented on stage at the TechCrunch50 conference.
StickK has been busy raising more funding for the development of the web service. After the founders put in $150,000 of their own cash to get started, the New York-based company went on to raise two rounds totaling an amount north of $2 million from a pool of investors. That brings the total investment in the company to about $2.2 million to date.
User numbers are trending upwards too, fortunately for the upstart (I’m sure it was one of their own goals). When the company launched in February 2008, it grew to 4,000 users by the end of the month and now counts 42,000 registered members. Users so far have entered into 28,000 contracts, and put almost $3 million on the line for their commitments. StickK claims the system is working, too: users are said to be 80% successful when financial stakes, a Referee, and Anti-Charity are utilized.
StickK is now thinking of ways to monetize the service with a B2B offering. The freshly launched stickK.com Corporate Portal offers companies, schools, gyms, health insurance agencies etc. a chance to set up a co-branded version of stickK where customized goals can be designed to achieve wellness and corporate performance-related initiatives. The idea is that corporations could use the platform to drive down healthcare costs while at the same time increasing worker productivity.
As I said, the concept reminds me a lot of HealthyWage, which was one of the startups I was most impressed with at TechCrunch50. I really think it’s a model that works – I like the idea of financial incentives for achievements that have a positive effect on people’s lifestyle and ultimately, society – and I’m very curious to see how much growth these and other companies in this space have in them.
Crunch Network: CrunchBoardbecause it’s time for you to find a new Job2.0
iMeem may go down in the history books as the little company that could. The service morphed from an instant-messaging centric social network into a widget service to a full on music streaming service (read an early post by us on iMeem here). Over the years they’ve been close to shutting down more than once. And yet, they’re still here, and still fighting.
Now we’ve been able to confirm some of the rumors around that financing. As suspected it was a recapitalization, which means that earlier investors were mostly wiped out. A recap is a difficult pill to swallow, but once it’s completed a company can get a fresh start. And, importantly, current employees get refreshed stock options and an incentive to continue the fight.
The company raised around $6 million in fresh capital, we’ve heard from multiple sources. Most of the new cash came from existing investor Morgenthaler Ventures. Sequoia Capital and other early investors declined to participate, and so their ownership percentages dropped to miniscule levels. Warner Music also participated in the round, we’ve confirmed, likely by dropping in cash that was immediately returned to them for past debt or future royalty commitments.
The company was valued at around $6 million prior to the funding, meaning new investors took 50% or so of the company in the round. That’s a highly dilutive funding, but it gives iMeem a new lease on life. And if rumors are true, the company may have found a business model that works for them (we outlined that business model here). Profitability, albeit at a low burn rate, may hit sometime next year.
Crunch Network: MobileCrunchMobile Gadgets and Applications, Delivered Daily.
Smart Materials in Architecture — Using thermal bimetals can allow architects to experiment with shape-changing buildings, Ritter said. Thermal bimetals include a combination of materials with different expansion coefficients that can cause a change in. Under changing temperatures this can lead one side of a compound to bend more than the other side, potentially creating an entirely different shape, he said. A little impractical at the moment, but think of it as hackers experimenting with what’s possible, iterating to find the fit between materials possibility and customer need. (via Liminal Existence)
Google OCR API — The server will attempt to extract the text from the images; creating a new Google Doc for each image. Experimental at this stage, and early users report periodic crashes. Still, it’s a useful service. I wonder whether they’re seeing how people correct the scan text and using that to train the OCR algorithms. (via Waxy)
My O’Reilly Podcast: Dan Meyer — I’m not pimping this because it’s O’Reilly (O’R do heaps of stuff I don’t mention) but because it’s the astonishingly brilliant Dan Meyer. For everything it does well, the US model of math education conditions students to anticipate narrowly defined problems with narrowly prescribed solutions. This puts them in no place to anticipate the ambiguous, broadly defined, problems they’ll need to solve after graduation, as citizens. This webcast will define two contributing factors to this intellectual impatience and then suggest a solution.
I knew the glory days of Friendster were behind them, but I didn’t know things were this bad. The company is proudly announcing a partnership with Washington based people search company Intelius this evening. The goal, they say, is “to provide a more robust and comprehensive user search experience on Friendster and to power people searches originating on Friendster with results from across the web.”
I’ve emailed Friendster for clarification on whether or not they plan on exposing their users to Intelius’ very questionable monetization practices. Because if they are this desperate for revenue, it’s a sign that Friendster is in very serious trouble indeed.
Crunch Network: CrunchBoardbecause it’s time for you to find a new Job2.0
Sharing its translations strategy is not a completely altruistic move. By offering free translations in exchange for using Facebook Connect, Facebook can expand its reach and deter companies from using other competing ID systems.
