PopTech Blog

This week in PopTech: Mushrooms, waves and plastic bottle sailboat adventures

There’s always something brewing in the PopTech community. From the world-changing people, projects and ideas in our network, a handful of this week’s highlights follows.

  • Ecovative Design, founded by Social Innovation Fellow Eben Bayer, just launched its first consumer product, the MycoBowl, made out of 100% mushrooms and seed husks.
  • 2010 PopTech speaker Susan Casey, author of The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean took on tsunamis and science on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart a couple weeks ago.
  • Brooklyn Denim Co. invited four artists and designers to rethink Time Warner Cable’s logo for a series of limited edition t-shirts. Proceeds from t-shirt sales will support initiatives here at PopTech.

If you’d like to receive a stream of these updates (and more) throughout the week in real time, follow us on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, sign up for our newsletter, and subscribe to the PopTech blog.

Images: Ecovative

Lost and Found: Colin Rich's <em>PopStar</em> journeys to near space and is recovered on the Canadian coastline

The weather conditions weren’t ideal, Colin Rich recalled in a recent phone interview.


The artist planned to release one of his DIY camera-balloons at PopTech 2010. In preparation for the balloon’s release, he had installed two secondhand digital cameras inside a Styrofoam mannequin head he’d dubbed PopStar, attaching the head to a homemade high-altitude weather balloon with a bit of duct tape and some string. The plan was that once in flight, the cameras would regularly collect videos and still images until, around 125,000 feet, the balloon would burst and deploy a parachute. Rich hoped PopStar would safely land within 100 miles of the central Maine launch site but gusting winds threatened to whisk it hundreds of miles away.

Rich launched the device and hoped for the best.

“Something went wrong near the apex [of the flight]. Maybe there was a gust of wind or the parachute deployed too early,” Rich recalled. When he recovered the PopStar rig in a blueberry field using the GPS that had been attached to the contraption, he only found the mannequin head and one of the cameras. The parachute as well as the base — and the second camera within it — were missing. Somehow, the rig had fallen apart in midair.

Colin presented images from the one recovered camera on the PopTech stage “We were at a conference on necessary failures so it seemed to fit the theme. I figured the [second] camera was lost forever.”

Then, in early December, Rich received a Facebook message from St. Andrew’s Oceanographic Institute researcher Josh Nunn: I have the missing camera!

Rich learned that the camera had landed off the coast of New Brunswick, Canada, floating in the Bay of Fundy for several weeks until researchers fished it out of the water. The external case was battered. Salt and battery acid had corroded everything. The camera was ruined but the camera’s memory card was still intact!

It would have have been thrown away except that Nunn noticed that the card contained footage – and Rich’s name embedded in the files. After finding a Huffington Post article on Rich, Nunn realized that these images might be important so he found him on Facebook.

Within a week, Rich received a box containing the missing media. Some of the footage had been corrupted, but Rich has been able to salvage much of the material, including this video.

To find its way back to Rich, the camera had traveled 24 miles into the air, over 150 miles across North America, and then across cyberspace. “Out of the sheer vastness of space, someone had tracked down the missing camera and found me through the Internet,” Rich laughed. “I think that’s the really cool thing to come out of this.”

Meet the Spark Connectors

If you’ve checked out Spark, PopTech’s pilot youth initiative, you might have noticed that high school students are a critical part of the campaign.



Four rising seniors were selected as this year’s Spark Connectors: Keziah Green and Anthony Morris, both from BCAM High School in Brooklyn, New York; Molly White, from Camden Hills Regional High School in Rockport, Maine; and Sarina Chawla, from Tesla Engineering Charter School in Neenah, Wisconsin.

In advance of PopTech 2010, all four Connectors attended a one-day workshop, learning how to visualize ideas with Peter Durand, tell stories with Radio Lab’s Jad Abumrad, and produce video with Chris Walker-Spencer. During the conference, the Connectors used these tools on the Spark blog to record their thoughts and interviews about the speakers they’d seen present.

Molly met and interviewed a couple of her favorite speakers, eco-adventurer David de Rothschild and Graham Hill. Sarina practiced the visual approach to telling stories, capturing two views on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Keziah learned what being wrong reveals about memory and human nature. She and Anthony also found time to celebrate the hard-working staff that produces the PopTech conference every year.

When asked what they had learned at PopTech, Anthony summed it up nicely. “It only takes one person to change the world. I want to be part of that.”

