till.com Articles

31 Startup Company Ideas

Donald Tillman, Oct 28, 2016
Updated randomly

Over the last decade or so I've put myself in a mindset where, when confronted with an everyday problem or frustration, I pause to consider the opportunities for a marketable solution or business opportunity.

This actually happens a lot. So I'll try to keep an active list of them here.

All of these are pretty reasonable, and none fit the goofy startup trends we see today. So no internet connected juicers, no IoT Fidget Spinners, no cryptocurrancy for tulips.

Perhaps you'll find these entertaining. If you are interested in starting a company that does something described here, give me call.


  1. traffic light

    Intelligent Traffic Signals

    Recent developments in transportation have included the electric car, driverless cars, and ride sharing. The missing piece is how to address traffic congestion.

    I describe a powerful solution here: Intelligent Traffic Signals.

  2. voting

    Blockchain Technology Based Electronic Voting System

    Even after 240 years, the United States is not that good at voting. We've seen examples of incompetence, confusion, errors, and fraud. We've seen electronic touch screens switch votes, people physically stuffing ballots, buses shipping people to vote across state lines, voting multiple times, and dead people voting. And this is regardless of the technology; whether electronic, scanned paper, punched paper, whatever.

    "This is the only country where a death certificate is valid voter ID." — Dennis Miller

    So there is a need for an efficient, robust, reliable voting system.

    Blockchain technology can be used as the foundation for a voting system that is publically verifiable in multiple ways without revealing peoples' actual votes. Voter ID and voter eligibility would be part of the package, as well as secure and verifiable delivery of the results.

  3. wallwart

    Wall Wart Eliminator

    ("Wall wart" is an engineering colloquialism for those dangly tangly AC adaptors that almost every electronic product uses.)

    Do you know why wall warts are so ubiquitous? As opposed to having the power supply built-in to the product. It's certainly not for product design elegance.

    UL requirements make testing and approval of AC powered products a very slow and expensive process. So wall warts are simply a way to get a product out the door quickly and inexpensively. The company that manufactures the wall wart has UL approval, the new product ships with an off-the-shelf wall wart.

    And unfortunately the customer now has to deal with a mess of incompatible wall warts, subject to loss, or connecting the wrong one, spaghetti wires all over, difficulty fitting into an outlet strip... just a big mess.

    What's needed is a low-power standard for small electronic products that currently use wall warts, such as disk drives, modems, networking hubs, battery chargers, audio gear, electric toothbrushes, etc.

    • A simple plug that's small, convenient, and robust.
    • Use 12V to be compatible with automobiles. (Call it a "new age cigarette lighter plug".)
    • UPS with a simple battery.
    • Some smarts to handle current limits or simple communications.

    USB connectors are sometimes used for their power connection, but they do not supply enough current. And USB is a bidirectional standard; we really need a single direction connector from power supply to power consumption.

    Or UL Labs could be fixed. Not holding my breath.

  4. bach

    iTunes for Classical Music

    Have you tried listening to any sort of classical music on iTunes? The experience is awful. There's no concept of a piece having multiple movements, iTunes is unable to present the title of the piece in a readable format, navigation is near impossible.

    It's bizarre to see classical music fans swear so much.

    So this would be an app that fixes all those problems and optimizes the music listening experience for classical music.

    An upside: If it gets popular, Apple might acquire the company for some ridiculous amount of money.


  5. Tide-Powered Deep Sea Desalination Machine

    Reverse Osmosis desalination plants need a lot of power, mostly to pump water up to the high pressure levels required, about 900psi for seawater.

    One idea is to take advantage of the sea's natural water pressure at greater depths. About 2000 ft below sea level should do it. But that's not enough, there needs to be a pressure difference, and to depressurize the output side by pumping the water up and out.

    Tidal power could be harnessed both to pump the desalinated water out and to increase the water pressure so the machine doesn't have to be sunk so deep.

    I like the idea of a self-powered device sitting below, and a pipe coming up out of the ocean supplying drinking water.

    (I'm just throwing this out as a quickie; I don't know anything about this field.)