It also can start collecting more substantial amounts of data on how people translate language, which it could then feed into translation algorithms later. In contrast, Google has relied on programs, rather than humans, for translation efforts. Then again, it has a extraordinarily rich data set to extrapolate rules from with book search and pretty much every translated site on the web. Facebook just has its own interface to pull translation data from, but it could have much more with all the mundane and colloquial conversations happening every day on the site.
Social natural language processing is (in a sense) in its infancy. We hope to capture aspects of its evolution, just as the ﬁeld comes to better describe and understand ongoing changes in human languages. We expect more ﬁne-grained analyses to follow, using our framework to compare and contrast a variety of languages (from Bantu to Balinese) and phenomena (inside jokes, cross-linguistic usage of l33t and txt msg terms).
TripIt, which aggregates people’s travel arrangements from various web sites into one web itinerary, is rolling out a referral program today that lets developers who build apps on top of its API receive a 10-20 percent cut of the sales from its TripIt Pro premium subscription service. The San Francisco-based startup released TripIt Pro, which offers customers real-time flight information for $69 a year, in June.
More than 250 developers are using TripIt’s API to build web and mobile apps, according to founder and President Gregg Brockway. Though the company offers a free iPhone application, its API is also used by developers on other mobile platforms and travel applications, and by online address book and social network service Plaxo. TripIt also developed an application for LinkedIn last year.
If it seems like it’s been twice as hard to raise money for renewable projects this year compared to 2007, that’s because it has been. At the Renewable Energy Finance Forum in San Francisco on Tuesday, John Eber, managing director at investment bank JP Morgan, said tax-equity financing for renewable energy is expected to total $2.5-$2.6 billion this year, down from $3.6 billion last year, and from $6 billion in 2007. Tax-equity financing is based on the exchange of tax credits, so it’s no wonder it has plummeted in a market where profits – and therefore taxes high enough to make use of tax credits for renewable-energy projects – are harder to come by.
However, federal cash grants, which will enable renewable projects to get money in lieu of tax credits and were approved back in February, could definitely help fill the tax-equity gap. Eber said “The vast majority of projects are going to [want to] use the grant.” However, there have been a variety of complications that have kept many clean power projects from being eligible for the grants.
Among the biggest problems, Keith Martner, a partner at law firm Chadbourne & Parke, explained, is that four types of investors are disqualified from owning part of a project eligible for the grants. “Projects backed by private-equity funds will not receive cash grants unless there is a corporation between the … fund and the project,” he said. Another issue has been a lack of clarity about some of the requirements. For example, construction must begin, or projects must be completed, in 2009 or 2010, but some confusion remains about when projects can be considered to have begun construction, Martner said.
Even if the program is tweaked so that investors aren’t disqualified, the clock is ticking as the grants are set to expire in 2010. Martner thinks there’s a “decent chance” the program will be extended, but added that any such extension would be unlikely to happen before late 2010 – at the earliest – “because the government likes the stimulative effect of a deadline.” The drawback to having a short deadline and an uncertain extension is that it makes it difficult to plan for larger, longer-term projects.
So far, the majority of the projects that have been approved for grants are already up and running, according to Martner. The Treasury received 240 applications for cash grants as of Sept. 18, of which 178 were for projects already in service and 62 were for projects already under construction. The Treasury has authorized $1.05 billion for 40 projects so far. Most of that grant money — $970 million — has been allocated for wind projects, with less than 1 percent going into solar projects so far.
It’s been a long and winding road for serial volunteer and social media philanthropist Sloane Berrent.
Since her unplanned departure from an L.A.-based startup in 2008, Berrent has traveled through eight countries, documenting and publicizing the struggles of those in developing areas through her blog posts, tweets, images, videos, and her own presence at events at home and abroad. From post-Katrina New Orleans to a trash dump in Manila to a monastery in Burma, read on for her story of trying to achieve social good through social media.
RWW: “Social media for social good” has become the catchphrase du jour, it seems. What does it actually mean; how much can social media users affect social change, and how?
I am a strong believer in the idea that the things you do online are meant to facilitate your offline interactions. People are so fast to click a button, and that can be great. Retweeting, forwarding, and Facebook walls are great engagements. But what’s more difficult is the donate button. That’s the big hurdle and disconnect. I’m trying to provide these inspirational opportunities in timeboxed campaigns. Social media is slowly catching on, but there’s a lot of noise. Standing out is hard; it’s important to have an offline component.
Berrent was visibly disturbed by what she witnessed at this Manila trash dump, where she saw shoeless children running through piles of debris.
