21st Century Economy

The Personal Enterprise Economy Lets Us All Be Entrepreneurs

By Kish Rajan

Imagine setting out to be a wedding photographer or a dog trainer as little as 10 years ago. These kinds of jobs required enormous effort to get off the ground. Often people working as sole proprietors had to not only be great at their jobs, they had to be marketers and book keepers as well. It was enough of a barrier to keep plenty of people in unfulfilling, and often low paying, jobs.

Today that’s changing. Platforms like Thumbtack give these kinds of professionals a digital space where they can easily start their businesses. Thumbtack brings the customer leads to the pros and then facilitates payments handling both the marketing and the book keeping.

That means that people who might have previously been afraid to follow their dreams can now start their own businesses. People in dead-end jobs can find ways to forge their own path.

Technological advances have enabled people to turn their passions into their livelihoods by making it easier to connect with customers. Now, benefits, licensing and other necessities of doing business need to follow suit.

Postmates is having a similar effect in the restaurant industry.

A decade ago, starting a small bakery or restaurant was an almost insane endeavor. Margins at food businesses are notoriously thin and while the right location can get you plenty of foot traffic, it can also cost more than many budding entrepreneurs can afford.

With Postmates, a small, out of the way restaurant has as much of a chance to thrive as one in a better location. As long as a Postmates driver can get there, the restaurant can attract online diners who want food delivered to their homes.

We hear a lot about how automation is hurting jobs but we hear a lot less about how technology is helping people who are building businesses in the service industry. This is a regular topic of discussion between the tech industry and members of the California Legislative Technology and Innovation Caucus.

The truth is that the nature of work has been changing for many years—long before companies like Uber and Airbnb came along. While layoffs were once a big problem for people who worked in manufacturing, today more people are quitting than getting fired. While politicians might bluster about returning to a mid-century economy, workers on the ground are quickly adjusting to the new reality.

What are often called gig economy companies are making up the difference. I prefer to call this sector the personal enterprise economy because what it’s really doing is giving everyone, no matter what your skill, a new way to build a business.

On Thumbtack, for example, two-thirds of the professionals on the platform work full time. That means these aren’t people scrambling to make ends meet from a second job. They are entrepreneurs who have built their own businesses often doing what they love. The service is available in all but one county in the United States making it a truly democratizing force.

These new technology platforms are giving people new ways to work and creating new opportunities. To pretend they are actually the forces destroying jobs is misread the tea leaves.

But we can do more to help people in this new economy succeed.

As we move into the future of work, government and businesses need to think about how to help workers succeed in the new economy. Benefits need to be decoupled from corporations. Licensing should not be tied to a specific small municipality. Professionals should be able to easily ply their trade across country lines. And training and retraining need to become high priority.

We are just at the beginning of this conversation but it’s crucial that we continue talking—and listening to new perspectives. That’s why tomorrow, CALinnovates, along with TechNet, Senator Cannella and Assemblymember Gray, is hosting the inaugural Valley to Valley Forum at UC Merced.

If You Build It … 5G Networks Will Make Life Better

By Kish Rajan

U.S. consumers like to think we have the best of everything when it comes to the internet — didn’t we build it?

But we are lagging far behind other countries when it comes to building 5G networks. China just this month set a new industry record when it exceeded a throughput of 19 Gbps in 5G trials, on the way to a nationwide rollout of 5G by 2020.

5G-based technologies can have a vast impact on mobile connectivity in densely-populated areas and on the Internet of Things. Mobile data traffic worldwide is almost 800 million times higher than 15 years ago. By 2020, more than 50 billion devices and 212 billion sensors will be connected to network services.

Right now, China is on the cutting edge of 5G technology. Why aren’t we seeing the same in the U.S.? While several states are flirting with 5G networks, there’s no policy — and seemingly no interest — in getting one up and running nationwide.

And yet 5G can unlock enormous economic growth, help grow new businesses and jobs, improve transportation, save energy and greatly improve our infrastructure. According to an Accenture report, IoT improvements have the potential to create $160 billion in benefits and savings. Then there’s the economic boost of just building 5G networks. Accenture predicts that 5G could result in $275 billion in investments, creating 3 million new jobs nationally and growing GDP by $500 billion.

