CeBIT: Four U.S. Companies Among 50 Finalists in Innovation Contest

 
 
By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-03-05
 
 
 

CeBIT: Four U.S. Companies Among 50 Finalists in Innovation Contest


HANNOVER, Germany—One of the much-anticipated events at the CeBIT show in Hannover is the presentation of the Code _n awards. Unfortunately, I've never actually seen this presentation because it takes place on the final day of the show—long after I've returned to Washington.

But I'm not sure it matters very much who wins, although the winner does stand to win a quarter of a million euros in crowd-sourced funding. The real question is whether these seemingly prestigious awards are really rewarding innovation. After a visit to the spot at this vast trade show where the finalists show their wares, I have to wonder if the definition of innovation has changed.

Four of the finalists in this global competition are from the U.S. Although it's safe to say that the ideas are interesting, just how innovative they are is another question.

One of the four is the Elf, from Organic Transit in Durham, N.C. The Elf is a delivery or commuting cycle with electric assist. In other words, when the going gets tough, the Elf gets some help with an electric motor and battery. The Elf has solar cells on its roof to help charge the battery. It's marketed as a transit solution that also helps your overall level of fitness.

Another finalist, the PICOwatt from Tenrehte Technologies, is a WiFi-enabled device that plugs into your wall outlet. You then plug other devices, such as computers or television sets into that. The PICOwatt device has its own Web page that lets you examine how much power your devices are consuming, even while they're turned off.

The company points out that even when such devices are off they're still frequently consuming power. With the PICOwatt, you can see how much, and you can set the device to turn off the power completely. Of course, many electronic devices consume power for a reason, such as maintaining their memory, or in the case of computers, so they can be awakened remotely for tasks such as backup.

Third on the alphabetical list of U.S. finalists is Spindrift Energy, from Simi Valley, Calif. Spindrift has developed a vastly simplified means of harnessing wave energy. While the energy available in ocean waves has been known for some time, devices that would turn this motion into electrical energy have been inefficient and trouble-prone.

Worse, more than a few have been built on the theory that ocean waves are actually moving in one direction or another. The thing is, ocean waves don't move. What moves is the energy they contain. Spindrift has developed a device based on a venturi tube and a turbine that takes advantage of how wave action actually works to generate power. In the process, their device has only three moving parts.

CeBIT: Four U.S. Companies Among 50 Finalists in Innovation Contest


Then there's Sustainable Reference from San Francisco, which attempts to promote energy-saving and sustainability through the use of a platform where companies and individuals can trade sustainability ideas. The idea behind the Sure! Service from Sustainable Reference is that you can somehow accumulate sustainability points that you can use to make people like you, get discounts on products and promote sustainable products so people can buy them. This idea isn't, as far as I can tell, actually operating beyond the what-if stage.

With the exception of Spindrift Energy, which has developed a device that is truly innovative, and could someday actually become a useful and effective means of recovering energy from ocean waves, one has to wonder how these companies and the products and services they espouse could become winners in a global innovation contest.

Bicycles with batteries and electric motors have been around for decades. All that's happened with the Elf is to put a solar cell on the roof. Is that really innovative? People have been using solar cells in similar applications for years. During my time running a lab in Hawaii, I saw many examples of boats with solar cells that were used to power electric motors that drove the boats. How is this different (other than the type of conveyance) than an electric tricycle? Where is the innovation?

Take a look at PICOwatt for a similar example. Power monitors have been around for years. They have communicated with management stations for years. The main argument the company makes is that by using the product you can save money by turning off electronic equipment that otherwise uses power. But it doesn't answer the significant question of deciding what electronic equipment you can turn off (phone chargers that aren't charging anything, for example) and those that should not be turned off even if they do draw power (Wake-on-LAN computers, for example).

And then there's Sure! From Sustainable Reference, which says that, "Cities put a lot of money into sustainable programs or certifications that are boring or old-fashioned." But even a conversation with founder Andy Backer failed to explain how he would actually put his idea into practice, except through a wholesale revision of the national economy.

Is one actual innovative product or concept of a product out of four U.S. entries a good record? In one sense, it is. As has always been the case, there are a lot more would-be innovators than actual innovations. On the other hand, getting people to hand you large amounts of money for ideas that aren't new—or are so vague that it's hard to tell if they're innovative—is an unpleasant echo of the 1990s. Isn't this why we had the tech bust back in the early 2000s?

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