RWW: Tell me about your experiences with Kiva borrowers. What kinds of people and enterprises have you seen? In your opinion, does microlending have a measurable impact on struggling local economies?
Kiva is really unique. It has a lot of power users – more than any nonprofit I’ve ever seen. One man has made a thousand loans. It’s individual stories, and people really connect. You get updates on that person, and people say it’s their favorite email of the month. As a microlending company, Kiva is one spoke in the larger wheel of microfinance. On a global scale, it has a very big impact.
Typically, when you go to a village or province, certain industries are prevalent. In a fishing community, maybe the borrower bought a fishnet or a fishing boat. In an area with a lot of bamboo, it’s going to be crafts. I worked in eleven branch offices. I met over 40 different female borrowers individually and over 250 in my time there.
I can see that the money Kiva provides makes a difference. Microfinance is a very slow process, and there are gems and sparks of people who break through the poverty cycle. When you see villages changing, it’s really something. It’s like watching grass grow, but it’s really beautiful grass.
RWW: Now you’re working on a seven-day, seven-city tour to raise awareness and funds for malaria prevention through bed nets. Where did this idea come from?
I’d just finished Kiva training, and I was going to the Philippines for three months. And all I could think was, “When I come back, I’m going to be thirty.” I’ve honed in a lot on my direction – using the Internet to help people. And what if I could use this opportunity to give back, involving people in different parts of the country – something really ambitious?
I wanted it to be about saving lives. I wanted to say, “I saved this many lives on my birthday.” I’ve done a lot of work in HIV and AIDS; I looked into that and polio and malaria, and that’s what stuck with me. The campaign has no administrative fees. One hundred percent of the funds go to malaria… in rural northern Ghana. Providing malaria nets will really be a part of saving lives there.
Berrent met this monk in Burma and spent the afternoon pagoda-hopping with him.
RWW: What needs or gaps do you see in philanthropic efforts online?
I think it’s not having a strategy to begin with, not knowing the tools in your toolbox before you start. There’s a lot to be said for jumping in and having fun, but nonprofits don’t have the resources to play around online. They think it’s about getting interns and getting followers and fans without figuring out why a medium is important and how to make it successful for them.
RWW: What’s one surprise – good or bad – that you’ve come across since you started working with Kiva? What did you not expect from this experience, and what did you learn?
I learned that it’s much more complicated than the website makes it seem. There’s an entire division devoted to foreign exchange currency. The operational cost analysis, the challenges of technology in the developing world, the processes of remittance – it’s incredibly complex. There are regional specialists. On the site, you can make a loan in five clicks, but a lot of machinery comes together to make it that way.
RWW: What’s next for you? Is there more globe-trotting in your immediate future? how do you think the web will continue to be part of your life and career?
One of the best parts of this past year has been that I’ve gone through long periods where I didn’t have Internet access. That’s brought me a heightened and renewed sense of my purpose in the world and my authentic desire to make the world a better place. I’d like to be able to continue to support campaigns – even for-profit ventures – that I believe in, and I think social business is a wonderful intersection of the two.
I want to explore avenues with online and offline components, while continuing to blog and tell stories I’m passionate about.
And all this is just the tip of the iceburg that is Sloane Berrent’s fascinating story. For a fuller look at her travels and timeline, check out this list of her nine favorite blog posts from the past six months, covering humanitarianism, her work in New Orleans, the phenomenon of serendipity in international travel, and much more.
Earlier tonight, Xobni quietly released, at least to some users, a new version of its Outlook plug-in that brings Twitter streams into your email in an intelligent way. Instead of acting like any other Twitter client and showing you the full stream of everyone you follow, it shows you only the recent Tweets of the person whose email you are reading, whether or not you follow them on Twitter. (A Xobni blog post went up briefly about it and then was taken down, but not before I was able to grab the screenshot at right).
Instead of replicating Twitter outright, it shows you the Tweets in the context of an email to help you learn more about the person with whom you are communicating. This is consistent with the way Xobni brings up similar information about a contact from Facebook or LinkedIn or Skype. If you don’t know the person, it gives you some more context. If you do, it gives you something personal to talk about. (Threadsy, which launched at this year’s TC50, also shows Tweets in context alongside emails).
With both the full Facebook stream and now Twitter built into the product, chances are you’ll see what each contact has been doing recently. Xobni also lets you reply via Twitter, and follow a contact from within its application.
One of Xobni’s investors is Vinod Khosla, who told me a few weeks ago that Xobni is getting “great traction.” I’ve since heard that the product is approaching 3 million downloads.
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