Take the Lead

Who's in charge of the future? You are. A look at how entrepreneurs are transforming the world.

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In the future, innovative entrepreneurs will fix the health-care mess--and cure cancer while they're at it. They'll solve the global warming crisis and uncover a new fuel made entirely of a blight on the Earth, like mosquitoes. They'll invent multipurpose facilities where their kids can take gymnastics or piano lessons while they pick up their dry cleaning, get takeout dinner, design their latest products via a 3-D video game, and in their downtime, figure out how to conquer al-Qaida.

Well, maybe not exactly. But plenty of experts and visionaries see entrepreneurs as key to the next wave of innovations in industries from transportation (air taxis, anyone?) to nanotechnology. "It's a spectacular time to be an entrepreneur, for people with the gumption," says Watts Wacker, futurist and CEO of FirstMatter LLC in Westport, Connecticut. The differences from past generations will lie in who is doing the innovating, how they do it and the fields in which they choose to make their money and their mark.

A Changing Economy
In the next decade, entrepreneurs will be "far more diverse than their predecessors" in age, origin and gender, according to January 2007's "Intuit Future of Small Business Report," conducted with the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California.

Generation Y, defined as those born between 1978 and 1995, will emerge as the most entrepreneurial generation ever, says Steve King, a co-author of the report and senior advisor at the Institute for the Future. Solo entrepreneurs--about 20 million in 2004, according to the U.S. Census Bureau--will increase in number. Women are growing businesses at almost twice the rate of all business owners, according to the Center for Women's Business Research. And immigrant entrepreneurs make up the fastest-growing segment of all, reports the Census Bureau.

Other basics about entrepreneurship are changing, too. Entrepreneurs might once have been successful focusing on the mass market, but that's become more and more difficult. "The 'average' person has one breast and one testicle. Show me that person," Wacker says. "That was a mass philosophy to do analysis by the mean, to do your research by what's at the center. It's not a route to success in a world where we've made niches."

Yet if Wacker is right that niche markets are critical to success, entrepreneurs will have to identify those markets in what's become a global economy where entrepreneurial innovations are coming from all over the map.

At Purdue University's Office of Technology Commercialization for Discovery Park in West Lafayette, Indiana, associate director Julie Goonewardene might meet with venture capitalists about a professor's new technology at the same time they are comparing it with a technology they've seen in New Zealand. "The positive [of that] is you might be able to come up with a much more sophisticated play if you marry what's happening in the two places," says Goonewardene, whose experience includes raising venture capital for a software company she founded and later sold. "The bad news for the entrepreneur is you've got to be really, really good."

That means the next Bill Gates might just as likely come from China or India as from the U.S. Like Gates, he or she may have dropped out of college or not attended at all. But the growing number of programs and classes for entrepreneurial students are finding audiences at American universities. "More entrepreneurs are going to college because they see the relevance of what they are studying," says King.

Those new entrepreneurs may find themselves in the unfamiliar position of being partners with corporations. "In the past, the big guys looked at the little guys as threats to be crushed," says Dev Patnaik, principal of Jump Associates, a consulting firm in San Mateo, California. "These days, [the little guys] are inspiration for new products or acquisitions."

Food companies such as General Mills and Kellogg's are asking entrepreneurs for ideas about partnering, says Andrew Aussie, 39, president of Honest Foods, a Del Mar, California, natural foods company he co-founded with Mark Oliver, 58, that has been approached by major corporations. "How do you combine the creative ideas of the entrepreneur with the scale of a larger company?" poses Aussie, who led marketing for the natural-food brand Kashi for 11 years and anticipates sales of $1 million this year for his new venture. "I think that's where there is a true opportunity for entrepreneurs."

Room to Grow
What fields will entrepreneurs transform? The fact that the next entrepreneurial stars might come from outside the U.S. also suggests opportunities in once unlikely places, such as China and India. "Those countries are expanding so fast in terms of generating gross national product," says Mark Rice, dean of the F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. "The demand for infrastructure to support economic activity and the buying power of the middle class is exploding." Both countries are facing challenges with energy resources, water and the environment, so opportunities are ready for the right innovators.