PopTech contributor Jonathan Laurence captured these students’ participation with the Spark program at PopTech 2010. Check it out!

Photos:Thatcher Hullerman Cook

This week in PopTech: Happiness, gifts and saving civilization

There’s always something brewing in the PopTech community. From the world-changing people, projects and ideas in our network, a handful of this week’s highlights follows.

  • Social Innovation Fellow Yasser Ansari has something to be excited about: Project Noah contributor Isabel Rubio Pérez made history when she submitted her 1000th spotting. As one of Project Noah’s earliest supporters, she has contributed an amazing assortment of beautiful photos from all over the world.
  • Just in time for the holidays, Lisa Gansky has released the Mesh Holiday Gift Guide, an offbeat take on holiday giving where there are “no boxes, no gift wrap, no batteries required.”

If you’d like to receive a stream of these updates (and more) throughout the week in real time, you can follow us on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, sign up for our newsletter, and subscribe to the PopTech blog.

Images: Isabel Rubio Perez

Share the wealth and spread the word with Elizabeth Dunn and Sinan Aral

Happiness and money do go hand-in-hand, explained Elizabeth Dunn during her PopTech 2010 talk. But, it’s not the simple more-money, more-happiness equation that we might assume. In fact, during studies Dunn and her team conducted, it became apparent that there was a threshold at which point greater wealth led to a decreased ability to savor.

In addition, they found that those people who spent their money on others – friends, co-workers, teammates, charitable organizations and so forth – felt a greater sense of well-being than those who spent it on themselves.

So what if we could channel those good vibes associated with spending money on others to a broader audience and create a movement?

Which leads to 2010 Science Fellow Sinan Aral’s work: how does behavior spread throughout a population? If we can tap into that know-how, Aral believes we can leverage the power of networks, new technologies, and modes of communication to promote positive behaviors like financial responsibility, tolerance, and exercise and stifle detrimental behaviors like fraud, dirty needle sharing, and violence. The implications of Aral’s work can be applied to diverse fields including, for starters, epidemiology, innovation management and development economics as well as, perhaps, the correlation between wealth and contentedness.

Hayat Sindi talks science and leadership with high school girls

Hayat Spark Event

As part of PopTech’s Spark youth initiative, biotech entrepreneur Dr. Hayat Sindi visited Coastal Studies for Girls in Freeport, Maine this past Thursday. Sindi shared her story about how she became a world-class scientist and innovator and discussed challenges the participating 10th grade students face in achieving their goals.

Sindi recounted how, as a girl growing up in Saudi Arabia, she dreamed of becoming a scientist. Despite significant social pressure to remain at home, Sindi moved to the U.K. to pursue her studies. Once there, Sindi said, many doubted her ability and resolve. Undeterred, she earned her PhD in biotechnology and achieved international recognition for her work. Not content to just succeed in the lab, Sindi has become a social innovation leader, helping to develop a portable, low-cost diagnostic tool that makes it possible to monitor patients in even the most remote settings.

While her work could transform global health worldwide, Sindi revealed that she still faces significant challenges. She told the students that some critics have dismissed her accomplishments, suggesting that true science is only practiced in the lab. Sindi brushed off this criticism. “We need to extend the social benefits of nanotechnology to the poorest in this world,” Sindi explained. “They are the ones who could benefit most from this kind of work.” Sindi is also developing more opportunities for scientific research, and for women in the sciences, in the Middle East.


Lisa Gansky wants us to join the sharing economy – and give better gifts this holiday season

With the recession lingering on, technology entrepreneur Lisa Gansky thinks it’s the perfect reason to give experiences rather than more stuff this holiday season.

Gansky introduced the idea when she spoke at PopTech 2010 about her predictions for the future of business. She revealed how the interconnected relationships and information of the emerging “mesh” economy is making it far easier to share goods and services without the expense of ownership. Gansky recently published a book on the subject, called The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing.

A number of companies, among them Netflix and the car sharing service Zipcar, are taking advantage of the data-rich “mesh” to build richer experiences and stronger brands by providing people with what they need the moment they need it. [Other companies can be found in her book, and in the accompanying online directory.]

The “mesh” is not just good for business, says Gansky. It’s also good for consumers. Web-enabled mobile devices and social networks are “taking the friction out of sharing,” unleashing the true impact of peer-to-peer relationships by helping consumers buy less but use more.