  6. Tiny Personal Device

    A small personal device that can perform a limited number of useful functions: 'finds your iPhone, functions as a key for identity and secure operations, key for electronics locks, ...

    Place it on your keyring... which I assume will not get technologied away for a couple decades. (Unless that's another idea for a startup.)

  7. Facebook Meme Repellant

    "A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its boots."
    — Mark Twain (probably)

    Facebook memes can efficiently propagate lies faster than just about anything. They are terse, have visual impact, leave an impression, and drop down the timeline and out of sight before anybody can debunk them. Which is why you often seem them weaponized for political purposes.

    This is a crowd source system that catalogs memes and offers debunking assistance.

    Say one of your idiot Facebook friends posts a nasty meme chock full of falsehoods cooked up by strategic political operatives. It's a lot of work to research the source of the meme, find the specific errors in the information, and post a reasonable debunking worded in such a way you don't start a race war.

    So this would include a Facebook app where you click on the offending meme, the app grabs the image and/or reference, sends it to a server where we cross check it against a database, return a set of debunking information, references, Snopes articles, etc., and also a few recommended reply texts applicable to various Facebook relationships.

    The database would be maintained by people who care about these things with a set of curators. If a user clicks on a meme that can't be found in the database, the crowd is alerted.

    The system could even track the propagation of memes introduced into the Facebook ecosystem.

  8. 21st Century Black Box

    Finding the flight recorder after an aircraft crash is always a major drama, hunting down the locator beacon before it runs out of power.

    Instead, create a modern black box that continuously uploads flight data to the cloud.

    (I'm just throwing this out; I don't know anything about this field.)

  9. Retail Kickstarter Stores

    Open up a franchise of Kickstarter/Indie-GoGo retail stores. (Since Radio Shack went bankrupt, you could probably lease their stores for cheap.)

    Kickstarter products could be displayed, and demonstrated. Customers could see them in real life and try them out. And folks doing Kickstarter projects could get live customer reactions and input.

    For some reason board games are very popular on Kickstarter. So a section of the store would be devoted to board games.

    The store could include a studio section with equipment for taping Kickstarter videos (with the ukulele music in the background).

    And of course a special section for perpetual motion machines. (Heh-heh...)

  10. iTunes for Sheet Music

    Musicians have always needed access to sheet music. And they'll often get by with minimal versions -- "'Got a gig, need to get the chords down."

    Jazzers have always had the Fake Books, and the Real Books. In the early 90's the Usenet groups published "tabs"; files including chords and lyrics and solos in a tabulature format. The Usenet tabs were gathered, expanded, and are now published on web sites.

    Several problems: these sources are rarely accurate, the composer receives nothing, and sites like Ultimate Guitar add so much advertising, features, and popup crap that the material is unusable.

    So there's an opportunity for accurate sheet music, composer approved, with performance notes, delivered digitally for a minimal price, like iTunes, with the composer receiving a royalty. Or a subscription service, again like iTunes.

  11. Modular Audio Signal Processing System

    I'm currently doing this. Musicians use an awful lot of electronic devices (preamps, compressors, filter, echoes, equalizers, etc.). And connecting up so many devices results in a ton of problems, problems electrical, mechanical, usability, dangly AC adaptors, spaghetti wire, etc.

    A modular platform specifically designed for musical audio signal processing eliminates all those problems, supports an excellent user experience, and is efficient to manufacture.

  12. New Music Format

    The consumption side of the music industry has found itself without a business model. Streaming is popular, but pennies-per-megabyte is not a workable busineess.

    People pay roughly zero for music in a downloadable format. Why? Because music is culture, and downloadable bits are devoid of culture.

    In my article A New Business Model for the Music Industry I describe a simple music delivery format that fully supports the cultural elements of music.

    (Admitedly the article takes a long time to get to the point; I need to rewrite it.)

  13. 21st Century Pipe Organ

    The visceral experience of a physical pipe organ is unmatched. But pipe organs are crazy expensive to purchase, install, and maintain, so we are seeing fewer pipe organs in churches, theaters, and halls.

