Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Aggressive Conservative Investor

I spent four years at KEMET (NSYE:KEM). One of my responsibilities was investor relations, and I met many institutional investors in New York, Silicon Valley, and other places across the country.

The investor I am most impressed with, and who has the best reputation among other investors I dealt with, is the seasoned veteran Marty Whitman, manager of the Third Avenue Fund, where I have much of my investment portfolio.

Marty recently updated The Aggressive Conservative Investor, a book he wrote that was originally published in 1979. I highly recommend his philosophy of value investing. I met many investors that claimed they were value investors, but few came close to measuring up to Marty and his team in practice.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Innovation I: Most students are black. They are poor. And they are scholars.

"Located just off I-95 south of the Virginia line, the school sits in a part of the state where poverty rates are high and expectations are often low. But the school's test scores are among the best in the state."

If you care anything about improving the quality of education, this article has to grab your attention.

There are some very interesting facts here, demonstrating that successful innovation in education is not different than innovation in any other area of our lives.

These aren't children from affluent, middle income families siphoned off from public school; they are students not well served by the status quo. "Few children who attend Gaston College Prep and Pride High come from well-educated families. Most parents have completed high school, but many have not. Two-parent families with college degrees can be counted on one hand."

The school provides 100% of the academics that students need to succeed, and doesn't depend on parents, who themselves lack a quality education, to help with algebra homework at night. "Students attend class each day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. -- and every other Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tutoring takes place at the end of each day. Summer includes a three-week session to prepare for the coming year."

"Discipline is tight. Excuses aren't accepted."

Accountability is taken to a whole new personal level. "Every teacher, for example, is given a cell phone, and students and parents are given the numbers. Students who don't understand their homework are expected to call teachers at home. Teachers quickly learn that a well-taught lesson cuts down on late-night calls. Students soon learn they don't want to be the ones who always call the teacher."

The school builds on a proven model. "Gaston College Prep and Pride High are products of something called KIPP, shorthand for the Knowledge is Power Program. KIPP, which runs more than 40 schools nationwide, started in 1995 with two schools in inner-city Houston and New York's South Bronx."

It took people who were not invested in the status quo to make radical changes in the way education was delivered. Tammi Sutton and Caleb Dolan "decided to build their own high school. This all makes perfect sense to Sutton and Dolan, who weren't trained in a traditional college of education and don't spend much time worrying about the way schools are supposed to operate."

Those who are invested in the status quo are incredibly resistant to change. "Wake schools Superintendent Bill McNeal quickly pointed out that any school with voluntary enrollment enjoys a big advantage... Durham Public Schools Superintendent Ann Denlinger questioned whether traditional schools could legally require teachers to work longer hours."

Until we understand that we must fundamentally reinvent the way education is delivered to children not well served by the status quo, we will not make substantial improvements in education.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Innovation II: Will iTunes Be Firefoxed?

We all need to pay attention to the open source movement. It has incredible power to tap into the creative energy of a broad and diverse talent base. Here's an open source project as it is evolving.

A venture backed, startup company, Pioneers of the Inevitable, is developing an open source version of a software product they call Songbird, to compete with Apple's iTunes. This first hit my radar screen in the article, Will iTunes Be Firefoxed?

For those who don't know, Firefox is a browser distributed by Mozilla. The source code for Firefox is freely available for developers to "help Mozilla by fixing bugs, adding new features, making Mozilla smaller and faster, and making Mozilla development easier for others." This is what the open source movement is all about.

Mozilla has captured a significant share of the browser market from Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Users of the Firefox browser account for 12.4% of the traffic on the Swamp Fox site, for example.

Which brings us to Pioneers of the Inevitable, which are organizing their open source effort on The Songbird Media Player Pre-release Blog. That blog in itself is pretty interesting. That you are reading this is a testament to the fact that it worked. In addition, others in the blogsphere have picked up on the product and are commenting on it, like here and here. That itself is an open source model for PR.

It will be interesting to check in with Songbird from time to time to see how much progress they are making in their open source initiative, especially to find out if they can capture market share from iTunes the way Firefox has captured share from Internet Explorer.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Innovation III: No exciting SC auto news?

The State newspaper reports, "S.C. auto industry plods along in 2005: No exciting announcements, but no serious setbacks, either."

Huh? No exciting automotive news in South Carolina? How about this?

The credibility of Clemson-ICAR grows as the Society of Automotive Engineers will become a campus partner of Clemson-ICAR. "SAE President for 2005, J. E. “Ted” Robertson, P. E., said, 'Clemson-ICAR and the South Carolina Upstate region are critical and exciting players in the automotive industry. The investment of BMW and other automotive leaders in the region, and specifically in Clemson-ICAR, tells us we are joining another winning team. SAE is committed to servicing the industry. The association with Clemson University in our professional development and education programs will bring additional value.'"

