Green is gold at Cool Product Expo

Amid some of the most innovative new products around, environmental sustainability is the guiding principle. Photos: Green colors show

PALO ALTO, Calif.--If you thought the virtual world Second Life was just for wandering or flying around a digital landscape and talking to other people and that there wasn't anything to actually do, Robert Curet begs to differ.

An established product designer who runs Little Wonder Studio in Burbank, Calif., Curet recently discovered that Second Life is the ideal environment for sketching prototypes of wind-up toys--and then using the complex digital creations as the base for making real products to sell in the real world.

And he has. Curet, who was one of dozens of exhibitors at the seventh annual Cool Product Expo at Stanford University School of Business here, had brought along examples of what he had built using interactive sketches he did in Second Life, and said the virtual environment had helped him sell tens of thousands of the little plastic toys.

"It saves me months of time," Curet said, explaining that his distributor clients can come into Second Life to see which models they'd like to buy, as can the engineers in China who actually build the toys.

Like Curet, many of the other exhibitors at the expo were on hand to showcase products that are turning traditional business models upside down. And more than anything else, environmental sustainability was the overriding concept among the roomful of budding entrepreneurs, some who are just getting their inventions off the ground, and others who are established in their chosen businesses.

In one corner of the room, Eric Cummings, president of Cool Earth Solar, was showing off his company's technology, which, he says, is designed to foster global carbon neutrality by 2050 through pure market forces.

The technology is based on the idea of using reflective plastic film to focus light at 220 times its normal strength onto photovoltaic cells.

Cool Earth Solar said its inflatable mirrors are 400 times cheaper than traditional polished aluminum mirrors. Cummings said the technology will make solar power the energy future of small farms, and rural-industrialized areas.

Nearby, Josie Norris was showing off clothing from Nau, a company dedicated to producing garments made in an entirely sustainable cycle. That is, she explained, that the clothing is made from fully recyclable fabrics, including a corn-based fabric that is "a breathable and insulating base layer." The clothes, which come in muted colors, cost between $30 and $250, Norris said.

"You won't have to buy the hottest colors every year," Norris said, "because these colors will last" forever.

For photographers, meanwhile, Joby was on hand, showcasing its GorillaPad flexible tripods. These are plastic devices that are fully bendable and can be wrapped around just about anything.

"It's so you don't need a flat surface" to take pictures, said Joby business development representative Whitney Sales.

Sales said the tripods, which come in three sizes that can handle everything from point-and-shoot cameras to full SLRs with attached flashes, range in price from $22 to $50. And while the tripods themselves aren't recyclable, the packaging is. And buyers who order through the company's Web site can get the products without the packaging at all.

To Melissa Miranda, a student at the Stanford School of Business and one of the expo's organizers, sustainability is important part of promoting the future of business.

"It's something I wanted to incorporate," Miranda said, "because it's a different take on what an innovative product is from the traditional electronic gadget."

Indeed, the room was packed with products touting their eco-friendly credentials. They included Bambu, an all-bamboo line of kitchen items, like spoons, plates, chopsticks and more; the Frisper, a green take on vacuum-sealing bags used for saving food that allow multiple re-uses of the bags; and the OptiBike, an electric-powered bicycle that allows a rider to add 20 miles an hour to their own pedaling speed and can go 30 miles on a charge.

Miranda pointed to the Tesla Roadster, the all-electric sports car, as the ultimate example of attractive design mixed with green sensibility.

"It's the epitome of the sexy car," Miranda said, "but yet it's all electric. It's sustainable, but sells itself on being a beautifully designed car."

In fact, green cars were in full force at the expo.

Other examples included the VentureOne, a three-wheel car that comes in either a hybrid or all-electric version. The hybrid can reach 100 miles per hour and get 100 miles to the gallon.

According to Venture Vehicles co-founder Ian Bruce, the hybrid VentureOne--which is classified as a motorcycle--has only a four-gallon gas tank, yet has a range of up to 400 miles.

What makes the VentureOne special is its tilting technology, in which the body of the vehicle rotates left and right on curves, depending on which direction the car is going.

"It's the excitement of a motorcycle," said Venture Vehicles co-founder Howard Levine, "with the safety of a car."

The VentureOne should be available in the United States in two years, starting at $18,000.

And another green car on hand was the WrightSpeed, an all-electric sports car that can hit 100 miles an hour in 6.8 seconds.

"It combines all the things I like," said designer Ian Wright. "It's a performance car, using high-performance electronics and software. And you can build a company around it. And you can do all that while saving tons of fuel. What's not to like?"

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