Discovering innovations that matter since 2002

For architects and industrial designers, finding sustainable materials to use in building projects has long been a challenge, with providers and information scattered all across the web. Ecolect, which just launched last fall, aims to provide a single, central library of sustainable materials that makes it easier for designers to be “green.” Rhode Island-based Ecolect, which was founded by two Rhode Island School of Design graduates, hopes to save designers time and money by answering three important questions: where to find sustainable materials, what makes them sustainable, and who else is using them and how. Toward that end, the site features materials with sustainable attributes—eco paints and bamboo flooring, for example—complemented by content that stimulates discussion about sustainability. Case studies illustrate the successful use of sustainable design, and users can contribute reviews and images of materials in use. The site’s blog, meanwhile, discusses how ecology affects the world. Ad-supported Ecolect is free for users. “We saw a unique and unmet need in the marketplace,” explains Matt Grigsby, one of the site’s cofounders. “From there, we set out to not only create the world’s first free and accessible sustainable materials library, but also build a tight-knit global community, where individuals from around the world can go to learn and connect around the issue of sustainable design.” Grigsby won last year’s Rhode Island Innovation Awards Rising Star Innovator title for his role in developing Ecolect, and the company itself has been named a finalist in the 2008 SXSW Web Awards, the winner of which will be named next month. The trend toward sustainability isn’t going away anytime soon, so the opportunities are many in supporting and informing those who make it happen. Since the distribution of building materials varies widely by country/region, this is definitely one to set up in your own neck of the woods. Or how about applying the concept to other industries? Spotted by: Mark M. Given the lifestyle changes wrought by electronic media, it’s no surprise that book publishers have begun experimenting with new ways to publish their works. We’ve recently looked at efforts to sell books in bite-size chunks as downloads or via e-mail and RSS, but many have also become available as free podcasts via Podiobooks.com. Arizona-based Podiobooks.com has actually been around for a few years already, having launched in 2005, and it now lays claim to more than 41,000 members. Users of the site receive episodes or chapters of any book on a schedule of their choosing, and can then listen to them on their computer, transfer the DRM-free audio files to their MP3 player or burn them to CD or other media—all free of charge. A combination of advertising and listener donations support the service, which passes on 75 percent of all donated funds to authors. Since the 2005 publication of Scott Sigler’s “EarthCore,” which the company says was the world’s first podcast-only novel, Podiobooks.com has grown to include 3,913 episodes of 184 titles available for download. All books are distributed with the express permission of the authors, many of whom participate in the interests of marketing and exposure. Early reports of the book’s demise were greatly exaggerated, as has been amply proven by the success of the Harry Potter series, among others. But with new media and devices like Amazon’s Kindle, the question now is what other forms it might assume. Music has already become available in a variety of formats; now it’s books’ turn. There’s no arguing with choice! Or with free. Much more on the rise of no-price in our sister-site’s current briefing: FREE LOVE. Spotted by: Murtaza Ali Patel Back in 2006, Nike generated copious amounts of street cred with techies when it partnered with Apple and released its Nike + iPod Sport Kit, which allowS gadget-loving runners to synch their iPods via a special sensor placed inside their Nike shoes. Now, the US athletic shoe manufacturer seems determined to win over green-minded customers, too. In January, Nike introduced the Air Jordan XX3, which uses eco-friendly materials. Then in February Nike went a step further with Trash Talk. From the sole to the shoelaces, this shoe is produced not only from ‘environmentally preferred’ materials but also recycled waste, with much of the latter coming from Nike’s own production facilities—scraps that would otherwise have been discarded. Trash Talk is the brainchild of Nike celebrity endorser Steve Nash.The All-Star guard for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns is a committed green-living advocate. And a retail price of USD 100 aptly illustrates how a company can turn garbage to gold. That’s a lesson which should be well taken by beleaguered manufacturers in the US and other developed nations. As these manufacturers look for ways to compete with lower-cost producers in Asia, they might find the secret to reinventing themselves is stacked up in the trash bins of their own factories. Yet another way for brands to rack up those greenie points 😉 Website www.nike.com Spotted by: Bjarke Svendsen By offering a set of sophisticated project management tools, Kluster aims to enable crowds to develop new concepts. The system is currently being demonstrated at the TED conference in Monterey, where the event’s attendees will be able to work together to create a product prototype in 72 hours. (Rapid prototyping machines and a team of modellers are standing by.) Kluster wasn’t developed just for tangible objects though. It can also be used to create brand identities, plan events or for any other project that would benefit from crowd input. Granted—Kluster isn’t the first venture to create a platform for crowdsourcing. Cambrian House and CrowdSpirit both operate in this space. The main advantage Kluster offers is incentive: a highly developed system of rewards. Members can earn ‘Watts’ (the local currency) by helping solve problems or suggesting refinements or enhancements. They can also invest their Watts, and can cash out if a project is purchased by a third party. Investments grow along with a project’s value, and a member’s stake is