But nothing will happen unless we encourage the growth of 5G networks and eliminate outdated regulations. 5G requires 10 to 100 times more small cell antennas than a 4G network. Many municipalities are resisting them with long wait times for permits, unreasonable fees and conflicting regulations.

These small cells, about the size of a briefcase, typically are installed on utility poles. They have less range than a typical tower, but serve more users faster. They are easier and cheaper to install than large cell towers, and rely on density to provide fast data service. A college football stadium, for example, needs 40 to 60 of them to provide full coverage.

Virginia has made the most progress with new rules that make building a 5G network easier. Small cell antennas now are allowed statewide on lamp posts and utility poles. California, Florida, Texas, Minnesota, Arizona, Colorado, Indiana and Iowa are all looking at similar bills. Washington State is considering a bill that would streamline permitting and cap fees as a way to lay the groundwork for 5G networks there.

We also need national standards for using unlicensed spectrum to ensure a high quality of service and low interference. Broadband spectrum unlicensed by the FCC can be used by wireless operators as a relief valve for data traffic to speed up clogged pipes.

But for now, patchwork local regulations and the lack of a concerted, consistent national effort to build 5G networks mean U.S. consumers will be stuck with an outdated technology while we struggle to improve phone service and the backbone for smart cities, more efficient agriculture and even self-driving cars.

 

Protecting Consumer Health And Safety In The 21st Century Economy

By Kish Rajan

As the Legislature hurries to complete its final month of work for the year, the Capitol is humming with activity as legislators present and vote on hundreds of bills, advancing them to the governor’s desk. In the case of each bill, the Legislature and the Governor’s responsibility is the same: To carefully consider its policy merits and its long-term impacts on regular Californians, our economy and our state’s future.

This is particularly true when it comes to issues relating to new, innovative business models that had yet to even be conceived when our state’s existing legal and regulatory structures were put in place. As our economy has evolved, the Legislature has had to carefully consider the best ways to update our laws in a way that supports innovation, continues to protect Californians and maintains a coherent regulatory process.

We’ve seen these issues arise across many industries, from cyberbullying to ride sharing to home sharing. And although each industry is different, one thing has been clear across all of them: developing the right policy and regulatory framework for these new business models takes careful consideration and a thoughtful approach that engages a wide range of stakeholders, examines both intended and unintended consequences and ultimately yields a holistic approach that modernizes the law for the industry as it stands today and provides flexibility for the industry as it continues to evolve.

Now, as new business models emerge in the food, beverage and alcohol industries, it’s no surprise that the Assembly and Senate have considered a number of bills relating to consumer and public safety in these arenas over the course of this legislative session. For example:

  • AB 626 requires Californians who sell salads, hot meals and other prepared food made in their own home to report details about what and when they are preparing and selling this food.
  • AB 836 allows the California Department of Public Health to grant exceptions to certain food safety laws for specialty vending machines like juice distribution systems that dispense raw, cold-pressed juice directly to consumers.
  • AB 1461 creates new food handler card requirements for companies that offer subscription-based food packages and adds a new layer of local regulation, in addition to existing state and federal food safety regulations.
  • SB 254 creates new Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control requirements for online and app-based companies that deliver alcoholic beverages, above and beyond requirements already in place for traditional delivery companies.

Each of these bills deals with consumer safety in vastly different ways – whereas some loosen food safety laws for companies that deliver directly to customers, many layer on more, often duplicative regulations that don’t actually make customers any safer. Whereas some expand the role of state regulators in addressing consumer safety, others expand the role of local regulators, blurring the lines between regulatory agencies and who should actually be responsible for – or is even capable of – ensuring Californians’ safety in that particular industry.

Given the speed at which our economy is evolving and the ways in which new business models are changing how companies serve their customers, it’s no surprise that some of these very issues are on the agenda for the California Conference of Directors of Environmental Health’s upcoming annual conference on “Protecting Environmental Health in a Rapidly Changing Society.” It’s a testament to the fact that even regulators themselves have more work to do to better understand the issues at hand and determine the right way to approach consumer safety in, well, a rapidly changing society. And it’s a reminder that our state is only at the beginning of this conversation – so it makes little sense for the Legislature to pre-empt those conversations, especially when the bills being debated deal with these issues in such a haphazard, sometimes contradictory way.

