Check out the article in BusinessWeek on the prospects for diesel fuel and vehicles in the US.
From the article: “Indeed, predictive models created by the U.S. Energy
Dept. show that a doubling of diesel market share would reduce American
gasoline consumption by 350,000 barrels of oil a day.”
Check out the article in BusinessWeek on the prospects for diesel fuel and vehicles in the US.
Iâ€™m always looking for cool
ways to distribute audio and video to every place I want it. So, when the Slingbox by Sling Media was introduced, I immediately
checked it out. The Slingbox connects to
your cable box, DVR, TiVo, antenna, etc. and distributes the broadcast signal or
any recorded broadcasts over the Internet to any computer on which youâ€™ve
installed the Slingbox software, Slingplayer.
Of course, itâ€™s all password secured so you wonâ€™t find yourself at home,
watching television one Saturday night with someone from Bulgaria
changing your channels from afar. Once I
understood what the Slingbox did, though, my initial excitement waned. I donâ€™t watch much TV to begin with, so why
do I need to distribute that unused television signal (whether live or
recorded) to other locations, right?
My friend Brad Feld thought I was missing the point. He said something like â€œthe Slingbox is
perfect for a geek like you.â€ Since I
obviously have a reputation to live up to, I installed one the other day. I now see what Brad means. Itâ€™s very cool technology and works amazingly
well when you consider how much compression is going on. Once you get the unit installed and set up,
itâ€™s easy to set up other computers to access it on your LAN or from remote
So with everything running
on multiple computers in several locations, I thought the Slingbox was cool,
but not compelling. That is until I
download the mobile client to my Treo 700W.
Now weâ€™re talkinâ€™!. Last night I watched the Red Sox game while
hanging out waiting for my kids â€“ outdoors and completely un-tethered. Itâ€™s probably not the application of the
Internet DARPA first envisioned, but I like what itâ€™s become. Super kewl.
Maybe Iâ€™ll have to start watching TV now.
While Sling Media could
hardly do a better job at making installation easier â€“ 4 steps at a maximum and
loads of great, detailed pictures in a poster format â€“ my installation process
had a few snags. Iâ€™m a fairly
knowledgeable guy when it comes to audio, video and networking, so I was a
little surprised I had as much trouble as I did.
First, for obvious reasons,
the Slingbox is a bit picky about network configuration. This, itself, is not a problem and they try
to circumvent most issues by addressing network configuration up front. The Slingbox doesnâ€™t like cascaded routers or
access points, for example. And, for
those without a uPnP router (a router that Slingâ€™s software can configure from
the outside), you better get comfortable with how to assign a fixed IP address
to the Slingbox and open a port through your firewall.
For some reason, the network
drop I was using, which is behind a single router, connected to a switch and
another hub, gave me problems. This
shouldnâ€™t have been a problem and I wish I could tell you how I resolved it,
but after playing with settings and ports for about 10 minutes, it just started
to work. My guess is that the hub is
causing the problem and if I replaced it with a switch it would permanently
resolve the issue.
The bigger problem I had was
that I couldnâ€™t see the DVR menus or the program guide when I pressed the
appropriate buttons on the virtual remote.
I could see the picture and I could hear the sound, so watching live
broadcasts was not a problem, but I couldnâ€™t get to any generated
graphics. I am using a Motorola 6412 â€“
the DVR distributed by Comcast. My
projection television is powered through the component video outputs of the DVR
and I used its S-video output for the Slingbox.
I remembered that there was something strange with graphics only going
out the digital video channel and I verified that this is what was
happening. When I pressed the â€œMy DVRâ€
button on the virtual remote running on my computer, I could see the graphics
come up on the image from the projector in the other room.
I fooled around with the
settings in the DVR and discovered that if you set the â€œ4:3 Overrideâ€ to 480i
(480p wonâ€™t work), then the graphics will be output on the analog video channel
when the signal is analog. Thus, it
appears in the image generated by the Slingplayer software on your computer. The downside of this solution is that if you
are watching a hi-def channel via the Slingbox, you wonâ€™t be able to see the
graphics unless you switch to an analog channel. This is clearly an issue with the 6412 which
Motorola has apparently fixed in the latest generation of the DVR. Iâ€™m sure people who are less willing than me
to hack at this problem are going to run into it though and it seems like Sling
should hit this right up front in the documentation.