Clemson ICAR is able to attract a preeminent scholar with Thomas Kurfess as its first endowed chair. "Clemson University has named Thomas R. Kurfess, Ph.D... [as] the BMW Manufacturing Chair and... as director of the Carroll A. Campbell Jr. Graduate Engineering Center. Kurfess earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, completing his doctorate in 1989, and was on the faculty of Carnegie Mellon University prior to joining the Georgia Tech faculty in 1994. His research focuses on manufacturing and on automation and mechatronics with emphasis in system dynamics, control, metrology, precision system design and CAD/CAM/CAE (Computer Aided Design/Computer Aided Manufacturing/Computer Aided Engineering.)

Clemson builds its infrastructure to support world-class scholarship which will attract top-flight students when it receives $26.6 million for the Carroll A. Campbell Jr. Graduate Engineering Center. "No educational facility in the United States has all this equipment under one roof, and most of the small-scale automotive suppliers do not have access to this type of equipment," said Chris Przirembel, Clemson’s vice president of research and economic development. "Students conversant with this technology will be invaluable to the industry."

Success breeds success. Timken Joins Clemson ICAR. "Becoming part of the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research is a fantastic opportunity for our company and our customers. Clemson-ICAR provides unparalleled access to world-class automotive research, educators and partners," said Jacqui Dedo, [Timken] Automotive Group president. "Co-locating our product and process engineering for powertrain products at Clemson-ICAR will strengthen our technical team, enhancing the products and services we can offer our customers."

World-class knowledge clusters are supposed to attract firms interested in tapping into that knowledge. Well Bingo! Timken is old friend to Tom Kurfess, who will "continue a long-time research relationship. He came to Clemson from Georgia Tech, where he worked closely with the Timken research and development team in Norcross, Ga., and in Canton, Ohio. But his relationship with Timken goes back even further. He met his wife at Timken in 1984, when both were working as student interns during their undergraduate days at MIT.

I don't know about you, but I think all that is pretty darn exciting.

Innovation IV: $100 Hand-Cranked Laptop

"The $100 laptop has enormous disruptive potential... The computer is the size of a textbook, features built-in wireless capability that can connect to the web via WiFi and create local area networks,... can be powered by a hand crank... [and keeps costs down] by reliance on open-source software, a radical redesign that focuses on simplicity and durability, and economies of scale.

What an interesting idea!

But we intuitively know that introducing a $100 hand-cranked laptop to power users at the high-end of the laptop market will get it annihilated. Can you imagine introducing a laptop powered by a hand crank to the mainstream of corporate America? Pshhh. "The $100 laptop is being derided by industry incumbents as nothing more than a gadget... in the words of Intel Chairman Craig Barrett."

So how do you commercialize such an interesting idea? Where are there potential customers looking for a simpler, cheaper, more convenient solution to a problem where a hand cranked laptop is a great alternative?

How about children in developing countries? Right now they don't have any computer. And many of them live in places where electricity is too expensive, insufficient, or unreliable to power a computer if they had one. The $100 hand-cranked laptop is being positioned to compete against non-consumption by meeting the needs of a massive and massively underserved market.

And who knows, at the technology matures there might be niches where the technology can be introduced to power users in the US. Ever wish you had a hand-crank when your laptop died on an airplane?

Monday, December 19, 2005

Empowering Individuals Versus Institutions

Laurin Manning is a law student at USC that has a blog about SC politics called The LaurinLine, which has become quite popular and influential.

The proof of that is that Phil Bailey, executive director of the Senate Democratic Caucus, chose LaurinLine to criticize Democratic gubernatorial candidate Frank Willis. On another occasion, Mr. Bailey also criticized Carroll Campbell. Mr. Bailey tried to make his attacks anonymously, but unfortunately for him it was possible to identify him, and Laurin did.

This created quite a stink. The State ran an article about the Willis incident, in which SC Democratic Party chairman Joe Erwin and executive director Lachlan McIntosh felt obligated to respond. The Post and Courier has an article about the Campbell affair.

Here's Laurin's version of what happened. Here's more reaction to what happened on another blog.

My point here is not to comment on the politics of the situation. I'll leave that for you to decide.

What is interesting to me is that college student creates a web site at little or no financial cost, quickly gains credibility, and rocks the political establishment. It is a great example of how empowered individuals versus institutions have become and of how small the world has gotten, even on a local level.