Across California, innovative companies are rethinking how to move within and between cities, how to deliver products and services more quickly and efficiently, and even how to shop for groceries and enjoy a home-cooked meal. This kind of outside-the-box thinking has defined California for decades and made us the epicenter of innovation, and it’s critically important that we approach these questions about consumer safety in a holistic way that protects Californians without squashing that spirit of innovation.

By taking a step back on some of these bills, the Legislature, Governor Brown and all stakeholders can foster the robust discussion California needs to ensure our health and safety laws truly protect consumers; encourage growth, investment and competition; and result in Californians having more choice and access to the benefits of new technology both now and in the future.

This piece originally ran in Fox & Hounds

Time for California to build a 5G network

By Kish Rajan

Here in California, we like to think of ourselves as being on the cutting-edge of all things technology. After all, California is home to Silicon Valley and we are the birthplace of companies like Google, Apple and Tesla.

But in one crucial area, we are at a high risk of falling behind. States like Virginia, Florida and Texas could all have state-wide 5G networks before California does.

And that’s a problem because 5G has the potential to unlock enormous economic growth, help grow new businesses and jobs, improve transportation, save energy, and greatly improve our infrastructure.

Right now, most mobile devices work on a 4G network where signals are bounced off of large cell phone towers than can a mile or more apart. This works fine. But as anyone who’s ever lost coverage or waited with growing frustration for a video to download knows, we need to upgrade these systems to keep pace with the growing demand.

4G has the potential to hit maximum speeds of 1 Gbps, but because of interference from buildings, it rarely hits those speeds. A 5G network has the potential to move data 10 times faster. Yes, that’s going to be good for consumers who want to enjoy quick downloads, but it’s so much more than that. 5G will power the infrastructure necessary to make our cities smarter.

According to a report from Accenture, new 5G-based technologies will enable intelligent transportation and energy systems – easing traffic gridlock and improving the performance of the electrical grid. These improvements alone have the potential to create $160 billion in benefits and savings. We’re already seeing the possibilities for this kind of technology in San Diego with sensors in street lights collecting data that will track air quality and improve traffic flow and parking helping the city save $2.5 million per year. Imagine that kind of innovation on a state-wide scale.

Then there’s the economic benefits of building out the network itself. Accenture predicts that 5G could result in $275 billion in investments, creating 3 million new jobs nationally and growing GDP by $500 billion.

But we’re not going to see any of that potential come to fruition if we constrain the emergence of 5G by subjecting it to the old approach to 4G regulations.

Right now, it can take up to two years to approve a permit for a cell-phone tower. But a 5G network requires 10 to 100 times more small cell antennas than a 4G network. And then different municipalities have different requirements for cell-phone antenna permits.

These old regulations make it almost impossible to build out a vibrant 5G network that could benefit everyone in our state.

That’s why states like Virginia have put new rules in place to make it easier and faster to build a 5G network. Governor Terry McAuliffe just signed a bill that creates a state-wide permit to place cell antennas on lamp posts and utility poles. Florida, Texas, Minnesota, Arizona, Colorado, Indiana and Iowa are all looking at similar bills.

It’s time for California to catch up.

We have our own 5G bill making its way through the state Legislature. SB 649 will lay the ground work for a 5G network. It’s crucial that it moves quickly through the legislative process and that Gov. Jerry Brown signs it in to law. The longer we wait, the further we fall behind.

California has never taken a back seat to any other state when it comes to innovation. We must not start now. Let’s unleash our full potential and remind the country and the world what we’re made of.

Kish Rajan is chief evangelist at CALinnovates and former director of Gov. Jerry Brown’s GOBiz initiative. He can be contacted at [email protected]

This piece was originally published in the Monterey Herald.

