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Olson’s Observations

Technology. Innovation. Science. VC. Media. :: by Eric Olson

Archive for the ‘Social Ventures’ Category

Localizing Our Food Supply

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I figured Earth Day was as good a day as any to write abut a project my friend Chuck Templeton has been working on down at IIT. Chuck is a big fan of all things green and has been focusing a lot of his efforts (outside the day job) on localizing the food supplies of local restaurants.

After consulting a number of restaurants Chuck then started working with the IIT Institute of Design’s Social Entrepreneurship program on a project designed to come up with ideas on how restaurants can localize their food supply and green themselves.

You can actually go check out the results of this project on May 7th from 6:30pm - 9:3pm at 350 N LaSalle Street, room 202.

Just make sure to register so that Chuck can get a head count.  I’ll be there and am looking forward to it.

I’ll leave you with a little blurb on the event from Chuck:

Join some of tomorrow’s leading designers as they present their recommendations in strengthening the local economy between farmers, restaurants, jobs and the community. Food is obviously important to our well being, but food production has some of the biggest impacts on the environment.

The world renowned IIT Institute of Design launched a Social Entrepreneurship program and graduate students will be presenting the results of their research to increase the vitality of the local farming community (increasing the diversity in our food supply system), helping local restaurants localize their supplier base (less food miles and more money staying in the community), increase the number of local jobs and helping the community become more sustainable. The project includes carbon off-sets, renewable energy, composting and recycling, bio-fuels, energy conservation and many other aspects that are important in building a sustainable future.

The recommendations are an important step at creating a local food system that is sustainable and environmentally friendly. The project uses one of Chicago’s leading restaurant groups is the test case.

Written by Eric Olson

April 22nd, 2008 at 10:17 am

Ideas: New Sustainable Retail Experience

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My friend Matt Jaunich just watched The Story of Stuff and wrote up a quick response to it in the form of an idea for a new retail experience.

Here is the idea he brings into the fold in his own words:

Imagine a new retail experience, where negative externalities from consumption are minimized, and mitigated by labeling and pricing. For example, instead of individually packaged 1/2 and one gallon milk containers, there could be big milk dispensers, where you can fill up your own plastic milk container over and over and over again. Ditto with cereal dispensers, where you use the same packaging week after week, and any other individually packaged product, for that matter.

Also, the carbon emissions from the production and transportation of products from the factories to the store are estimated, printed on the packaging, and a carbon offset is calculated into the purchase price.

The first piece of this idea is very interesting. I hadn’t thought of something like this before. What form would it take?

Would it be a new retail store/chain that operates this way or would it be more of a product that one could sell to the likes of Wal-Mart and other large chains?

Building and distributing the dispensers could be a very interesting company. Building the stores themselves could be interesting as well although you would be in direct competition with the big box guys and most likely have a higher price point. To get it to work you would probably need to locate in cities and in upper class suburbs (i.e. take the Whole Foods approach).

The second piece of Matt’s idea is something I have actually thought a lot about but have yet to write about on this site and that is creating tags for products that have a carbon emissions listing on them.

Of course gathering accurate data on that wouldn’t be easy due to a lot of products visiting multiple production facilities and getting shipped far and wide before entering the the store and ultimately the consumers hands. However, it isn’t impossible.

I think the business that could form around the carbon emissions idea looks like this:

You have a data gathering business that becomes a standards board in a sense. Companies then pay this business to tag their items with the proper carbon emissions info.

Perhaps to start the info could be more like the “whole grain” ratings in that there are simply a few “grades” (excellent source of whole grain, good source of whole grain, etc.). These handful of ratings work well and are great marketing pieces for the companies who get “certified” which means they would probably actually pay you to essentially regulate them.

What do all of you think?

Written by Eric Olson

February 8th, 2008 at 5:55 pm

The Story of Stuff

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A friend of mine just sent me a link to a video called “The Story of Stuff” which she thought I would like based on my environmental interests and my love of the book Simple Prosperity. Well, she was right. I loved the video and I think some of you may as well. Check out the excerpt below and if you enjoy it please head to the Story of Stuff website to watch the whole 20 minute video. It’s really worth the time. The video is also a nice primer to some of the ideas found in Simple Prosperity.

Written by Eric Olson

February 8th, 2008 at 1:52 pm

DEMO Conference Update: LiquidTalk and Good2Gether

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Unfortunately I was unable to make the DEMO conference this week due to scheduling issues which is a bummer but I will be covering some of the companies I find interesting right here anyhow (with the aid of Frank Gruber who is on the scene). Without further adieu here is the first DEMO update:


I was very excited when I first heard that LiquidTalk was going to be at DEMO this year. LiquidTalk is a Chicago based company (yeah, I may be a biased because of that) that has come up with some great enterprise technology that brings new media to the corporation.