After perusing their forums,
I did find an entry for this problem here.
With the problems I had, the
Bower Factor for the Slingbox install is about 4.
That is, itâ€™ll take you 4 times longer to install it than you think it
will; however long that is. If you donâ€™t
run into the type of problems I did, or youâ€™re aware of the pitfalls ahead of
time, the Bower Factor will be, amazingly, less than 1.
If you had the patience to make it through my first two posts on this topic here and here, you know that I’m on a rant about why the US public isn’t better informed about alternative fuel technologies and vehicles that reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Gasoline/electric hybrids, the only well-known semi-alternative to pure gasoline use today, represent a great technology that is being over-hyped and is being applied far beyond its optimal usage. Diesel fuel (including biodiesel) and E85 (85% ethanol) combined with electric motors and variable displacement engines (shutting down some of the cylinders when the demand on the engine is low) offer far superior fuel economy; most often with better performance than today’s hybrids. The kicker is that while few people know about it, most of this technology is available today.
To celebrate Earth Day, AutoWeek Magazine, did a road test of a variety of cars to test gas mileage over long distances. Some of the competitors in this test were the usual suspects in such tests – the Toyota Prius and the Honda Accord Hybrid – but AutoWeek also threw in a couple of non-standard competitors for the fuel-economy throne – the Chevrolet Corvette and the Jeep Commander. The results are interesting:
Honda Accord Hybrid
VW Jetta TDI
Note: the course was 349 miles of open road
First and foremost, the diesel blows everything else away. Not only does it go further on less fuel, it’s a bigger, faster and more comfortable car than the Prius, the second best in the test and the standard-bearer for high mileage vehicles and hybrid technology. In this case, the performance is actually better than is noted, because the Jetta was using biodiesel – a blend of diesel fuel and old Fryolater waste. The 7.0 gallons of fuel consumed is not 7.0 gallons of black gold, 20% of it came from vegetable oil used to cook yesterday’s french fries. See my post on why new diesel fuel is not your father’s diesel fuel any more.
The other interesting point is that the Corvette, one of the fastest cars on the planet, gets pretty good gas mileage when driven like you’d drive your Prius – i.e. like your grandmother drives. Now granted, the difference between the Corvette;s 27 MPG and the Prius’ 42 MPG is huge, but I don’t think the average person would believe that a high performance car like a Corvette could get almost 30 MPG.
Finally, the AutoWeek data shows off, once again, how distorted the EPA mileage numbers for the Prius are. The EPA rating of 51.0 MPG isn’t even close to the 42.0 MPG observed in the test. This test was also conducted on an early spring day in Michigan – I doubt the air conditioner was on. Current gasoline/electric hybrids take a tremendous hit in mileage when using accessories like the air conditioning. On a hot summer day, the mileage would be considerably worse.
The exciting thing about these results is that they point to some huge opportunities in the short term in reducing our consumption of fossil fuels. Diesel and E85 powered vehicles are already available and deliver solutions that decrease oil consumption well ahead of that delivered by current gasoline/electric hybrid technology. When combined with variable displacement and electric motors (creating diesel/electric and E85/electric hybrids) we can make a serious dent in the amount of oil imported into this country.
So, Iâ€™m sitting at my desk at 7:50 this morning and I hear a delivery truck pull up to the front door of my house. Since this is a pretty regular occurrence around our place, I didnâ€™t even look to see what was going on. After hearing the door of the truck close and the truck started to pull away, I got an email telling me that the package had just been delivered. As I looked out the window I saw the truck just leaving my driveway. For all intents and purposes, Iâ€™d call that real-time information.
I presume the process goes something like this:
- Driver scans package with remote scanner
- The package information is sent to truckâ€™s computer via some local protocol
- Delivery advice is transmitted to a central office via some private data network
- The computer at the central office generates an email message which is sent to my server
- My local computer fetches the message from my server
It probably took me longer to open and read the message than it did to complete the steps above. Cool.
