Discovering innovations that matter since 2002

Mass customization is more than a choice of skins for an iPod or a personalized logo for a Toyota Scion. In a bid to create an active community around OpenMoko, the mobile phone’s Taiwanese manufacturer first published its software. This allowed developers to tweak it as they wished. Releasing open-source software is fairly common these days. However, OpenMoko broke new ground when it published the 3D drafting files for the phone’s case. The latter move lets anyone who knows how to work with CAD alter the case’s design. By releasing the software and case design files, OpenMoko hopes to generate a passionate community of developers who will create a lengthy list of add-on applications for the phone, as well as innovative designs for its housing. The result will be features and design options that no phone manufacturer could hope to create on its own. By going well beyond the norms of mass customization, the company will also jump start a cottage industry of independent customizers for its phones. The takeaway here is threefold. Firstly, if you’re so inclined, here’s a ripe opportunity to enter the mobile phone manufacturing business on the cheap. Secondly, OpenMoko’s business model—namely open-sourcing software and hardware files—is one that other start-ups and established manufacturers might well emulate. The products might just as easily be alarm clocks or toaster ovens. And, finally, the ease with which phone cases can be created using 3D printers heralds a day when many products will be produced on the spot, tailored inside and out to a customer’s preferences. Someday a printer vending machine might even let consumers choose a product design and have it built within minutes. When that happens, we’ll be sure to let you know 😉 (Related: Build your own mobile phoneNew phone company, made in Silicon ValleyAffordable phones, made to order.) Spotted by RK Being photographed by the paparazzi was once an (often dubious) honour bestowed only on the rich and famous, but today a new service is bringing the possibility to every consumer. Upon request, New York City-based MethodIzaz will send an anonymous photographer to surreptitiously capture select moments in a consumer’s life and immortalize them with a portfolio of professionally produced photos. To arrange the service, the consumer provides a self photograph ahead of time along with details of their schedule and any specific emotion, mood or theme they hope to capture. MethodIzaz’s photographer will then show up at some undisclosed point during the day and photograph the subject walking through the streets or going about their daily business, without posing or artifice. For customers, the final result is a new perspective on how they appear to others as well as tangible documentation of how they lived their lives at that point in time—in short, the ultimate in gravanity-stroking. Pricing is based on MethodIzaz’s time to travel, photograph, edit and produce the photographs, ranging from USD 300 to USD 400 per hour. Founded late last year, MethodIzaz already accepts assignments worldwide, but it also hopes to expand its presence accordingly. There are consumers around the globe waiting for their taste of fame and immortality—one to partner with and bring to an area near you? Spotted by: Giulia Cuccolini When it comes to choosing a career path, it’s one thing to think about the job from the outside, but quite another to experience it day to day. Back in 2006 we wrote about Vocation Vacations, which helps career-changers test out different waters, and now UK-based Figuring Out offers a combination of career coaching and trial work experience to achieve a similar end. Launched earlier this month by the team behind Striding Out, a support network for entrepreneurs, UK-based Figuring Out aims to help people at all stages of their work life figure out what they want for their next career move. The coaching part of Figuring Out’s service focuses on clarifying career goals, mastering interview techniques and learning new job search strategies, among other objectives. Such career coaching programmes can come in packages of three or more one-hour sessions in person or by phone or e-mail, and are priced on average between GBP 80 and GBP 100 per hour. The work experience portion of Figuring Out’s services, however, is where clients can begin testing out their options. Tapping into its Striding Out network of businesses, Figuring Out identifies and connects clients with flexible, part-time work placement opportunities that can provide the right type of work experience for their needs. The work experience service is charged at an additional fee, depending on the range and type of placements required. The result, however, is a realistic, hands-on feel for what each career possibility would really be like. Figuring Out currently operates just in London, but it’s in the process of signing up licensee coaches across the UK to take on the brand in their local area. The company also plans to develop its work experience brokerage service into a short-term recruitment agency, Managing Director Heather Wilkinson says, and is already forming partnerships with full-time recruitment agencies to help secure full-time employment when clients are ready to take that step. One to partner with in an area near you? As our regular readers know, we’ve covered quite a few examples of gravanity,* from