based on how much he or she has contributed. As explained by Kluster: “Watts encourage users to participate and stay on target, keeping the community productive.” Anyone can initiate a project, and Kluster claims to use complex algorithms to let the brightest ideas surface, not just the loudest ones. Several companies have signed up to engage Kluster’s community and tap into their collective creativity. In the best case scenario, the crowds will help brands create new hit products. At the very least, using Kluster will let them interact with their most dedicated customers. Smaller companies, meanwhile, can use Kluster as an instant research and development lab, enlisting (and rewarding!) the community to help ‘flesh out’ ideas that they might otherwise not be able to develop. One to experiment with! Spotted by: Kare Anderson Last summer we wrote about a Facebook application that lets users of the popular social network send real flowers to their virtual friends, and now The Light Agency has expanded on that idea with a Mars-branded widget that makes it possible to send real candy. Launched on Valentine’s Day, Celebrate allows UK users of Facebook to choose from a range of Mars confectionery gifts from the Celebrate Sweet Shop online. To send one, they simply select a friend, add a message and pay for the gift via tokens on their PayPal account. A message is sent to the gift recipient requesting their mobile number, and a unique Celebrate Voucher ID and gift details are then sent to them via SMS text. To collect the gift, the recipient just visits one of more than 12,500 participating PayPoint retailers and shows the Celebrate Voucher ID. As the lines dividing the real and virtual worlds continue to blur, consumers will increasingly value the ability to bring niceties like real-world gift-giving to the virtual realm. With just a few contenders so far, the sky’s still the limit on opportunities—one to get in on early! Spotted by: Bjarke Svendsen Aiming to invigorate a stagnating housing market, Dutch ING Bank is helping potential buyers bid on houses that aren’t yet for sale. The bank’s WoonWaarUWilt (“LiveWhereYouWant”) initiative, which launched yesterday, lets clients make an offer on the house they’d love to own. ING is partnering with online real estate firm iBlue. After potential buyers fill in a form on www.woonwaaruwilt.nl, including their dream home’s address and the initial offer they’re willing to make, iBlue contacts them to discuss whether the offer is reasonable, and adjusts it if necessary. A mortgage consultant also determines whether the buyers would be able to finance the purchase. iBlue then sends a preliminary offer to the property’s current owners, explaining the situation and inquiring whether they’d consider selling. As with other ‘Intention Economy’ real estate ventures we’ve covered before (in Finland and elsewhere), the reasoning is that many homeowners aren’t actively interested in selling, but can be persuaded to do so if the right offer comes along. By declaring their intention and backing it up with a lender’s financial approval, buyers can help eliminate the uncertainty associated with putting a house on the market. Meanwhile, the concept is a smart way for ING to get a head start on other banks when it comes to financing the transaction. Making an offer is free for clients, but if the owners are interested in pursuing the offer, iBlue acts as the buyer’s agent and charges a commission once the deal is done. The Intention Economy was first described by Doc Searls as follows: “The Intention Economy grows around buyers, not sellers. It leverages the simple fact that buyers are the first source of money, and that they come ready-made. You don’t need advertising to make them.” Which offers exciting opportunities for businesses who are willing to shift from marketing to buyers, to facilitating their intentions. As the environmental consequences of driving cars become ever more clear, consumers are increasingly aware of the benefits of alternative modes of transportation. Walkit is a website that promotes the power of walking as a healthier way to get around. Walkit’s goal is to help consumers make more informed decisions about whether they choose to walk for all, or part, of any given journey. The UK-based site currently offers walking routes for London, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Newcastle/Gateshead, and plans to cover all the UK’s major cities by the end of this year. Users looking for walking routes simply enter their starting location and desired destination, along with whether they prefer the most direct route or the least busy one; there’s also an option to request a route “via” some other spot along the way. Thanks to a feature just added earlier this month, users going through inner London can request “fresh air” routes with the lowest pollution as well. Either way, Walkit then supplies the user with a detailed map and written directions, including distance, walking time, the number of calories burned and the carbon dioxide avoided by walking rather than riding in a car, taxi or bus. Walkit first launched in London in late 2006, and over the course of 2007 it received more than 440,000 visits and generated nearly 670,000 walking routes. Glasgow is reportedly next on its list, and discussions are apparently also under way across the Atlantic in Boston. The site is supported by ads and sponsorships, including on-map icons and store locators. It’s pretty safe to say demand will only increase for alternative ways to get around, and there’s no cheaper alternative than walking. Why not help consumers in a city near you rediscover the power of their own two feet? (Related: Downloadable shopping maps.) Spotted by: Mark Boreland Start-up phone provider Ribbit aims to offer solutions to questions like: “Why can’t I forward voice messages like I can my email?” or “Why doesn’t my phone ring in my browser?” Ribbit, which is still in beta testing phase and set to launch in the coming months, is headed up by Silicon Valley tech veterans who plan to load their phone service with applications previously unavailable from a single phone network. Instead of simply displaying a caller ID, for example, Ribbit