LiquidTalk’s core technology allows corporations with large distributed sales forces to easily distribute corporate knowledge to these remote individuals via podcasts. This timely and easy to consume media helps sales professionals stay up to date while they wouldn’t normally be able to be productive (i.e. driving between appointments, on a flight, etc.) which ultimately will help them close more sales.

At DEMO tomorrow LiquidTalk will show off their new BlackBerry based technology for the first time. I have no doubt it’ll be a pretty sweet demo as their prior demo of their iPod technology at TECH cocktail a while back was a lot of fun.

From all of us in Chicago - good luck guys. Make us proud!


As you guys know I am a sucker for a good social venture (aren’t all social ventures good… clearly I should use a thesaurus more often) and this looks like one.

The idea behind Good2Gether is to bring together not-for-profit organizations, volunteers, the media and large corporations with what it calls a “philanthropic social networking service.”

The issues Good2Gether addresses are:

Corporations are always looking for ways to make themselves look good in the eyes of the world via supporting not-for-profits but they often have a hard time finding them (and of course the not-for-profits can use the support).

Media companies have a lot of eyeballs and not-for-profit websites do not. Media companies are also looking for good stories which they could potentially get from the not-for-profits.

Not-for-profits are always looking for volunteers and but, due to in part to poor websites, volunteers who want to help are often left out in the cold (I can say this has happened many times to me. I want to volunteer my time but find it very hard to do so.)

Good2Gether aims to alleviate all of these issues through their product which will bring together all of the groups that play in the not-for-profit space and help them find ways to interact.

Good2Gether has already landed a handful of the top media outlets in the country along with a number of large not-for-profits and corporations so it seems they are off to a great start. I am all for this application and I really hope they are able to keep up the momentum.

Just imagine seeing a news article about a natural disaster with a Good2Gether box listing opportunities for the public to help right next to it. You click an opportunity and you are brought to a page that allows you to easily apply to volunteer. Large corporations will also find it easy to donate and send employees to help and the media can even get a story out of all the people brought together via the web to help out in a disaster. Not bad at all.

Written by Eric Olson

January 28th, 2008 at 7:38 pm

World Bicycle Relief: The Power of Bicycles

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World Bicycle ReliefReading Time: 3 minutes

As most of you know I think a lot about the developing world. Most of that thinking to date has centered around microfinance. Being a finance guy by background microfinance appealed to me from day one. It is a very innovative way to empower people in developing countries to start businesses that will ultimately help them rise above the poverty line.

Teaching a man to fish. What could be better than that in terms of long term sustainability?

Recently I found my thoughts turning to the bicycle. I do think about bikes a lot in that I use one to commute to work and I also have begun to seriously train in order to race bikes. Cycling is truly a passion of mine.

So, I guess I shouldn’t say that I recently have started to think about bikes. What I meant was I have begun to think about how bikes could (and do) make a difference in two areas I am concerned about: third world development and the environment.

The environmental piece is easier to pick up on in that bikes are emission free vehicles. That said I should address the fact that it does takes energy to make bikes but the amount of energy is actually pretty low. In fact, the amount of energy it takes to produce one bike is about 1/20th of what it takes to produce a car. On top of that bikes last much longer than cars due to the lack of a problematic internal combustion engine. In fact, my commuting bike is an early 80s Fuji and it is still going strong. (Also, because bikes are powered by humans, the humans that power the bikes are also in better physical shape (goodbye obesity problem!).)

If we all started to ride bikes more there is no doubt we’d see environmental benefits (and health and happiness benefits as well) but what I really want to discuss in this piece is the impact bikes have on developing nations.

Bicycles are a much more efficient form of transportation than walking which, in most rural developing areas, is the only way people can get around. Therefore, if people in developing nations were given access to bicycles their standard of living would be improved in a number of ways due to their increased capacity.

Since pictures really are worth 1000 words (and because I love info graphics) I will use the images below to illustrate my point (info graphics courtesy of World Bicycle Relief).


During a commuting day of 10 miles traveled, a bicycle saves 3 hours.

  • Walking – 2.5 miles per hour
  • Bicycling – 10 miles per hour

Riding a bicycle increases one’s capacity by 5 times.

As time increases, effort to travel increases. Riding a bicycle requires less effort, allowing one to travel farther in less time.

Over equal units of time, one can ride a bicycle 4 times the distance as one walking.


After seeing those stats it is clear that more bicycles would help developing nations (and even help people get the most out of their microfinance loans). Let me guess, you want to help out right? Well, I was hoping you would.

It is very easy for the average person to help get bikes to developing nations should they feel compelled to do so. Anyone can donate to World Bicycle Relief who’s mission it is to get bikes into the hands of those that need them most.

