marketing and sales executives from Silicon Valley

Friday, December 2, 2011

Silicon Valley Innovation Challenge - the ideas are easy

One December 1st, I was at the Silicon Valley Innovation Challenge helping judge the presentations by teams that included at least one San Jose State University Student. Overall I was impressed by the number of good ideas in the exhibition room, as the exhibits spanned power management, to blood alcohol monitoring, to vanity personalized wear, autism tools, supply chain authentication and more.

Now while that may sound like over generous blanket praise, it comes with a caveat: Ideas are cheap. In fact, I said that to one presenter who had, as part of his business model, an idea auction. Even with his nebulous idea auction, however, that presenter garnered praise from several judges due to the utility and value the business had in a very well defined niche. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if a third of the businesses presented could become living, breathing, and thriving successes - if the creators took the plunge and gave it a shot.

That brings me to another point - niche focus and market knowledge can mean the difference between fundable idea and failure or successful small business and pipe dream. One business I liked, called Travit, was showing a supply chain authentication system from manufacturing to end product delivery. That's a tough business - a really tough one. One of the long-time judges went so far as to shoot down my appreciation of the idea stating that there were "problems with the business." Unfortunately, that's where market knowledge trumps lack of imagination. My partner judge worked at Intel, and I have some experience in clinical data managment, both areas where the exhibiting company's product might have a huge impact in ways such as saving lifes and reducing counterfitting.

Now if a judge working at a multi-billion dollar company says a project could solve one of their big problems, do you dismiss any issues as "too hard"? Likewise, if a product/solution can possibly save thousands of lives and become a standard for major pharma or biotec companies, do you dismiss it for potential "problems with the business"?

To me, blowing off any suggested innovation because there are issues or problems with the idea before it's a running business is short-sighted. If the issues, after deeper inspection are insurmountable, then yes, it's best to move on. But if a judge at the competition likes your idea and is interested in being your first customer, you ignore the naysayers, listen to the customer, and solve the problem.

Innovation and entrepreneurship are all about solving problems, finding new challenges, and overcoming them. And while the presentations and ideas may not have been as well thought out as possible, I thing there is value to understand what might be possible with a presented solution. As such, I've reached out to the head of the event to see some of the ideas from the exhibition. Ideas are cheap - but if many of the presenting teams can resolve some of their weakneses and focus on some key business areas, there could well be 20-30 businesses that launch from that event.