Do This, Get Rich
With VCs awash in money and itching to spend, it's a great time to start a new business. We've found 11 of the hottest business opportunities today. Take your pick--and seek your fortune.
By Michael V. Copeland

(Business 2.0) – Things have started very badly.

Before the pitch for a world-altering new mobile-gaming company really gets rolling, Adam Grosser leans back in his chair, hoists his feet onto the conference room table, and declares, "I hate it."

Grosser, a partner at Menlo Park, Calif., venture firm Foundation Capital, runs out of the room. The silence is deafening until he returns and tosses a cellophane-wrapped box on the table. "It's an almost Pavlovian response," Grosser says. "And it's based on this." He points to the box, labeled "XBand." Turns out that in 1993, Grosser developed the XBand, a $19.95 gizmo that allowed gamers to play their Sega and Nintendo shoot-'em-ups on a peer-to-peer network. XBand was the hit of the Consumer Electronics Show that year. Toys R Us ordered 500,000. "It was brilliant," Grosser says. "They sold about 12."

Tough crowd, those VCs. We have the bruises to prove it. During the past two months, we canvassed dozens of venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and business visionaries with these objectives in mind: to take the pulse of the VC power players along Silicon Valley's Sand Hill Road, to learn what startup specialists are looking toward as potential next big things, and--most important--to extrapolate from those discussions what may be today's greatest business opportunities.

As the encounter with Grosser suggests, it wasn't always pleasant. But it was continuously eye-opening. Among Silicon Valley's entrepreneurial elite, an important shift has occurred. Never mind that the economy is uneven, the deficits massive, and the stock market twitchy. Here in the hothouse of American business, the gradual recovery from the tech collapse is almost complete. Last year the amount of money invested in startups hit $20 billion, notching its first year-over-year increase in four years, according to Dow Jones VentureOne. Equally significant, VC firms raised an estimated $17.5 billion in fresh capital, on top of the $54 billion they still have from past years.

New money means a new seven-year clock on venture funds--and new pressure from limited partners for the extraordinary returns promised by VCs. Adding to the impetus, established companies are increasingly willing to buy startups with promising technologies, and initial public offerings, the boom-era fast track to fortune and glory, almost tripled last year after a long drought. It hasn't hurt that Google's moon-shot IPO, which by the most recent estimates has created at least three billionaires and hundreds of multimillionaires, reminded us all just how bedazzling the right bet on a startup can still be.

These forces have led to the return of true early-stage investing, something that has been virtually absent from the Valley since the bust. Venture capitalists are once again willing to invest in companies that are prerevenue--even those without working prototypes of products or services. And big bets on big ideas are back in vogue. "If it's not audacious in what it's attempting, it may not be worth doing," says Gary Little, a partner at Menlo Park-based Morgenthaler Ventures.

The focal points of VC interest today flow from momentous technological or demographic trends. The Internet is still central, of course; in Silicon Valley it's taken as a given that the Web will spread to all corners of the globe. Wireless services and the digital home remain hot areas as broadband access advances. With oil hitting record prices, every VC seems to be prospecting for energy-related businesses. And the king daddy of all demographic trends, the aging of the baby boomers, has created keen interest in health care and all it touches. "You want to make sure your startup is riding a trend," says U.S. Venture Partners VC Phil Schlein. "You don't want to swim upstream."

That's not to say you can paddle into a VC's office with just a PowerPoint and a Whitestrips-brightened smile. If you don't offer a clear, defensible technological advantage that addresses a real and preferably huge market, you'd better come bearing customers, and lots of them. But, as we also learned, not every intriguing business idea requires VC funding.

In the following pages, you'll find 11 of the best startup ideas we could dream up based on our explorations among the experts. They cover a range of capital requirements, from $20,000 to $150 million. We reality-checked these hypothetical businesses by pitching them to a panel of 10 of Silicon Valley's sharpest VCs. We're not suggesting that any of these ideas are sure things. But the responses our pitches received should encourage anyone looking to start a business today. And we would note that a year ago Business 2.0 undertook the same exercise ("Field of Dreams," April 2004)--and four of our ideas have since materialized into ongoing businesses: a seller of low-cost wireless home security systems, a one-stop shop for broadband gear and services, a software firm that enables highly targeted television ads, and a personal jet taxi service.

