Friday, October 24, 2008

To open a shop is easy, to keep it open is an art

An Irish economist Richard Cantillon first coined the word entrepreneur, and described it as someone who is able to begin, sustain, and when necessary, effectively and efficiently dissolve a business entity. He answered the question "What is an entrepreneur?", but did not answer "How do you become an entrepreneur?" And that is exactly what Duke Entrepreneurship Education Series aims to do.

In September this year, the Duke Entrepreneurship Education Series (DEES) was started in collaboration with various Duke societies , including Fuqua's Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CEI) and Duke's Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization (CERC).It is targeted towards harnessing the entrepreneurship capabilities and expectations of Duke students, and equipping them with the basic knowledge to set up a successful venture. DEES is a series of 12 events, and every week distinguished Duke entrepreneurs are invited to connect and share the mantra of building a successful company.

Over the past few weeks, young and eminent Duke alum such as Aaron Patzer (CEO of and Rich West (CEO of Advanced Liquid Logic) have delivered lectures on the key concepts of entrepreneurship, including planning , financing and venture capitalism. Business is not an orthodox set of rules anymore. "Failure is okay ," as Aaron Patzer points out in the inaugural Entrepreneurship 101 lecture. And there is reason enough to believe him, because before setting up the popular finance application, Aaron had got his hands wet in 3 ventures but could not make it work. The fourth one indeed did, and he recently won the TechCrunch 40 in 2007.

Dave Samuel, founder of the companies Spinner (purchased by AOL in 1999), Grouper (purchased by Sony in 2006), Brondell and Freestyle Capital, highlighted the importance of "Focus[ing] on doing one thing really well" in the Planning Your Startup 101 lecture. In the most recent lecture called Business Plan 101, Matt Kane, CEO of Precision Biosciences presented the curious students with effective ways to write and market a strategic business plan to investors and financing agencies. And in the session, called Venture Capital 101, Rob Hallford of Pappas Ventures and Amy Laverdiere of Hatteras Venture Partners demystified the factors that drive a venture capitalist to invest in a startup, and provided a thorough insight into the venture capitalism industry.

DEES is an exciting opportunity to help students come up with innovative developments in diverse fields, and enable them to market their product effectively. This series is scheduled to go on till 29th January 2009.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Climate Does Count

“When consumers come together, companies absolutely listen,” says Wood Turner, a Duke graduate and Project Director for Climate Counts, a non-profit organization that scores the nation’s largest corporations every year on their efforts to reduce climate change.

By providing information about the green or not-so-green activities of companies through pocket-sized pamphlets and its website, Climate Counts hopes to “activate the choices and voices of a climate conscious consumer,” Turner told a Duke audience this week. An informed consumer can “vote with their dollars” by supporting companies that are taking action to combat climate change and avoiding companies that are not.

The organization scores companies based on 22 criteria in 4 categories. Based on their scores in these four categories, corporations are rated as being environmentally “stuck,” “starting,” or “sprinting.” All of the organization’s scores are verified by a third party. Climate Counts targets the country’s largest corporations because they are the biggest emitters, releasing untold tons of greenhouse gases every year.

“If the 100 largest companies reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 5%, it would be equivalent to taking 25 million cars off the road,” Turner said. “It’s the same as meeting the goals of the Kyoto protocol.”

Turner asserted that while Climate Counts takes a hard line on companies’ actions to prevent climate change, the organization is essentially pro-business. “We’re trying to motivate companies, not hammer on companies.... We’ve set out to be a positive collaborator with business.”

Turner raised the point that companies can actually save money by reducing their carbon footprint, because inefficiently used energy is just money spent. The fast food industry, in particular, could benefit from increased efficiency; 80% of its energy is wasted through inefficient buildings and food storage. In its ratings, Climate Counts gave McDonald’s 27 points out of a hundred. Burger King and Wendy’s International, on the other hand, received goose eggs. Not very promising.

However, 84% of the companies Climate Counts rated last year have improved their scores. This improvement cannot be attributed to the efforts of Climate Counts alone, but Climate Counts certainly has a great potential to “call out” companies for their lack of attention to environmental issues. Climate Count’s website,, allows visitors to send email directly to the corporations that are rated. Some companies, overwhelmed by hundreds of emails, are shamed into taking action to reduce their impact.

“Environmental issues have been relegated to the bowels of these companies for a long long time,” Turner said. “Our process has moved these issues from the bowels to the boardroom.”

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What's in a Theory?

Dictionary definitions of "theory" are rife with words like "abstract," "hypothetical" and "speculation." But the theoretical realm is on a growth curve in the no-nonsense world of science, so much so that Duke's Provost's office is funding a program to expand its interdisciplinary boundaries.

The real impetus is a marriage of high end computers and powerful equations, says Berndt Mueller, the J. B. Duke Professor of Physics who coordinated efforts to begin the university's new Center for Theoretical and Mathematical Sciences (CTMS). All that horsepower can help scientists fathom what to look for in experimental data.

While theoretical methods have flourished in physics for hundreds of years (think of Newton and Einstein), they spread to chemistry over the last 40 and are now entering the realm of biology. "Theoretical mathematical tools are invading new areas simply because computation has become so powerful that you can address problems and systems that were totally out of reach until recently," Mueller says. "Another reason is that the quality and quantity of data in many fields is growing rapidly."

"What the center wants to do is provide a central marketplace, an environment in which working scientists can gather together and share theoretical tools without having to change their professional fields."

The CTMS has already signed on more than 50 faculty members from all over science and engineering. It has started a series of public lectures called "Adventures in Theory." And it is now beginning a graduate fellowship program.

Mueller's own group uses advanced math and powerful computer clusters to theorize conditions millionths of a second after the Big Bang. The expected outcome was a gas of two abnormally separated fundamental particles -- quarks and gluons. But Brookhaven National Laboratory experimentalists summonsed-up not a gas but the most free-flowing imaginable liquid when they re-created that environment by colliding gold atoms at extremely high energies.

Mueller's graduate student Bryon Neufeld recently used sophisticated mathematics to compute the outcome if particles moving near light speed passed through such a "perfect" fluid. He found such interactions should form shock waves akin to breaking the sound barrier.

Big Bang indeed! Who says theory can't be fun?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Genome Boy in NYT

Duke assistant professor Misha Angrist, aka the blogger Genome Boy, does a star turn in the New York Times today. (That's him surrendering a chunk of flesh for science, at left)

It's a story about the personal genome project, in which Angrist has been a willing participant. His genome and lots of other salient details about him will be published today for everyone to read.

What will his genome say about him ... and about us?

Angrist and nine other pioneering participants in the project are surrendering some of their privacy to get the ball rolling on what PGP leaders hope will be the complete analysis of more than 100,000 individuals. (You can sign up too.)

Only then, when we've seen the commonalities and the differences and subjected them to statistical analysis, will we truly begin to approach predictive, personalized medicine. Or maybe not. We won't know until we've tried it. Thanks for stepping up, Misha.