Take the Lead

Geek-Free Technology

Technology has influenced work and home in dramatic ways so far this century. Still, the more tech toys Americans get, the more we can see possibilities we want that could arrive in the next few years.

Let's say Jane Average has music on her computer that she wants to play on her stereo, coordinated with digital photos she wants to transfer to her TV. If she's a bit of a geek--and nothing breaks--she can set up such a system, says Len Rand, managing director of Granite Ventures, a San Francisco VC firm that invests in software and communications. But Rand sees a tremendous opportunity for software that enables anyone to download music, photos, video and chat from one device, such as a computer, and access them from others, such as a TV or cell phone.

For all those frustrated Americans who have wanted to throttle the call-center tech support guy, Rand sees self-diagnosing and self-healing electronics in the future. At the very least, someday a support rep may be able to see inside a computer and repair it without moving it to another location.

A variation of that scenario is happening now with remote control technology designed by Bomgar Corp. of Ridgeland, Mississippi. Bomgar sells its products to software companies, which then connect to the end user's personal computer. Tech support people can see the screen, move the mouse and type on the keyboard. "It's as if they were sitting at the keyboard," says CEO Joel Bomgar, 27, who started the company with co-founders Nathan McNeill, 25, and Patrick Norman, 28. "The person with the problem can just sit back and watch." When the company introduced its technology in 2003, entrepreneurs offering tech support were able to expand their realm worldwide, says Bomgar, who had sales of $5 million last year and projects 2007 sales to reach between $10 million and $12 million.

A stranger nosing in a computer might sound like a security disaster waiting to happen. But as a growing number of companies vie for the "third screen" (the cell phone), security problems magnify. Envision a cell phone or PDA packed with confidential data and left in a cab. "It could be delivered into competitive locations," says Mark Levine, managing director of Core Capital Partners, a private equity firm in Washington, DC. "That security needs to be upgraded before there is widespread adoption of enterprises to push data to mobile devices." Core Capital has invested in Trust Digital, a company specializing in mobile security.

A related field is fraud management, which can tell you that a specific computer has been used to steal 30 identities, run five credit card numbers or stalk a teen. "The next milestone will be authentication--knowing the guy on the end of the line is [who] he claims to be," says Greg Pierson, 40, co-founder and CEO of Portland, Oregon's Iovation, a company he launched with Jon Karl, 39, and Molly O'Hearn, 43. Iovation's technology is designed to track and stop fraud, and it had sales of $9.5 million in 2006. Eventually, says Pierson, "we think you are going to see much higher safety in the virtual world than you do in the real world in knowing who you are dealing with."

Those concerned about privacy could get into what Wacker calls "the next great business": privacy management. In the future, a la Wacker, "I will allow my information to be sold by American Express as long as I get a cut of everything they get out of it. Everything about your life will be chronicled and sold. Your kid will do that for the household starting at the age of 8."

Being someone else is sometimes the point in the world of gaming, where the fields of film, communications, engineering, computer science and fine arts are blending in new ways for new purposes. Alelo, a 12-person company co-founded by USC researchers Lewis Johnson, 49, Andre Valente, 42, and Hannes Vilhjalmsson, 34, developed a video game-based course designed to educate military personnel in the languages and cultures of other countries. The course, which began as a research project at USC's Information Sciences Institute, provides an "immersive reality" that lets participants start learning communication skills within hours of playing, says Krisztina Holly, vice provost and executive director of USC Stevens. The U.S. Armed Forces currently uses a version for Iraqi Arabic and Pashto. Alelo brought in sales of $2.2 million last year.

Gaming for fun will continue to grow, predicts Gautam Godhwani, 34, who sold his previous company, AtWeb, to Netscape and is now founder and CEO of the multimillion-dollar business Simply Hired, a search engine for jobs that has received more than $17 million in VC funding. The 45-person company, based in Mountain View, California, also runs MySpace Jobs, the job site for MySpace users. Not only will gaming's popularity grow, but the innovative technology behind it will also advance, says Godhwani. "Platforms like Wii and PS3 have incredible capabilities that have not been tapped," he says, "and titles like Halo and World of Warcraft have huge online communities." Gamers want bigger, faster and better technology--which means more innovation and development are still to come.

As disciplines merge, look for more innovators from the arts to employ their vision and skills to commercial enterprise. "Some people are talking about how the MFA [Master of Fine Arts] is the next MBA," says Holly. "Companies are looking for creative people to become more innovative."

An example is Jason Feffer, 36, former vice president of operations for MySpace. He recently launched SodaHead, a new website for do-it-yourself polls, or "social voting," that helps people connect with others and compare opinions. (Companies can also use the site to ask consumers directly about products.) The site, which receives most of its revenue from advertising, has each participant create an account that documents his or her votes. The feature prevents stuffing of the electronic ballot box.

The site taps into what Wacker calls "the trend of neo-tribalism"--people's desire to meet others like themselves. Feffer, who developed SodaHead with co-founder Michael Glazer, 35, holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. "Today's challenges can't be left to just scientists or engineers or artists or businesspeople," Feffer believes. "It will take a variety of them combined--people [with] a variety of experiences."

Of course, trying to predict the future is tricky. Forty-five years ago, "no one would have told you to talk to Bob Swanson, who went on to found Genentech and start the biotech revolution," says Scott A. Shane, author of Finding Fertile Ground: Identifying Extraordinary Opportunities for New Ventures. "No one would have told you to talk to Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. They were just kids, and no one knew them."

If anyone could foresee the next big thing, that seer would probably keep quiet and invest lots of money in it, says Shane. Venture capitalists "are really smart and successful at making money on technology trends. They can also be incredibly wrong."

Andrea Cooper has written for Time, National Geographic Online and other major outlets.
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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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