Make what you will of that, and feel free to run with any of these concepts. Or better yet, use them as springboards for chasing your own entrepreneurial ideas. For those with the drive and talent to bring their startup dreams to life, there can be no more rewarding road.

Pimp My PC

START WITH $20K

ELEVATOR PITCH: Capitalizing on the spread of low-cost computer components and surging demand for high-end, media-rich performance, this company provides a service that modifies--"mods," in the vernacular--staid PCs into screaming speed demons for gaming, music, and other home entertainment.

TARGET MARKET: Annual spending on high-end PCs used mostly as gaming machines is close to $1 billion, and a far larger market exists among people who would like muscle-machine performance but don't have the time or the technological chops to mod their own generic machines.

BUSINESS MODEL: The company researches and collects information on everything from exterior cases to special software to components and puts together custom PCs. The company charges a 15 percent markup on hardware and a flat fee for tricking out your PC. House calls are a key selling point.

With PC prices falling below $500 a pop, many users are buying low-end machines and then looking for ways to add pizzazz. But getting the right components, matching them up with the computer's innards, or even finding the best deal is a huge hassle. Pimp My PC will make your inner geek's dreams come true--and you'll never have to touch a soldering iron.

For a few hundred dollars, Pimp My PC can outfit a common computer with special software and a massive hard drive that will allow the machine to record, TiVo-like, the latest episodes of Survivor or The Apprentice. Similarly, a $250 Day-Glo-painted exterior case and open-source software can turn that PC into an eye-catching networked jukebox, streaming music throughout the home.

But the biggest demand for PC modding will come from gamers who want ultrafast processors, fat hard drives, neon-colored cases, and liquid cooling systems, all aimed at enhancing the experience of playing the latest first-person shooter or other games online. The gaming business produced more than $25 billion in sales of games and hardware last year; the figure is expected to exceed $32 billion annually by 2009. Companies like VoodooPC and Alienware have parlayed gamers' lust for high performance into hit businesses, but not everybody can afford their Ferrari-like machines, which cost up to $5,000. Pimp My PC, however, can convert a relatively cheap computer into a turbocharged beast that comes close to the elite machines for thousands of dollars less.

• HURDLES: There are no barriers to entry, so the field could get crowded with copycats. The business doesn't scale well, and getting the word out could be tough--though in big cities, ads in giveaway computer newspapers can help.

• WHAT THE PROS SAY: Janice Roberts, managing director, Mayfield: "Small but interesting. This could be a good one-or two-person operation." Vivek Mehra, partner, August Capital: "There could well be good localized markets, and you don't even need VC dollars for this one."

PeoplesChoice

START WITH $100K

ELEVATOR PITCH: This website extracts data from online retailers like Amazon.com, eBay, and others and creates a visual map of what's selling on the Web, from the top 10 plasma screens to the hottest MP3 players and tourist destinations.

TARGET MARKET: Consumers are expected to buy an estimated $79 billion worth of merchandise worldwide over the Internet this year, and they'll be keenly interested in a website that ranks hit products by the one metric that truly matters: what's selling.

BUSINESS MODEL: PeoplesChoice sells ad space on the site and generates additional revenue through referral fees.

Humans are herd animals and gravitate toward what's popular at any given moment. PeoplesChoice will collect and continuously update data on what's selling and make that information instantly and easily accessible. The site takes advantage of a number of important trends. One is technological: Retailers and search-engine companies are increasingly opening up their databases and allowing innovators to develop unique applications, which makes PeoplesChoice technically feasible. Meanwhile, online comparison-shopping engines like Shopping.com have seen their traffic grow more than 20 percent in the past year. As more Americans become comfortable with online purchases, there will be even more need for tools that make shopping painless and quick.

PeoplesChoice culls data on hot sellers collected from sources like Amazon, eBay, and Google. No need to wade through reviews, where you're captive to an individual's opinions. At PeoplesChoice you hear the dollars speak, and with a click you can link to sites where you can purchase the hit items. Of course, if you want reviews, PeoplesChoice will have them. The site will provide ample chat forums in which users can trade tips and war stories that explain why they're buying what they're buying.

• HURDLES: Giants like Google and Yahoo, with their sophisticated search technologies, could add this function to their sites, thus making life difficult for a startup.

