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The 3D Printing Landfill Of Opportunity


There are lots of reasons to love 3D printing. It democratizes manufacturing, putting consumers in granular control of the things they own — rather than requiring them to choose from a finite pre-made selection.

The additive manufacturing technology also extrudes a bridge linking creativity and utility. You can turn a sketch on paper into a 3D object that can be held, turned, admired. You can clone a cherished object you already own to create a spare. Or print a spare part to fix something that’s broken. And you can do all this without having to send off for third-party assistance. So long as you have the skills to use the 3D design software or the 3D scanner, a 3D printer and a suitable physical substance to feed into your personal making machine.

However there’s a flip-side to this freedom. The detritus that will inevitably be created simply because it’s possible to print a physical object at the click of a button. Many 3D printed objects used to demo the potential of the tech are effectively just trinkets — the kind of throwaway trash you get in the average Christmas cracker.

That will hopefully change — as 3D printers (and the materials they use) get better and more capable, meaning the quality of the the output increases, and (hopefully) the utility, longevity and sustainability of the objects printed will too. And indeed as consumers find genuine real-world utility for 3D printing. But in the short term the rise of cheaper 3D printers is going to fuel a boom in sub par machines that churn out cheap plastic trash. Just because they can.

Nasa testing 3D printed metal rocket engine components is one interesting example where additive manufacturing technology has the potential to reduce the associated costs (and waste) of traditional manufacturing. But that’s an in industrial use-case at the very high end of the price spectrum.

At the consumer product level, humanity already has a massive waste problem when it comes to plastics. We use too much plastic. We throw far too much away. Plastic already contaminates huge tracts of land and ocean. And the rise in ownership of low cost consumer 3D printers risks sparking a new boom for the stuff – reeling in spools of shiny coloured filament to gratify our magpie appetites.

It’s not necessarily as simplistic as that though. Mass uptake of consumer 3D printers might end up displacing and replacing the production of some cheap plastic trash – by devaluing some of the pre-made baubles consumes can currently buy in 99 cent stores and the like. Why buy a novelty plastic keyring when you can print one that has your own face on it? So the plastic mountain that’s fueling that landfill-generating class of products might end up being diverted to the 3D printer market, where there is at least a better chance of the end-user wanting to hold on to the trinket they’ve made — since whatever they printed was customised to their personal preferences.

But the risk is still that people print disposable things just because they can. And that more and more of this transient stuff gets conjured into existence — requiring us or our environment to deal with its disposal. To reiterate, the risk is that a new mountain of electro-generated junk is created by a new generation of machines that fuel our appetite for a contaminating material exactly when we should be trying to pare back our usage of it.

Indeed, this post was triggered by being sent what can only be described as a abject waste of plastic, by a company hoping to use it to highlight its capabilities. This 3D printed PR object was a customised ‘designer’ plastic egg — pictured above and below in a wastebin for illustrative purposes (I’m attempting to return it to the company in question so they can recycle the plastic). So basically instead of emailing a digital press release, this company’s marketing spend generated a lump of pointless plastic trash. That’s exactly what this fledgling space needs to avoid.

It’s worth noting that different kinds of 3D printer filament do already exist — and PLA filament, for example, is compostable and biodegradable (being made from plant starch). But it still generates the greenhouse gas methane as it decomposes. Meanwhile the common ABS filament is petroleum based — ergo it’s non-biodegradable (although it can be recycled).

There are some 3D-printing related counter-currents to a future increasingly contaminated with increasing quantities of plastic waste. One interesting development last year was a 3D printer that uses slices of paper (combined with glue) as its fuel for building up a 3D object. If the glue being used was non-toxic and water-based that could provide an interesting alternative to producing transient 3D objects from plastic filament, which could ultimately be recycled along with your standard household paper waste.

Another effort on the 3D printing materials side, called Laywood, is a filament made by a German company that’s comprised of 40% recycled wood (combined with binder polymers so it can be flexible enough during the print process). It’s unclear exactly what the polymers are but the use of recycled wood could provide a substitute for some petroleum-based filament.

