Sharp’s Quirky Culture is Innovation Key

The Wall Street Journal: “With a nearly $6 billion takeover up in the air, Sharp Corp. this week highlighted its latest lineup of quirky consumer products … Among the offerings: the Plasmacluster, an ionic air purifier that also captures mosquitoes … Consumers in Japan are now awaiting the RoboHon—a mobile phone and pet robot … With the market for smartphones nearing saturation, Sharp hopes the robotcum-phone will represent the next step in mobile communication.”

“One secret to Sharp’s innovation is its laid-back culture … product planning and design were always freewheeling, reflecting a taste of its home base in Osaka, Japan’s comedy mecca … Sharp’s quirkiness isn’t limited to product design. Its official Twitter account features irreverent, self-deprecating humor, even about its products’ sometimes-limited appeal.” Sample Tweet: “We also have earphones, which won’t cap earholes and are very rare. You won’t see them around because many retail stores won’t carry them.”


Go Cubes: Technology As a Lifestyle Brand

“This year SXSW … feels like a story of how the tech ethos has escaped the bounds of hardware and software,” writes Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times. “Tech is turning into a culture and a style, one that has spread into new foods and clothing, and all other kinds of nonelectronic goods. Tech has become a lifestyle brand. … physical products that aren’t so much dominated by new technology, but instead informed by the theories and practices that have ruled the tech business.”

For example: “Go Cubes, the caffeine-infused gummy snacks that have been compared to candied nuggets of cocaine,” from a company called Nootrobox, makers of “supplements that the founders say enhance human cognitive capabilities … The company grew out of an online movement of ‘biohackers’ — people who congregate on sites like Reddit to discuss how a variety of foods and other chemicals, from caffeine to street drugs to Alzheimer’s medicine from Russia, alter their focus, memory and other cognitive abilities. Nootrobox aims to find the most effective of these compounds — and only the ones deemed legal and safe for use in the United States — and turn them into consumer products.”

“Traditional coffee is an inconsistent product, they argue — each cup may have significantly more or less caffeine than the last — and it can have undesirable side effects, like jitteriness. Go Cubes … are meant to address these shortcomings. The cubes are more portable than coffee, they offer a precise measure of caffeine, and because they include some ingredients meant to modulate caffeine’s sharpest effects, they produce a more focused high. The cubes run about $1.70 for the price of two that are meant to equate to a cup of coffee.”


Echo: Amazon’s Next Billion Dollar Baby?

“A bit more than a year after its release, Amazon’s Echo has morphed from a gimmicky experiment into a device that brims with profound possibility,” writes Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times. “Here is a small, stationary machine that you set somewhere in your house, which you address as Alexa, which performs a variety of tasks — playing music, reading the news and weather, keeping a shopping list — that you can already do on your phone.”

“But the Echo has a way of sneaking into your routines. When Alexa reorders popcorn for you, or calls an Uber car for you, when your children start asking Alexa to add Popsicles to the grocery list, you start to want pretty much everything else in life to be Alexa-enabled, too. In this way, Amazon has found a surreptitious way to bypass Apple and Google — the reigning monarchs in the smartphone world — with a gadget that has the potential to become a dominant force in the most intimate of environments: our homes.”

“Many in the industry have long looked to the smartphone as the remote control for your world. But the phone has limitations. A lot of times fiddling with a screen is just too much work. By perfecting an interface that is much better suited to home use — the determined yell! — Amazon seems on the verge of building something like Iron Man’s Jarvis, the artificial-intelligence brain at the center of all your household activities.”

“Scot Wingo, the chairman of ChannelAdvisor, an e-commerce consulting firm, said the early signs suggested that the Echo was on a path to become Amazon’s next $1 billion business.”


Beds-in-a-Box: The Big Mattress

The Wall Street Journal: “Mattresses were long considered immune to the e-commerce boom. For decades, they have been sold in showrooms full of dozens of styles with dizzying discounts and high-pressure salespeople. But a new breed of upstarts with slick websites has cracked into the $14 billion U.S. mattress industry. The online sellers offer just a few varieties at fixed prices—and ship free to customers’ doors a foam mattress that is compressed into a box the size of a large suitcase.”

“In place of the chance to try out a $5,000 Tempur-Pedic with adjustable base or lie down on a $2,500 Serta iComfort with gel memory foam, they promise free shipping, 100-day guarantees and free returns. It is a process aimed at the often wealthier, younger and busy shoppers who care less about kicking the tires and more about convenience … Compressed mattresses promise high margins because they are cheaper to ship than inner spring mattresses that can’t be compressed … Because of how carriers like FedEx and UPS charge, delivering a 90-pound compressed mattress is less expensive than home delivery with a regular truck.”

“Returns, however, are a challenge.” As Scott Thompson, CEO of Tempur Sealy, explains: “Getting the bed back in the box, that’s a little bit of a problem.” Other online mattress sellers include Casper Sleep, Leesa Sleep and Yogabed.


A Revolution in Toothbrush Design

Gizmodo: “Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute have developed a virtual brushing simulator that promises to revolutionize how toothbrushes are designed and tested … The size, shape, and elasticity of a toothbrush’s bristles can be precisely modified and tested in the simulator, but so can the size, shape, and quantity of the abrasive particles in a toothpaste.”

