The Final Twelve
Cisco I-Prize successfully taps ideas from people outside of Silicon Valley's mainstream
July 14, 2008
by Charles Waltner
Guido Jouret, organizer of the Cisco I-Prize, says his company was particularly interested in the global innovation contest as a way to find ideas from people who have unique technology and market insights but do not have the traditional connections to Cisco or venture capital. Certainly, the I-Prize delivered on that.
The members of the 12 final I-Prize teams live throughout the world from Canada to India and Australia to Uruguay. While many finalists work in technology, more than a few have unexpected professions, including a dentist, an industrial plumber, and a social entrepreneur.
The ideas are equally diverse. They cover innovations for products as well as services, and they address a wide range of topics. They introduce the company to new markets in the retail, industrial production, advertising, and electrical industries, as well as proposing somewhat obvious technologies for such things as enhancements to Cisco TelePresence and applications for networking routers.
In addition to helping Cisco think beyond its current product line and expertise, Jouret says an unanticipated benefit of the contest was gaining a unique insight into how outsiders perceive Cisco."That alone was worth holding the contest," he says. "The participants have really helped us think again about what Cisco might be able to achieve."
Overall, I-Prize contestants say they have gotten plenty from Cisco in return. Finalists interviewed by News@Cisco say they were most impressed by the level of executive involvement in the contest, which gave them invaluable business experience. Even if they don't win, the finalist now feel much better prepared to hunt out venture capital and form a business through more conventional means.
But, of course, all the teams are eager for the grand prize. Besides gaining some hard cash and a job, the finalists are excited about having the resources of one of the world's foremost technology companies backing up their innovative aspirations.
Here's a look at four of the remaining 12 teams:
The Home Area Network (HAN) Team
Lots of questions, a dentist, and an industrial plumber form an ad hoc group
By using a comprehensive approach, this team is proposing a way Cisco can address the daunting problems of easily connecting and integrating all the products and services now possible with home networking.
THE INSIDE STORY
Like some other finalists, there's a friends and family connection with the HAN team. Jeremy Brown, a 21-year-old industrial plumbing "steamfitter," is dating the daughter of the founder of the team, Chris Herbert. "Chris bugged me for weeks and weeks to look at his idea," Brown says. "I finally did, and it really seemed exciting."
The team is one of the most collaborative and diverse in the finals. They picked up two of its five members through discussions on the I-Prize site. A third, Brian McReavy, is an old friend of Herbert's. Three of the five have little professional experience in technology. The TelePresence interview with Cisco's executives was Brown's first business meeting.
The team had by far more comments on the site than any other group. Much of that was due to Herbert's relentless examination of how to fix the problems of home networking. When people demoted his idea, he would immediately engage them in a discussion, looking for ways to refine his concept. One of those people was dentist Mark Auble, who "debated" with the team on many points. But his passion impressed. "We've always believed dissent is a strength," Brown says. "But Mark was a bit shocked when we asked him to join."
Though Cisco's Linksys division covers much of the territory proposed by the HAN idea, the team reasons that Cisco needs a different kind of group to "cross the chasm" of this complicated market. Certainly, they know the situation from the consumer's viewpoint. Ken Wygand, another team member, created his own automated home system using open source software and a lot of digital elbow grease.
The CoMoVoIP Team
An Indian "dream team" wants to make profound social change through technology
Cisco Mobile VoIP (CoMoVoIP) is a concept of using equal parts technology and partnerships in emerging market countries to bring modern communications to people in rural areas.
THE INSIDE STORY
This one is for the common man, says Chikkanayakan Halli Ramachandra Hemasundar (Hemu, for short), founder of the team. He believes that by addressing the issue of bringing modern communications to the hundreds of millions of rural residents in India and other emerging countries, Cisco will not only spur great social change but will also benefit by opening up a massive market for its technology products. As someone who grew up in a rural area of India, "I always feel a pinch to do something for these people," Hemu says. "I see a lot of talent that doesn't have a chance."
Hemu also assembled one of the most impressive, and largest, teams in the competition. Using his connections in the Southeast Asian and Indian technology industries, he handpicked his nine-person team, approaching the contest just like any other business project. He even recruited a "social engineer," who will help with the subtleties of bringing this new technology to untapped rural markets. Most importantly, Hemu believes a project like his can work if technology planners get out of the conference room and go to the rural areas in emerging markets. "You have to visit these places to really discover the opportunities," he says.
Internet 2.0 Gateway Team
One of Uruguay's leading venture capitalist wouldn't mind a shot of entrepreneurial adrenaline
This concept is for a product line of routers or "gateways" that do a better job of merging corporate networking traffic with the broader Internet and other external networks.
THE INSIDE STORY
Pablo Brenner and Sergio Fogel are cousins who grew up in Uruguay. They both studied at the Technion (the Israel Institute of Technology) and have worked for a variety of high tech companies in Israel and Latin America.
In his 30s Brenner returned to Uruguay so his children could be near their grandparents. Now he is at the helm of the country's only high tech venture fund, Posperitas Capital Partners. Fogel also returned home and is now the chief executive of two telecommunications services, Uniotel and Jet Numbers.
The two write a blog about technology developments, and Brenner says that entering the Cisco I-Prize contest started as an "intellectual exercise." "It's what we do all the time. But then it got a little more serious."
The 45-year-old Brenner began his career in 1987 with a company called Fibronics that made network bridges and routers. He laughs at the idea of now possibly working for Cisco, which at the time was one of Fibronics rivals. "All we could do was shake our heads as Cisco blasted off," he says.
Brenner says that while he enjoys nurturing his native country's technology industry, he admits that he misses the excitement of bigger markets. "I need to stay motivated with new adventures," he says. "I'm ready for a shot of entrepreneurial adrenaline." But still, if he wins, he would like to have part of the business located in Uruguay. "That would be a dream," he says.
Intelligent Home Power System Team
Like a light bulb turning on, student gets idea for revolutionizing electricity
This concept uses networking technology to make the electrical systems for homes and other buildings safer and more efficient.
THE INSIDE STORY
"When are they announcing the winner?" is the first thing Anna Gossen wants to know. Gossen, a 31-year-old networking technology student in Germany, is a native of Russia and an academic by nature. She has entered her share of educational competitions but nothing like the Cisco I-Prize.
While a job at the networking giant would be great, Gossen says the prize money was her initial motivation. "I need to be inspired," she says. And inspired she was. Gossen submitted 14 ideas to the contest.
Now that she's gone through the I-Prize process, Gossen says she has gained many other rewards. "The opportunity to test myself, to share my own ideas, and to be part of such a major competition is not something you encounter every day."
As a person more accustomed to classrooms than boardrooms, she admits the presentations and business meetings made her a bit nervous. "It was hard to shrink all of our information down to just a few slides and fifteen minutes," she says. Having a Cisco mentor helped. Most important lesson learned: be prepared.
Like some other I-Prize teams, this one is a family affair. The group includes Gossen and her husband, Niels, and Anna's brother, Sergey Bessonnitsyn. Both are technology specialists.
Gossen says her idea for improving electricity popped into her head like someone flipped a switch. "I was just looking at an electrical outlet and the concept came to mind," Gossen says. Even after checking with her brother and husband, she still figured other people would think her idea was crazy. But after getting serious responses on the I-Prize site from participants and then making it to the semi-finals, she realized she might be shining some new light on an old problem.
Charles Waltner is a freelance writer in Piedmont, Calif.
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