On the plastic filament side, there’s Filabot — a plastic upcycler designed to let a consumer turn their own household trash into plastic filament for using in their 3D printer. So the home 3D printer could conceivably help reduce general household waste by repurposing it and giving it a second life around the home — keeping it out of landfill in the process and generating a more virtuous circle/cycle of plastics usage.

There are also charitable efforts to encourage the manufacture of ethically produced, recycled plastic filament for use as standard in 3D printers — providing an income for plastic pickers in developing countries who remove existing plastic waste from the environment and process what is a negative environmental contaminant for positive utility in the 3D printing economy.

We’re going to need a whole lot more innovative projects like these coming up with creative ways to reuse, recycle, upcycle and reduce our reliance on plastics as 3D printers proliferate. The good news is that additive manufacturing allows for more flexibility in what we produce and how we produce it. So the opportunity is certainly there. Now we just need the ideas.

Over to you.

Hat-tip to my TC colleague, Steve O’hear, for the title of this post

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The Not-So-Secret Language Of The Misfit Shine


Here’s a random tidbit about the Misfit Shine, the activity tracker from Misfit Wearables.

I ran into CEO Sonny Vu about a week ago, and when he pulled a Misfit Shine out of his bag, he pointed out something that no one seems to have noticed. Or if they noticed it, they didn’t say anything about it online.

It’s been there since the Shine launched last year, on the back of the packaging, right below the Arabic. What’s that weird language there? Apparently, anyone who saw the “KL” label assumed that it stood for Kuala Lumpur (which is not a country or a language, but, okay).

Nope. It’s Klingon. Vu explained via email, “The alternative was Elvish but we didn’t know any reasonably solid speakers.”

It’s a funny idea, if you have the right (nerdy) sense of humor. And hey, translating “I am Shine, your physical activity monitor. You can wear me anywhere. Tap me for your progress and the time.” into Klingon probably required less effort than, say, creating the Klingon Hamlet.

There was a tradeoff, however. In order to make the room for the Klingon text, the company had to get rid of Russian. “Which, in retrospect, we probably shouldn’t have done,” Vu admitted — it made things a little awkward a few weeks later when Misfit was approached by the company that eventually became its Russian partner. Vu pointed out that even though the language was removed from the packaging, the app and the website have been translated into Russian.

“We’re now sold in 32 countries, not including Qo’noS,” he said.

[photo by Susan Hobbs]

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In Digital Health, Does Nike Have A Path To Victory After Fuelband?


Editor’s Note: Semil Shah works on product for Swell, is a TechCrunch columnist, and an investor at Haystack. He blogs at Haywire, and you can follow him on Twitter at @semil.

This past week, conflicting reports about Nike leaked, suggesting either big changes or outright abandonment of its high-profile Fuelband line. For those focused on the intersection of digital health, wellness, mobile startups, and wearable technologies, a move by Nike, one of the world’s most iconic brands and visible companies, will be examined under the microscope. With the news swirling about the future of Fuelband, chatter has focused on the prospects for wearable hardware moving forward and what moves Nike makes as a result. Will they acquire a new team to rethink Fuelband? Will Nike instead attempt to connect items that they already sell? Will they just focus on mobile software, and if so, how will they get the data and distribution? The answers to these questions may help us all sort through how technology startups in this space may best position themselves moving forward.

As reports conflict with company statements so far, I’ll lay out their two scenarios and briefly discuss what options could make sense:

Keep The Fuelband, Change The Team: To Nike, having user data is important, so there’s a decent rationale here. Well, good luck. There are very few teams in the world that can build fully-integrated hardware and software products, and this is in part why Google shelled out over $3Bn for Nest and wired about $1Bn of that directly to Tony Fadell, who had learned his craft under Steve Jobs at Apple. Companies like Jawbone have now reached an orbit and breadth of offerings which would make an acquisition difficult to swallow for Nike. Smartwatch makers, like Pebble, likely have too much upside ahead of them to concede at this moment.

Abandon The Fuelband, Focus On Software And Services: Makes sense on the surface, but I’ll contend again that Nike needs to access user data in order to provide these services. The Fuelband was their data capture vehicle, so without that device, Nike could either (A) build out its own branded software-focused products across iOS and Android, focused on the application layer, but there they’d be competing with (B) a number of health and fitness apps which already have distribution, consumer attention, communities, and data. (For more on this and the startups in this space, click here to see a great Twitter conversation I had this morning with Barry Graubert and Arjun Ram.)