    I'm currently writing up the details, but this would be an actual pipe organ with modular construction, so it can be built incrementally over time, some ranks with real pipes, some synthesized, wireless links, intelligent airflow management.

    'Details soon...

  14. Deluxe Commuter Rail Car

    Mass transit in the Bay Area is pretty horrible. CalTrain, which runs the line from San Francisco down to Gilroy, is underused, has dilapidated old cars, and loses money.

    That's unfortunate because mass transit has the potential to be thoroughly enjoyable. Take Disneyland for example, where people are eager to wait an hour in line for what is effectively mass transit, except that it doesn't actually take you anywhere.

    So if you want to make mass transit popular, get some Disney imagineers to design the system.

    On a smaller scale... Imagine making a deal with CalTrain to add a few new cars. And do them up really nicely; cafe seating, hip decorations, snazzy lighting, on-board wifi. Serve espresso and pastries in the morning, locally brewed beer and wine in the evening.

    Market it as the trendy place to be seen for networking and mingling. Have a couple news stories about startup deals made on the car. And "Cougar Night".

    It can be very profitable and improve ridership.

  15. Hitchhiking App

    Bring back hitchhiking! Like Uber, but free, revenue from ads.

    Weirdly enough, the app could fix the two major problems with hitchhiking; catching a ride from a crazy and picking up a crazy for a ride.

  16. Mutual Fund Tool

    Mutual fund prices are updated daily, some time after the market closes. Any given fund could easily end up or down 1 or 2 percent. And it's really dishearting to sell some shares only to find out that the price dropped that day.

    I wrote a program that predicts the value of a mutual fund before close by charting the holdings of that fund during the day. So you can run it near close and see pretty accurately how the funds will perform. 'Works well.

  17. Meeting Presentation App

    I've been through an awful lot of meetings where one or more people are making slide presentations. And invariably, way too much time is spent setting up the presentation, finding a cable to connect the laptop to the video projector, finding the file on the laptop, or on the USB drive, cranking up PowerPoint or Keynote, incompatibilities between the two, switching from one laptop to another, working the clicker, accidently revealing your porn collection, and so forth.

    A meeting presentation app could solve this. Upload your presentation to the app (cloud, whatever) and go to the meeting. At the meeting there's only one laptop already connected to the projector, and it's running the app. When it's your turn to present, the app on your phone sends the presentation to the laptop and you're good to go. Clicker controls are on your phone.

    There would be tools to share the material (or not). Automatically handle connections to remote sites, so folks in the field can also see the slides. For larger meetings, instead of passing around a microphone, use the phone's mic to ask questions. Or use the phone app to text qeustions.

  18. I, Mudd

    3-D Printer and Software Prints a Custom Sex Doll

    I don't really need to describe this any further...

    (Star Trek, Season 2, Episode 8, I, Mudd)


  19. A Franchise of Local Music Websites

    I've always been a big fan of progressive rock (King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, etc.). And I've always been a big fan of supporting the local music scene. Back in the early days of the interwebs, I built BayProg, which is probably the first genre-specific web site for local music. It's designed for the music fan and features local concerts, stores, bands, resources, and so forth.

    I haven't monetized BayProg, but a larger version of it could certainly be a good franchise business. This would be a web resource for music fans for any somewhat serious music genre such as folk, jazz, or classical, a separate site for each. Such genres that are not served well by the mainstream outlets, and at the same time have a fan base that is eager to be involved.

    And this would also be a collection of local sites, potentially one for each metropolitan area. Each would feature local curation, local musicians, local events, local stores, local news, and so forth.

    There would be common tools for maintaining events listings and such. If a folk ensemble is setting up a tour, they can connect with their fans every step of the way.

  20. Shortwave Radio App

    Listen to shortwave radio broadcasts on an iPhone.

    Consolidate streams of shortwave radio broadcasts from multile sources, and redistribute them on internet streams.

  21. Smart Green Screen

    green screen

    Chroma key is used in commercial television to superimpose one camera image over another. The foreground camera has the subject against a green background, and the system places the background image in the green parts of the foreground image. The color green is used because it is furthest from skin tones. And for some reason, chroma key is used on all weather broadcasts.

