Earlier this session, the MN Legislature tabled a bill to legalize the use of photo cop (red light cameras) in Minnesota. Perhaps I was the only one who was dismayed, but I hope they revive (and pass) it. Here's why.
There are four facts that bear on photo cop:
(a) running red lights is dangerous (both to body and property);
(b) people will run red lights (and they are with increasing frequency);
(c) there will never be enough police to monitor red lights; and
(d) photo cop will monitor and identify those running red lights for appropriate fines and, thus, deter others from ignoring the law.
I could stop there and go right to the argument that the legislature should pass a proper photo cop bill. But I want to expand on some of the points and also address some of the (outlandish) counter-arguments.
Safety: Is there anyone who seriously doubts that running red lights is dangerous, both to the driver doing it and the unfortunate other drivers around them? Real world stats say otherwise: every year in the U.S., driver failure to obey traffic signals results in approximately 260,000 accidents, 200,000 injuries and 1000 deaths. Of the 1,000 deaths, roughly half of those are suffered by pedestrians, bicyclists and non-driver vehicle occupants. Running a red light is like playing with a loaded gun. Good luck with that. Photo cop cameras act as a deterrent to people who otherwise would disregard a manifest human safety risk. If photo cop saved 50 lives a year, that would be sufficient.
It's the law: Minnesota Statute sec. 169.06, subd. 4 states that "the driver of any vehicle shall obey the instructions of any official traffic-control device applicable thereto." It's that simple. If you run a red light, you've broken the law. And it's not like getting a parking ticket. You've chosen to create a safety hazard for yourself and other drivers (and pedestrians, bikers etc...) around you. See above. If private pilots made a maneuver even remotely like running red lights (or tailgating, or excessive speeds in proximity to ground personnel or other aircraft), they would be grounded and suspended and could have their license revoked altogether.
What about heavy equipment operators? They're subject to random drug testing, security cameras, regular safety training and equipment inspection etc... Wanton disregard for safety regs would result in suspension/termination of employment. Yes, but that equipment is heavy and dangerous. An SUV with a mass of 4,000 lbs traveling at 50 mph is: a large metal box with enough crushing power to match industrial equipment.
Just rewards: If you're going to ignore safety restrictions on vehicles, you need to pay a fine. The photo cop captures license plates of vehicles traveling illegally through a red light. You then get a ticket for creating a safety hazard. If you weren't driving the vehicle at the time, you may inform the court. The ticket can then be dropped. Of course, you let someone operate your vehicle in an unsafe manner. Where is the moral objection in at least hauling you in to account for the safety hazard? Wouldn't you want to know your car had been driven in an unsafe manner and by whom? I sure would, especially if it's one of my children.
Public crimes aren't private: I read that some were concerned about privacy and did not want their license plates photographed - like it's a civil rights issue. Of course they don't. If I was regularly committing tax fraud, I wouldn't want the IRS to be able to inquire into my finances. Photo cop only snaps photos of apparent violators. Then police review to verify the violation. No violation, no fine. There's no privacy right when you're committing a crime in open view around many other drivers, pedestrians etc..(courts agree). Are you going to complain about the store cameras after you've shoplifted? And what about the civil rights of the family in the vehicle you just plowed into? States with more debate over the role of government have photo cop, including Texas (my home state). The civil rights argument falls apart.
Enough police: Drive around a city. How many intersections are routinely monitored by police? There aren't enough to prevent the violations, and they've got more substantial violations to monitor and investigate (robberies, crimes of violence etc...). That doesn't mean the traffic signal violations aren't a public hazard. Strangely, one of the major MN police officer associations came out against the measure on the basis the cameras were unpopular, and the public would get frustrated with the police for having to enforce. I'm pretty sure that's not a good way to make policy decisions.
It's a revenue scam: Some argue that the photo cop will just be used by the cities, etc... to make money. You could make the same argument about any ordinance violation where a fine is paid. Are there citizens protesting at city hall about parking fines, which don't usually involve any safety risk? Why would they protest a tool that will reduce a highly visible and unsafe moving violation? It's not unfair to make those imposing the safety risk pay for misuse of their vehicle.
Common sense: Photo cop is a cost-effective way to reduce red light violations that indisputably impose unnecessary risk of injury to persons (like children, pedestrians, other drivers) and property. The Legislature should revive the proposed law that will let Minnesota join the 26+ other states that have photo cop.
Minnesota is an innovation-driven state. We enjoy our current quality of life because of the past and ongoing efforts of our fellow citizens to harness creativity, work hard and build things that make a lasting difference - food tech, life science, information tech, clean/green tech, education tech and the list goes on. Here a few recent and upcoming MN innovation highlights that are a reminder of our robust technology and entrepreneurship scene.