children’s books to personal requiems. So when one of our spotters presented yet another example of a business that’s using customization to stand out, we couldn’t resist. What’s getting the gravanity treatment this time? Cuff links. Created by Eleven Forty Co., the links are individually modelled on photographs of a child, a loved one, a pet or a famous role model. They’re available in a range of precious metals and are priced from GBP 225. When they’re not holding a shirt cuff together, the two halves cleverly snap together to create a miniature bust. This isn’t the studio’s first foray into high-end personalization. A few years ago, Eleven Forty Co. introduced Opus, an uber-premium football table that’s made to order. Customers pick their teams, which can feature friends, family, celebrities or real football players. Each player’s head is cast in 3D from a photograph supplied by the customer. One to keep an eye on if you’re looking for inspiration for a customized product to bring to market! Spotted by: Flemming Birch * Gravanity is what our sister-site dubbed the enduring trend of catering to consumers who want to leave ‘something’ behind in print, audio or imagery. It’s a goldmine of inspiration for entrepreneurs and marketers. In the same way that freelancers are flocking to shared working spaces, stay-at-home moms are happy to find a third space that accommodates both them and their offspring. In London, private members clubs like Maggie & Rose and Cupcake Mom, offer mothers a place to convene and relax, where they’re welcome to come and go as they please, 7 days a week. Maggie & Rose, based in Kensington, features several play areas and offers children’s lessons in art, cooking, dance and more, as well as a weekend movie club and birthday party services. Parents are catered to with a comfortable and quiet café (with wifi access, of course), as well as seminars and access to a family advisory service: “well researched info on nannies, tutors, schools, holidays, etc.” Memberships are priced at GBP 500 per year. Set to open in Wandsworth next month, Cupcake also aims to provide a grown-up but child-friendly environment. Its focus, however, is mainly on pregnant women and new mothers. In addition to a crèche and an organic café, Cupcake also offers personal trainers and a spa. The top floor of the club, where the spa is located, is a “baby-free zone” and features treatments tailor-made for pregnant women and new moms, from the “Cupcake in the Oven Massage” to the “Mermaid Wrap.” Cupcake also plans to install a sleep pod for much-needed powernaps, and will offer a concierge service to help busy moms complete their to-do lists. Membership is GBP 149 per month. Founded by Karen Hastings, an American MBA graduate who lives in London, Cupcake is backed by Trapezia Capital, a UK venture fund that solely invests in women-led businesses. Hastings plans to open clubs in affluent areas across the country. We’re pretty sure British moms (and dads) aren’t the only parents who would gladly pay for access to a being space, a community of peers and the opportunity for some pampered me-time. Entrepreneurs across the world: start planning. Spotted by: Tamara Shand We’ve written before about product life stories and how they’re bringing new transparency to the creation and distribution of consumer products. Dole Organics did it for bananas, and now Crop to Cup is doing something similar for coffee. Crop to Cup, founded last year, buys directly from African coffee farmers and represents them in consumer markets. With the goal of improving farmers’ livelihoods, Crop to Cup trains and educates them in sustainable practices, and it coordinates the coffee’s processing, export, import, roasting, marketing and distribution. Not only do farmers get paid fair prices, but they also have the opportunity to realize additional per-pound bonuses connected to sales on the coffee drinker’s end. Meanwhile, Crop to Cup also reinvests 10 percent of its profits in farmer communities. So far, so good, but not new—most fair trade companies work that way. Where the innovation and product life stories come in, however, is through what Crop to Cup calls the digitization of coffee farming. Through Crop to Cup’s website, consumers can trace their coffee back to the farmers who produced it and interact with them (along with roasters and other drinkers) through message boards, forums, ratings and reviews. The result is that drinkers of Uganda Bugisu AA coffee, for example, can read profiles of the farmers who produced the beans, including Bernard Walimbwa’s 17-member family, which manages roughly 30,000 coffee trees in the Bugisu Region of Uganda. The company’s founders explain: “By training and working directly with family farmers we’re able to control quality of our coffees. By virtue of full disclosure and farm-level transparency, we’re able to ensure a fairly traded product without costly certification schemes. We involve the farmer and their ultimate customer—the coffee drinker—in a dialogue to determine what’s important.” Crop to Cup’s site is still rough around the edges, but its approach is a promising one, from both an ethical and a marketing perspective. As our sister site noted in its (still) made here briefing, consumers’ desire to find out about product origins will only increase. Time to get working on those stories! Robot vacuum cleaners are slowly taking off, and robot lawn