Top 10 Highlights from FiReGlobal: Michael Dell, Lee Hartwell, Irwin Jacobs, and More

I can’t do justice to a comprehensive review of yesterday’s FiReGlobal (West Coast) conference at the Four Seasons Hotel in Seattle. Instead, I’ll just give a few of my key takeaways. The all-day event, organized by Strategic News Service, focused on how to solve some of the most pressing problems in technology, business, and society—in areas as diverse as broadband access, entrepreneurship, education, sustainability and the environment, political discourse, human health, and mobile devices.

The sweeping conference had the tagline, “Global technology driving local solutions.” Interesting, as that’s sort of the reverse of Xconomy’s mantra, which is reporting about local stories with global impact. But I think they’re two sides of the same innovation coin.

So, in “ESPN plays of the day” style, here’s my top 10 list from the conference (if only I had the video to go with it):

10. Setting up entrepreneurial zones. A panel led by Ty Carlson of Microsoft proposed denoting special “R&D zones” from Oregon to British Columbia geared toward supporting startups in fields like renewable energy, sustainable farming, and biotech. The idea would be to offer tax credits and other incentives to create a more entrepreneurial culture in the Northwest, especially in rural areas.

9. What government should and shouldn’t do. Investor and entrepreneur Martin Tobias of Seattle-based Kashless said, “Startups and investors can’t make a 10-year bet when you have a two-year tax credit.” Those conditions freeze out small companies, especially in costly ventures like energy. So government should create open markets and set minimum market sizes for new technologies, Tobias said. But it shouldn’t pick the technology winners themselves.

8. Northwest tech startups do the Olympics. Tom Guthrie, CEO of Seattle-based Twisted Pair Solutions, said his company has helped numerous agencies on the Olympic Peninsula inter-operate their radios—a key problem in disaster response and other scenarios. Twisted Pair, which is backed by Ignition Partners and other investors, is also working on a laser system to deliver broadband signals. Meanwhile, Paul Manson, CEO of Vancouver, BC-based Sea Breeze, talked about his company’s project to build a high-voltage, direct-current undersea cable between Victoria, BC, and Port Angeles, WA. This would be a fast, controllable power transmission component of a smart grid; it should be under construction by mid-2010, he said.

7. The world according to Dell. In a chat with Mark Anderson of Strategic News Service, Michael Dell said he is excited about China and the rest of Asia as fast-growing economies. He anticipates a U.S. recovery from the recession, but says, “I don’t think you’ll see an immediate snap-back.” And he likes South America as an emerging market (Dell does sales of more than $1 billion in Brazil alone). But Europe, not so much—he sees a lot of uncertainty in the workforce there.

6. Get ready for Dell smartphones. “Mobility is absolutely the theme,” Dell said. He was talking about the relative importance of desktop computers, laptops, netbooks, and mobile devices to Dell’s future business. Interestingly, he thinks netbooks are topping out at 12 to 15 percent of the market, because of their small screen size. And in response to a question from Tricia Duryee of mocoNews, he said Dell will start selling Android smartphones in the U.S. next year. (It already sells smartphones in China.) This raises interesting questions about how much computing people will want to do on their phones versus laptops and netbooks—more on this below.

5. Nobel Laureates have problems too. Lee Hartwell, president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, lamented about the severe difficulties in getting early diagnostics for cancer and other diseases into clinical use. The problem, Hartwell said, is that there’s “no good business model” for getting new diagnostics through the FDA approval process. The technology for analyzing proteins associated with diseases is coming along, he said, but the financing for clinical trials is not. (This is an issue that Lee Hood’s new startup, Integrated Diagnostics, will face.)

4. Social technologies can help in policymaking. A panel of mobile experts and civic leaders, led by Chetan Sharma, proposed a way to improve public discourse and communication with governments by using text messaging, social media, and cloud-based data storage to get more citizens involved. A simple example would be to embed public opinion surveys in parking meters, so that you receive a parking discount by texting your vote on an issue (like what to do with the Seattle viaduct). The broader topic overlaps a bit with two local startups, Survey Analytics (IdeaScale) and Wetpaint. (One thorny point: the panel recommended “saving” journalists by having them “do analysis, investigative work for think tanks, and policy making.” Which goes to show that non-journalists do not understand journalists.)

3. The sky’s the limit for mobile. Irwin Jacobs, the co-founder and former chairman and CEO of Qualcomm, said in a chat with the UW’s Ed Lazowska that he foresees mobile devices being used increasingly for video—people will store video clips on their phone itself—and for education—kids will read textbooks and get access to lectures on these devices. At the same time, Jacobs said, there will still be a large market for a bigger device (with a 10-inch screen, say) that stays connected to the network and needs more battery power. He thinks the iPhone broke through some major barriers, in terms of the user interface, and now we’ll see a lot more competition in mobile applications.

2. Facebook and the iPhone are up there with PCs and the Internet. Not sure I agree with this one, but Rob Glaser of RealNetworks listed his top five tech platforms of the modern era, in terms of economic opportunities: the IBM personal computer, the Windows operating system, the Internet, Facebook, and the iPhone/iPod Touch. (Twitter did not make his list yet.) Glaser argued that these two recent phenomena belong because they create huge strategic and commercial opportunities, reach more than 50 million users each (300 million for Facebook), and are general-purpose.

1. Social media is good for stalking Rob Glaser. John Cook of TechFlash said he’s learned all kinds of things about Glaser by following his tweets (e.g., he’s a fan of Pearl Jam, baseball, and Scrabble). But more importantly, Glaser said social media has become crucial for entrepreneurs, for managing your brand, and for effecting change in society. He pointed to last fall’s U.S. Presidential election, and how Barack Obama “out-organized” the Clintons—no small feat—by using social media to rally his supporters. (If only social media could work that way with Congress.)

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