Edibles Are The Next Big Thing For Pot Entrepreneurs

By Mike Montgomery

As more states legalize cannabis for recreational use, edibles will become a huge market for entrepreneurs. In California alone, consumers gobbled up more than $180 million worth of marijuana-infused food and drinks last year, 10% of the state’s cannabis sales, according to Arcview Market Research.

And it’s not just California that’s seeing a growing edibles market. Sales of pot-infused treats increased 121% last year in Washington state, where recreational marijuana is legal, according to cannabis analytics firm Headset Inc. And since Colorado first allowed recreational marijuana use, sales tripled from $17 million in the first quarter of 2014 to $53 million in the third quarter of 2016.

The reason for the explosive growth is that as the pot market expands, it’s starting to reach people who don’t want to smoke. Overall the smoking rate among adults is down from 20.6% in 2009 to 16.8% in 2014. Edibles provide a discrete, smoke-free experience. And since they can command higher prices, edibles often account for 25 to 60% of a dispensary’s profits.

That makes edibles an appealing slice of the pot pie, which was worth an estimated $7.2 billion in 2016, and is projected to grow up to 25% annually.

Edibles today are mostly candies, from dosed gummy bears to lollipops, where taste is an afterthought. And usually people are buying those edibles in windowless dispensaries where it can still feel very much making an illicit transaction.

Matt Fosburg, founder of Ez THC, believes that’s poised to change and that there will soon be a market for high-end cannabis candy. With a background in retail design and candy making, Fosburg wants to bring the trappings of high-end retail — quality, consistency and a great in-store experience — to the world of marijuana treats.

He believes that focusing on taste and quality will give him a competitive edge in the edibles market. While most producers melt down mass-produced chocolate to make their candy, Fosburg says he’s the first one working on an edible bar from scratch.

The process is way more labor intensive — it requires sourcing and roasting cacao beans, grinding chocolate for three to four days, then carefully tempering and molding it into bars with just the right ratio of cannabis. But Fosburg believes it’s worth the effort.

“As much as the business for edibles is coined a gold rush, it’s going to be highly competitive,” he says. “And it’s not a get-rich-quick scheme. You better come to the market with a competitive product.”

Fosburg currently sells two bars in California dispensaries. One is milk chocolate with Tahitian vanilla beans. The other, dark chocolate with Maldon sea salt, took first place in its category in a recent Edibles Magazine contest.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that I make great chocolate,” Fosburg says. “But winning the award gave me credibility.”

That’s going to be crucial going forward because at $15 each, an Ez THC bar costs 20% more than a typical competitor’s bar infused with the same amount of marijuana.

But just as we’ve seen markets for food like heirloom tomatoes and artisanal pickles, Fosburg believes there will be consumers who prefer a gourmet product.

“From the beans we buy, to the THC distillate we source, every component of our bar is of the highest quality,” Fosburg says. “This is not your everyday machine-manufactured bar, but rather truly handmade.”

Based in California, Fosburg can only sell his bars through medical marijuana dispensaries right now. That will change next year when California’s Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), goes into full effect. At that point, it will be legal for entrepreneurs to open brick-and-mortar stores outside of dispensaries as long as they obtain the necessary city and state licenses.

Fosburg is working with his mentor, Richard Altuna, on creating a new kind of retail experience. Altuna, an award-winning architect who has worked with Patagonia, Restoration Hardware and The Gap, has known Fosburg since he was a kid and has complete faith in the entrepreneur. But while he’s happy to help with design, Altuna has never sampled the product.

“I’m the guy who runs out of the room when anybody starts lighting up,” he says.

Their inspiration is top chocolate makers, like Jacques Torres in New York and Dandelion Chocolate in San Francisco, that have mixed-use facilities with open kitchens where customers can see the chocolate being made.

“An open-air kitchen creates transparency and authenticity in a kitchen,” says Fosburg. “I think this will really connect with today’s consumers, especially millennials.”

Even before he opens the store, Fosburg is connecting with customers of all ages through social media. The law prohibits selling marijuana online, so his digital strategy is all about marketing.

He also plans to start advertising on the popular website weedmaps.com, where customers will eventually be able to find the product and have it delivered to their homes by a courier who can take an in-person payment.

Entrepreneurs like Fosburg will go a long way toward legitimizing the cannabis industry and helping it grow into a big business.