[Note: when I refer to hybrid I am referring to gasoline/electric hybrid technology unless otherwise stated]
In my last postabout hybrid vehicles, I explained why I believe that the auto-buying public, especially in the US, is being hoodwinked about the advantages of such cars at the expense of having better solutions, using current technologies, made available to it. In that post I discussed how diesel-driven cars already offer significantly better fuel economy in many parts of the world without the downside of the size, weight and cost of large batteries required to propel a hybrid car and that the fuel needed for these vehicles is available in this country this year.
In this post, I’m going to discuss E85 fuel. Again, this is a currently available technology in the US that is relatively unknown by the auto-buying public.
First though, I need to reiterate – in no way am I saying that hybrids are bad or that no one should buy them. In fact, they’re great vehicles, in general. To be sure, there are genuine perceived reasons for buying the current generation of hybrid automobiles. Key among these are:
- Saving money because they require less gasoline
- Consuming less of the diminishing fossil fuel resources of the planet
- Creating fewer ozone destroying, lung clogging bad emissions on a per mile basis
- Feeling good because itâ€™s the â€œright thing to do.â€
If the last of these is your reason for purchasing a hybrid vehicle, do not pass go and ignore the fact that two hundred dollars could be yours. Get to your nearest Toyota dealer and put your name on the long list of those who want an underpowered car with real-world mileage far below what the EPA endorses.
While doing this, though, recognize that hybrids won’t save you money. When you actually sit down and do the math, you’ll find that the money you save by buying less fuel takes years to balance out the higher purchase price of the car. Add to this that the useful life of today’s batteries is only about 6 years and that they’re very costly to replace (chances are that it will take you almost 6 years to save enough money to offset the higher purchase price of the car) and you’ll quickly realize that hybrids have nothing to do with saving money.
In terms of fewer emissions, hybrids do a good job. It’s the reuse of energy created during breaking and coasting that does it. Less fuel gets burned so less garbage is blown out of the exhaust pipe. Any technology that facilitates such reuse is good and this is where batteries and electric motors excel. Any reasonable fuel substitute in the future needs to provide this type of fuel regeneration to fully take advantage of the inertia of the vehicle.
If your goal is to import less black gold from the mantle under the Middle East, then hybrids are a puny step. This is where E85 fuel offers a better solution than today’s hybrids.
E85 fuel is 85% ethanol. In the US, this ethanol is created using corn and various grains distilled into a liquid usable by vehicles for propulsion. While this mixture still contains 15% gasoline, the majority bio-fuel component reduces gasoline consumption by huge amounts. For example, using EPA numbers for both vehicles, a GMC 4WD Yukon SUV uses 133 fewer gallons of gasoline a year than a Toyota Prius (based on driving 15,000 miles per year).
E85 is also cleaner burning than gasoline, with lower CO2 emissions. At the same time, E85 fuel provides more horsepower and torque in identical engine configurations. Since ethanol increases the octane level of the fuel (105 octane like the good ol’ days), there is no need for the MTBE additives that exist in today’s fuel. Since MTBE is toxic, most would consider this a good thing.
There is a downside to using ethanol as fuel – it’s highly corrosive and breaks down the rubber and plastics in today’s engines. Engines can be engineered, however, to deal with these problems. The technology to run the same engine on either E85 or 100% gasoline is also readily available. The vehicles that support both types of fuel are commonly known as flex-fuel vehicles. Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford, Isuzu, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mercury and Nissan all sell flex-fuel automobiles in the US market.
So, you might ask, why isn’t everyone driving flex-fuel cars? Well, for some reason, only 600 out of the 200,000 some odd gas stations in the US carries E85. If you’re in the Midwest, you may have a shot at finding one within a full gas tank of travel. If you’re anywhere else, however, you’re gonna be outta luck. The only public station in all of California that sells E85 is in San Diego.
Additionally, while there is a surplus of the corn and grains required to produce E85 in the US, there are not enough production facilities to actually distill the stuff. Perhaps $72/barrel is enough of a kick in the ass to get some enterprising people to step it up. It seems like a we’re goin’ to the moon by the end of the decade program might be a reasonable use of my tax dollars to wean ourselves off the fossil fuel drug. E85 production and availability might be a good start.