“Highly controlled experiments can be conducted in the simulator allowing toothbrush designers to almost instantly determine how effective a new bristle design is at removing dirt while still preserving tooth enamel … So in the future when a commercial for a new toothbrush promises it to be effective at battling plaque and gingivitis, hopefully its creators will be able to show the simulated results backing up their claims before you make the upgrade.”


Sugru: The Play-Doh of Glue

The New York Times: “Sugru is a moldable glue. It looks like Play-Doh, can be shaped around any object, sticks to almost any material, is waterproof, is heat-resistant and dries to a silicone rubbery finish in 24 hours. Its ability to bond to virtually any surface — wood, glass, metals and ceramics among others — and its moldable nature make it unusual in the world of adhesives, sealants and glues.”

“I wanted to design something that was so easy and so fun to use that more people would consider fixing things again,” said Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh, the Irish entrepreneur behind Sugru.

“Ms. Ni Dhulchaointigh said Sugru could withstand temperatures as high as 356 degrees and as low as minus 58 degrees, making it durable indoors and out. It will not melt, freeze, soften or harden. It can be thrown into a washing machine or dishwasher, and even soaked in seawater. If a user makes a mistake, a sharp knife can be used to cut through Sugru’s rubbery surface, removing it without damaging the surface of the repaired item.”

“Sales topped $5.5 million in 2015, up from $3.4 million in 2014 and $250,000 in its first year in 2010. Ms. Ni Dhulchaointigh expects sales to exceed $10 million this year and $60 million by 2020. It is now sold online to more than 160 countries and through 19 brick-and-mortar retailers in 6,050 stores in four countries. In the United States, 10 retailers carry the product in 4,500 stores.”


littleBits: Designing A Gender-Neutral Toy

C-Suite Strategies, a special supplement in The Wall Street Journal, featured an interview with Ayah Bdeir, founder of littleBits Electronics, makers of gender-neutral kits for building electronic toys — “snap-together electronic circuits, motors, lights and motors.”

“We want to help kids and adults understand the world around them further and reinvent it,” Ms. Bdeir, herself an engineer, says. In response to a question about how she creates gender-neutrality, especially in a category that is traditionally male-oriented, she responds:

“We are deliberately gender-neutral in the design of our product, packaging and communications, the colors we pick, the inventors we feature, the inventions we select [for publicity]. We promote creativity in art, in music, in design, not gendered hobbies. We market littleBits as a tool for invention, learning and play, as opposed to marketing it as a toy, which avoids placing it in either the pink or blue aisle.

The traditional association with robotics and vehicles is that they’re boys’ tools. So, we have bright colors that look like candy. There’s an extra effort to make the circuits look beautiful. And it turns out boys are not turned off. Anecdotally, our teachers tell us it’s close to 40% to 50% girls, which is unheard of in electronics.”


Inclusive Design: Microsoft Thinks Outside the XBox

Fast Company: “Dubbed inclusive design, (Microsoft) begins with studying overlooked communities, ranging from dyslexics to the deaf. By learning about how they adapt to their world, the hope is that you can actually build better new products for everyone else.”

“What’s more, by finding more analogues between tribes of people outside the mainstream and situations that we’ve all found ourselves in, you can come up with all kinds of new products. The big idea is that in order to build machines that adapt to humans better, there needs to be a more robust process for watching how humans adapt to each other, and to their world … They are finding the expertise and ingenuity that arises naturally, when people are forced to live a life differently from most … the promise of this new design process isn’t in just a better Microsoft.”

August de los Reyes of Xbox: ”If we’re successful, we’re going to change the way products are designed across the industry. Period. That’s my vision.”


Lab-to-Table Meat Is Nearly Here

The Wall Street Journal: “Memphis Meats grows meat by isolating cow and pig cells that have the capacity to renew themselves, and providing the cells with oxygen and nutrients such as sugars and minerals. These cells develop inside bioreactor tanks into skeletal muscle that can be harvested in between nine and 21 days … Currently it costs about $18,000 to produce a pound of Memphis Meats’ ground beef, compared with about $4 a pound in U.S. grocery stores, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”

Memphis Meats CEO Uma Valeti: “The meat industry knows their products aren’t sustainable. We believe that in 20 years, a majority of meat sold in stores will be cultured.”


Loyalty & The Late Adopter

Those who are slower to adopt new products or services tend to be more loyal to their choices, reports The Wall Street Journal.

Typically, a late adopter is “a person who buys a product or service after half of a population has done so. Late adopters tend to share certain characteristics: They are skeptical of marketing and tend to point out differences between advertised claims and the actual product. They often value a product’s core attributes, ignoring the bells and whistles intended to upsell the latest model. They may not try something new until weeks, months or even years after the crowd has moved on.”

“It takes a long time to change late adopters, but once they’ve done all that research, and once they are convinced about a product, they are going to stay for a long time,” says Sara Jahanmir of the Nova School of Business and Economics in Lisbon.

Late adopters are also believed to have “important things to tell companies about the role new products should play. Because they tend to be highly critical, late adopters can be useful to companies perfecting their wares … By listening to late adopters of the old version of a product, developers can create a new version that is quicker to be adopted.”