“I want to do this to help the cannabis industry be normalized and not have this reefer madness thing they’ve been dealing with,” says Fosburg. “But if I stop having fun, or if there’s no more value in it, I’m on to the next thing. That’s the entrepreneur in me.”

Mike Montgomery is executive director of CALinnovates, a non-partisan technology advocacy coalition of tech companies, founders, funders and nonprofits.

This piece was originally published in Forbes.

Why Elon Musk Chose South Australia For His New Battery Project

By Mike Montgomery

When Elon Musk announced that he plans to build the world’s biggest ion battery to power to South Australia, it was a sign that the state truly has made a stunning turnaround.

Things looked grim for South Australia back in 2013, when GM announced it would stop manufacturing cars in Australia as of fall 2017.

Adelaide, the biggest city in South Australia, had prospered after World War II as a manufacturing hub for automobiles, appliances and textiles. Local industry was protected by high tariff walls — as high as 54 percent for automobiles in the 1980s. In Adelaide, the largest employers were tied to the auto industry.

That shattering 2013 announcement was a wake-up call, according to Jay Weatherill, South Australia’s premier. “It was a signal moment for us,” he says. “It’s been the impetus for massive change.”

Weatherill decided to pin the state’s future on tech and innovation rather than go looking for a volume-based manufacturing industry to replace GM. In fact, he started looking to make South Australia the next Silicon Valley.

As more cities look to reinvent themselves in the wake of factories closing, Adelaide is an appealing model. The first step was a review of commercialization and venture capital investments in South Australia. The news wasn’t good. The state received less than 0.2% of the venture capital investment in Australia. The review also found that a lack of coordination between government departments and agencies hindered private investment opportunities.

The solution was to spend money to make money. Weatherill used state funds last year to establish a $38 million venture capital fund to promote innovation, attract new VC and encourage tech companies to move to South Australia. The state also committed money to support new businesses from conception to product development and early commercialization, and gave more money to the local university’s innovation incubator to underwrite initiatives in the advanced manufacturing and engineering spaces.

South Australia also has invested in promoting its agribusiness sector and developing private export markets in high-quality foods, particularly to serve the exploding middle class in Asia. “Our wine and food are attracting huge investment from overseas,” says Andrew Cullen, managing partner of Deloitte in South Australia.

Weatherill also hired American transplant Tom Hajdu as his “Chief Advisor on Innovation.” Hajdu — founder of both music production company tomandandy and Disrupter, a Los Angeles-based startup incubator — says the state needed to upgrade its infrastructure to attract new tech businesses and the jobs that come with them. He led the effort to make Adelaide the first international city to join the Smart Gigabit Communities Program, which in part requires members to install sensors throughout the city and develop applications to connect those sensors and the data they collect to the cloud. So-called “gig cities” also have high-speed internet that is up to 100 times faster than the national average. The SA government paid $3.5 million for the upgrades.

But the biggest sign that the economy has turned the corner came in May, when all of South Australia’s efforts to modernize paid off. The Australian government picked the state as the primary location for its new defense shipbuilding program. Australia committed $66 billion to build submarines, frigates and offshore patrol vessels for the Australian navy, and to upgrade and modernize Adelaide’s existing naval shipyard. The government also will open a school in Adelaide to train shipbuilding workers.

Building and maintaining the next-generation naval fleet is expected to bring in 5,000 high-skilled, high-tech jobs, as well as thousands of other jobs in associated industries. South Australia won the bid in part by focusing on how it has morphed from rust belt to 21st century city.

“South Australia is a next generation state,” says Hajdu. “It’s the center of the new digital economy.”  If Elon Musk agrees, you know it must be true.

Mike Montgomery is the Executive Director at CALinnovates.

This piece was originally published on Forbes.

 

Retail Isn’t Dying, It’s Being Revolutionized

By Kish Rajan

There’s almost nothing more depressing than the sight of a dying mall. If you’ve ever walked through one of these places, you know the sadness of the empty store fronts, the echoing atriums and the going out of business sales at the few remaining shops.