will create a mashup of relevant information culled from social networks like Twitter and Facebook, revealing what the caller is currently doing/reading/watching. What Ribbit is attempting, via its development platform Amphibian—is to combine all of the different ‘talk channels’ that consumers are using, and to overlay this unified communication hub with web-enabled features such as voicemail sorting tools and info-rich caller ID. Call routing is good example of their integrated approach. As explained by Ribbit: “Drag and drop personal call routing lets you connect all your phones together. It’s your call—you determine where you want to take it. Route calls to Skype, MSN, Google Talk, home, office, or anywhere you want. Ring all, none, or some…answer one and they all stop ringing. And you can even move a live call from one phone to another.” Additional applications will come from independent developers using Amphibian’s API. These developers—more than 600 have signed on so far—can sell the tools they create via Ribbit’s online store. That’s where the opportunity for tech-savvy entrepreneurs may lie. Ribbit itself will create revenue through access fees to its API, along with support services and sales of applications developed both in-house and by third parties. Ribbit isn’t alone in this space, of course. Heavyweight Google recently announced its open model Android operating system for mobile phones. Another major player, eBay, is under pressure to wring more profits from its Skype subsidiary. And Apple has plans to further open up its iPhone to third party developers. Bottom line: the telecom industry is about to get even more lively, with lots of opportunities for small-scale developers to create their own profitable niches that serve consumers like never before. Spotted by: Mark Ingebretsen Until recently there has been online dating—traditionally a matter of photos and profiles—and speed dating, which took the offline dating world by storm. The two were obviously a match made in heaven, though, because in the last few months several new sites have begun offering speed dating online. WooMe, for example, which launched in November, is an online introduction platform that allows users to meet, see and hear people live in 1-minute conversations. Using a webcam and WooMe’s optimized in-browser video and voice capability, users congregate online for five-minute “speed sessions” in which everyone gets to meet five new people. Users can create their own session focusing on a particular topic, or they can join one that’s already scheduled. Either way, they decide whether they’ve been “woo’d” or not by each member they meet and pursue the connections with those they like. San Francisco-based WooMe is backed by the founders of Skype (Atomico Investments), Mangrove Capital Partners and Klaus Hommels, and its service is free. Camlink, meanwhile, is another free service aimed at bringing speed dating to the web. Still in beta, the New York-based service offers online speed date sessions of mini-dates ranging anywhere from 1 minute “turbo dates” to 5 minute introductions. Sessions are all based on themes, such as “New York movie lovers” or “Jewish singles.” During each date in a session, users vote whether they like the person they’re speaking with or not; if both sides vote “yes” the system detects the match and users are prompted to select which contact information to share. Finally, California-based SpeedDate, also free, lets users go on live, 3-minute dates through voice, video and IM, and then vote for those they like. Once again, if both parties click “yes” for each other, they are given the opportunity to contact each other and pursue the connection. Dating is an area that just keeps on spurring new innovation. While all three of these sites are open to users around the world, the concept begs for localized versions. One to bring to an area near you! (Related: Dating 3.0, Group dating.) Websites: www.woome.comwww.camlink.comwww.speeddate.com/date Spotted by: Luke Humble and Ozgur Alaz Companies including the likes of Google have long touted the potential of GPS-based advertising, and that promise recently came a step closer with a new, ad-supported GPS device from adNav. adNav’s Boomerang is an ad-supported mobile concierge system with built-in GPS navigation that’s currently targeted at hotels, airlines and car rental agencies as an extra amenity for out-of-town visitors. The idea is that when a traveller arrives at one of AdNav’s partner hotel or other locations, they are offered the Boomerang for a few dollars a day (the goal is for it to be free eventually, adNav says). In addition to voice-guided GPS navigation, the Boomerang includes unlimited connectivity to the web through wifi and cellular networks. Local city and restaurant guides give users access to hundreds of pages of geo-coded information, allowing them to simply touch the desired destination and be seamlessly directed there via GPS, and there is also unlimited access to live flight information, weather, a language translator, a currency exchange calculator, a tip calculator and games. The Boomerang device can be customized and branded for each partner with the addition of such features as hotel concierge recommendations and constant connectivity to the concierge desk. Tele Atlas, Citysearch, Ask.com, FlightView and CustomWeather are among the providers of the Boomerang’s content. Brooklyn-based adNav has already rolled out the Boomerang in New York, with additional cities and locations to follow in the coming weeks through partners including DoubleTree and Omni Hotels, among others. Looks like a no-brainer for those in travel-related businesses, and a whole new world of opportunity for hyperlocalized advertising in general. The million-dollar question, of course, is how to bring this model to the mass market. (Related: Let your buses do the talking.) Spotted by: Marko Balabanovic _____ Note: For many more examples of ad-sponsored freebies and other types of ‘FREE LOVE’, be sure to read our sister site trendwatching.com’s upcoming briefing on the subject, which will be online on February 26th. If you don’t already subscribe to trendwatching.com’s free monthly briefings, sign up here!