Monday, April 30, 2012

The Camera With a Thousand Lenses – and Fits in Your Pocket

The first commercially available light field camera, the Lytro was introduced last year and officially hit the market this past February. Its creator, Ren Ng, was a computer science graduate student at Stanford. He spent 2006 to 2011 secretly developing the diminutive gadget, after becoming smitten by photography. He and his rock climbing friends would take photos of one another on their climbing trips, but the blurry images led him to come up with a better option. Hence, the Lytro came to be.

The camera's lens contains thousands of even smaller lenses, allowing shutterbugs to snap pictures that record so much information that they can readjust the photo after it's been shot. According to Ng, the light coming into the Lytro's lens “can form any picture.”

Ng, who specialized in light field photography, received Stanford's award for best Ph.D. dissertation for his research on the subject. After the Lytro was unveiled, he was invited by the late Steve Jobs, whom  he looks up to, to demonstrate the device at Jobs's home.

Blurb: A Crazy Business Idea That Became a Hit

Based in San Francisco, California, Blurb is a book printing company that first came to life in founder Eileen Gittins's head just when the publishing industry was opening up to digital platforms in 2004. As an English and journalism student at UC Berkeley during the 1970s, she discovered photography and was hooked. Several years later, after serving at Eastman Kodak and Wall Data and building two other companies herself, Gittins started a personal project wherein she took portraits of 40 previous colleagues.

Having decided that she wanted to present the portraits in a professional quality bound book, Gittins approached printers, but there was one problem. An order of less than a thousand copies would result in a loss for the printers – and Gittins wanted only 40. Realizing that she would have to design and publish her book herself, she turned to the Internet for resources, but came up with nothing.

Gittins recalls being shocked at the results (or lack thereof), as desktop publishing and Adobe had already existed for some time. So she went to the printers again, and this time received an explanation that printers were designed to produce 5,000 copies of a single book, not a total of 5,000 copies for many books. For the next two years, Gittins worked hard to come up with a solution that would let ordinary folks design their own books and printers produce a single book profitably.

Though venture capitalists thought she was crazy, Gittins persevered, believing millions of people in the world had something to say in tangible book form. Eventually, she found a VC to support her business and arrived at the answer that had evaded her for so long: a book-designing software that was easy and fun to use, while creating a standard file that was professional enough for the printers.

In May 2006, the Blurb website was launched, and revenues have almost doubled every year since then. Gittins says that during the busy holiday seasons, the company processes a book every 1.5 seconds.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Bringing the Magic of Children's Books to Modern Devices

Founded by mother of three Lynette Mattke, PicPocket Books is a company that publishes children's books in the form of iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch apps. When her husband brought home an iPod Touch in early 2009, Mattke noticed that there were no high quality children's books in the App Store. According to her, “There were lots of podcasts, but nothing with pictures. That's when the idea fell into my lap.”

Since she had no technological background, Mattke hired a family friend to develop the software she needed. She then approached publishers and offered to digitize some of their printed books for free, in exchange for a share of the revenue. Later that July, the first PicPocket Books app was released, and Mattke was soon being contacted by emerging authors.

At present, PicPocket Books has put out more than 50 fiction and non-fiction titles, including classics such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Each book costs between $0.99 and $3.99.

New York Company Leads the Comeback of the Jukebox

Though the jukebox was once an essential piece of entertainment equipment in several bars and eateries across the United States, the industry, as Vending Times managing editor Nick Montano put it, “has been living from hand to mouth for the last decade.” According to the trade magazine, there are 90,000 jukeboxes in America today, as opposed to 150,000 during the mid to late 1990s. Moreover, these machines are becoming less valuable – the average weekly income per box in 2010 was $113, a significant drop from $148 just five years before.

If you consider how fast technology has advanced in recent years, it's really not that big a surprise that the jukebox industry has taken a hit. After all, why would people feed change into a machine to hear their favorite tunes when those songs are already on their smartphones and MP3 players?

One New York-based company is hoping to save and revive the dwindling industry, however. Introduced last year at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, the Virtuo SmartJuke is sort of like the teenage, tech savvy grandson of the classic jukebox. Developed by TouchTunes CEO Charles Goldstuck, the sleek device resembles a giant iPad and features a broadband connection that allows music lovers to choose from 400,000 songs. (Some old machines offer about 20,000.) Users who download the Virtuo app on their phones can control the jukebox remotely.

Earlier this year, TouchTunes unveiled more products and services to enhance the SmartJuke, including Virtuo PhotoBooth and Virtuo Karaoke. PhotoBooth allows users to take photos of themselves and instantly print and/or upload them to social networks, while Karaoke lets customers sing their hearts out.