Creating Wealth in the Carolinas Optics Cluster

I recently received a note from John Ballato, Director of the Clemson Center for Optical Material Sciences and Engineering Technology.
The optics/optoelectronics is perfectly poised to play a large role in regional economic development since the global industry is very strong and growing (approaching $1 trillion globally by 2012. There are 170 optics facilities in the Carolinas, 100 optics companies in the Carolinas, our Carolinas MicroOptics Triangle consortium with Clemson/UNCC/WCU is top 2-3 in the country now in terms of size... just need someone or thing to organize and mobilize as is being done in automotive.
The International Society for Optical Engineering provides external validation of the significance of the Carolinas Optics Cluster.

The key to creating wealth is increasing the entrepreneurial activity around clusters like this.

Any thoughts as to who and how to do that?

SC #1 In Foreign Investment: The Asset to Build On

A recent announcement by the SC Department of Commerce reaffirms a fact that has been true for several years, South Carolina Leads the Nation in Job Attracting Foreign Investment.

These investments are managed by top professionals that are among the best in the world at what they do. These managers have global relationships, both with customers and supply chains.

For many of these firms like BMW or Michelin, we do not have to convince them to do research and development or other knowledge-based activities, we only have to leverage our relationships with international firms and our research universities for more knowledge-based activities to be done here.

The most successful example of this to date is Clemson ICAR. This model is replicable with other international firms with whom we have relationships.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Note to a friend: Culture matters

Below is a note that I sent to a friend earlier this week.

Good to see you yesterday. I had not read David Brooks column, "Psst! 'Human Capital,'" or Bruce Yandle's newsletter comments on that column. In my experience they are right. There are many dimensions to human capital.

This reminds me of a book by Thomas Sowell that I read some time ago, "The Economics and Politics of Race." He points out how some cultures of people, for example Jews or Asians, tend to be successful economically in similar ways as they migrate around the world, while others are consistently less successful as they move around. His point, powerfully made, is that culture matters.

I took 2000 off and traveled all over South Carolina, talking to CEOs, researchers, economic development professionals or anyone else who would listen about how important I thought having a more knowledge based economy was. I came away with a couple of strong impressions.

First, researchers in industry and academia in this state did not know one another for the most part. The most important role of the Carolina Crescent Coalition and subsequently InnoVenture was to introduce SC knowledge professionals to one another. You cannot collaborate until you know one other.

Second, the traditional industrial recruitment coalition in this state makes money when something brick and mortal gets built. They don't disagree that starting things like software companies is important, they just don't see how they make money so it will never be their focus. Another goal of C3 and InnoVenture was to build a new coalition of people in whose interest it was for knowledge based companies and academic research programs to exist and grow. This new coalition of people is just beginning to emerge in South Carolina.

I wrote an editorial published in the Greenville News in October, "Austin's entrepreneurial spirit offers lessons for city," about why Austin has such an entrepreneurial culture. I noted that, "Austin nurtures all these folks -- students, managers with new ideas and immigrants -- who don't fit into the power structures that exist in the community." We want to get that here, but I'm not really sure we do get that yet.

Still, I believe we are beginning to make true progress in the state, but I agree with David Brooks and with Bruce Yandle - it's very cultural. Because of that it will take a lot longer than some people are anticipating. In 2001, I visited with George Kozmetsky, former Dean of the University of Texas business school and architect of Austin's knowledge based economic development model. He was then 87 years old. We spent all day with him, and as we were milling around the lobby of the hotel waiting for our car to take us to the airport, he asked me how long I thought creating a more innovative economy would take. "Oh, five to ten years, maybe," I said. "If you don't dedicate the rest of your life to this, you'll never see it," he told me.

That was a reality check. It takes decades for cultures to change. This is not a sprint, but a marathon. We're taking the first steps in a long journey that our children and grandchildren will benefit from.


Monday, December 12, 2005

InnoVenture seeks researchers needing business partners - Deadline January 9

New this year, InnoVenture is seeking researchers or inventors seeking business partners to commercialize their intellectual property. The deadline for submissions is January 9, 2006.

No prior experience presenting is necessary. Each presenter will be coached to make a polished presentation. More information and applications can be made online.

InnoVenture seeks emerging companies needing capital - Deadline January 9

InnoVenture is seeking emerging companies to present to investors at the March conference. The deadline for submissions is January 9, 2006.

We're beginning to get a few applications, but we're looking for many more. No prior experience presenting to investors is necessary. Each presenting company will be coached to make a polished presentation. More information and applications can be made online.

