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Venturing into Capitalism

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The Internet, the story goes, sprang from the labs of government and military scientists who wanted a nuclear-bomb-proof communications network. The World Wide Web came from a software engineer at a quasi-governmental European physics lab. The first Web browser, Mosaic, was invented at the University of Illinois and distributed free. In short, nothing about the Web’s origins would seem to make its emergence as a business medium inevitable.

Boy, did that not last long. The corporatization of the Web has proceeded rapidly, as companies set out to find gold in them thar modems-or at least to portray themselves as cutting-edge organizations. At the same time, the Web has become a meeting ground for those who want to start their own companies. A few dozen clicks through this mercantile milieu can trigger thoughts of capitalism even in the crunchy granola set.

Would-be entrepreneurs will find the Web a friendly place. First stop is the Venture Capital Resource Library (www.vfinance.com), a comprehensive and easy-to-navigate site that provides well-organized lists of venture capital firms, investment banks and accountants. You can also download a massive (5,000-word) template for a business plan. The section titled “Innovation” begins: “[I/we] have a history of innovative ideas. [List your most meaningful ideas and any new ideas you have for the future.]” Fill in the blanks, send it along and you can receive a critique from the organization’s staff.

Using Alta Vista’s “subject search” and zeroing in on venture capital yields dozens of sites, some for individual firms, others that link to lists of their own. (Hitting pay dirt on the Web is getting to be a longer and longer process, with the accumulation of sites that are nothing but lists of lists.) A hopeful entrepreneur will take heart at first-the mere length of the roster seems to shout, “Money here! Come and get it!” But clicking your way inside a site might cool the ardor a bit. One site issues the following discouraging message: “We receive a large number of proposals and are looking to make only a few investments. After reviewing our investment criteria, you can contact us by e-mail with your business plan or executive summary.”

Some startups, of course, do make it to the first rung of the ladder of success: an initial public offering, or IPO. You can tour the successes at IPO Central (www.ipocentral.com). Browse IPOs alphabetically or by industry category, or search for a particular company. Selecting the “online services” category brings up capsule descriptions of some two dozen companies. Paying subscribers to Hoover’s Online (which runs the site) can get real-time status of the stock; the rest of us have to make do with 24-hour-delayed information.

Entrepreneurship is all about matchmaking, and the Web site of the quarterly American Venture magazine provides an online yenta service (www.avce.com). The site lists “ventures seeking capital,” divided by industry, region and amount of capital sought. Judging by this and other similar sites, there are a lot more ideas looking for funding than there are dollars looking for ideas.

The fertilizer of money works, however, only if a seed of an idea is in place. Get in the inventive frame of mind at “The Inventure Place” (www.invent.org), which bills itself as a “laboratory where you can explore your curiosity and creativity.” The site includes the full text of a book called The National Inventors Hall of Fame. Scan through the volume’s entries-from air conditioning to optical fiber to zeolite catalysts-to pay the tribute of attention to the men and women who have conceived the high-tech world we live in.

Take a swig of Tang and check out the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s TechTracS site (www.ntas.techtracs.org), which provides links to an array of the space agency’s technologies that are ripe for spinoff. Dining on government leftovers may not seem very ’90s, but the site offers an impressive set of stories chronicling businesses that have taken NASA technologies and run with them. One company, for instance, makes a meat tenderness gauge with technology from the Surveyor lunar lander.

The mother of all invention sites, naturally, is the one operated by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (www.uspto.gov). The site’s search page, at patents.uspto.gov/access/search-adv.html, lets you hunt for patents by key word. It’s not a comprehensive search-for that, you have to pay a patent attorney-but it gives a quick picture of how original your idea is. Spending much of my working life on the Web, I type “web and search and algorithm” to see what brilliant ideas have been patented for improving this task. To my surprise (and dismay), only one patent appears. The word “mousetrap,” still an emblem of ingenuity, turns up five entries. Navigate your way to the patent office’s weekly Official Gazette at www.uspto.gov/web/offices/com/sol/og/, and browse through recent issues for listing of “Patents Available for License or Sale.” Anyone out there need a “bubble popping device”? There’s a man in Wheatley Heights, N.Y., you should call.

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