O.C.’s Future Innovation is NOW
The Orange County Register, Oct. 24, 2005
By: Jan Norman
In the past, Orange County innovators have helped produce spacecraft, artificial heart valves and Botox. Today, local researchers and entrepreneurs are developing the county’s next generation of innovations.
To celebrate this flow of technological and scientific improvements – and to stimulate more of it – several groups are promoting Oct. 26 through Nov. 3 as Orange County Innovation Week. It comes at a time when the county’s business, education and investment leaders are making new attempts to build a support system for innovation after years of falling short in venture investments and commercialization of university research.
"Every time I turn on my computer, talk on my cell phone or send e-mails through my Blackberry, I am using a product that was once science fiction," said Orange County Supervisor Lou Correa. "We need to do more to encourage that type of vision and originality here in Orange County."
Here’s a look at four groundbreaking local companies that are developing products that Correa, his fellow Orange Countians and the world soon may be using. They illustrate the type of work Orange County Innovation Week wants to encourage.
QUANTUMSPHERE INC., SANTA ANA
Leader: Kevin Maloney, chief executive
Type of Business: QuantumSphere makes super-fine metallic nanopowders (consisting of particles three to five atoms in width) for such uses as small batteries and fuel cells, coatings and inks. Powder with particles that small has different properties from normal powders. Nanotechnology has the venture world abuzz the way dot-coms did in the 1990s. While many other nanotech companies dwell in the still-theoretical world of cancer cures, QuantumSphere makes such products as nano-nickel/cobalt alloy that behaves like platinum but is 80 percent cheaper. Since platinum is 40 percent of the cost of small batteries and fuel cells, QuantumSphere’s alloy could greatly reduce the cost of batteries for laptops, cell phones, digital cameras and hearing aids. Fortune 200 companies are coming to QuantumSphere for various product partnerships. Most of QuantumSphere’s 11 employees are scientists. So far, the company has grown without venture capital. It has started selling its products this year and could possibly break even in 2006.
QuantumSphere was recently selected for a 2005 Technology Innovation of the Year award by research organization Frost & Sullivan.
On Innovation: "I get fired up each morning because we have potentially disruptive technology that could change the way things are done. And we haven’t scratched the surface."
VASIX CORP., SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO
Leader: Jill Fabricant, president and chief executive
Type of Business: Vasix was created in 2003 to find commercial applications for compounds found by Dr. Sam Rahbar at City of Hope in Duarte, who has spent his career researching diabetes. Among other findings, Rahbar discovered the most common test for diabetes.
Rahbar has found 115 compounds that Vasix plans to license as treatments for diabetes, atherosclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease. Vasix has three employees but doesn’t have revenue yet. Its plan is to license some of its technology to major pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies and retain rights to others, which it will develop into its own products.
On Innovation: Fabricant had founded two successful technology companies and wasn’t interested in a third trip on the entrepreneurial roller coaster. But because her mother had suffered diabetic neuropathy, she became intrigued about Vasix’s potential to develop treatments for such conditions. "What drives me is I want to make a difference in the world, and, at the same time, this is a challenge," she says. "I started as a researcher (but) I like commercializing science."
Fabricant also has people skills, which some scientists lack, and business training, which helps as the company’s leader. "What’s so exciting about our technology is the vast number of areas we can go into," she says.
In addition to medical treatments, the compounds might reverse effects of aging that could be used by the cosmetic industry. That is a use that would be licensed to other companies, Fabricant says.
NETWORKS IN MOTION INC., IRVINE
Leader: Doug Antone, president and chief executive
Type of Business: Networks in Motion brings Global Positioning System navigation to cell phones. The information is continually updated, instead of relying on data from CDs, as many automobile GPS units are.
Subscribers would get up-to-the-minute traffic conditions, local maps, local directories and targeted searches such as "where is my child" for $8 to $10 a month.
The company has 23 employees and 13 patents. Its first sales are expected this quarter with an eye to profitability in a year.
On Innovation: Antone spent more than 20 years with information-technology companies Ingram Micro and Borland. He also owned the first Apple dealership in the Pacific Northwest.
Venture capitalists brought him in to run Networks in Motion in 2004.
"If you have tasted explosive growth in other industries, you seek it" in new career opportunities," Antone says. "The whole wireless space feels like the (personal computer) business felt in the ’80s. Change is happening at such a rapid pace," and potential customers include both consumers and businesses, he says.
"My (job) attention span is three to four years – that’s true of many entrepreneurs," he adds. "I seek new stimulation, either in another job or changes in the job I have."
Antone loves the technology of Networks in Motion because so many people instantly understand and want it. "It’s very exciting to go to church or parties or the gym and tell people what you do and they immediately understand it."
SOFCAST TECHNOLOGY INC., IRVINE
Leader: Mike Kolsy, founder and chief technology officer
Type of Business: SofCast has developed proprietary software that lets users create and instantly update Internet content, including graphics, without knowing programming code.
Using it, companies could instantly change their online advertisements. Educators could deliver their curriculum electronically at lower cost. And movie distributors could update their online movie trailers in seconds without programming knowledge.
SofCast could be to Internet content what computer word processing is to the typewriter, Kolsy says. SofCast, which has three employees, recently sold its StickyBar Toolbar to eWorldMedia Holdings Inc. in Newport Beach. The product allows anything that can be viewed in a browser window, such as streaming video, to be displayed on the toolbar.
On Innovation: "I have always been a visionary," says Kolsy, whose 25 years in the software industry includes presidency of AMI, which made add-on products for IBM personal computers.
"I’m always working to bring something that would offer more benefits, that would fill a niche in the market," he says. "Challenges, not money, are very fulfilling and satisfying for me. If a clock is sitting there, I don’t look at the time – I think how I can make it better."