Showing posts from December, 2007

Barcoding Life, response from the innovators

I recently posted in the Beneblog on Barcoding Life, based on a dinner with Dan Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs. I just received a response from these two dynamic scientists, and felt it was well worth sharing! If there ever was a circumstance where a "single" technology - a dirt cheap back pocket reusable DNA barcorder - will transform people-disease-people relationships and equally transform people-biodiversity relationships, this is it. Yes, it needs the gadget and it needs the global DNA sequence snippet library for all species. The former seems really to be emerging, wanting only a $10 m nudge. But I see the latter, quite literally tens of millions of identified and vouchered DNA barcodes, as the huge task ahead of us (and as of this year, a bit behind us as well). This is a task where speed counts both before wild biodiversity is gone, and to incentivate keeping it in the game. The peculiarity of this task is that there is already a global army of biologists and tax

Braillebug Reading Club

I'm excited about our growing partnership with the American Foundation for the Blind, the leading foundation focused on blindness issues. One thing we just did was to fill in the last few missing titles on AFB's Braillebug Reading Club. The Braillebug web site is dedicated to promoting Braille to students who could benefit from learning Braille. Now, we have all of these recommended children's books for Braille readers on in excellent quality. Because all blind students in the U.S. now qualify for, this means that these books can be quickly downloaded into Braille displays or printed out with Braille embossers. We look forward to adding future books to as new titles are chosen for the Braillebug reading club.

Social Enterprise and the Small Business Administration

Benetech was recently featured in a report to the President (of the U.S.) on small business. There was a chapter in the report entitled Social Entrepreneurship and Government, and Benetech was one of the case studies used (see pages 36-37). Author Andrew Wolk, a Senior Lecturer at MIT on Social Entrepreneurship, focused much of his discussion around the concept of how social enterprises were a socially useful response to market failure. He covers some other great social enterprises such as ITNAmerica (a novel approach to senior-focused paratransit) and Kaboom! (building playgrounds in poorer communities). One of these days it would be great if nonprofit social enterprises were eligible for Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants: these federally funded competitions often request proposals in areas (such as disability tech) where the market is unlikely to lead to a viable company but where a nonprofit social enterprise could very well become viable.

GreenDimes: Stops Junk Mail.

One of the most important gifts I'm celebrating this holiday season are the things I didn't get: many, many pounds of junk mail catalogs, many of them duplicates. And, it's accomplished through a great social venture: GreenDimes , whose motto is Stop Junk Mail. Save Trees and Help the Environment Greendimes automates the process of taking yourself off of mailing lists with a simple web application. There are actually a few catalogs we like getting, but that represented less than 5% of the junk mail we get, and we can keep getting those. Greendimes works through the hoops you have to jump through: a few of the direct mailing associations make it hard and require a postcard to be sent in for each address requesting exclusion. So, the Greendimes folks mailed us the postcards to sign and send in. And, they do battle with unreasonable junk mailers on our behalf (apparently Victoria's Secret is the worst). It's a terrific service, and I'm sure it's made a

Barcoding Life

Interspersed with all of my day job work (spending half my time on for Education right now), I get to have exciting meetings with social entrepreneurs with incredible ideas. Last week, I had three of those meetings! Here's the first one: My very first ever angel investor, Sheldon Breiner, contacted me on short notice to ask if I wanted to have dinner and a brainstorm with Winnie Hallwachs and Dan Janzen , a pair of U Penn professors with a dream: a handheld barcode reader for life. The concept is that Joe Average can walk into his backyard (or his field), and find out what species there are there. What's that ant? What bird left a feather in our garden? What's this plant doing here? The concept of DNA barcoding is deceptively simple: you choose a particular section of genetic material shared by all animals, but where a 600 or 700 base sequence is pretty much unique to each species. That means you can collect a whole bunch of data from specimens and hav

Lauren Weinstein on Google

I've been a long-time subscriber to Dave Farber's IP list (for Interesting People). I frequently see comments from Lauren Weinstein's blog. He writes very well, and is a frequent critic of high tech companies on privacy issues. This week there was a great post, Lauren Weinstein's Blog: For Google and Others, Few Good Deeds Go Unpunished, where Lauren gave a very interesting and even somewhat sympathetic analysis of Google. The most interesting part for me was: I simply don't sense in Google today the sort of utterly predatory attitude toward its users that does seem to pervade some other major Internet-related firms. This is not to say that I agree with all Google policies -- as regular readers of this blog know. But I believe it's safe to say that even many (or most) Google employees also don't necessarily agree with all of Google's policies. It seems clear from public statements that even the Google leadership feels internally conflicted at times r

Landmine Detector Project Lessons Learned

Confronting failure is tough. There's a tendency to bury failure and hide it. In the for-profit sector, failure tends to be pretty obvious. You know how well an investment firm is doing because they have to publish their numbers. A tech company that bombs is quickly recognized as such. The social sector is well known for being risk averse, and this creates incentives to only discuss successes (or to portray borderline or failing efforts as successful). I believe that we need to embrace failure. Better to have failed boldly on occasion to have never dared at all. The world's problems are too big and important to be addressed solely with timid measures. Earlier this year, I and the leadership of our humanitarian Landmine Detector Program made the decision to put the project on ice. Ted Driscoll, a noted serial entrepreneur now turned venture capitalist, had been working to create an affordable humanitarian landmine detector from military-funded explosives detection te