    Sometimes the subject wears an article of green clothing, and the system disappears that into the background image. Green Screen Fails are are often entertaining.

    Modern image processing is able to recognize faces, bodies, and movements. It would not be difficult to build a Smart Green Screen system; a graphics processor that is able to recognize people shapes, clothing, and motions, and work around issues involving the subject wearing the color green.

    (As an aside, the green screen fail in the illustration would make an awesome dress.)

  22. Virtual Reality Playgrounds

    Virtual reality has been getting a lot of press and investment recently. But I can't see VR selling well in the home. Sure there's the gee whiz appeal, but wearing goggles, waving arms around in the air, and tripping over furniture is not my idea of good value for the entertainment dollar.

    That said, I could see a franchise of VR playgrounds, converted warehouse space made into VR setups, plenty of room to bop around and explore the virtual world without knocking into things. Customers can partake in an optimal VR experience with the latest equipment. Large or small group VR activities, including immersive games, are posssible.

  23. clock face

    IoT Wall Clock

    A traditional wall clock (analog, mechanical, hands and face) with a WiFi connection. It can connect to the interweb every once in a while and adjust the time for perfect accuracy. It can automatically spring ahead and fall back for daylight savings time. It can send an alert if the battery is low.

    An AC powered version would be for commercial applications, such as the clocks in school classrooms, or the clocks in office buildings.

    As an aside, I wonder if it would be possible to build an electric clock without a battery. Perhaps powered by the room lighting with a small solar panel. Perhaps from AM radio, like a crystal set. Or perhaps from radiated AC lines hum. While such an inconsistent power source would not normally be appropriate for a clock, the IoT connection could assure accuracy.

  24. Mandy's

    Fractals, chaos theory, and in particular, the Mandelbrot Set, became popular in the late 1980's starting with a cover story in Scientific American and the James Gleik book Chaos: Making a New Science. The mathematical patterns are endlessly complex and computer graphics renditions are stunningly beautiful.

    Mandelbrot

    At that time I joked, "Fractals would be fantastic patterns for clothing. Sort of like a high-tech paisely."

    Mandy's (After the Mandelbrot Set; get it?) would be a franchise of retail stores carrying all things fractal; fractal posters, books, shirts with fractal patterns, ties, bedsheets, pillows, etc. And more currently... leggings and yoga pants.

    It would also be the go-to store for all things nerdy and scientific; like Clifford Stoll's Acme Klein Bottles.

    (And what the heck, include a paisley department.)

  25. Smart Disk Drive

    (I'm writing this while running disk repair software on a hard drive.)

    A disk drive with enough built-in smarts so there's no longer a need for the Macintosh Disk Utility, the Western Digital Drive Utilities, the EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard, or any other diagnostic and repair software.

    So it would be super reliable, run diagnostics itself, fix corrupted files itself, remap bad sectors itself, and send notifications if the reliability is decaying.

    It could also have the ability to back itself up to other drives, or to the cloud. Include WiFi, so you don't even have to wire it in.

    (A more direct interface to the drive should remain, in case the software gets wedged.)

  26. A Really Good Cloud-Based Discussion Forum

    Some huge fraction of the interwebs is devoted to discussion. Whether it's Facebook, Reddit, Yahoo Groups, Usenet, YouTube comments, specialized forums, the comments at the end of news articles... discussion is ubiquitous. We sure jabber a lot.

    There are lots of forum implementations, but most are truly awful. Hard to read, hard to follow a discussion, hard to tell who's who, hard to include photos and other content, hard to keep on topic, hard to keep out spam, trolls, bots, etc. The worst offenders I've seen are specialized hobbyist areas; automobiles, music, equipment, home repair, etc.

    Offer a really good forum system, runs in the cloud, customizable for any application or community.

