Thursday, October 27, 2011

U.S. CTO: Three big targets for today's tech entrepreneurs

U.S. chief technology office Aneesh Chopra has been hitting his stride as the nation's first CTO by turning his role into something of a mix between cheerleader-in-chief and motivator-in-chief for the U.S. tech community. Ever since Chopra's boss, President Barack Obama, unveiled his jobs plan to put more people back to work, Chopra has been traveling the country and waving the flag for grassroots tech innovation.

On Tuesday, Chopra was in San Diego talking to the CEA Industry Forum and I heard him give the same speech earlier this Fall at the Idea Festival in Louisville. His message is surprisingly refreshing. In most cases, it's not about big government but about tools to help spur on (and get out of the way of) entrepreneurship and innovation in the tech sector.

Since the message is worth repeating and there is some useful information that Chopra has been sharing from both Washington and his contact with the tech community, I've bundled this into two lists — first, general insights and observations from Chopra, and second, his list of the three big targets that he thinks tech entrepreneurs should be shooting at in order to unlock the best opportunities and move the U.S. forward at the same time.

Photo credit: Geoff Oliver Bugbee / IdeaFest 2011

Photo credit: Geoff Oliver Bugbee / IdeaFest 2011

General insights

Here are some of the things Chopra said he's working on and things that he's seeing in the tech industry:

  • Working on patent reform to modernize the U.S. patent system for the first time in 50 years
  • The president's jobs act includes boosting access to capital for high growth companies
  • The program wants to let people collect unemployment while starting companies
  • Chopra's office is working on creating a platform to help small businesses navigate federal government offices and programs
  • "The cost of computing is falling dramatically."
  • "Cloud plus mobile equals a platform for innovation."
  • Believes the openness of the Internet is a key for innovation, and his office is pushing for it globally
  • The administration and CTO's office are also championing "open government" and greater transparency as a way to build public trust and fight corruption
  • Spoke of "grassroots collaboration" as a key to innovation and "a new agile model for the 21st century"
  • "There are resources in every community that want to connect with innovators."

Three targets for tech innovators

Finally, Chopra said that the big goal was "to solve the unsolvable through innovation" and he wanted to tell innovators "where the puck is moving" and "where I think the shots on goal should take place." Theses are areas where there are big problems to solve and where a lot of capital is flowing for innovators with solid ideas.

He cited three areas:

  1. Energy - "We need to unleash a clean energy revolution." He also stressed that "we will have new products and services once we liberate the data" to help us monitor, manage and reduce our energy consumption.
  2. Education - We need to "thinking more creatively about how we learn." We need a learning system that works. Obama has proposed an ARPA-ED network dedicated to education.
  3. Health care - "We need to transform the health care delivery system." He gave several examples. One was to mine data and figure out the patients you need to see, rather than waiting for them to make an appointment. Retail has already figured this out. He also mentioned iTriage from Boulder, Colorado, which has come up with an iPhone/Android app to help you find the right health care provider. It has mined publicly-available data.

Interestingly enough, tech industry pioneer and venture capitalist Mark Andreessen recently called out the last two as areas where he also thinks there is major potential:

"Health care and education, in my view, are next up for fundamental software-based transformation. My venture capital firm is backing aggressive start-ups in both of these gigantic and critical industries. We believe both of these industries, which historically have been highly resistant to entrepreneurial change, are primed for tipping by great new software-centric entrepreneurs."

Big data

Clearly, several of the things that Chopra was talking about, especially in energy and health care, involved "big data" — one of the hottest new buzzwords in tech. This is about taking big collections of data that haven't been available in the past or were too big to deal with and start using modern software tools to mine them for useful information and resources.

Chopra has been pushing federal government agencies to lead the way by releasing more of their big piles of data to the public, and he's pushing the private sector to do the same. (In both cases, privacy takes top priority and no specific citizen or customer data is divulged in the process.) For the government, this is called the "open data" initiative and its home is (England has also jumped on the bandwagon and now has

The U.S. federal government example that Chopra gave was one that involved NASA and the video game company Electronic Arts. EA has a skiing game called SSX. This was an old favorite that EA has completely overhauled and updated using NASA's now-released collection of detailed images and typographical maps of every mountain in the world. The result is a game with stunning new visuals and a global experience (see video demo).

That's a big, complicated example. Chopra pointed out that there are plenty of opportunities on a much smaller scale, and he encouraged people to look at the government data and the use it to create web and mobile apps. When a student asked him how to get started he said, "Find a problem that needs solving and do an to solve it." More people need to see the great trove of open data, and more stuff is being added all the time, Chopra said. "Just play, tinker. Get in there. Just give it a shot"

At IdeaFest, one audience member brought up the federal budget deficit in Washington and asked Chopra if maybe the government should charge a small fee for this data, as a way to generate revenue, from companies that want to use the data for commercial purposes.

Chopra responded, "Hell no! You're tax payers. You've already paid for it." He said that if an entrepreneur can take the open data and build a billion dollar business out of it then that's a fantastic outcome.

Sanity check

This big data stuff definitely has legs. I've been hearing from companies and tech leaders over the past six months about how the tools for dealing with massive data sources, unstructured data sources (like Twitter), and diverse data sources are getting better than ever, and how the ability to turn this data into intelligence and actionable information is going to have a major impact on a lot of different industries in the immediate future.

As for the big three areas for tech entrepreneurs to focus on, I'm pretty confident about health care and education as major grassroots opportunities. Energy is a little bit more of a challenge. Don't get me wrong, there are colossal opportunities there — it will likely be the most important issue of the 21st century — but in the immediate future it's a little messy because it often requires a huge amount of capital and you usually have to deal with government regulations, government contracts, and a maze of bureaucracy.

Sent from my iPad

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