Today, there are 3.3 billion cell phones in the world, a number roughly half the population of the planet. Every one of these has to be charged at least every few days in order to keep its faithful user connected. That means a lot of little chargers to get lost, forgotten or broken. But what if you could charge these devices wirelessly? Sound like Star Trek? Surprisingly, the core technology (magnetic resonance) has existed since before the first Star Trek episode aired. All that needs to be done is to bring the technology to the altar of the user.
Getting to the Church on Time
But technology can sometime prove the reluctant groom. Wireless charging of mobile devices requires equipment to send the power and equipment to receive the power. It requires integration so the system functions as intuitively as a wedding ring. It requires consumer awareness and adoption. From a business perspective, that means bringing power adapter suppliers, telephone and laptop manufacturers, standards and certification bodies and countless other industry players on board. Not easy for a single entrepreneur to accomplish.
Undaunted, Maija Itkonen set out to make this opportunity her own. But as an industrial designer from University of Art and Design Helsinki, her first instinct was not to look for a technical answer, but to redesign the user experience in a way that intuitively integrates the technology into their daily lives. When she thinks about user experience, she starts with frustration. Frustration like that moment when you still have two hours in the terminal to wait for your flight, and realize you forgot to charge your cell phone. Itkonen is right there with you in your moment of pain and when you sit down in weary resignation, so is her product. Like when you put your dead phone down on the table next to you so you can collect your thoughts about how to spend the next two hours. Without any action other than pleasant surprise, the phone on the table magically comes alive. And you sit up to notice: It’s getting charged!
Approaching the problem from the perspective of design led Itkonen to partner with Martela and Isku, two of Finland’s largest and most established furniture manufacturers. To her delight she found these traditional stolid firms quicken with the excitement of transforming their age-old product lines into active elements powering today’s mobile lifestyle. A table, literally, was no longer a table. And so the romance was on. Together with her first partners, Itkonen built a prototype as well as more relationships with local cafí©s so that she could pilot test the technology. Users in downtown Helsinki sipped coffee, talked with friends and chewed on pastries while their cell phones, lying naturally on the table, were equally recharged. A perfect union, by design.
Love at First Kiss, again”_ and again
The initial introduction generated much attention for Itkonen and her 12-person start-up Powerkiss. And entrepreneur Itkonen soon found herself CEO as well as chief matchmaker. Her ability to create the relationships that create a compelling user experience is what makes Powerkiss more than a simple technical company. These relationships define the product, inform Itkonen’s venture-building activities and shape the new market as it emerges into the world. It also broadcasts the fact that this is simply not yet another technology company. The pink on her website makes it hers while the KISS in Powerkiss keeps users happy, mobile, connected and productive at all times.
Happily Ever Efter?
Not quite that simple, as spouses in long stable marriages know. It is going to take ongoing effort and real work at balancing business and romance to keep the energy up in this as in all ventures. As she moves to scale deployment, the number of possible partnerships Itkonen could arrange is limitless. And each will involve more design and redesign to product as well as the venture. And given she pulls it all off in the long term, will also end up transforming our world. This possibility was recognized by EUWIIN when they selected Itkonen 2009 Woman Innovator of the Year. Itkonen teaches us that opportunities are generated not by a jolt of electricity, but rather crafted from a unique combination of the different elements partners bring together and realized through action and interaction with the environment. What kind of planned coincidences or purposeful leveraging of the unexpected is it going to take to recharge the venture that is our lives today?
Written by Stuart Read, professor of marketing at IMD and Saras Sarasvathy, associate professor of business administration at the University of Virgina’s Darden School.
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