World Bicycle Relief has worked with both SRAM and Trek Bicycles to create a bike specifically for use in Africa, the first area World Bicycle Relief is working to help (although WBR has jumped into places like Sri-Lanka in times of crisis to provide aid in the form of bikes).

Each of these bikes only costs $109 which is very inexpensive. You can either donate in $109 increments to buy bikes for folks in Africa or you can donate at any dollar amount simply to help the cause.

In the future programs like World Bicycle Relief are poised to help us all remember that the bicycle is the most elegant and useful form of transportation ever created. I know I for one am looking forward to a more widespread acceptance of the bicycle especially in the U.S..

In fact, I have been thinking a lot about what an organization would look like that would get bikes to people in major cities (and large suburbs) who need them and then organize commuting groups to encourage people to commute (and do errands) by bike (safety and confidence in numbers, etc.). However, that’s a whole other post.

Written by Eric Olson

January 28th, 2008 at 6:17 pm

Posted in Social Ventures

Good Magazine is Great

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I received my first issue of Good Magazine the other day (thanks Frank!) and I absolutely loved it. In fact, I read the thing cover to cover in one sitting.

For those that don’t know, Good Magazine is an effort to provide media about people doing good in the world to hopefully offset all the bad stuff that the mainstream media likes to focus on.

One of the things that makes Good Magazine such a great read is their very innovative approach to displaying information. Along with standard articles and ads they also provide a lot of info graphics. I have begun to really enjoy info graphics, especially ones that are very nicely done, because they convey information in a very engaging and stimulating way and Good Magazine has some great ones.

The other great thing about Good is that 100% of your $20 yearly subscription price goes to a charity of your choice (you can choose from a list of 10 charities). In my case the subscription money went to one of my favorite non-profits in the world -

Check out Good Magazine if you get a chance and grab a subscription for yourself (or for a friend or family member).  I am sure you’ll enjoy it.

Written by Eric Olson

January 26th, 2008 at 12:35 pm

Posted in Social Ventures

Crazy Green Energy Idea: Plug-in Hybrid Cars to Power City (Someday)

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Chevy VoltIn an update to the ongoing Crazy Green Energy Idea saga I have some very interesting news from the city of Austin, TX courtesy of the TerraPass blog. The mayor’s office in Austin has put forth a proposal to use a fleet of plug-in hybrid vehicles as a/the power source for the city during daytime hours. Yes, you read right, the cars will power the city itself. The idea is definitely what I would call progressive (some people would say crazy) but it might just be crazy enough to work.

The basic idea is this: Drivers simply let their cars sit in parking lots most of the day and drivers of plug-in hybrids (for more on plug-ins and plug-in hybrids see this post) do the same. However, the plug-in hybrids will have generated and stored energy through breaking and other methods during the commute which means they have energy that can be harvested and sold back to power companies which can be then used to power the city.

The mayor’s office in Austin thinks that they can harness enough energy from these vehicles to someday power the city throughout the day. That’s a great idea and what’s even better about the Mayor’s plan is that the drivers of the cars will be paid for the amount of energy they give back. That will be a payment processing struggle no doubt but it is a necessary part of plan (people are motivated by green - green money that is).

Follow-up: After discussing this with my bud John Zeratsky I’m not too sure if this is a great idea.   Seems like running cars on some electricity and some gas and then using the electric energy they generate during the commute to power the city just so that people have to plug the cars back in at night doesn’t help anything.  It simply transfers the power from the home to the office/city rather than leaving it in the cars to save gas/CO2 output.  As John said - It’s like plugging your house into the city power grid.  Hmmmm  Looks like we’re back to the drawing board although it’s definitely a possibility that I could have missed something.

As a side note to this story I was made aware that GM has a survey up regarding its plug-in hybrid concept called the Volt. It’s a great looking car and will fall under the Chevy brand. The survey is only two questions and it could help the Volt become a production vehicle which would be a very good thing (not only is it a plug-in hybrid - it’s also a good looking car) so I urge all of you to fill it out.

Side Bar: If that wasn’t enough cool energy stuff for the day I saw a device in Wired created by the Ambient Devices folks (the same guys who brought you the Ambient Orb and other super cool wireless info-gadgets). The device is called the Home Joule and it alerts you, through ambient light, to increases in your power cost and consumption in the hopes that you’ll react to the signals and turn some things off if the device hits the red mark. If you do respond to the alerts to consume less power then you can become eligible for rewards like free movie tickets (its a win win!). The Home Joule is available in NYC now and other cities to come. If you’d like one make sure to request it here even if you aren’t in NYC.

Written by Eric Olson

March 29th, 2007 at 2:25 pm