Mesh Gift Guide

Gansky’s gift guide is a great way to join the experience marketplace, presenting an offbeat take on holiday giving where there are “no boxes, no gift wrap, no batteries required.”


Talking trash and making monsters with Tierney Thys

On November 20th, marine biologist Dr. Tierney Thys met with students and artists/scientists from Monterey County and Fresno, California schools to talk trash as part of PopTech’s Spark initiative. Thys explained how trash makes its way to the ocean, gathers in ocean gyres and endangers the lives of countless marine creatures. In fact, some forms of pollutants, like plastics, can become exponentially more dangerous as they transform from physical threats to chemical threats. In fleshing out ways to combat this growing problem, participants considered various solutions including the four Rs: Refuse single-serving plastic containers as well as Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.

Keeping those ideas in mind, the monster-making began. Drawing from five wheel barrels brimming with beach trash collected by the community days before the event, participants quickly transformed the mountains of plastic, Styrofoam, cigarette butts, juice boxes, wrappers and lids into sculptural masterpieces. Students wrote and recorded descriptions of their creations.

Emma Finch, a 12-year old participant, described the sculpture she titled "The Three UnWise Men”:

This piece exemplifies three types of foolishness we see in the world today. On the far right is the Polluter, an “Average Joe” who is in denial about environmental concerns and continues living the “disposable” life. Front and center is the Pyromaniac, an unsavory individual whose incessant smoking harms himself and others. On the
far left is the insidious Perpetrator of Lies. This is the guy who will tell you that global warming is fake and smoking is good for you. He’ll do anything to make a profit.

On December 15, all works of art will be exhibited at the Monterey Plaza Hotel as part of National Geographic’s Marine Recreation Community Workshop. Thys hopes to continue her work with Trash Monsters by partnering with the Ocean Conservancy as well as making Trash Monster events an annual part of the International Coastal Cleanup.

Images: Tierney Thys

Alan Rabinowitz saves big cats and Brian Hare gets schooled by bonobos

Panthera CEO Alan Rabinowitz’s debilitating stutter as a child led him to seek refuge amongst animals. He felt most comfortable during trips to the Bronx zoo where he hunkered down at the great cat house to watch powerful jaguars, lions, and cougars locked in a cage with no voice of their own. As a child, he vowed to be their voice. Since then, Rabinowitz has devoted his life to do whatever possible to conserve these animals and their habitats.

For years, he worked to set up safe havens for these animals including the world’s only jaguar sanctuary in Belize and the largest tiger reserve in Myanmar. But for Rabinowitz, that wasn’t enough. “No matter how fast I ran, no matter how many hours I stayed up in a day, no matter how many protected areas I set up, I was losing. And at this point in time, I had set up about eight protected areas over 15,000 square kilometers of pristine habitat for these animals to live and I could not keep pace with human kind. I couldn’t keep pace with the way people were killing and mistreating these big cats.”

Then Rabinowitz had an epiphany. He discovered that jaguars, without being cordoned off in their own sanctuaries, were surviving, thriving, and finding their way through the human landscape from Mexico to Argentina. So what if he could create a corridor in which these animals could move freely, a space still inhabited by humans, but safe for these animals? That idea has been set in motion with a corridor of private and public land established in Central and South America, the result of tireless collaboration between governments, local communities, and conservationists. Next up: Rabinowitz is working on developing a similar model for tigers throughout India, China and Southeast Asia.

From cats to chimps, Duke University Evolutionary Anthropology and Cognitive Neuroscience professor Brian Hare studies the origins of human nature as it relates to bonobos. Looking at the evolution of these primates’ social skills has informed how he considers humans’ abilities to problem solve and resolve conflict. His findings, which he shares with us on the PopTech stage, have left him doubting the generally held viewpoint that humans are the most highly evolved species.

The Economist dissects the meaning of failure

Shirley Tilghman from PopTech on Vimeo.


In exploring the theme of PopTech’s 2010 conference, “Brilliant Accidents, Necessary Failures, and Improbable Breakthroughs,” we turned to our friends at The Economist, who conducted interviews on the subject at their Ideas Economy conference.
Ten presenters, including John Maeda, Shirley Tilghman, and Stephen Pinker, were asked to describe the role failure plays in their innovation process. Award-winning Economist correspondent Vijay Vaitheeswaran introduced the series from the stage at PopTech. Check out all the videos, and visit The Economist’s new online ideas forum, the Ideas Economy, for more.