While America thinks with its wallet and shells out outrageous prices for hybrid automobiles, it’s missing the fact that demand for diesel and E85 technology can advance the cause (no matter which cause it is) further and faster than our current path with hybrids only. Ultimately, electric technology will be used to augment these other liquid-fuel solutions, creating far superior hybrid vehicles. In the mean time, the liquid fuel alternatives are available today; more people need to get informed and demand we move faster in those directions.
The whole family bonded over the documentary, Trekkies (1997), last night. My teenage kids thought it was a total blast. We all smiled and laughed at the people and their dedication to the show(s) and concepts. These people are very serious.
I donâ€™t know if Iâ€™m a Trekie (apparently thereâ€™s a difference, but itâ€™s not clear what the definition of each is), having seen every episode of the original several times and each of the â€œThe Next Generationâ€ episodes at least once over the years. Even so, though, I have no urge to dress like a Klingon and listen to William Shatner tell stories about what it was like to shoot a phaser in 1966. My kids are thankful for this.
Itâ€™s only 86 minutes long and itâ€™s a real hoot.
I read about this book on Brad Feld’s Blog and had to pick it up. Iâ€™m interested in the wisdom of all those qualified that are willing to teach how to get the most out of the short lives we have. In this case, the qualified individual was Gene Oâ€™Kelly, a very successful CEO of KPMG who, at 53 years of age, became qualified when he was diagnosed with three months to live. The book is his account of what he did during that time and perhaps more importantly, what he thought about.
With only three months to wrap up a lifetime and write a book, you can imagine that itâ€™s not rich in detail or story. He does an excellent job, in my opinion, of expressing his thoughts and what he went through in the short period before his death.
To me, his points about not wasting energy on the stupid stuff and seeking out and taking advantage of â€œperfect moments,â€ had a big impact on me.
Itâ€™s a short book and definitely worth the read.
The New York Times had a great article last week on the active and aging population in the US. It seems that sports injuries have crept up to become the number two reason for doctor’s office visits nationwide, now only trailing the common cold. These visits, for the most part, aren’t being made by masses of X-geners, but by baby boomers who are doing everything within their power to exercise and to stay healthy for as long as possible.
It appears that the Boomer generation is the first one to grow up exercising and the first one in the history of mankind to push their bodies so consistently and so hard. Bodies were just not built for the rigorous punishment that their owners are subjecting them to. As an orthopedist friend of mine says: “Knees are only made to last about 40 years, you can’t do much about it.”
Since I have tendonitis in both knees and I’m having surgery on my elbow in a couple of weeks, I suppose I’m like most middle-age, health conscious people out there – breaking down. The problem isn’t that my body is old, it’s that my mentality is young.
My son and I went to New York on our annual
trek to see live and in person whatâ€™s going on in the automotive universe. Between the two of us, we have subscriptions
to just about every American automotive magazine. These journals have already covered just
about every car introduction this year with the Detroit, Los Angeles, Geneva
and Chicago auto shows all having taken place already. Nothinâ€™ like seeing them in all their plastic
and sheet metal glory, though, to get a feel whatâ€™s cool and what are the hot
While my son and I donâ€™t
agree on a lot about cars, we do agree about the trends in the automotive
- Bigger cars â€“ Everythingâ€™s getting bigger. The Camry, Accord and Altima are huge
compared to what they used to be.
They compete with Buicks now.
Not only in size, but in price.
Lexus just introduced an L version of its LS series to compete with
the gi-normous versions of the Mercedes S Class, BMW 7-series and Audi
A8. This doesnâ€™t even count cars
like the Maybach (even the small one), Rolls Royce, Bentley, etc. Check out the Chrysler Imperial concept
if you want to see a huge car for more pedestrian wallets. These cars have more rear seat legroom
than my living room.
- Convertibles â€“ It ainâ€™t the 80â€™s any more when
no matter how high your stack of cash, you couldnâ€™t buy yourself a
convertible. Most companies have
two-seat convertibles now and there are more 2+2 and 4 seat convertibles
available this year than ever. Iâ€™m
just waiting for another 4-door convertible like the â€™63 Lincoln
Continental Convertible (yup, picture JFKâ€™s last ride).
