Cringely's "Not in Silicon Valley" Startup Tour
Bob Cringely is a technology journalist whose columns and TV specials reveal the inner workings of Silicon Valley. In the summer of 2010, with sponsorship from Kauffman, he set out on a 10,000-mile tour to visit unusual and little-known startups across the United States. You can find an account of the tour at www.cringely.com, but here are some highlights, from his remarks when he stopped at the Foundation along the route.
This bus is a 1996 Winnebago Adventurer. Last summer my family had a great time traveling around the country in it, and my brilliant wife, Mary Alyce, said, "Let's find a way to do this again." So we came up with the idea of a startup tour. I have 500,000 weekly readers of my blog. They nominated hundreds of innovative companies they thought the world should know about.
We selected about thirty-two, all over America, and the acceptance we got from the startup people was astounding. We went to people's houses, parked in their driveways, heard about their dreams and how they're realizing them. And we discovered an amazing variety of companies, which are barely mentioned in the general media.
In Ann Arbor, Michigan, we met a twenty-two-year-old recent graduate from the University of Michigan who's invented paper sandals. His company is called Paper-Feet, and the sandals are actually made from recycled billboard vinyl. There's enough billboard vinyl made and used and thrown away in America every year to cover the state of Massachusetts. He's turning the stuff into sandals for the third world, for the first world, for the cool world, selling them at low prices on the web.
And we discovered an amazing variety of companies, which are barely mentioned in the general media.
Then in Brighton, Michigan, we have an entrepreneur who has found a way to fuel-inject $600 motorcycles made in China. The countries that have the most motorcycles in the world are China and India. They're making over forty million new ones a year. If the manufacturers install this company's little fuel injection unit, instead of a carburetor, it raises the fuel economy 15 percent and cuts emissions by 95 percent! The company is ElectroJet. The founder and many on his team worked in the Detroit auto industry. So here's a Motor City spinout, marketing an American technology to India and China that's going to help clean up their air pollution, by making its engines run better. Now, isn't that the way it should be?
We also spent time with some folks in St. Louis who are part of a startup called Square. They have a little device—I think I have one in my pocket—that you plug into the top of your iPhone or your Android phone, which allows you to take credit cards for whatever you're selling. This will revolutionize flea markets and tag sales and anything else where people want to take card payments. That's amazing.
And back to motorcycles, in Portland, Oregon, we saw a one-wheel motorcycle. It's kind of like a unicycle except it has gyroscopic balancing, it's electric, and it goes twenty-five miles an hour. The company is Ryno Motors, and they're selling this to police departments to use in place of Segways. Not only does it cost less, it has other advantages for police patrolling a beat. Cops don't like to stand all day, Segways aren't very maneuverable, and an electric motorcycle puts them eye to eye with citizens. It's a social leveling thing, which is very important in law enforcement.
These are just a few of the things we learned. Most of the companies we visited were very modestly financed, which proves that to change the world doesn't require raising a lot of money. The role of companies like these in our economy and culture has been way underestimated.
In fact, we've now had an inquiry from Chinese television about doing "Startup China." But I want to do more Startup Tours in this country, too, for many summers to come. Even the tech and business media, for the most part, don't understand the details of these startup companies. I'm hoping the project may help America rediscover one of its own greatest strengths.
Just don't ask me to drive all the way next time!