How Seattle Companies and Innovators Can Change the World: Come Find Out on March 29

There’s no crying in baseball—or in innovation. Yet I’ve been hearing a fair bit of lamenting around town about how Seattle startups or venture capitalists are not making the top-whatever lists (Wall Street Journal, Technology Review, you name it) of most innovative companies or investors around the country.

Who cares? The city that brought the world Microsoft, Amazon, Boeing, McCaw Cellular, RealNetworks, Starbucks, and any number of other game-changing companies, should not be too worried. It should, however, be motivated. And it is.

That’s why we’re gathering an elite group of technology and life sciences leaders to talk about how to spot the biggest, most promising ideas in their fields, and how these ideas could really change the world, at our half-day Xconomy Forum, “What’s Your Breakthrough Idea?” on March 29 at the University of Washington. (Tickets are going fast, but there are still a few left at our special saver rate—you can register here.)

This is about thinking big as a community. But it’s also about the realities around making the biggest ideas work—building the right teams for the right companies, understanding who the customers are, handling competition, and so forth. And although the focus will be mostly on Seattle-area companies and leaders, the impact that we’re talking about here is decidedly global.

Here’s a little more about the program and speakers for March 29 (topics are subject to change):

—Nick Hanauer of Second Avenue Partners will open with a keynote about the mental calculus behind identifying a true breakthrough idea, versus a really, really good idea that probably won’t get traction. Nick doesn’t think of himself as a technology guy, yet some of his blockbuster investments happen to be in tech—Amazon, aQuantive, Insitu. (There’s a lesson already: don’t think in terms of your specialty area, think about an aspect of society that could be radically changed.)

—Christina Lomasney of Modumetal will talk about how growing the right kinds of “nanomaterials” could help reinvent the steel industry—and how this will impact energy efficiency, transportation, and defense. She might also tell us a thing or two about what she learned from her time at Boeing.

—Mick Mountz of Kiva Systems (from the Boston area) will discuss how mobile robots are transforming the logistics and operations of warehouses, especially in the e-retail business. Kiva’s robots move shelves of inventory around automatically and are able to help staff distribution centers for companies like Staples and Zappos (now part of Amazon).

—Steve Seitz of the UW’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering will talk about a breakthrough idea from computer vision (and maybe about creating 3-D virtual worlds people can interact with). Steve helped create the technology behind Microsoft’s well-known Photosynth software.

—Bill Bryant of Draper Fisher Jurvetson will talk about how to create “brave new world” startups—companies that don’t just make something better, faster, or cheaper, but shake up entire industries. He will address some of the practical issues that entrepreneurs and investors face when they try to do something really big.

—David Bluhm of Z2Live will discuss the emerging sector of social mobile gaming, and how to build a community of gamers who really interact—and how this will impact the video games of the future. He might also talk about how understanding social game mechanics could impact education, training, and other societal areas.

—Norm Wu of Qliance will discuss how to provide primary-care medical services to patients without involving health insurance companies. It’s a disruptive idea to the current U.S. healthcare system, and one that seems to allow patients to deal much more directly with their doctors.

—Dan Weld of the UW’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering, and Madrona Venture Group, will talk about advances in semantic Web search. An expert on artificial intelligence and Web interfaces, Dan will discuss the future of online knowledge discovery.

—And last, but definitely not least, we’ll have a keynote chat between Nathan Myhrvold of Intellectual Ventures (and former Microsoft chief technology officer) and Leroy Hood of the Institute for Systems Biology (and founder of numerous biotech companies including the new Integrated Diagnostics). This cross-disciplinary discussion will touch on topics such as how to invent across different fields, how to make breakthrough ideas scalable and marketable, and which technology and business problems most urgently need to be solved by the world’s top brains.

Personally, I’m also hoping to hear more about how an “invention capital industry” could help solve some of these problems, as Myhrvold has argued, and what kinds of breakthrough ideas are most promising for biologists and techies to work on together. And I definitely want to hear all of your questions too. See you on March 29.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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  • Great to hear this event is happening. You might also like to know that a region-wide movement has started around the idea of building an “innovation engine” to drive our regional economy into the leadership spot around sustainability practices, 21st Century social technologies, and government 2.0 (among many, many more).

    Learn more about us here:

    Seattle Innovators

    We’re hosting our first event this Saturday, March 13th, and we’ve got a lot of innovative ideas about regional collaboration to showcase.


    Joe Brewer
    Project Coordinator
    Seattle Innovators

  • Joe, thanks for the pointer to Seattle Innovators. I’ll check it out.