These aren’t the only scenarios for Nike, a $65Bn company. Back in December 2012, Nike announced a partnership with TechStars to leverage the company’s existing technologies. It’s very possible Nike had already considered these scenarios years ago in inking such deals, and those relationships likely provided the insights to eventually plan for a mobile software-focused strategy. If eventually Nike moves away from hardware (which I think they will), it will have started out with an Apple-like strategy of being vertically-integrated between its own hardware and software offering and potentially will end up with a Google-like approach focused on mobile software and services. Additionally here, Nike can take advantage of the onslaught of off-the-shelf sensors hitting the market and mobile hardware advancements (like Apple’s M7 motion sensor in the iPhone) to create the next great mobile health and wellness service. Or, maybe Nike will elect to eventually take a Facebook-like portfolio approach and focus on buying products to access user data? It’s no longer a crazy idea.

While all of this is easy to chart out on the whiteboard or a blog post, an ominous storm looms over the horizon for Nike and their desire to crack this space. While they were figuring out Fuelband and investing in the startup ecosystem via TechStars, a handful of small, scrappy, focused startups (isn’t this always the case?) have been aggressively building health and wellness mobile products and communities for the mass consumer market. in the context of user data and graphs, startups like FitBit, Jawbone, Runkeeper, Fitocracy, and others have a terrific chance to own the space inbetween the consumer and his/her data. For instance, Runkeeper, a startup focused entirely on building software products for the running community, has been one of the first teams to take advantage of the M7 sensor in the iPhone and deliver more value to its loyal base — and this week, they announced yet another app to their suite, Breeze, which tracks a user’s steps. It sounds cliche, but small, dedicated, driven teams focused on these seemingly narrow challenges and opportunities are more likely to find the speck of white space to leverage current technologies and build incremental value for their users. And, if that is an immutable law of small teams versus big corporations, in the world of consumer health and wellness, Nike is presented with a complex challenge in order to preserve its self-proclaimed association with victory.

Photo Credit: Vernon Chan / Flickr Creative Commons

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Crowdfunded Gadgets That Talk To Your Home And Charge Your Phone With Wind Power


Editor’s note: Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a technology, media and telecom advisory firm, and founder of Backerjack. He blogs at Techspressive. Each week, Backerjack shares three tech-related products seeking funding. 

Talk to your home and have it listen and respond with ALYT

Part of the smart-home dream has always been being able to talk with a place of residence and trust it to control climate, security and sense problems. Of course, for as long as smart-home technology has been developed, it’s been reaching toward this goal without ever getting there.

ALYT is an Android-powered hub that looks like the solution to these problems. By being an open platform operating on just about every imaginable form of wireless data, ALYT allows for voice and video recognition to control virtually any aspect of a home – as long as developers create an app for it. Compatible with iOS, Android, Bluetooth, NFC, Z-Wave, 3.5G and more, the flexibility of the ALYT system opens it up to all kinds of innovative development.

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Open-Me gives you 24-hour garage door access from anywhere

Homeowners constantly have to ask themselves questions about the state they left things in. Is the oven on? Is the front door locked? Did I close the garage door when I left? Now with a combination of some hardware and an app, that last question is a question no longer.

Open-Me is a sonar sensor that can be placed on a garage door that hooks up to a home Wi-Fi network. By checking the app, users can determine if their garage door is open by even as little as a foot, and open or close it remotely. Additionally, using GPS, the app can be adjusted to open automatically when the synced phone or tablet is within a user-determined distance, and to close automatically once that device travels outside of that range.

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Trinity is a miniature wind turbine to keep your gadgets charged

We’ve all been there. Our phones die and we have no access to an outlet. When in public, there’s always the option of trolling for one in a Starbucks, but for those out camping or hiking, there’s little hope.

Trinity is a portable wind turbine power system with USB and micro USB ports. The micro USB port is used to charge the turbine before it can be uses with a 15,000 mAh battery. The mini turbine is powered by a 15W generator. It has three legs that fold out either into a tripod shape or flat on the ground. Trinity is white and the body is 12” long with 11” legs.

