Every year, The Indus Entrepreneur (TiE) throws the largest entrepreneurial conference of the world, TiEcon. Though the membership is primarily of Indian descent, the event is open to all. It brings great entrepreneurs, VCs, inspiring keynote speakers and aspiring entrepreneurs together to learn and network with each other. I like to go every year because it's my chance to touch the entrepreneurial sun and remember why I've spent so much of my career in starting and building companies.
Sometimes, you get down on yourself because the process is always a lot longer and harder than you originally thought. The process of creating a new company, a new product, a new brand and a strong culture is always is always easier on paper than reality. The world is skeptical of what you are building because invariably you are going against the existing order. You have to be able to handle far more no's than yes' while keeping your confidence at an unshakable level.
Today helped me reconnect with that energy and spirit. I really enjoyed the keynotes. Steve Case was great not only because of his amazing and well-known AOL experience, but more because of what he is doing to further entrepreneurship through StartUp America. The organization is trying to replicate the Silicon Valley entrepreneurial infrastructure and ecosystem all around the country. New companies that have created all the new jobs in the US over the last 20 years. Large companies have been static or declining, so it's important to harness American creativity to build the next Google, Facebook or Genentech.
Dr. David Ferrucci of IBM presented a detailed account of the Watson project where they built a computer system to beat Jeopardy Master Champions. I liked how they structured the problem and measured success. They knew this would come in iterations, however each iteration had to be designed in a modular fashion that had sufficient headroom to improve with experience. Given our efforts to improve sentiment analysis with Position2 Brand Monitor, I could appreciate the difficulties that the IBM team had in trying to parse wide-ranging yet unstructured Jeopardy answers and quickly come up with the right answer. Natural Language Processing (NLP) is a hard problem to solve especially with analogies and allusions. Given the brevity of Jeopardy answers, it's like reading a tweet and understanding that "bad" sometimes is actually positive. Given the long tail of subjects, building a recognition engine that understands language and responds quickly not only is cool, but has a wide range of applications from medicine to education to... yes... call centers.
The capstone keynote was Vinod Khosla, the entrepreneurial maven who not only got Sun off the ground but built so many successful firms at Kleiner Perkins and now his own fund. He discussed his research on the energy transformation. The experts are wrong, as Vinod offered years of expert forecasts that were completely wrong - as much as 5x for the price of oil. The world has a situation where 5.5 billion people want to live and consume like 500 million. China's oil consumption is expected to grow gradually, but if it follows Japan's or S. Korea's growth curve, oil consumption will be 3-4x today within a couple of decades. However, Khosla believes that oil prices will drop dramatically. He also believe as will electricity use will drop steeply as well. This will be done in a way that is not government support dependent. His thesis is based on the black swan theory where discontinuities are the norm rather than what typical probabilities represent. Linear thinking doesn't work for him - it's about exponents and discontinuities cause by new technologies and steep cuts in price. I took some notes on interesting energy companies in his deck:
Kior - renewable, biofuel based oil that is less expensive than fossil oil
Ecomotor - an engine platform that double gas mileage
Ciris - driving methane from coal mines done with mining
Calera - converting CO2 emissions from power plants into mineral products
Soraa - 80% more efficient light that pays for itself in year 1
Lightsail - using compressed air storage to triple electric grid capacity
Then there was some company that would make sugar from pine chips reducing the vast amount of corn production used primarily for high fructose corn syrup and animal feed.
Khosla's belief is that technology innovation would rise to the challenge of energy, food and natural resource demand. After listening to him, some of the concern about $150 oil diminishes, because people will find a way to develop cheap energy. These technologies need to win in an unsubsidized market which can do to energy like Carnegie did to steel (cut the cost by 80%).
As exciting as Khosla was, I enjoyed seeing some of the TiE50 winners in social media and mobile. Each firm had a different story, but they all had really unique ways of looking at the world. They had an intensity and energy that was contagious. Even the VC panel on social media indicated to me that we were on the right track of mining social media data to create actionable insights and engagement for brands. The key was to listen to people, learn from their ideas, but remember that you need to follow the beat of your own drum.
I came away this Friday at TiEcon 2011 energized about the great things that entrepreneurs can do. It was fun to reconnect with many of the volunteers that put together this special event that highlights how people can go outside themselves and change the world in a positive way that also builds wealth. It's not a zero sum game. I'm sure my team is ready for the many new ideas I will hit them with on how to leverage our social media technology for growing brands, especially ones on reducing friction.
Onwards to tomorrow, where I'm taking Arjun to expose him to this special Silicon Valley world.