It’s enough to make anyone think that we’re witnessing the end of in-person shopping as we transition to online purchasing. But don’t let those sad malls fool you. Retail is far from dead — but it is evolving in ways that could benefit both shoppers and workers.

First, it’s worth noting that the death of brick and mortar shopping has been greatly exaggerated. E-commerce only accounts for 10% of retail overall. According to NPD, 95% of Americans shop at Wal-Mart while only 42% shop at Amazon. And those dying malls? They’re more a sign of overdevelopment than a harbinger of the obsolescence of retail. The number of malls in the U.S. grew more than twice as fast as the population between 1970 and 2015 according to research from Cowen & Co. What we’re seeing now is more of a rightsizing than a decline.

And many malls are reinventing themselves. Take the Westfield Mall outside of Los Angeles. Located in the heavily Asian San Gabriel Valley, it’s often almost impossible to find parking there on the weekends. Once a sleepy shopping center stocked with the usual suspects, the mall is now home to outposts of hot Asian retailers like SST&C out of Taiwan and Muji, a Japanese lifestyle store.

You see this kind of rethinking of retail everywhere you go. Online stores like Warby Parker and Modcloth are popping up in real life around the country. At the same time classic brick and mortar shops, like Nordstromand Best Buy, are using their physical stores to help drives sales online and vice versa.

This kind of creativity is exciting but it is just part of the overall evolution in retail. As more shopping moves online, it’s inevitable that we’ll see a change in the overall demand for different kinds of workers. Just look at Amazon Go, the online retailer’s latest foray into the real world. The Settle-based supermarket will work completely by automation. You just take what you need and leave and Amazon charges your account without requiring any human interaction at all. It’s a delight for shoppers but could dramatically reshape the number and types of jobs in future grocery stores.

As low-paid jobs fade, they’ll be replaced by higher-paying jobs in both physical and online retail. A recent study by the Progressive Policy Instituteshows that while retail saw a gain of 27,000 jobs last year, ecommerce jobs climbed by 97,000. Those ecommerce jobs pay an average $21.13 compared to an average $16.65 per hour in general retail.

But the trick will be moving displaced workers into better jobs that will pay more. It’s naïve to think that a laid-off cashier in a small town in Alabama can just pick up and move to a higher paying ecommerce job that might be located in Washington state.

In order for the new economy to benefit everyone, we have to make sure these new jobs are available to everyone. We can do that by ensuring technology jobs are spread throughout the country, not just concentrated in places like Silicon Valley and Boston. Smaller towns can become tech hubs. Just look at what’s happening in Augusta, Ga., where a group of entrepreneurs are building incubators and helping to create a tech-friendly environment.

We also need to laser focus on retraining workers. That means tech companies and government working together to come up with smart new ways to train people. One good example of this is TechHire Eastern Kentucky. Launched by Ankur Gopal, the CEO of Interapt out of Louisville, Ky., with support from the local government, the program trains people through class study and apprenticeships to move into tech jobs.

If we are to successfully move to the next phase of retail, which will be a mix of brick-and-mortar and ecommerce, we need to make sure there are new and better opportunities for workers. Those opportunities will come from creative new shops as well as good-paying tech and warehouse jobs. It’s a mix that will be good for customers, and good for employees.

Kish Rajan is Chief Evangelist at CALinnovates.

Solving Infrastructure Problems From the Bottom Up

By Kish Rajan

Walking down the streets of San Diego, it’s not immediately apparent that the city is at the center of a technological revolution in infrastructure. That’s because the technology, 3,200 sensors, is hidden inside the city’s new street lights. The sensors collect data that will help the city save $2.5 million on electricity each year, track air quality, and improve traffic flow and parking. They can even be of use to public-safety first responders.

San Diego’s smart lights are just part of the city’s push to rebuild its infrastructure. Last June, voters approved the Rebuild San Diego ballot initiative, which will provide up to $4 billion for infrastructure projects over the next 25 years.

Expect to see more local and state governments taking infrastructure problems into their own hands. Given the realities of politics in Washington, they know the folly of waiting for the federal government to step in and save the day. And it’s highly unlikely that any new infrastructure plan that did emerge from Washington would cover more than a fraction of the $4.6 trillion that the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates it would cost to fix everything — more than the federal government spends in a year.