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Who Gets Into Accelerators? Persistent Men With SaaS Apps, Says Study


What kind of startups get into Accelerators? Well, according to new research, it’s startups with around 2-3 founders, most male, often SaaS platforms and ones who are persistent, applying for at least two programs. And on average, less than 4% of applicants ever make it in.

Those are the findings of new research from F6S, a web portal which allows startups to apply for multiple accelerator programs, as well as offering other services, such as aggregating deals and advertising jobs.

F6S found that, on average, 3.98% of applicants to the 1,564 Accelerator programs that ran their application process through F6S between February 2013 to February 2014, were accepted into Accelerator programs. The results are based on 62,262 applications from over 150,000 founders in 95 countries.

Of course, these are F6S’s figures and don’t take into account applications to accelerators that were not run through it’s platform. However, these are high figures, and acceptance rates gleaned in different ways are rarely available in the same way.

The stats show that it’s not necessarily easier to get into an accelerator program in one country versus another, as the regional acceptance rates were competitive overall and varied broadly, ranging from:

-3.78% in the United States
-3.67% in Europe
-5.09% in South America
-5.12% in Asia
-5.38% in Australia/New Zealand.

That said, the overall acceptance rates for Accelerators ranged from a low of 0.41% (roughly 1 in 244) to a high of 55% (roughly 1 in 2). It’s not known which accelerator(s) had such a high acceptance rate.

The difficulty of getting into the top programs may gradually be eased by the fact that there is now a wide proliferation of vertical accelerators in areas such as healthcare, transportation etc. Anecdotally, verticals may be easier than broad-brush ones that have big public profiles.

In terms of make-up, F6S found that the Startups that apply and successfully enter Accelerators, on average, appear to have 2-3 founders and are overwhelmingly male. The figures were almost exactly the same for unsuccessful applicants. The exact figures were: 2.3 founders (vs. 1.9 founders for rejected startups) and founders that are 86.8% Male and 13.2% Female (vs. 85.2% Male and 14.8% Female for rejected startups).

The study’s results may well raise a few questions. Either low numbers of women founders are applying for accelerators, or the gate-keepers for accelerators are somewhat closed-minded — or a combination of both.

The top 10 industry areas for startups that are successful in getting into Accelerators are:

- Web Applications/SaaS 36%
- Mobile 15.3%
- Media 12.4%
- Marketing 12.3%
- E-Commerce 9.2%
- Data and Analytics 8.9%
- Advertising 8.8%
- Social Networking 7.6%
- Entertainment 7.5%
- Education 6.7%

Many successful applicants failed multiple times before they got a place in an Accelerator. The startups that were accepted had tried an average of 3.34 programs on F6S, while unsuccessful applicants took a shot at only 1.8 programs. In other words, try at a couple more and you might get in. Persistence wins.

We asked F6S if they thought the 3.98% average acceptance rate they’d come up with was below or above industry averages, or about right?

Sean Kane, F6S Co-Founder (with Jon Bradford, who happens to also lead TechStars London) thinks: “The range of acceptance levels from a low of 0.41% up to double digit rates is interesting me as well as an indicator of the diversity in the sector and the entrance of new Accelerators that are still building towards a competitive program.”

Kane added: “These results not only provide the first global view of who gets into an Accelerator, but also support key lessons we’ve learned as an ecosystem — like success is a group effort and the only way to win is to fail along the way.”

F6S claims that that about 90% of Accelerators globally, including two-thirds of the top fifteen programs, use the platform to take applications, manage community and select successful applicants. Among the top 15 they name are TechStars, AlphaLab, Capital Innovators and The Brandery.

F6S says over 250,000 founders and 47,000 startups globally used its site to access free deals from service providers, funding listings and recruiting tools.

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The Dawn Of Cloud 2.0 And Why Google Started A Price War


Editor’s note: Peter Relan is serial entrepreneur-turned-founder of two incubators: YouWeb (focused on gaming), and Studio 9+ (focused on big data, IoT, wearables, and P2P marketplaces). His incubations include OpenFeint, Crowdstar, Hammer and Chisel, Spaceport, and Agawi. Prior to founding his incubators, Peter held founding roles at Webvan and Business Signatures, as well as executive roles at Oracle and HP.

