FIRe start-ups: Fish farming, battery overhaul, studio magic

Three of the ten start-up companies featured at the Future in Review conference are tackling a wide variety of markets, from food production to music composition.

Correction, May 25, 12:15 PM PDT: This post initially misreported the number of tuna that Hawaii Oceanic Technology aims to produce and the depth at which its Aquaspheres would be located. It has now been corrected.

Every year at the Future in Review conference, organizer Mark Anderson and his staff pick 10 start-up companies as "FIRestarters," companies that are tackling problems in line with the conference's theme, but still require some kindling. Here's a look at three of them.

Hawaii Oceanic Technology

A rendition of the Aquasphere, which might be the fish farm of the future. Hawaii Oceanic Technologies

The pitch: Fish farming gets a bad rap from most seafood connoisseurs, but Hawaii Oceanic Technology wants to change that. Bill Spencer is trying to find a backer to let him construct three "Aquaspheres" that could be capable of producing 20,000 100-pound sashimi-grade tuna in the open ocean.

How it's done: Spencer wants to build a fish farm of Aquaspheres that resemble soccer balls; that is, 200-foot-wide soccer balls. Positioned 60 feet below the surface of the ocean in 1,300 feet of water, each unit is self-powered using a probe that extends way down into the depths of the ocean, pulling cold water up and converting that to enough energy to support a fish farm using a proprietary "ocean thermal energy conversion" system.

The catch: Spencer hasn't actually built an Aquasphere; he's looking for about $10 million to $12 million in funding to produce three Aquaspheres, which he says will produce enough of a profit to grow the business. Demand for high-quality fish is only going to soar as commercial fishing quotas decrease and farming methods continue to deteriorate, according to Spencer.


The pitch: It's high time the battery industry found some way to move past the somewhat unfair reputation it has garnered among the public: a purveyor of exploding devices that lose their usefulness way too quickly. Seeo, backed by Khosla Ventures, wants to develop a new electrolyte materials that can improve the stability and shelf life of lithium-ion batteries used in notebook PCs and mobile phones.

How it's done: Seeo's Ilan Gur says that battery companies have focused too much on trying to improve the electrode, or the part of the battery that either attracts or repels current. Seeo wants to replace the liquid electrolyte, where ions flow between the electrodes, with a solid polymer material that could improve the stability and reliability of batteries and allow battery makers to increase the capacity of their products.

The catch: Seeo hasn't settled on a material. The company is hoping to convince the battery industry to change the way it operates--by incorporating a new material--with a home-run material that can replace two separate ingredients in a battery: the electrolyte and the separator. With battery costs largely tied up in the cost of materials, removing some of that cost could prove an easy sell if the material is right.

Open Labs

Open Labs' Victor Wong demonstrates the TSE NeKo to a FIRe 2008 attendee. Tom Krazit/CNET

The pitch: Think Rick Rubin meets that guy at the karaoke bar who overperforms every song. Open Labs makes a recording studio in a box, allowing novice musicians to produce tracks like the pros in Los Angeles that are "radio-ready," according to co-founder Victor Wong. Timbaland, Lil' Jon, and Korn's Jonathan Davis are supporters. A group of FIRe attendees plunking around on bass, guitar, and keyboards produced a cacophony of noise before the recording was run through Open Lab's Neko product, after which it sounded like a second-rate smooth jazz band.

How it's done: Open Labs is basically building quad-core PCs inside synthesizers. Processing power has evolved to the point where off-the-shelf PC components can duplicate the horsepower previously found only in studios packed with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, Wong said. The company's TSE Neko keyboard costs $4,999 with 4GBs of memory and a Core 2 Quad Intel processor, and runs a modified version of Windows XP.

The catch: With celebrity endorsers, actual products, and star-making parents looking for an edge, Open Labs is in pretty good shape. The company manufacturers much of its own equipment, so scalability issues might come into play at some point, but that doesn't seem to be an issue right now.

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