Tech Innovators Learn How To Avoid Washing Out

Dirty laundry. Household nuisance for you and me. Catalyst for Internet technology innovation for a few others.

Pennsylvania-based is experimenting with Internet-connected washing machines in the dormitories of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Students can check online for washing machine availability and receive e-mail alerts from newly vacated machines. No joke.

This wash-net typifies a trend I’ve noticed in recession-era innovation. It’s smart, practical and potentially profitable.

Gloom far outweighs glory in today’s high-tech headlines, but don’t despair. Lessons learned from the dot-com fallout — or perhaps just tenets rediscovered — seem to be top-of-mind for today’s smarter breed of innovators.

People Power

To-do’s and never-again-to-do’s from the tech sector boom and bust probably number in the thousands. But let’s focus on three that seem to be circulating among today’s sharpest minds.

Lesson No. 1: a good idea won’t go anywhere without good people to execute it.

The seed of a company is usually a flash of brilliance packaged into a promising idea. But as we witnessed countless times in the past couple of years, the demise of a company is often due to leaders heavy on vision and light on execution.

Translation: Don’t expect to see many teenage chief executives in the near future.

Chips ‘n Wit

Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG) is one company trying to put a good idea into the hands of arguably the best executer on the market — MIT.

In 1999, Procter & Gamble funded the launch of the Auto-ID Center at MIT, where ongoing research focuses on creating the smallest, cheapest and smartest microcomputers that can be embedded into physical objects, like soda cans, cereal boxes and sneakers.

These chips would transmit sensory and identification data over the Internet and potentially bring unprecedented efficiency to worldwide commerce.

A brilliant idea. And one that’s sure not to leave MIT’s labs on a grand scale until it’s economically viable. Proctor & Gamble, along with co-sponsors Coca Cola (NYSE: KO), Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ), Gillette (NYSE: G) and others, will make sure of it.

Ready, Aim …

Lesson No. 2: Customer needs must drive idea creation, not a pre-occupation with technology.

Take the MIT washing machine example as a microcosmic illustration of this lesson. Students express the need to skip the trip to the laundry room to check for open machines. Networking the machines addressed this need.

Whether the designers of the e-mailing washing machines will be able to devise a scalable business model by which they get compensated remains to be seen. But the basic idea likely stemmed directly from the expressed customer need.

Boundary Busting

The research laboratories of Sun Microsystems (Nasdaq: SUNW) claim all of their efforts are aimed squarely at customer cravings.

Sounds simple enough, if not a forgone conclusion. Just look at the roster of departed startups that tried to bend customer behavior around trendy technology — and failed.

Fact is, real customer needs may spawn technology solutions infinitely more advanced than if they were devised in a vacuum.

Goop’s On

Dr. Jim Mitchell, vice president and director at Sun Laboratories, told attendees at a recent tradeshow that he can imagine a day when doctors’ patients will swallow a “gray goop” containing tiny sensors that will relay vital gastrointestinal data to health care facilities via the Internet.

Beats a physical exam, that’s for sure.

Sound like Star Trek? If customers drive us where no solution has gone before, then so be it, Mitchell would likely say. And he’d be right.

Wake Up Call

Lesson No. 3: Company value should be measured in revenue, customers and profits, not bodies, page views and Super Bowl ads.

Nowadays, once an idea evolves into a sapling corporation, it will have to live up to standards that were temporarily repealed during the IPO parade of 1999. Innovators need to acknowledge this reality, long before the first clouds of a brainstorm.

Sun Laboratories offers this grounding statement on its Web site: “Even though our research may push the boundaries of what is possible, we work hard to keep our development focused on what is practical and profitable.”

Technology startups must now view venture capital as leverage to profitability, not as a long-term lifeline.

What a difference a year makes.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

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