South African-born Goldstuck, who used to serve as COO at BMG, says that his company is “revolutionizing the original social experience, which is going out and drinking in a tavern.”

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Central Florida’s ESO Equity Group

Founded in 2005 and based in Cocoa Beach, Florida, ESO Equity Group develops commercial and residential properties, engages in condominium conversions, and manages income-producing properties. Led by President and Chairman Ori Tal, an investor with international experience in corporate and real estate law, the firm converted one million square feet of Central Florida commercial and residential property in five years, including more than 750 condominium units. The company of investor and developer Giuseppe Conoscenti acts as Project Manager for ESO Equity Group, and Maria Viera serves as Financial Administrator.

ESO’s recent commercial projects include the Seacrest Building, an office complex; and the Executive Tower & Plaza, both in Cocoa Beach. The latter facility, a $2 million Mediterranean-style renovation of the former Galleria, will include a 25,000-square-foot Class A office tower and close to 18,000 square feet of upscale retail space with niche boutiques. The ESO Equity Group’s Central Florida residential projects range from the 16-unit Bluewave Condominiums in Satellite Beach; and Millennium Palms, a component of an Orlando master-planned community, to the 24-unit Fairway Apartments, fully renovated two-bedroom, two-bath units situated on a golf course in Daytona Beach. Other residential units include Seaclub Condominiums, one block from the ocean; and Royal Oak Patio Homes in Titusville.

Ori Tal, who earned a Bachelor of Economics and Law at the University of Haifa in Israel, completed Israeli Naval Academy officer training with honors and served as a Lieutenant in the Israeli Navy Reserve. In addition to managing the holding company, he oversees transactions and implements partnerships. Under his able guidance, the company has improved properties significantly and raised occupancy rates dramatically. Sharing his firm’s considerable success, Mr. Tal supports Ezer Mizion, an Israeli health-support organization; and the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Modern LDRs: There's an App for That

Pair is an app that lets you and your significant other “be together, when you're apart”. Currently available on iOS, though an Android version is in the works, Pair was created by Oleg Kostour and four other developers when they moved from Canada to Mountain View, leaving their girlfriends behind.

“We were trying to stay connected with them using Skype, SMS, Facebook, and email. The communication was scattered across many products, and we always felt like there was something missing,” Kostour says.

And thus, Pair came to be. You can use the app to send text messages, photos, and videos that only you and your significant other can see – sort of like a mini Facebook for two. You can also share your location, doodle together in real time, save important dates such as birthdays and anniversaries, and “thumbkiss” – that's when you and your partner touch the same spot on the screen.

Single hearts are now probably groaning at the cheesiness of it all. But don't dismiss Pair just yet, because when you find that special someone, this could very well be the one app that you won't be without.

e-Cycling Gets Smarter Thanks to San Diego Startup

With 40 million tons of e-waste being discarded annually around the world, the need for green solutions is becoming more and more apparent. ecoATM, a startup headquartered in San Diego, California, has stepped up to the challenge. Its answer: an automated e-cycling station of the same name, which makes recycling electronic gadgets as easy as pie.

The cupboard-sized machine, which was featured at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this past January, allows consumers to exchange used devices for cash or credit. All you have to do is go to a kiosk and drop your mobile phone, MP3 player, or tablet into the machine. Using advanced, patented technology and artificial intelligence, the ecoATM will assess the value of your device based on real-time secondary market prices and give you a quote. If you accept, you get cash on the spot. Or, you can opt to receive store credit or make a charitable contribution.

According to ecoATM CEO Tom Tullie, 75 percent of the devices they collect at the kiosks are given a second life. For the remaining 25 percent that have no further use, the startup partners with recycling centers that possess Responsible Recycling (R2) or Basel Action Network (BAN) certifications. These establishments then reclaim the gadgets' raw materials and precious metals in an eco-friendly manner.

The winner of the Best Clean Tech Startup Crunchies award for 2011, ecoATM currently has about 50 kiosks scattered across the United States, with the majority situated in malls and grocery stores in California. The company plans to add 500 more locations by the end of this year.

The ecoATM e-cycling station, which has passed ISO14011 and R2 certifications, has been recognized by the United Nation's Low Carbon Leadership program as an innovative environmental solution. In addition, the kiosk has received CONNECT's Most Innovative Product award for 2009, among other honors.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

New Website Turns Shopping-Phobic Men Into Fashionistas

It's no secret that, generally, men aren't as fond of shopping as women. Many would probably prefer to have their clothes shipped to them rather than going out to buy them. And this is just what Frank & Oak, a startup based in Montreal, Canada, is offering – a convenient, painless shopping experience for men ages 20 to 35.

