Cisco looks to university students for ideas

Cisco, MTV to give away $250,000 in grants to 10 student groups developing applications for broadband.

Cisco Systems is in search of broadband's killer content, and it is throwing cash at university students in an effort to find it.

Through a relationship with MTVU, MTV's 24-hour college network, Cisco unveiled Wednesday the MTVU "Digital Incubator" program, an annual contest that selects 10 student groups that will each get $25,000 in cash to fund projects aimed at developing content for broadband users.

Universities and Cisco

This year's winners combine elements of short-form programming, gaming, social networking, blogging, instant messaging, podcasting and mobile phone interactivity.

The first Digital Incubator projects will premiere in May as part of MTVU's on-air, online, on-campus and wireless programming for the next six months.

"My biggest regret is that I haven't found the next Google of online content," said Dan Scheinman, senior vice president of corporate development for Cisco. "The media business is in a disruptive era and consumers are being empowered to create and share their own content. It's important for (Cisco) to see where the trends are going so we can build capabilities into our products to enable it."

Honestly, some of the ideas that students have come up with are better than things we've venture-funded to the tune of $2 million.
--Dan Scheinman, senior vp of corporate development, Cisco

Cisco, which has been selling networking equipment to businesses and service providers for the last 20 years, is making a big push into the home. Earlier this year, the company bought the No. 2 set-top box maker in the industry, Scientifc-Atlanta, for $7 billion. Cisco plans to use the Scientific-Atlanta set-top box as a platform to deliver digital content from the Internet directly to people's TV sets.

Cisco's strategy is built on the assumption that Internet Protocol technology will change home entertainment. With more than half of all U.S. households subscribing to broadband service, people are finally ready to do much more than surf the Web and e-mail over the Internet.

The big phone companies AT&T and Verizon are already building new networks to get into the paid TV market. And content owners such as Disney/ABC, CBS, NBC, and dozens of others are starting to make their TV programs available on the Net. At the same time, people are buying more sophisticated mobile gadgets like digital camera phones to record happenings in everyday life, and they're using their faster Internet connections to share pictures, music and intimate aspects of their lives with one another.

The explosion in social networking and content creation has fueled the growth of sites such as and Flickr. But knowing exactly which new applications and services will stick in the minds of users in the future is tough.

Scheinman is convinced that corporate suits in Silicon Valley, Hollywood or New York won't likely be the ones to come up with the next big thing. Instead, innovation will come from students on university campuses, he said.

Tapping student talent
Cisco views the incubator program with MTVU as a low-cost way to gain insight into what the next generation of broadband applications might be.

"We're not going to see any return on our investment in this program," Scheinman said. "But it's so much more important from a strategic point of view to see what really interests people. And honestly, some of the ideas that students have come up with are better than things we've venture-funded to the tune of $2 million."

While none of the students selected to receive the grants has figured out how to make money from their projects, Scheinman said there are some gems of ideas that could one day form the basis of a commercial product.

For example, four students from New York University's Interactive Telecommunications graduate program are creating a mobile game called Snagu. Using camera phones, players go on a scavenger hunt where the game provides the "tag" via a text message and players scramble to find and photograph the object described in the message.

The pictures are then uploaded to a community site where people vote on the best shots and the players are rewarded with points. Snagu will go into testing this summer and is planned to launch in September.

Another grant recipient is David Harris, a graduate student at UCLA's film school who is developing an interactive Web site called "How do I say this?"--a cross between an Ann Landers advice column and improvisational comedy.

The Web site allows students to post dilemmas involving friends or family members and seek advice from an online community. The advice accumulates, is voted on, and helps shape a personalized video acted out by puppets, animated characters or costumed actors. The user can then send the video anonymously to their friend or family member, who then can respond. Other users will be able to stream the video from MTVU's Web site or download it as a podcast.

"This idea of aggregating audience feedback to solve problems is great," Scheinman said. "It's certainly no wackier than the stuff that gets funded today. The purpose of this program is to give these students the freedom to play with their ideas and to just see what happens."

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