Minnesota Cup Awards - September 6
The Minnesota Cup is our state's biggest business plan competition, with over 1,000 entrants and six divisions. The year-long process, sponsored by the University of Minnesota and the Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship, ends with an awards presentation at the McNamara Center. This year's award ceremony, held just a few weeks ago, brought to the fore six great new companies innovating in completely different spaces.
The top prize went to PreciousStatus (also High Tech division winner), which has built a system to let medical caregivers provide families with short, real-time health updates on loved ones. The Division winners show the diversity of our economy: Envirolastech (Cleantech; thermoelastic wood replacement); Orthocor (Bioscience; electromagnetic knee pain relief); LifeFloor (General; slip-resistant flooring); Cognific (Student; web-based mental health engagement tools and therapies); Tuloko (Social Entrepreneur; social network/business directory focused on black-owned businesses).
The U's Office of Technology Commercialization and Venture Center work to locate, license and commercialize U-based technologies. The Venture Center focuses on developing and spinning out startups into the local economy. In FY12, the Venture Center hit an all-time high 12 startup spinouts. 12 in 12 is a great accomplishment. Keep your eyes open for this U tech in the local economy, creating high-quality jobs and enriching our innovation ecosystem.
EduTech Conference (TiE Minnesota) - October 8
This is the second year of the annual education technology conference hosted by TiE Minnesota. Education technology has been important part of the IT economy here in Minnesota for the past three decades and is a high-profile growth area nationally. Among the local successes was the original Oregon Trail software. There are many new education tech startups coming into the local market, which creates great possibilities to align tech innovation, job growth and the manifold challenges of modern education.
MN Venture Conference - October 13
Led by The Collaborative and the MN Venture Capital Assn, the Venture Conference provides 2 days of capital- and startup- focused networking, education and business pitches. Direct startup investments come out of this conference, which has been happening yearly since 1987. Thanks to Dan Carr and team for helping to maintain startup investment fervor.
Cleantech Open - N. Central Region Innovation Expo and Awards - October 18
The Cleantech Open is a national accelerator and competition that identifies and supports great new clean and green technology companies. The Twin Cities is the site of the North Central Region's Innovation Expo and Awards. Winners get to move on to the national competition, with support resources and a chance at a $250,000 grand prize.
U. of St. Thomas Schulze School of Entrepreneurship - Fowler Business Concept Challenge Awards - October 19
This business plan competition hosted by the University of St. Thomas challenges undergrads and graduate students to "develop a business concept that has the potential to become a viable high-growth business." The competition promotes entrepreneurship on campus and provides more than $35,000 in scholarships (including $10K each to the undergrad and grad division winners). Alum and entrepeneur Ron Fowler ('66) endowed the Challenge, which generates high quality business concepts every year.
Upcoming later this year:
MHTA Tekne Awards - November 1 - honoring MN's technology and innovation leaders, large and small
Startup Weekend Twin Cites - November 2 - 48 hours to pick a technology, research, develop and present it - startup mayhem!
MOJO Startup School - November 13 - schooling policy leaders on the entrepreneurial pathway (details shortly)
For other startup events and news, check out MOJO Minnesota, an innovation co-op working to energize Minnesota's entrepreneurial ecosystem.
If you have a great idea - whether in the creative, charitable or entrepreneurial vein - where do you get the money to launch? You can pull from your own pocket. And most do - at least to get things going initially. Companies like Medtronic and non-profits like CaringBridge started at least initially with founder resources. But unless you're wealthy, this often can only get you so far. Sometimes you need to scale fast - in response to competition or market demand. You could ask friends and family, the usual next step. Again, whether this is viable depends on the kind of friends you have. Banks? Only if you have a going concern? Angels or VC's? Yes, if you have a track record or are an amazing networker (assuming the idea's good enough). IPO? Only when you're already in the market and successful.
Of course, the non-profit sector has been able to engage in large-scale public fundraising for a long time (through online campaigns). And you can go on Facebook now and appeal to your social network to support a charitable initiative. There are also platforms such as IndieGoGo, StartSomeGood and others that allow you to seek donations from the general public through social media.
The most well-known crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter, has an amazing story. Originally focused on creative projects (films, plays etc...), it's expanded to include product development. I had a client, Peak Design, that raised over $300K for the launch of its Capture Camera Clip (released last summer, now sold worldwide). One game company raised over $3M to fund development of a new videogame. Notably, these are not equity investments. You contribute for designated benefits, usually the good in question, plus fun stuff like t-shirts or product add-ons. Basically you're pre-selling your product to fund its finalization and market release. Brilliant strategy. Market test, complete R&D and take the first large orders all in one.
