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Showing Up

Revisiting the fortunes of past column subjects.
December 1, 2004

This past year, i’ve had the great privilege of writing about five entrepreneurs. I interviewed each of them at a critical moment in the life of his or her startup – rather easy to do, actually, as practically every moment in a seed-stage venture is critical. In this, my final column, I’m returning to them to see how their decisions shine in hindsight’s glare. Much to my delight, not only do all five companies still exist, but their founders report that they are thriving. Such assurances may, in part, reflect the necessarily optimistic outlook shared by all those who start companies. But as my old business partner, Jeet Singh, used to say, half of winning the battle is showing up to the fight.

Bill Zebuhr, founder of Ovation Products, fervently believes that millions of kilometers of water mains and sewer pipes will someday be replaced by his Clean Water Appliances, humming away in basements – and in remote villages that now lack clean water – and efficiently transforming wastewater into pure drinkable water. When I wrote about Ovation last December, Zebuhr had exactly one “alpha” unit working and was trying to raise the necessary financing for the next version.

Fortunately, Zebuhr was able to close on $1.4 million in angel investment, which allowed him to create a “beta” model that boosted output from 45 to 75 liters of clean water per hour and dropped production costs from the $50,000 range down to less than $10,000. Now he’s back out on the fund-raising trail, this time hoping to raise four or five million – enough to tool up for real production.

When I spoke to the founder of SwapitShop, Jonathan Attwood, for the March issue, his plan to create a universal currency for children was in danger of failing to reach a critical mass of recognition and credibility. Product manufacturers use Attwood’s “Swapits,” which are redeemable for toys and other goodies on SwapitShop’s eBay-like website, as incentives for children to buy their goods. But without enough children demanding Swapits or enough manufacturers buying and distributing them, the currency and company could slip into fatal obscurity.
Attwood happily reports that he’s increased Swapit sales to the point where the company is profitable and he is planning to double his staff. “Last year, if someone offered us £100 to sweep the street, we’d have taken it,” laughs Attwood. “Now we can finally start thinking about how to strategically grow our business.”

In my May column about Minerva Biotechnologies, I wrote that while the company’s gold nanoparticle–based biosensor technology may have dozens of potential applications and markets, founder Cynthia Bamdad was probably best off focusing on one without distraction. Bamdad reports that MUC1 cancers, a group she’s been studying that includes most breast and prostate cancers, have taken that front-and-center role for Minerva – and that the company is at a “make or break” moment. Some major pharmaceutical companies are developing the same class of drug molecules that Bamdad independently discovered, but without Minerva’s biosensor technology, they are operating without knowledge of the underlying mechanism.

At the same time, Bamdad’s facing a potential money problem. “Angels who were willing to put money down on a song and a prayer are suddenly spooked by real results that indicate a real working cure!” she complains. Biotech venture capital firms are ready to invest, but only on terms that Bamdad finds painful. Fortunately, a group of angel investors who read about Minerva in Technology Review sounds quite serious about closing a deal, which should enable Bamdad to navigate the complex partnerships and intellectual-property negotiations required to take Minerva to the next stage.

Maggie Orth’s life’s work is literally weaving technology into our world. When I spoke to her in July, the founder of International Fashion Machines and pioneer of “interactive textiles” (imagine, say, a computer keypad embroidered directly onto a shirtsleeve) was trying to launch a line of woven touch-fabric light switches. She’s since discovered that getting the products certified as safe is a more lengthy process than she imagined, not because they are dangerous, but because existing safety standards were written for an age when textiles and electricity never mixed. Interest in her fabrics is growing, however, and she’s receiving a stream of unsolicited requests from clothing manufacturers to help develop new concepts.

When I wrote about Atomate a scant two months ago, its founder Brian Lim felt he’d found the perfect niche market: creating nanotech research tools rather than developing his own nanotech devices, or as he puts it, “selling the pans to the prospectors.” So I was doubly astonished to find Lim practically hollering “Eureka” down the phone as he explained that his scientists may have struck their own “diamond mine”; they’ve discovered a new kind of nanowire that Lim hopes will boost silicon chips’ processing speed by “orders of magnitude.” Lim is already thinking ahead, toward Atomate’s transformation into an outright nanotech prospecting operation.

I suspect that Atomate’s discoveries were far from accidental and were spurred by an inherent entrepreneurial dissatisfaction with watching someone else working out on the cutting edge. I must confess that while I’ve hugely enjoyed writing this column, it has also been a constant and frustrating reminder of how much fun building a company can be. Now I am thrilled to report that I am trading my word processor back in for my programming editor and rejoining the entrepreneurial ranks. In true startup tradition, my new company will be in “stealth mode” for the foreseeable future. But perhaps someday I’ll again have the honor to be in the pages of Technology Review.

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