- Hardtop convertibles â€“ An extension of the last
point, many companies are now producing convertibles with folding hardtops
that slip into the trunk at the touch of a button. These have been out for a couple of
years in high-end cars (Mercedes has two, Lexus has one, Cadillac has
one), but now theyâ€™re becoming available on lower-end cars. Volvo just introduced the C70, VW the
EOS and Pontiac has a hardtop option on the G6 that looks nice. The idea here is that these cars are now
better suited to year-round use.
Better not be thinking of bringing your golf clubs, though.
- Gas guzzlers – $70+/barrel oil doesnâ€™t seem to
be stopping the auto industry from producing cars that consume a load of
fossil fuel. Between big cars and
high-performance cars, there are more options now to blow holes in the
ozone layer than ever before. This,
of course, includes muscle cars.
The Mustang is already
selling in multiple forms; the concept Camaro
looks great as does the concept Dodge Challenger.
- Chrysler â€“ My son doesnâ€™t agree with this one,
but I think the Daimler-Chrysler thing has paid off big. Chrysler is producing seriously cool
vehicles at a wide range of price points.
Cars that appeal to young and old.
To people seeking luxury, performance or utility. They are innovating in style and
performance and theyâ€™re introducing new cars quickly to a rapidly changing
market. Check out the range from
the Caliber to the Sprinter. It helps when you get to use your
parentâ€™s old Mercedes platforms and mechanicals.
pictures of the event here.
I’m not a venture capitalist, but because I do some investing and work with several VCs finding and evaluating deals, I get to see a lot of plans and have the chance to meet many people working on new ventures. In the last year, the volume of plans that I’ve seen and entrepreneurs I’ve met has grown at an astounding rate. This could be because of changes in my little piece of the entrepreneurial universe or a trend resulting from good people and ideas coming out of hiding after the bubble burst earlier in the decade. I think the latter is more likely.
The problem is, that while the number of ventures seeking money has expanded rapidly, the money available to fund more deals has not. This leaves some great ideas and entrepreneurs out in the cold without funding or, for the luckier few, with crappy deals which require that the entrepreneur give up too much of the equity in his/her company for too little capital.
So here are my thoughts on this problem interspersed with some real data from Ernst & Young and Dow Jones VentureSource to make me sound like I know what I’m talking about. If you’re an experienced entrepreneur with a few successes under your belt, this stuff won’t apply to you. If you’re a first-timer or you’re moving to a completely new market, though, here is the situation.
The number of venture capital firms today (~1,500) is roughly half the number that were doing business in 2000. In 2000, a little over half of the then existing venture capital firms did four or more deals. In 2005, the deal activity dropped to only about a third of the firms in business doing four or more during the year. Keep in mind that this is also on a smaller base of venture capitalists, too. At the same time, the percentage of funds with over $100M in investment grew from less than 30% in 2002 to over 60% in 2005. That’s right; fewer funds but, on average, more money per fund.
Additionally, most of the remaining venture capital firms are those that still have money available to invest from previous funds, although this money has a fairly short lifespan to it, it has to return a gain to the fund’s limited partners in a short period of time. The only way for a VC to effectively use this money is by making follow-on investments into companies already in their portfolio or by making very late stage investments that could become liquid in short order.
The bottom line is that there are fewer, bigger funds doing a smaller number of deals, each deal requiring an investment of more money to best utilize the funds’ cash and maintain the dynamics of VC partnerships with a limited number of partners to watch over the investments.
Of course, the problem isn’t only about fund size and number of deals; the path to liquidity for investments has gotten incredibly muddy. Classically, venture-backed companies had two paths to exit – an IPO and a merger or acquisition. The situation in the public markets has caused the first option to virtually disappear for most companies. In 2005, there were less than 50 IPOs of venture backed companies. During that year, 87% of all liquidity events of venture backed companies were through M&A activity. Because of this, VCs are more cautious about their investments, having to limit the companies and markets they invest in to ones where M&A activity is likely.
This all creates a huge dilemma for the entrepreneur seeking any early round investment, especially seed money to get going. What little money is available is substantially harder to get. A considerably smaller number of venture capitalists want to make big investments into fewer companies and only into markets that have a lot of projected M&A activity. The result of this is that in 2005, only about 2% of venture capital was invested in seed deals – a percentage that is not likely to increase. This is down from a high in 2000 of 7%. Of course, that was 7% of a substantially larger pie.