mowers have been around for over a decade. What’s new this month, however, is a mower that not only trims the lawn all by itself, but does so using solar power. Sweden’s Husqvarna just introduced the world’s first solar/electric hybrid robot lawnmower, which has no exhaust emissions and uses approximately the same amount of energy as a standard light bulb. Cleverly targeting time-starved consumers as well as tree-huggers, Husqvarna claims: “It’s been calculated that using Automower Solar Hybrid to cut the lawn in an average garden can save 40 hours of labour every year—the equivalent of an extra week’s holiday.” Owners just lay out a boundary cable that tells the robot where to stop cutting, saving the delphiniums from an untimely death. Cuttings don’t need raking, either: the grass is cut so finely that it can be left where it falls and acts as a fertiliser. Combining two powerful trends—convenience and eco-friendliness—has to be a winner. Who’s next? (Related: Indoor composting made easy.) Last year we wrote about Blends for Friends, a British company that sells bespoke custom-blended teas, and recently one of our spotters came across Design a Tea, a similar—but more affordable—option. Founded last year, New York-based Design a Tea bills itself as the place “where tea leaves dream,” and users of the site get to choose each element of the teas they create. The process begins when they select a base tea to start with—black tea, oolong, green tea or rooibos. From there, they can choose one or two flavours to add, selecting from a list of more than 40 that includes such options as cassis, mango and zabaglione. Users then choose whether they want their tea loose or bagged, and they give the tea a name or personalized message to include on its packaging. Pricing is USD 4.75 for 10 bags or 22g of loose tea, and 8.50 for 20 bags or 60g of loose tea; an assortment of signature pre-designed blends are also available. As we’ve said before, there appears to be no end in sight to the opportunities for customizing everyday goods, whether it’s chocolate, lingerie or duvets. Design a Tea ships only within the United States and Canada; how about bringing affordable custom teas to the rest of the thirsty world? Spotted by: Bill McMahon Who hasn’t checked their coat at a restaurant or other venue and worried about losing the claim ticket? London-based Idscan aims to put those worries to rest with a biometric cloakroom system that it claims is a world’s first. Cloakscan records a customer’s thumbprint via a small scanner, while a digital camera records the transaction. When customers return and touch the thumb-scanner once more, their pictures show up on a monitor, allowing the cloakroom attendant to verify their identity and quickly see where their valuables have been stored. Idscan explains that Cloakscan eases stress among customers and staff alike. Customers needn’t fear that a dropped claim ticket will be found and redeemed by someone else, while staff can use Cloakscan’s touchscreen monitor to log checked items faster and more accurately. Cloakscan even prints out reports if valuables do become lost, to aid in police or insurance investigations. The system can automatically charge customers for coat checking services and can also scan in promotional codes for special offers and services. Idscan rents its cloak-checking system for GBP 17.50 per week as a complete system or alternately sells the software running it with the scanner and camera for GBP 999. Idscan’s Cloakscan illustrates is how pervasive biometric scans and photo verification systems are becoming. Already widely used in banks, relatively inexpensive thumbprint ID systems particular can speed up operations in everything from a retail store’s merchandise pickup area to the checkout desk at a movie-rental outlet. Bottom line: lots of start-up opportunities exist for system integrators. All it will take is some software writing expertise to fine tune thumbprint and photo applications to new types of businesses. (Related: Drive-in cloakroom.) Back in 2006 we wrote about wallpaper’s renaissance and innovative wall graphics. While those offerings were intended primarily for indoor spaces, the D Garden Collection is picking up on the same concept and bringing it outdoors. Paris-based D Garden Collection has its sights set squarely on terraces, balconies and patios with its textile banners, self-adhesive wall stickers and waterproof cushion covers. Banner designs are individually produced to the customer’s size requirements from high-quality textiles and inks to ensure UV protection, resistance to the elements and machine washability. A variety of designs are available in categories such as “country,” “grasses” and “geometrics”; a 200-by-50-cm banner, for example, is priced at EUR 140. Wall stickers, meanwhile, can be adhered to any glass or plexi surface, outdoors or in; when outdoors, they’ll last at least 3 years. The standard sheet size is 30 by 42 cm, for which pricing starts at EUR 15; custom sizes are also available. Finally, D Garden Collection’s cushions come in no fewer than 50 designs, with or without the inner cushion. Standard sizes are 50 by 50 cm, priced at EUR 60 each, or 65 by 65 cm for EUR 95. No matter how tiny their terraces, consumers’ desire for individuality and personal style remains super-sized. Plenty of room here for minipreneurs and others to make their mark on patios around the world!