Google recently announced up to 85 percent reduction in pricing for its PaaS and BigQuery services. Soon after, AWS and Microsoft followed suit. Welcome to Cloud 2.0.

Google did this because it could

Google’s core cash engine is its paid web search/advertising business, which generates almost $4 billion a quarter from 29 percent net profit margin. Amazon’s core business, on the other hand, is retail e-commerce, which generates almost no profit.

So Google can muscle its way into the cloud IaaS and PaaS space even though Amazon was the pioneer with AWS. Microsoft can, too, with its huge Office and Windows profit engines. AWS may well be the pioneer of Cloud 1.0, but it’s not clear whether it can play a full-on price war with Google and Microsoft — and others waiting in the wings to pounce on new opportunities.

Even though Jeff Bezos has always convinced the street that he can pull a rabbit out of a hat, this one is going to be a tougher sell. But don’t bet against him yet. There is still Cloud 2.0 and he can acquire things in that space. But back to Google for now.

Google did this because it had to

Even if Google could do it, why did it have to? As mobile takes off, Google’s growth on the web is slowing, and it has new challengers, including Facebook, which is killing it in mobile. Mobile usage continues to eat away into desktop usage, browser usage on mobile versus app usage continues to decline, and mobile clicks generate less money than desktop clicks.

YouTube is certainly now generating revenues, and Google Docs is certainly taking some share away from Microsoft Office, especially in the SMB market. But guess what? They are basically both cloud plays.

So the next growth engine in five years is self-driving cars, drones or Google Glass? Unlikely. The ATAP (Advanced Technologies and Projects) groups are exciting but not huge growth businesses yet. Cloud services and apps, however, are expected to grow dramatically to over $100 billion of the $1 trillion of spend on software.

So Google needs to aggressively gain share in the cloud market. It needs to double down on the cloud plays that are working and offer even more in the cloud to capture growth in markets other than web advertising where its growth is slowing.

What does this mean for innovation?

Price wars don’t usually bode well for innovation. It’s often a signal that the offering has become a commodity. But what it really means is that, while Cloud 1.0 is moving toward commodity, Cloud 2.0 is already gearing up — and it will be disruptive again.

So what can we expect from the gorillas and the next Cloud startups? They’re muscling for market share with Cloud 1.0. Surely there will be some innovation like Google BigQuery, which came out only last year and is based on Dremel, Google’s internal big-data engine. But the disruptive innovation will come from startups. Surprised?

What will Cloud 2.0 innovation look like?

There will be two types of startups in the next generation of cloud computing.  One will be startups that leverage the incredible cost structure Cloud 1.0 just achieved for them to build cloud apps. Of the $100 billion cloud market, this is the largest category — possibly half of it, according to research analysts. Google is already in there with its own cloud apps like Google Docs. Both enterprise and consumer apps will combine with mobile in new and interesting ways to create huge new companies.

The second type of innovation will be from startups that invent new Cloud 2.0 services, while the gorillas focus on the market-share war of Cloud 1.0 services in IaaS, PaaS and now BaaS.

IaaS innovations will include software-defined networking, virtualization, edge computing, storage and security advances. At the end of the day mobile apps with cloud-based backends are a new architecture. How will virtualization, networking, security, storage tech adapt to the mobile era? Look at Fastly, a new August Capital-backed Edge Computing CDN built just for Mobile architectures. A new CDN? Not something we look to AWS and Google for. Yet. 

PaaS innovations will include new programming environments and web services like Pantheon that make it easier and faster to build breakthrough content and app experiences. And BaaS innovations will include new cloud based back-ends like Kinvey, along with data-mining and analytic services in the cloud.

Cloud 2.0 will be heralded by a bevy of startups already innovating for the next wave while the gorillas who can and have to fight for Cloud 1.0 market share divvy up the market. Then there will be a wave of acquisitions as Cloud 2.0 companies gain scale, and Cloud 1.0 gorillas have to differentiate. What do you think? Please comment and let me know.

Image by Flickr user Daniel X. O’Neil under a CC BY 2.0 license

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