ASCE’s latest report card gives America’s infrastructure an overall grade of D-plus. And no one knows better than those at the local level how our deteriorating infrastructure makes us less competitive globally, not to mention the safety concerns it raises for the people who use crumbling bridges, overpasses and tunnels every day or who drink water that might be contaminated by sewage overflows, just to name a few issues. They need to take a page from San Diego’s playbook and find creative ways to start solving infrastructure problems from the bottom up.

It’s already beginning to happen. South Bend, Ind., for example, is a sewer overflow city. Hundreds of billions of gallons of raw sewage overflow into local rivers and lakes every year. Aiming to improve the situation, the city, under Mayor Pete Buttigieg, has begun using a system called CSOnet, developed by a local company, that collects data from sensors inside the sewers so the city can redirect water to empty pipes and reduce the overflows.

In Multnomah County, Ore., more than a third of the commercial buildings use more energy than they should. But the Building Ready Multnomah initiative, started by former County Commissioner Jules Bailey, helps finance capital improvements that reduce energy consumption or generate energy. The organization leverages public and private resources for the loans and encourages participants to use the savings generated from becoming more energy efficient toward seismic upgrades to prepare for natural disasters.

And as some Western states struggle to build up their renewable-energy infrastructure, other states, including California, have excess renewable energy capacity. California state Sen. Bob Hertzberg has proposed the creation of a regional grid operator and energy exchange to make it easier for states to buy and sell energy to each other, which could reducing overall carbon dioxide emissions.

These efforts might seem small, but they can add up to a serious impact. With the continuing dysfunction in Washington, it may be years before we see a comprehensive federal infrastructure effort. But as these local leaders have shown, that doesn’t mean we can’t begin to improve our grade.

SCOTUS Smacks Down Patent Trolls

By Mike Montgomery

In all the political hoopla dominating the news lately, many people probably missed a U.S. Supreme Court decision that will actually have a huge impact on technological innovation. On May 22, the court ruled to restrict where patent lawsuits can be filed. The decision is likely to lead to a reduction in the number of cases filed by so-called patent trolls. It’s about time.

Trolls don’t build anything, employ anyone or add any value whatsoever to the economy. They simply buy up overly broad, somewhat vague intellectual property (IP) patents and use them as cudgels to bully plaintiffs into paying them to go away. Trolls count on a trial being more expensive than an out-of-court settlement.

Until this recent decision, the trolls’ favorite place to bring suits was the Eastern District of Texas, which has rules — and juries — that favor IP plaintiffs. It’s not a huge surprise that more than 40% of all patent lawsuits are filed there. One East Texas judge oversaw more patent cases than the federal judges in California, Florida and New York combined. The region became a troll haven partially by accident, but mostly by design. All those lawsuits — more than 2,500 last year in the region— bring in legal teams that spend money at area hotels and restaurants and usually even throw a few crumbs to the local legal talent.

But the SCOTUS decision sounded a death knell for their cottage industry. In the two weeks preceding the ruling, 74 patent cases were filed in the Eastern District. The week after — just four cases. The well dried up fast. That’s because the ruling in Heartland v Kraft means patent cases must be filed where the infringement took place, or where the defendant has an established business. That’s usually not East Texas.

This decision is going to make a huge difference for startups and small businesses that can’t afford to fight expensive legal cases in far-flung towns, especially when the deck already is stacked against defendants. It’s easier to settle immediately, or to just not go down that innovation path.

Patent trolls waste billions of dollars each year and ultimately hurt consumers. Studies have shown that trolls syphon off money from research and development, venture capital investments and tech startups in particular. Patents are designed to protect investment and innovation, and they work in some industries like big pharma. But the tech industry has been crying out for reform.

Unfortunately, Congress has repeatedly refused to act, despite two bills that would reform the tech patent industry. The Patent Act would make it more difficult to file troll suits, while the Innovation Act would cut down on the broad, vague language used by trolls and, more importantly, force them to pay legal fees when they lose.