  27. Ergonomic Hardware Controls

    Consumer hardware products, appliances, and the like, have benefitted from technology, moving from mechanical, to electrical, to electronic, to digital, and maybe even internet connected. But along the way the user experience took a total dive. Programming a VCR became the comedian's easy laugh. Clocks (above) are routinely stuck at blink time because nobody wants to go through the effort to set them. And the simple spin of a volume control has become a tedious tap-tap-tap-tap (oops, too high) tap-tap.

    The universal problem is that for any tech product, the limited set of available user controls are frustratingly bad compared to low tech products.

    Consider the classic AM/FM Tuner with a stately horizontal dial, with acrylic side lighting, attention to color, fonts, graphics, and presentation, and a pretty pointer. The tuning knob pulls a dial cord, which pulls the pointer across the linear dial, and then gears down to turn an large old technology variable capacitor. A quick spin of the tuning knob could get you from one station to another, the gearing ratio was ideal. The knob was even weighted so that the momentum could go from one end of the dial to the other with just the right amount of push. You could mark your favorite stations on the dial, the FCC required the stations to be some distance apart, with non-commercial stations on the far left. When tuners went digital, all that elegant and intuitive interaction went away, and you had to tap-tap-tap dozens of times to get from one station to another. The procedure for setting presets is crazed if you want to keep them in a visualizable order.

    A new set of hardware control components could change that; new kinds of knobs, switches, selectors, and controls that feel comfortable and can perform their functions in natural intuitive ways. Any product or appliance incorporating these controls would be a joy to use and have a killer advantage in the marketplace. People talk about a level of engagement in an app or web site, but in the hardware world there's an opportunity for an immersive visual, aural, tacticle synergy that software can't touch.

  28. Efficient and Beautiful Residential Solar Power

    Residential solar power is just plain ugly, looking all the world like a billboard fell over and collapsed on your roof. And the mounting hardware needs to be robust in the face of wind gusts, branches, and all. There are solar panels available that are shaped to look like shingles, but connecting up so many individual shingles dramatically decreases reliability.

    If you ditch the aftermarket approach, it is possible to offer customized roof sections designed and built to optimally integrate solar power. With that, it becomes practical to implement a hybrid PV/T system, using solar for both electricity and hot water. Photovoltaic panels are on top for electricity, they get hot in the sun, a heat exchanger is mounted directly below, providing hot water, and in the process cools the photovoltaic cells so they work more efficiently.

    Most of the system would be protected from the elements, and any inspection and maintenance could be performed from within the attic.

    The thermal units could heat water for a standard hot water system (or preheat water for a tankless system) or provide household heat.

  29. Enough With the Passwords

    Passwords are a total pain. Each service that we use requires a login and password. Each service has different password requirements. And we need literally hundreds of passwords in our daily life. Now would be a good time for a password alternative.

    There are password management apps, like Last Pass, but they don't work very well. And they require, you guessed it, yet another password. And Multi Factor Authorization (MFA) is annoying.

    A small hardware device could operate like a physcial key, Bluetooth connection, with its own protocols, with MFA built in, could assure the security of any application.

    This would be also an excellent application of the Tiny Personal Device above.

  30. mail truck

    Electric Mail Trucks

    Have you ever walked behind a US Postal Service truck as it makes deliveries in a suburban neighborhood? The driver comes up to the next house, stops the truck, turns off the engine, delivers the mail, gets back in, restarts the engine with a little puff of smoke out the tailpipe, drives 40 feet to the next house, and repeats. Pretty much an environmental nightmare. No engine was ever optimized to work like that.

    This is an ideal opportunity for an electric vehicle to disrupt the market. Electric drive is optimal with lots of stops and starts, maximum use of regenerative breaking, doesn't idle, and the recharging options are perfect.

    Further, applying advances in self driving technology could have the truck follow the mailman down the block as he makes deliveries.

  31. Lidar For the Blind

    Advances in Lidar and in sonar object detectors for automobiles can be applied to help the visually impaired navigate around their surroundings. Detect objects all around, software to process it, and package it up and present it on a tactile surface. Machine learning will eventually allow specific types of objects to be recognized.

I'll be adding more to these over time.

Copyright 2017 J. Donald Tillman
email: don@till.com
web page: http://www.till.com