Similar to a personalized men's fashion magazine, as CEO Ethan Song put it, Frank & Oak publishes a new collection on its website every month. Members receive an email newsletter with a selection of items based on their style and preference. They can choose five pieces from the collection, which are then delivered straight to their doorstep so they can try them on. If they like something, they pay for it and keep it. Otherwise, they simply send the products back. The service is free and there is no pressure to make a purchase.

Unlike some fashion websites that dictate what their audience should be wearing, Frank & Oak does it the other way around and pays attention to what appeals to their customers. “Our clients play an important role in the direction of our products,” Song says.

And because Frank & Oak is not merely acting as a curator but also designing and manufacturing the garments, they are able to offer exclusive, quality items at affordable prices. Everything for sale is $50 or less.

According to Song, “Everything is shipped directly from us to the client. It's almost as if we design the product and the client receives the product directly from the manufacturer. By doing that we're cutting out two or three layers of cost.”

Within a week of opening its doors to retail indifferent men last February, Frank & Oak has already admitted 12,000 subscribers. Still, the startup is limiting its membership base due to inventory reasons.

Free App Puts Phones on Data Diet

When a friend came home from vacation with $1,000 in wireless roaming charges, Israeli software developer Roi Tiger (pronounced “Tigger”) thought it was ridiculous and thus decided to create something that would reduce sky-high mobile data bills.

Tiger's undertaking eventually led to a startup called Onavo, where he now works as CTO. With offices in Tel Aviv and San Francisco, Onavo offers free iOS and Android apps that give control back to users.

As the first and only consumer-oriented data management app, Onavo helps users get the most out of their plan by compressing data, so usage is shrunk to as much as 80 percent. Additionally, the software generates monthly activity reports and informs users which apps are hogging data.

Described as a “must-have app” by The Next Web and TechCrunch, Onavo has been downloaded a million times in 150 countries. Earlier this year, the company raised $10 million from Magma Venture Partners, Horizons Ventures, Motorola Mobility Ventures, and Sequoia Capital.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Giving Indie Artists a Leg Up

In June 2010, Lucas Sommer launched Audimated to help his fellow independent musicians gain exposure and make money with their music. Previously, he had been running a studio in Miami, where he writes and produces songs for indie artists.

Audimated serves as an online marketplace for artists to promote their work and reach more fans. Bands and singers can set up their own store, where they can sell music, tickets, merchandise, and other stuff.

Though initially developed to address the problems of struggling artists, Audimated also caters to indie music fans. In addition to discovering new bands and having access to streams, downloads, and videos, fans can earn money as well by helping promote their favorite musicians. Like artists, fans can create an Audimated store and then earn a commission for every sale.

Audimated is free to join but charges a nominal transaction fee on sales. For extra features such as better visibility and search results priority, Audimated offers a paid premium account option. 

Magoosh Changes the Way Students Prep for Standardized Tests

Founded in 2009 by CEO Hansoo Lee and CPO Bhavin Parikh, Magoosh is an online resource that helps students prepare for the GRE, GMAT, and SAT. (And also TOEFL in the near future.) Knowing that they can come up with a better test prep product than what was available in the market, the founders employed their experience and know-how in education and technology to create something that they wished they had when they were studying for their own standardized exams.

Headquartered in Berkeley, California, Magoosh is a play on the Old Persian word “magush”, which refers to a wise person. With the objective to provide an excellent educational experience to all, the company offers test prep programs with several lessons and questions created by industry experts. To date, students from more than 150 countries have used Magoosh, watching over 10,000 hours of video and completing practice questions over a million times. 

In addition to lessons and questions, Magoosh offers other features such as video and text explanations for each problem, tips and tricks for exam day, and performance feedback. Additionally, users can customize their practice sessions, review all their previous answers, and flag difficult questions.

According to co-founder Bhavin Parikh, one of the reasons behind the success of Magoosh is the company's flexible work hours. Knowing that different people have different work rhythms, Magoosh employees can work whenever they want, as long as they get their tasks done on time and show up to the mandatory 10-minute daily meeting before noon. “This freedom shows we have faith in our employees, and yields amazing results.”

Since its inception, Magoosh has been cited in The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among others. Furthermore, the company has received the Intel Foundation Entrepreneurial Award as well as won the UC Berkeley CET Venture Lab Competition and North Bridge Venture Partners Competition.