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Plausibly Possible
A bi-weekly column with timely, relevant and possibly irreverent insight into the BC technology industry.

Something Ventured:
January 24th, 2003

By Brent Holliday
Greenstone Venture Partners


"He's not concerned with yesterday
He knows constant change is here today
He's noble enough to know what's right
But weak enough not to choose it
He's wise enough to win the world
But fool enough to lose it
He's a New World Man..." - Rush, New World Man

"At the beginning of the day, it's all about the possibilities... At the end of the day, it's all about results" (I can't find the person responsible for this quote, but I hear it on a commercial for a financial institution in the US) This quote is the mantra of a venture capitalist, to be sure. It's also the mantra of the start-up. Given our trip over the past six years in technology, it could also represent our attitudes towards this business. In the late 90's, we were drunk with the possibilities. We listened to digital soothsayers like Nick Negeroponte, Michael Dertouzos and Esther Dyson while attending expensive galas in the desert or mountain hideaways that portended to release the future. Heck, even Bill Gates released a book about the Road Ahead. The possibilities were endless.

It really didn't take that long to snap out of that dream like state, did it?

As we continue to work our way out of the digital hangover, focused squarely on results, I thought it might be nice to take five minutes and dream a little dream again. I have no idea where the digital soothsayers are now. Many have been discredited as full nutbars, others have had to find real work. But I still find sources of inspiration about the future of technology through periodicals like Scientific American and occasional pragmatic looks at technology development in places like the Economist.

So, please indulge me and suspend all "results" driven thinking. Let's look out beyond the fourth quarter of 2003 and see what lays ahead, far ahead...

In no particular order of importance, here are a few things that I think will be important technologies and, hopefully, important opportunities:

Autonomic Computing - IBM has co-opted this title and is in danger of over-hyping it, but the future of software and computer systems depends on this capability. Your autonomic nervous system takes care of all of the actions taken without conscious thought: breathing, adrenaline rushes, reflexes, etc. Indeed, you would barely be able to function if the way you were programmed was to consciously think of every command needed to get up out of a chair and run for a ringing telephone. Computing is still in the dark ages of linear programming boosted by speed of processors and parallel processing of some of the more computationally hard processes, like video. Clearly, we need computing and the underlying software, to be able to "know what to do without thinking about it". A system needs to "know" all of its elements so that it can self-heal, create and use redundant paths, destroy a virus automatically and reconfigure for optimal performance. This seems obvious, but is very hard in practice. Before you get worried about whether we are creating Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey, remember that we are talking about sub-conscious functions and not artificial intelligence.

3-D Reality - We have been through the hype and then the disappointing results of virtual reality. But the near future holds promise for immersive computing and entertainment. Ever since we were kids, we have experienced images in 3-D through the plastic viewers and little white discs of images. You remember seeing Spiderman comics or ancient dinosaurs in spectacular 3-D then click the lever to go to the next image, right? LCD displays will be out next year that do the same thing on your desk without needing to wear glasses, like in the movies. Eventually, TVs will come with the same option, although multiple viewers at different distances from the screen would be a particularly hard problem to solve. Gaming will be the first to take advantage of the technology, of course. Imagine as your peripheral vision sees Markus Naslund on your wing in NHL 2006 or have the bejesus scared out of you by a monster jumping out of the room to the right. The new warning labels on games will include nausea and disorientation as the virtual world moves, but your butt stays firmly planted in your chair.

Wireless Beta vs. VHS - There is no doubt in my mind that wireless will dominate the technology world for the next decade. We are seeing the evolution of WiFi (802.11) as an important standard in networking and Bluetooth as a real solution for extremely short range connections (less than 10 feet). But the real dark horse in the radio world is UWB (Ultra Wide Band). It is a brilliant technology that lives in the background noise of the spectrum (requiring no license) and requires very little power, unlike the power hungry 802.11. The speeds of data transfer are huge, much faster than Bluetooth or 802.11. But like the technologically superior Beta video format, UWB may suffer from the rollout of WiFi on a huge scale in the early part of the decade. Relegated to military and police uses (you can actually "see" people through walls using this technology) for now, UWB may emerge as the true high speed networking standard towards the end of decade.

Photovoltaic ICs - At a real risk of heresy here in fuel cell mad Vancouver, I think the future of energy technologies is in the cost effective capture of the largest energy source in the known universe, radiation from our sun. Capture and storage of energy from the sun and conversion of that energy to electricity is absolutely necessary to the survival of this planet beyond the next few hundred years of fossil fuel depletion. Imagine, if we really want to get dreamy, that no country can control the energy needs of the world through a supply of energy. At the heart of the issue of capturing photons and transforming the energy to electricity is the photovoltaic IC. Once scientists improve the efficiency of the current generation, we could mass produce photovoltaics at the same cost and yield of semiconductors. Then we could power our devices, homes and businesses with a small array of receptors and have all of the convenience and better conscience that it would entail.

Life Sciences - Even with a pharmacology degree, I can't pretend to know what lies ahead for the life sciences world as I am not immersed in it. But I do read about some promising things. Perhaps my fellow columnists doing the Biotech Beat will talk more about some possibilities.

The Future Is Small - I won't say nano. It's a bubble at the moment. But the future of many technologies is in very small, lower power, greater efficiency, mass-produceable packages. This is a no-brainer. Certain form factors will always have to be large (like screens, furniture and transportation), but the devices that make these things better will be hidden. I see opportunities in the actual products enabled by smaller technologies, but I also see opportunity in the equipment necessary to design, fabricate and test the devices. With such small amounts of raw materials needed to make small technology, manufacturing will go to where the specialized labour is available and relatively inexpensive. That could certainly be Canada.

There are many other technologies on the distant horizon. Holographic storage, photonic crystals, quantum computing and other research stage technologies are a few examples. The cutting edge of innovation is an exciting place to be. We certainly have our share of dreamers here in BC. Unfortunately, for the time being, they are being ignored by the demand for results. But it is nice to dream, isn't it?

What Do You Think? Talk Back To Brent Holliday


Something Ventured
is a bi-weekly column designed to supplement the T-Net British Columbia web site with some timely, relevant and possibly irreverent insight into the industry. I hope to share some of the perspective and trends that I see in my role as a VC. The column is always followed by feedback (if its positive or constructive. I'll keep the flames to myself, thanks).

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