Past presenting companies have found InnoVenture to be an excellent experience. Navigational Sciences CEO Eric Dobson said, “We were exposed to investors and received calls months later from investors. One investor we met at InnoVenture closed with us.”

Bill Baum of EcoVehicle Enterprises noted, “As a presenting company, I had anticipated meeting venture or angel investors but had not focused on the opportunities networking with complimentary businesses.”

Zipit Systems President Frank Greer said, “Zipit Systems used InnoVenture to jump start the development of our business plan and fund raising collateral. The InnoVenture team provided fantastic support.”

Swamp Fox seeks thought leaders

Swamp Fox is considering expanding the voices on the Swamp Fox Insights blog to include thought leaders in the community.

Wikipedia defines a thought leader as "a person who is recognized among his or her peers for innovative ideas and demonstrates the confidence to promote those ideas." We're thinking about asking interesting people to post an entry regularly about things they find interesting.

Now's your shot. Tell us who you would like to hear from.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Venture Philanthropy

The New York Times has an interesting article, A Scotsman Wields a Not-So-Invisible Hand in Africa, about Tom Hunter who has committed $100 million for projects to wrest Africans from poverty. Some things about this struck me.

"Why would a hard-headed and successful businessman... display what cynics might depict as a naïveté that has left many would-be saviors to rue the day they resolved to venture into Africa?... His plan is to bypass the usual channels of development aid." Discontinuous innovations always look crazy to people vested in the status quo, which is why they are almost always commercialized outside the existing mainstream market leaders. Why should philanthropy be any different? Tom Hunter's instincts about creating a new value chain to deliver his aid are probably right on.

"Sir Tom calls his form of giving 'venture philanthropy...' His philanthropy will be run on business lines with clear targets and exit strategies." This reminds me of Bill Gates approach to his philanthropy. This discipline is likely to make both highly success givers.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Prospering From Within: Identifying and Nurturing Local Assets

I first met Aaron McKethan when he was a consultant with the e-NC Authority, a quasi state agency in NC focusing on economic development and technology policy. Last summer he led a project to identify and address impediments to economic development that are specific to the counties at the geographic borders of North Carolina and the neighboring states of South Carolina and Virginia. I was impressed with his vision and his leadership.

Recently I came upon an article he wrote, Prospering From Within: Identifying and Nurturing Local AssetsHe writes:
External recruitment of business has been the dominant economic development strategy of the southern U.S. in the postwar era. Political and development leaders have emphasized the state’s low production costs, resulting from low taxes, cheap land and low-cost labor. While the South was successful in establishing a branch plant economy in the past half century, an over-reliance on external recruitment left the region vulnerable to rapid changes in international competition and technology.

Today, the region is experiencing a significant economic transition largely fueled by global outsourcing. Just as firms were initially attracted to the South by relatively low production costs, firms are increasingly re-locating plants and jobs to Asia and Latin America where production is even cheaper. In addition, productivity gains have also contributed to worker displacement in the region. Firms have leveraged new technologies to maintain or increase output without adding new workers by developing a more specialized and productive labor force.

As plants close and old-economy jobs disappear, development and political leaders are experimenting with new strategies to enhance regional competitiveness. While external recruitment strategies continue, and efforts are underway to transition into a more knowledge-based economy, many leaders are increasingly focusing on demand-side initiatives. They are promoting local entrepreneurship, building new markets for products and services, expanding markets for local products that already exist, transforming the local skills base, increasing access of local businesses to new capital and focusing on new business formation.
Ahh, a man after my own heart. You'll appreciate the rest of his insights into the economy of the future.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Online Conversation About the SC Economy

On October 21st, the Council on Competitiveness sponsored a "Conversation on the SC Economy" Greenville. Professors from our research universities presented summaries of their current research on the SC economy.

We now have all six of the presentations online. (Don Schunk was unable to make the conference.) The technique we used involved taking a low res video of the speaker and digitizing the slides so that you can really read them. Once on our website, click "Economic Development Research' and then click the presentation that you want to see. Allow a few minutes for the presentation to fully load onto the RAM of your computer. After the first few slides, you should be able to use the controls to jump to any point in the presentation. Thanks to Tommy Cabaniss at Action Video in Greenville for proposing the video technique and to Amy Love at the Council for getting the presentations online.

Thanks to all of the professors for sharing their work, to Bruce Yandle for organizing the effort, and to the Greenville Chamber for handling registrations. I think you will see that some first class economic development research is being done at our state universities. Please share this e-mail with your organizations.

George W. Fletcher
SC Council on Competitiveness
(864) 421-9999 (Greenville)
(803) 264-5888 (Columbia)
(864) 380-6392 (Mobile)