But what of the lonely entrepreneur? The SEC (and related securities laws) have long thrown up barriers to easy public equity fundraising for new business ideas. Following the Depression, laws were put in place to protect the public from fraudulent stock sales. Lengthy disclosures and other processes were required to ensure that the public would know what it was buying and what the true risks were. Of course, these only applied to public offerings. Private stock sales to "accredited investors" (wealthy individuals) were permitted. But these exemptions apply to a very small percentage of Americans. So only well-connected entrepreneurs with access to sophisticated investors were allowed to avoid the very expensive and time-consuming public stock registration processes. In essence, average citizens have been effectively prevented from supporting startups in their communities.
Thankfully, necessity is the mother of invention. And our economic woes, now 3+ years running, have demanded new tools and strategies to support innovative enterprise. In light of the ease of information-sharing and success of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, Congress finally has delivered a means to let entrepreneurs to fundraise publicly from average Americans.
The JOBS Act of 2012, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and now on Obama's desk (to be signed this Thursday), will allow entrepreneurs to raise up to $1 million per year through crowdfunding. While the companies using crowdfunding will still need to "register" with the SEC, the paperwork is minimal compared to traditional IPO requirements. Sites seeking to host crowdfunding efforts also must register with the SEC, advise investors of risk and take steps to prevent fraud. For more info, see http://venturebeat.com/2012/03/31/jobs-act-law and http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d112:h.r.03606:.
The SEC will be developing regulations and more details will follow over the next few months. But this is a great step to allowing the 99% to help support job-creating startups. While there concerns about fraud on average investors, we have seen with the Enron scandal that traditional SEC practice hasn't stopped occasional rogue conduct. By letting consumers share information and scrub opportunities in the ways they do best on the Internet, the overall risk of fraudulent investments will likely go down. Startup investing is inherently risky. No change to that. But given all the legal ways to burn cash (gambling etc...), why not let citizens take a chance and invest in their local startups. The JOBS Act will finally provide the means.
2012 is going to be an amazing year for Minnesota startups, both in idea generation and funding. Lots of industries are in disruption mode, and you can be part of the story.
Here are a few entrepreneurial items to consider/ponder as the temperature outside drops to absolute zero:
MN Angel Tax Credit – Time to Renew: Another funding essential. If you’re a Minnesota startup looking to raise angel money, get certified so your investors can get their credit. If you were approved in 2011, you need to re-up. Here’s the link(now go fill out!). Don’t forget – you need approval, your investor needs approval and your deal needs approval.
A New Angel Investor Group – Gopher Angels: We need more angel investors in MN, and Gopher Angels is looking to grow the pie. Read a summary here and find Gopher Angels on GUST here. If you’re in startup fundraising mode, make sure you have a GUST profile and share with the Gopher Angels.
SOPA/PIPA - Bad; not good. While I strongly support IP rights, these proposed laws go too far and would interfere with basic operation of websites and the internet. Over-correction to the max. And this will impact negatively on MN's high tech economy. So, contact your federal representative/senators and let them know what you think.
U of M’s Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC) – Rocking into 2012 – Great stuff happening at the OTC’s Venture Center. Jay Schrankler and his team have dramatically increased the velocity of on-campus startup development. Read up here about some of the new technologies rolling into commercialization (from today’s Tech Showcase at UEL).
A few events of note:
Feb 8 – MN 2012 Entrepreneur Kick-Off – hosted by TiE MN, MN Cup, MOJO and others. Details here.
Feb 10-12 – Startup Weekend Twin Cities – great weekend where teams go from concept to business pitch. Details here.
Enjoy the freeze and keep the idea juices flowing.
Ernest Grumbles, Co-founder, MOJO Minnesota
A Patent Quality Improvement: Post-Grant Patent Review: The U.S. will have a new process to seek review of patents before they go into effect. For a 9-month period after issuance, persons can challenge a patent for any alleged defect. The person opposing a patent must show likelihood that at least one claim of the patent is unpatentable or that there are important legal questions raised that would affect several other patents. This provision will generally apply to patents filed in spring 2013. After the 9-month period, review may only be sought for based on claims that the patent is invalid due to an earlier patent or printed publication.
Litigation-Related Provisions - While there had been efforts to place general limits on patent damages and new restrictions on where patent suits may be filed, these did not make it into the final bill. Expect continuing controversy on these issues. Here’s what did go into law: