“Another Website Isn’t Going To Solve The World’s Problems”

That’s not a catchy headline. That’s what Ethernet inventor and current UT innovation czar Bob Metcalfe told me at a recent Dell Entrepreneur event. And if you caught Metcalfe’s keynote at this year’s Clean Energy Venture Summit, you know he’d likely tell you to invest in a handful companies in the so-called “enertech” sector.

“I’m waiting for all those tech and social networking investors and VCs to come over to energy,” he said. Jokingly taking it a step further he added, “If I were a clean energy or green tech company, I’d add ‘social’ in front of my product or service.”While it’s hard to argue that energy is the next frontier, part of what Mr. Metcalfe touches on is something that should be a broader shift in the startup community: looking beyond the sizzle and focusing on the non-sexy stuff.

In a recent Washington Post column, Vivek Wadhwa writes about what he calls innovation black holes, describing antiquated industries and their inability to quickly address opportunities. Wadwha says entrepreneurs should be looking in the “nooks and crannies” to see opportunities, dismissing most current industry efforts at disruption.

“Outside of computers, software and a select group of sexy technologies, innovation is almost entirely absent.” 

At September’s Clean Energy Venture Summit in Austin, attendees got a glimpse of several companies attacking the seemingly ordinary.Yan Engines is a prime example. Their focus is to reconfigure five parts in existing 4-stroke engines to achieve more torque and provide up to 80% more fuel efficiency. It’s one of those things where you think, surely there can’t be that much innovation left in engine design after decades of development, right? Wrong. Yan is nearing its prototyping stage in Q4’ 2011 and has its sights set on some pilot projects with the U.S. Military.

Noel Davis, CEO of Vela Gear Systems, isn’t bashful about what his company brings to the table. “We’re like a Chinese company in North America,” Davis told me, referring to the way its customers outsource the design and development of large-scale industrial gearboxes to VGS. In addition to becoming a one-stop shop, the company is locating its facilities close to manufacturing hubs and even some larger technical and vocational centers.

Davis says that allowed VGS to improve outsourcing efficiency, fill the staffing pipeline, and ease logistical constraints.
Those pieces put together look impressive and well-timed, especially when you account for a changing workforce and growth in other sectors.

Joel Kotkin explains in a recent piece from NewGeography.

“Driving the skilled-labor shortage is a remarkable resurgence in American manufacturing. Since 2009, the number of job openings in manufacturing has been rising, with average annual earnings of $73,000, well above the average earnings in education, health services, and many other fields, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.”

Now this isn’t a pep rally for manufacturing, though. If anything, it’s a wake-up call for the opportunities that lie outside the world of shiny new tech apps and services.
The tech isn’t going anywhere, it’s permeating every industry. What’s different is the breadth of penetration in different industries.That should be an impetus to startups everywhere, reminding them that high-growth business aren’t only born in the cloud or delve out digital deals on connected smartphones. And by the way, all those software engineers might be a little easier to hire over the next half-decade. From that same Kotkin column, he cites an eye-opening prediction.

“A recent study by the economic forecasting firm EMSI found that fewer computer programmers have jobs now than in 2008. Through 2016, EMSI estimates, the number of new graduates in the information field will be three times the number of job openings.”

But don’t worry, even though entrepreneurs everywhere (even the Valley) are removing the tech goggles, your software skills are still marketable. They just might be put to use building something outside of your tech comfort zone.

recent NYT piece showed a diverse set of startupsattacking all sorts of vertical applications outside of local, social and mobile. Really.

“The trend reflects the steady march of that most protean of technologies — computing — as it makes further inroads into every scientific discipline and industry. Clean technology, bioengineering, medical diagnostics, preventive health care, transportation and even agriculture are part of the mix these days for the Valley’s technologists and entrepreneurs.”

So whether or not you think we’ve overdosed on the coolness factor, what’s clear is that it’s never been easier to provision tech horsepower to get a startup off the ground. What’s more challenging is coming up with bigger ideas and leaving the herd behind. Blazing a trail has always been a lonely gig.

But alas, Mr. Whadwha summed up it up best.

“Eliminating these innovation black holes could do more to improve our lives and the economic future of our country than the latest Web-based social-networking applications.”