Why Is There a Flying Car on My Front Lawn? - How the MassTLC unConference Took Wing

What a wonderful day we all had at the MassTLC Innovation 2009 unConference! It was a celebration of innovation, and working meeting to move ideas forward. The event was held yesterday, October 1, at the beautiful Network Drive facility of hosts Sun Microsystems and Nordbloom Company. I had the great honor and privilege to design the event, along with Tom Hopcroft, Heather Johnson, and James Geshwiler.

A central goal was to provide tangible help to early stage entrepreneurs by inviting experts to volunteer their time to help in small settings - one on one's and small table meetings. A total of 81 experts answered the call, and we chose 70 early stage companies from a wide range of industries. This group of expert volunteers and entrepreneurs formed the core of the event and set the tone for the day. It was about listening, advising, helping and encouraging. And wow, did that happen! I spoke to as many entrepreneurs and volunteer experts as I could, and the reports were amazing. Hundreds of real connections were being made. That made me feel so good. Check out the twitter traffic about the event here. Mass High Tech wrote a very nice article, and Scott Kirsner blogged about the event, and NECN ran a TV news piece.

Around the core of 150 people selected in advance, we had over 250 conference attendees, bringing the total for the day to over 400.
Yes, we really did have a flying car on our front lawn. I asked Carl Dietrich and his team at Terrafugia to bring their "Roadable Aircraft" to the event to inspire people to see what is possible. And boy, did it deliver!
This aircraft folds its wings and can drive right on the road, and even into typical parking garages. Here it's used for the news report about the event that ran on NECN.
The day began at 7:30. We asked our volunteer experts to post their names for one on one meetings with entrepreneurs. Then the entrepreneurs chose two one on ones that they felt would work best for them. I can't tell you how happy I feel about what resulted. When you look at the photo above, imagine how much "helping horsepower" is available to the entrepreneur looking to make a choice.
The full conference began at 8:30 with the opening session. Here, Kaliya Hamlin, our expert facilitator, explains how it all works. Unlike a regular conference where everything is planned in advance, and speakers are on podiums, this is a "hands on" event, and it starts with all the attendees proposing sessions.
Kaliya used handwritten signs to tune people into the idea that the day is all about letting thing flow and unfold they way they want to.
The "Law of Two Feet" says that you should feel free to move about between sessions. And people did. The result was that everyone felt free and energized. The were always where they wanted to be. Never stuck and looking at their watch. The underlying approach of this unConfernce is called "open space technology" and was invented by Harrison Owen  I looked him up today, and ended up having a wonderful phone conversation with him. He has a new book, called Wave Rider, which shows how to apply the self-organizing principals to all kinds of endeavors, including high tech companies and products.
The resulting agenda wall was impressive. Meetings were held in conference rooms, on couches, in the cafeteria, and even outside.
The one-on-one sessions were held in the round tables outside the cafeteria. Each table was numbered so it was easy for experts and entrepreneurs to find each other, even though they had never met. By the way, Harrison Owen chided me on our phone call today for doing too much advance work in pre-arranging the experts and volunteers. Goes against the spirt of "self organizing." Hmmm. It sure was a ton of work, but it did work really well. On the other hand, is there a self organizing way to do this for next year that  would be less work? My August and September could be transformed. Let's see what the open space technology experts say.
That's me in the middle, with Tom Hopcroft and Heather Johnson. The orange shirts say "ask me" in huge letters on the back. We had a great crew of volunteers who wore the orange shirt, and really helped make everything run smoothly. The time is 11:30 am, the day is going so well, we are just beaming.
The beautiful open space of Network Drive was the perfect venue for the unConference. Check out this detailed view of the entire venue.
I end this post with this photo of Bob Metcalfe, because it portrays the relaxed, engaging energy that was flowing throughout the day. Wow is all I can say. In my blog post before the event, I asked people to build a conference on four words: "How can I help?" Everyone did just that.

Building a Conference on Four Words: "How Can I Help?"

In February of 2008, Tom Hopcroft, Heather Johnson, James Gesweiler and I started working on a new conference design focused on helping early stage entrepreneurs find people who can help them grow, and help them create great businesses.

