Six tech start-ups that could change the way we live
By John Brandon
In the technology world, just because you have a new idea does not mean it will translate to a real company that can produce revenue. These companies have started with a germ of an idea – say, teaching you guitar or helping employees communicate about projects – and created a company that intends to grow quickly and become a major success. We tapped each one to find out how the product works and how the founders plan to keep the start-up momentum going.
Some companies are born out of necessity. After David Sacks founded the company Geni, which helps you research your family tree, he found the growing staff needed a way to communicate with each other. Sacks eventually developed the private social networking tool Yammer internally, then spun it off as a separate start-up. The idea is that employees can post questions, find company info, check on the expertise of co-workers, and track projects in a secure portal. Sacks, the CEO of both companies, now says the next step is to help companies develop their own apps and will offer some third-party apps for the service, including one that tracks questions and another for tracking ideas. Yammer is also expanding and will be opening operations in Europe and Asia soon.
Waking up in the morning does not need to a jolting experience. For couples, one alarm doesn’t help – one person might need to wake up to go for a run, but it wakes up the other person. The LARK Up system, which is partly an iPhone app, docking system, and wristband, is intended for couples where one person needs to wake up earlier than the other. The wristband sends a soft pulse that wakes you up, but there is no audible chime. CEO and founder Julia Hu says she worked with a Harvard sleep expert and MIT engineers to develop the LARK Up system. “The wristband is a wearable haptic and sensor device that is built on LARK’s patented Up technology, which has a dynamic vibration profile that is optimized to wake users and prevent desensitization. It wirelessly connects to a mobile phone and the user interface and controls are on the mobile phone creating a superior user experience,” she says.
Here’s a unique concept that’s still in a design phase but set for production next year. TerraManus is developing a “human-powered tractor” called the TerraSaver, which is intended for third world countries where a power source is not readily available. The hand-operated tractor uses hard plastic wheels that gouge a rut in the soil to create reservoirs that help with water flow. TerraManus is currently working with several agriculture companies in the US on a field test, and has worked with the US Commerce Department and the Chinese government on financing a field test.
This guitar tutoring system works much like Guitar Hero or Rock Band in that the software, which runs on your computer, listens to your performance and compares it against an instructional video. You then get a rating based on your performance that helps you learn from mistakes. The software includes a USB-to-guitar cable and works with any guitar, comes with 15 tracks including songs by Joan Jett and The Clash, and also includes the free AmpliTube effects software for distortion and delays.
Rentasmile.com is a service for people in the unique position of needing administrative help in a job or as a small business owner, yet who can’t afford (or don’t want to bother with) hiring an employee. Like a virtual concierge, Rentasmile.com helps you book a meeting, reserve a lunch appointment at a restaurant, or even make a phone call to a client. The basic service costs $35 per month for 30 requests. A second-tier service, called Business Assistance, is more comprehensive: you can request that someone provide help desk support, transcribe an interview, or answer your e-mail for you. This service starts at $200 per month for 20 hours of work. The company plans to expand to the UK, Canada, and Australia in the coming months, and will release an iPhone and Android app for tracking tasks.
Near-field communication works like RFID in that it transmits a wireless signal only in close proximity to the receiver. The Q-Track technology uses long waveforms that run about 1000 feet to track the location of objects. The signal emits a low frequency that is under 1MHz for a coverage area of about 230 feet. The technology is now being used at a nuclear facility to track objects, in a coal mine to track personnel, and even to track objects and personnel for emergency situations, such as a house fire. “Our pilot application is in the nuclear industry. Our technology locates workers in a nuclear training facility and simulates radiation exposure, providing the same feedback they’d get in a real nuclear environment with real radiation,” says Dr. Hans Schantz, the CTO of Q-Track Corporation.