In the U.S., the green agenda has hit the mainstream. Wacker says someday Americans may hire green consultants to inspect their homes, examine their daily practices and offer recommendations for lessening energy consumption. He also predicts more viable businesses devoted to heat conservation as well as solar and wind power.

There is tremendous interest in investment to help the country become less dependent on oil, says Duane Roth, a biotech entrepreneur and CEO of Connect link www.connect.org, a San Diego nonprofit that works with technology and life sciences businesses. "The reasons for doing it have gone beyond economic incentives," he says. "The mess in the Middle East, global warming--all these things put together would say this isn't a passing fad." Roth believes ethanol, a high-octane fuel produced from renewable resources, "is just starting to happen. The next phase will come much faster."

Energy-saving products have already started evolving. Gaia Power Technologies in New York City sells the PowerTower, a device designed to give homeowners and businesses enough electricity to run vital appliances and other equipment during power outages. The PowerTower runs off a high-capacity battery or alternative-energy source such as a fuel cell. Because it is charged off the electricity grid, it is an environmentally friendly alternative to a large generator, says Bige Doruk, 40, who co-founded the company with her husband, Ib Olsen, 44. "Generators are oversized, so they [don't] operate efficiently," she says. "By using our unit plus a smaller generator, it's more efficient and pollutes less." Clients who see the benefits include major hotel chains and a large coffee chain. The company projects sales of $5 million to $10 million this year.

Innovators are also studying new processes to curb global warming. At the University of Southern California Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, researchers are examining how bacteria found in the depths of the ocean might be used to absorb harmful greenhouse gases. Others at USC are exploring technology that could help capture carbon in the atmosphere. The USC Stevens Institute for Innovation, which works with USC faculty and students to get their ideas to market, helps professors and researchers patent and commercialize any resulting technology.

Another crisis that could benefit from creative entrepreneurial minds is health care. The aging of the population in developed countries such as the U.S., Germany and Japan, combined with the growing middle class elsewhere, means more people will have a greater need for health-care services. "Whoever shakes up the industry will take the complicated and make it simple," says Scott Anthony, president of innovation consulting firm Innosight LLC in Watertown, Massachusetts. He foresees more "retail-based kiosks in places like Target and CVS where people can get diagnostics done at very low prices."

As for treatments, genomics, or the study of genes, "will produce a series of breakthroughs," Rice believes. The discipline of nanomedicine, or medical intervention at the molecular level to cure diseases or repair damage, could enable health-care researchers and entrepreneurs to devise a way to send cancer drugs directly to a tumor without harming surrounding cells. Other innovations may include a way to connect ailing humans, such as patients with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, with surface electrodes that would help them move and speak. Such research is currently underway by Melody Moore Jackson, an associate professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, and Adriane Randolph, a GSU doctoral student and aspiring entrepreneur.

Randolph, 30, seeks to develop additional real-world applications of brain-computer interface devices, targeting people with ALS and other conditions that leave them "locked" in their bodies. Following her graduation this month, she hopes to obtain a faculty appointment and start a business with her husband, Royal Randolph III, an IT consultant in health care. They want to offer a suite of technology-centered solutions to improve quality of life for people in assisted living centers. "I consider it an outgrowth of my research work with families who need this technology," she says.

Then there's always the possibility of a computer that prods people to take care of themselves. Roth imagines that "feedback systems" will be more prevalent in the future. If someone wearing the system forgets to take his Alzheimer's medicine at 9 a.m., an alert will go off to let his relatives or caregiver know. Roth says such a system could extend to sending alerts if the patient doesn't fill a prescription. Sound like invasion of privacy? Roth believes people will accept the trade-off because they'll see the value in the new technology--as long as they feel the data can't be used to discriminate.

Can we fix the rising costs of health care and fix our bodies? Maybe what will change is the insurance companies. "In the world of insurance, more and more boutique firms are sprouting up, serving narrower niches because large companies are all converging on the mass market," says consultant Andy Birol, author of The Five Catalysts of Seven Figure Growth Wacker also foresees some entrepreneurs creating self-insured circles, in essence acting as their own insurance companies.

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This article was originally published in the May 2007 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Take the Lead.

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