Angel investors have always been a potential source of capital for startups. The difficulty in taking angel investment is that, generally, the entrepreneur has to get many angel investors involved to have enough money to fund the company. Often, this can take 6-10 separate investors. Not only is it difficult to find that many qualified individual investors, but it is very difficult and time consuming to manage the group after the investment is made.
In order to fill this gap, Recognizing this problem and in an attempt to optimize deal flow and investment returns, angel investors have banded together to form angel funds. Getting funding from an angel fund is quite a bit easier than getting money from many individual angel investors. The entrepreneur can avoid the hassle of having to find and manage many individual investors by taking this route, the angel funds generally invest as a group.
The rub here is that these groups have moved into a position where they are filling the void left by VCs who are no longer doing early-stage investing. It used to be that an entrepreneur could get a good deal from angel investors. That is, some reasonable working capital without having to turn over too much ownership in the company. This is not true any longer as these angel funds think of themselves as similar to professional venture capital investors and are asking for, and getting, similar deal structures. In my experience, these funds are making $500k-$1M investments with $500K to $1M pre-money valuations so they own up to 50% of the company with a relatively small investment. Of course, some entrepreneurs take these deals because it’s their only way to fund their ideas.
Yup, the situation mostly sucks. There is some good news, though. Trends are getting better.
The market for venture capital has caused startups to become much more efficient. From 1998-2000, the median equity raised by a venture-backed company was $27M and the median value of an M&A transaction was $40M. This represents a growth multiple of 1.3X. From 2001-2004, the median amount raised was $10M with a median exit of $50M, resulting in a 4.3X growth multiple. This increase in return on capital with a lower initial investment should work its way through the system to justify more early investment.
The M&A market is also improving. In 2005, the median amount paid for the acquisition of a venture-backed company was about $60M, well above the $18M of 2002 and $23M of 2003. Although still below the $100M median acquisition price of a company in 2000, the growth in this number should drive a trend toward more early investment.
Finally, even the IPO market is doing better. There were 13 IPOs of venture-backed companies in Q1, 2006, up from 8 in Q1, 2005. These 13 IPOs also raised 61% more money than the 8 deals in the same quarter last year.
These positive trends will not likely create any immediate respite from the current problems for entrepreneurs looking to fund the startup of new companies. There are some ways to optimize your chances for funding your baby, though. Here are a few:
- Don’t knock on doors before the idea is fully-cooked – for the most part, you get one shot at an investor. There are plenty of good ideas to invest in. If you present a half-baked idea and can’t answer rudimentary questions about your customer, product or market, you’ll have blown your chance. The investor will just move on only remembering how you wasted his/her time. Spend the time and energy to get it right before you start making calls and shaking hands.
- In general, don’t think of potential investors as part of your team before they invest – I’m sure some VCs will say I’m wrong about this, but I have seen many deals die as entrepreneurs use an investor to help refine an idea. See the first suggestion, above. Post-investment, investors are obviously an integral part of your team.
- Consider funding the development of the product (subsystems of the product for complex stuff) or refinement of the service prior to seeking funding – I see fewer and fewer people willing to do this these days. Going to an investor with a beta product or completed service offering is huge. It’s much easier to invest in something that feels real. Less risk attracts more money.
- Find a customer – Even better than creating the product; find someone who’s willing to pay for it. Nothing like a customer to validate a need and the solution.
- Recruit your team – More experience = greater chance of getting funding. Period.
- Don’t let the difficulty of getting money dampen your enthusiasm for your idea – The bar is pretty high these days. Expect it and expect that you’re going to have to work harder and longer than you ever even considered. If you truly believe in what you’re doing and it’s a good and unique idea in a strong market, it will get funded. Follow some of the guidelines here and it may even get funded a bit faster or without having to hand over all the equity in the company to get the working capital you need.
We aren’t in the 90s anymore, Toto. Finding money is a lot more difficult. If you get too caught up in the stories of how venture capital flowed a decade ago, you’ll be ill-prepared for what it takes to get it today. Over the next few years, access to money should get a bit easier. In the mean time, money is definitely available today, you just have to be smarter about it and work harder for it.