Of course, action may not be as necessary now. The new ruling most likely will make it harder for trolls to consolidate cases, thereby eliminating marginal cases and potentially leading to a reduction in the number of cases filed overall.

Mike Montgomery is the Executive Director at CALinnovates.

Farming Takes Flight

By Tim Sparapani

Ernest Earon was walking through a client’s farm recently when he noticed one of his company’s unmanned drones flying over the fields snapping photos. It was a heart-tugging moment for the entrepreneur. “Unexpectedly coming upon one of our aircraft, up there doing its job, was just a pretty cool moment for me,” said Earon, co-founder and chief technology officer at PrecisionHawk, a drone mapping and analytics company that helps users collect and analyze data coming from drones.

PrecisionHawk has been expanding throughout South America and Australia for years but was stymied in the U.S. by onerous regulations. After the FAA loosened those regulations in late August 2016, growers started adopting new drone technology at a breakneck pace.

It’s just one aspect of the booming “ag tech” (agricultural technology) field. Just this week, CB Insights identified more than 100 private companies in ag tech, sorting them into nine main categories including sensors, smart irrigation, and robotics and drones.

Farming has always been an information intensive industry: Growers need answers to hundreds of questions about air and soil conditions, plant stressors and optimal timing for everything from planting to harvesting. In the past, obtaining the data needed to answer those questions required thousands of hours and lots of workers. Many of today’s farms are efficient, data-gathering dynamos. Tractors have IP addresses, harvesters can measure the yield as it’s coming out of the ground, biometric sensors report on livestock health, and sophisticated algorithms help farmers manage tasks such as watering and seed ordering.

Researchers suggest the full-scale adoption of these technologies could mean an increase in farm productivity unseen since mechanization. The tractor, for example, led to a 140% jump in farm productivity between 1910 and 1950. Other mechanization, such as automatic harvesters and automatic planters that incorporated herbicides, spurred another climb of 170% between 1950 and 2010, says Michael Walden, professor of agriculture and resource economics at North Carolina State University. “That’s more than double the productivity gains in the nonfarm economy.”

Walden thinks we’re about to take another leap forward in productivity as more farmers adopt ag tech. “That’s what technology does,” he says. “It allows us to get more from less.”

Technology is important because “no one’s giving out new farmland,” says Earon. “The costs of spraying pesticides and fertilizers everywhere is too great. We have to do more with less. Farmers know the climate is changing. Everyone is looking for ways to get that leg up and continue to produce.”

Drones are a key part of the data gathering. They can cover large distances very fast, take high-resolution photos and fly over fields without affecting crops, all at a relatively low price.

“We put a lot of different sensors on them and can collect the exact insights you need to address the problem in front of you,” says Earon. “They see that the section of the field with drainage issues — which we know about because we’ve done 3D modeling — lost a lot of nitrogen because of the rain and we need to reapply it. The drone is collecting the information and providing that insight back to the grower.”

So far, adoption of data technology is highest where there are problems, such as on farms where drought or pests are present. It’s also getting easier to buy and use the technology. Drones cost as little as $1,000, and PrecisionHawk gives its software away for free. “We want as many people using it as possible so we get that feedback to help us make it better,” say Earon.

He’s already looking at a future where crops and sensors are developed together, and fewer humans are necessary to plant and harvest crops. “Farming is going to be less about driving tractors and a whole lot more about making decisions on what’s coming up next year,” he says. “Humans are not going to be involved except to manage the whole process.” There’s already a group in England attempting to grow a barley field without any human activity on the field itself using drones, driverless tractors and remote-controlled combines.

As technology takes over the rote parts of farming, different kinds of human work will be required. In fact, PrecisionHawk currently is staffing up on agronomists, geo-spacial scientists and other experts. Other drone companies in the farming space include TerrAvion, Agribotix and Skycision.

“Let the machines do what they’re good at,” says Earon. “Robots are very good at doing the same thing over and over and over again. They don’t care how hot it is. They just take good pictures.”

Humans, on the other hand, are good at using data to build new tools and figuring out new ways to use it. “We’re not putting people out of work,” says Earon. “We’re letting them do other things.”

Tim Sparapani is Senior Policy Fellow at CALinnovates.

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