Innovate by Solving Your Own Problems
Is the key to innovation simply working to solve our own problems?

This was a popular theme at a recent DEMO conference in California's Silicon Valley. Several founders of startups and entrepreneurs echoed that sentiment as they pitched investors and customers about their upcoming projects.

Think Big

At the two day DEMO Conference, innovators took to the stage and pitched their ideas in front of a live audience. It was a spectacle to behold, albeit a bit awkward for some of the 40 presenters who launched their products. Away from the brightly lit stage, we spoke to a handful of the entrepreneurs in a quest to uncover the secrets to innovation and what they perceive as the next big things.

"I look at my own problems and start there," said Heidi Young, co-founder and president of a company called herecandy. "We put our product, Context, out there at the conference. Now people will give us feedback or criticism. Either way, we need to get our tool out there for people to see."

Context is a Web browser that offers a personalized search engine designed to help people discover and share websites, apps and things that are important to them. Young and co-founder Jason Arbon are both former Microsoft employees and Arbon also worked at Google. Their mission: improve online search.

"People need to think big because nobody wants to take the big players on," Young added.

Targeting something like search is exactly the kind of big thinking on display from other startups, too, including Contatta. Instead of search, the Contatta team is taking on email. Pat Sullivan, Patrick Sullivan Jr. and Adam Ross came up with the idea for the company a couple of years ago as a way to deal with the all too common lamentation of information overload.

Solving his own email problem was precisely why Contatta was founded, Sullivan said during his DEMO presentation. Sullivan Jr. agreed that taking on as large of a topic as email was necessary despite the seeming odds.

"There are millions of people using email, so even if hundreds of thousands of them turn us down, we've still got millions more out there we can talk to," Sullivan Jr. said in an interview. 

Contatta is an email client that also acts as an activity feed, project management space and social network and it's also a way for people to make emails more communicable. "Email isn't the problem, it's the inbox," Sullivan Jr. said.

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Manage contacts, projects and communication workflow with Contatta.

That kind of big thinking was on display throughout the conference, and as we learned from Angela Yochem, CIO of BDP International, a provider of global logistics and transportation solutions. Yochem said big thinking is something enterprises look for in innovative technologies.

Our Problems are Your Problems

Mike Scheschuk of Shelfbucks  also defined innovation as solving a problem. "It's about what impacts you and finding the pain points in your life to fix," he said.

His company has invented a sensor that retailers can place in their stores to let mobile device users get instant savings -- rather than have them leave the store to buy the product online for a cheaper price. Showrooming, as it is called, is in part what has driven so many consumers to sites like Amazon and with nearly every shopper now armed with a mobile device, Scheschuk said his product as a way to reverse the trend.

As a former Amazon.com employee, Scheschuk has an interesting perspective on online retail. He said his company is a way to marry the online and offline retail worlds.

The Share app from a company called NewAer was also intriguing. We caught up with company founder and CEO Dave Matthews to find out what drives his vision. Share is an app that uses Bluetooth and WiFi to find people who are in close proximity to each other and then allow them to share files based on that proximity. Here's the common scenario. Several people in a room who need to share a document, file or image have the option of emailing, using a service like Dropbox or perhaps using a thumb drive to share the item.

Instead, since they are all right next to each other or at least in the same room, they can all share the information instantly using the Share app. When they open the app, it senses they are all in proximity and allows them access to a common folder containing the needed item.

The NewAer team built Share because it solved a problem it had been having, Matthews said. The team just wanted a way to share items in a more frictionless way.

Do you define innovation as simply as solving a problem? Or does it flow more accurately from other things -- like creativity and imagination?