We set out some ambitious goals:

1. A conference that could help a large number of entrepreneurs.

2. A conference that would bring out the helping spirit in the community.

3. A conference that would be fun and different.

4. A conference that would, in fact, help foster new businesses.

We quickly realized that the old designs just wouldn't work. MassTLC already had a "pitch session" conference where potential investors are invited to hear early stage folks make their pitch. But this "pitching" model sets up a dynamic that isn't really that useful. We want to help people at a much earlier stage -- when they are working on the idea and need help.

And the old model of the podium-based conference where you line up speakers in advance isn't great for the entrepreneurs either. They don't need lectures. They need down-to-earth input from people who get what they are doing.

As we started hashing out some new ways to do this, an entrepreneur I had been working with, Andrew Borg, mentioned that he went to an amazing conference -- an unconference in NYC, and it was run by Kaliya Hamlin. We quickly connected with Kaliya and then the design work took on a whole new flavor. With every new idea, Kaliya was able to instantly say if it would work or not. Or how to modify the idea. She just knows how people behave in groups, and she knows all kinds of new ways to help people come together.

So the idea was formed, and the name was picked; MassTLC Innovation 2008 unConference. I had never heard of an unconference, even though the approach has been around for decades. The idea is amazingly simple. Gather people together and offer multiple places for meetings to take place. Then, in a structured way, have people propose their topics and put them all on a giant "agenda wall". Then people pick what sessions to go to. The ethos is that everything flows. If you don't like a session, leave and go to a different one. The idea is that everyone is where they want to be, learning what they want to learn.

Unconferences are unique in that they need very little upfront work. You just need a venue. Then post the conference, and whoever comes creates the event.

However, for our event, we decided that we must build on a central core that is based on the mission of helping entrepreneurs find new helpers for their idea. So I began to think: "What kind of help was most useful to me in the very early days of Avid?" These four jumped to mind:

1. Early on, when I was 19, I was building a mechanical, relay-based "whistle" system to help my hospital roommate, Tom Wade, who was a quadriplegic, control his phone, lights, TV, etc even though he couldn't move his arms or legs. Later I was introduced to a man named John Beall, who knew how to use digital logic chips, and insisted that I learn it, immediately. He showed me how, and that changed my career, yielded a working Whistle System (and a 1980 patent) and led to my transfer to MIT. (I wrote an article about John Beall in Mass High Tech)

2. Later, when I came up with the idea for the Avid editing system, I was able to get my initial idea vetted by people who understood the problem and could help create the system. Eric Peters, who later became Avid's CTO, is a key example. 

3. Just a month after starting the company, I presented to the MIT Startup Forum dinner meeting. This group convinced me that I should not bootstrap the business and should get venture capital.

4. In February of 1988, Bill Kaiser of Greylock was the first and only VC we talked to, and he later invested.

These four events represent four kinds of helping that were crucial to me. First, John Beall helped me get on the right technology path. Second, Eric Peters helped me create the product I wanted to build. Third, the MIT Startup Forum helped me choose a good path to grow the company, and fourth, Bill Kaiser became a lead investor who put his energy, intelligence, and his time behind building a great company. The investment was $500K so it was almost like having an angel investor that led to venture.

So this led to the question: How could one design a conference that makes it easy for entrepreneurs to find the kind of help that I found useful when starting Avid?

I always tell entrepreneurs to figure out the straightest path to just where they want to go, so I figured I'd try it here. I sent letters to a whole ton of people who I thought could provide the same kind of help that I got in my early days. I told them my story, and asked them to volunteer a day for early stage folks. The response was amazing. Everyone said "yes."

So the conference began in a different way than most. Instead of accomplished people being pursued as speakers for a quiet audience, this conference began with a roster of volunteers, experts in their field, who are ready to say "How can I help?"

Only then did we set out to find entrepreneurs who needed the help. Last year, we had 60 volunteer experts and 60 entrepreneurs. This formed the core of the conference, and served to attract the rest of the attendees.

The event itself was amazing. The agenda creation happened so quickly that by the time I put up my own session, the wall was full and we needed to add another venue. (in an unconference, there's always room for more). Michael Greeley told us it was like "lightning in a bottle." See the event on video here. (3 minutes)

What excites me the most is that the central goal was met. So many entrepreneurs did find people to help them. And funny thing...so did I. One of my passions is hand-pedaled cycles, and I found a great designer, Alan Ball, to help on that project. Mechanical design buffs will enjoy this blog about the "Morphing Handcycle."

This year, for MassTLC Innovation 2009, we're building on the same theme. We have an expanded venue, so we can handle even more people. Now we have over 75 volunteer expertsand we are finalizing the list of entrepreneurs. That same great dynamic is at the center of this event. Talented people asking, "How Can I Help?"

A Beautiful, 3-Minute HD Look at Last Year's MassTLC Innovation 2008 unConference - With Thanks to Larry Jordan

Way back in my Avid days, I worked with an editor in Hollywood named Larry Jordan. Larry was in town last year during the unConference and offered to scare up a local film crew to document our event. He and the crew did a beautiful job, and even though the video you see here is compressed to the iPhone standard, you can see the quality and the beautiful camera work.

For those planning to attend MassTLC Innovation 2009, this 3-minute overview gives you a good sense of how an unConference proceeds. And maybe you'll recognize some people you know, and some that you'll meet this year. Thanks, Larry, for bringing a little bit of Hollywood to the MassTLC!

Navy Carrier Pilot Turned Brother-in-Law Turns 60: Still Going Strong - "Topgun" and "Tangled up in Blue"

I made this little video for Gunnar Edelstein, my wife's brother. Gunnar was a Navy carrier pilot in 1972 on the USS Kittyhawk. I figured that a little Internet searching would give me some good imagery, and it did. Gunnar, here's to you. Anyone who lands an airplane on a carrier in the middle of the ocean, in the fog, at night ... is the kind of crazy guy I want to be friends with. Here's to sixteen years of knowing you, and to 60 years and still going strong.
Note: If anyone watching this video should fly American Airlines out of LaGuardia to the Caribbean, listen carefully when the pilot comes on and announces his name. It could well be Captain Gunnar Edelstein.

Video: Ft. Benning, GA: My Nephew Jeffrey Graduates Army Basic Training & Advanced Infantry Training

My nephew, Jeffrey Edelstein, just graduated Army Basic Training in Ft. Benning, GA. This was an especially intense program aimed at recruits considering special forces assignments. It is designed to determine who is ready for the most difficult tasks.  Jeffrey recently graduated this training program, and this video is made from photos taken by his father (my brother-in-law) Gunnar Edelstein. Since the graduation, Jeffrey has also completed advanced infantry training as well.

Well done, Jeffrey! We are all very proud of you!

How Smart Can a Mechanical System Be? Pretty Smart. Variable Rider Weight and Automatic Seat Adjust.

John Baron sent along this e-Drawings file of the test rig showing an adjustable mechanism to compensate for a variety of rider weights. On Morph II, we calibrated the shocks to work for Rory's weight. This worked very well, but doesn't work well for showing other riders. And its not practical for production.

So, one of the goals of the new morph is that it handle a range of rider weights with a simple adjustment. That's what John is testing here.

While Morph II had the frame as a single member, and had two gas shocks, the new design puts two frame members on the outside and a single shock in the middle.

Here's a bunch more photos.

By the way, the gold-colored mechanism is the automatic seat adjuster. As you morph up, it tilts the seat back by droppiing the rear of the seat. This corrects for the forward tilt that morphing up causes.

Here is the e-Drawings file for the SolidWorks model:  You'll need the free e-Drawings Viewer (for Mac or PC)

Paul English & Friends on the Giant Slip-n-Slide at Pig on the Pond 2009

Paul English and some friends put together a fun and music-filled barbeque by the pond in Arlington. The centerpiece of the event was a giant slip-n-slide assembled from huge amounts of commonly available materials, such as enough plastic tarp to cover an 18-wheeler truck (maybe two), and copious amounts of dish soap and sprayed water to make the downhill run plenty fast. Now there's engineering put to good use.
This music video is backed by Paul's house band and shows the action, especially on the slip-n-slide.
Now, just how did we get those moving shots on the slip-n-slide? Two ways. First were some brave sliders who just held the camera as they slid down together. (And that worked remarkably well) And second, as you'll see here, was the helmut-cam. He went down head first to mimic the motion of the little girl in the video who also went head first. There's a brief cutaway to the helmut-cam during her slide.
Thanks Paul and friends for a great party. And thanks to the band for a great song!

Using the "Poor Man's Steadycam" at Quincy Market Boston. Impressive and fun. The Handcycle is the Perfect Self-Powered Dolly.

This thing really works and it only cost $40 for the kit! I took it to an outing to the Tall Ships and Quincy Market in Boston. It gave me all kinds of shots I couldn't otherwise get. Doesn't remove all the jitter, but still, its pretty amazing. Check it out!