• WHAT THE PROS SAY: Steve Krausz, partner, U.S. Venture Partners: "It's a low-capital, pure-execution play. If you can build the brand quickly, you can go for a quick flip. An interesting idea, because communities can make a fair market that can't be gamed and can be successful because people are looking for an unbiased opinion." Roberts: "People do buy that way. Over time, I think we are moving toward that type of thing. You could call it 'The Market Speaks.'"

Baby Pad

START WITH $500K

ELEVATOR PITCH: This specialty retailer sells baby and kids' furniture to style-conscious urbanites at affordable prices.

TARGET MARKET: New parents spend more than $5 billion a year on baby and kids' furniture and accessories, according to research firm Furniture Today.

BUSINESS MODEL: Baby Pad works with manufacturers to create--and deliver--modular, expandable product lines.

Why baby furniture? Have you seen baby furniture? It's ugly. Baby Pad will appeal to young urban parents who don't want their cramped homes and apartments to look like day-care centers. That's what you get when you shop at existing baby chains. Baby Pad stores instead will feature sleek, functional, modern design--something that companies like Babies R Us, Pottery Barn Kids, and Bellini don't offer--minus the exorbitant sticker prices typical at high-end furniture boutiques. Everything from cribs to changing tables will be on display in the elegant showroom stores.

The central draw will be a line of modular storage, sleeping, and lounging furniture that can be mixed and matched to fit the child's living space and added to as the little darling grows. The stores will be pleasant boutiques rather than big boxes, simultaneously cutting down on rent and sparing customers that Ikea cattle-drive feel. Inventory will be held at the manufacturing partner's warehouse, which will drop-ship to the customer within 48 hours of an order being placed either at the store or online. The stores will stock smaller items and impulse accessories such as contemporary mobiles, pillows, and stroller gear.

The first store will be a learning lab to figure out the best mix of inventory and the optimal layout. Once the model is perfected, it can be rolled out rapidly on a regional basis in dense urban areas with a lot of foot traffic.

• HURDLES: Established brick-and-mortar concerns could copy the product line, and online specialty retailers such as Modernseed could open up their own retail outlets, providing swift and formidable competition.

• WHAT THE PROS SAY: Roberts: "There is no go-to place like that for babies. If the quality, style, and safety are there, there's a healthy market." Judy Neuman, partner, Maveron: "Parents make such a big investment in their kids, and allowing them to customize based on their space--that is right where the market is today."

NurseSwap

START WITH $500K

ELEVATOR PITCH: This national Web-based service connects freelance nurses and other health-care professionals with short-staffed hospitals, long-term-care facilities, and private homes.

TARGET MARKET: The Congressional Budget Office estimates that total expenditures for long-term care will surge to $154 billion in 2010, driven by the graying of the baby boomers and advances in medical technology that prolongs life spans.

BUSINESS MODEL: NurseSwap solicits and certifies a roster of freelance health-care professionals available for short-term assignments across the nation. There is a listing fee for those looking to employ a nurse, and when a job is contracted, NurseSwap takes a flat fee based on the intensity of care required.

With health-care spending exploding and a looming shortfall in professional caregivers, especially nurses, NurseSwap is an efficient service that will consolidate what has been a very fragmented market. In essence, NurseSwap is an arbitrage between the geographic areas that have an oversupply of nurses and those with too few.

The Department of Health and Human Services projects that demand for nursing will outstrip supply by 12 percent in 2010 and 20 percent by 2015. States like California and Florida already pay premiums for nurses to travel and work in hospitals and elder-care centers that are chronically understaffed. NurseSwap takes advantage of this developing mobile workforce, especially recent graduates of nursing programs who enter the field in a lower pay range. NurseSwap solicits schools and hospitals and gets professionals to sign up and list their geographic and time preferences.

NurseSwap also certifies the credentials of the nurses and other professionals covered by health insurance, including physical therapists, masseurs, chiropractors, and practitioners of non-Western medicine such as acupuncture. The startup matches requests from hospitals, nursing homes, and even private patients with the desires of the pros participating in the service. To make life easy on the freelancers, NurseSwap handles all the paperwork for the contracting of its members.

• HURDLES: Developing the sales force to recruit members to NurseSwap could be a challenge. Established online job marketplaces like Monster.com could see this as their next opportunity and jump in with what are already significant direct-sales forces. Hospitals are notoriously tough customers to crack, and malpractice insurance issues could be costly.

• WHAT THE PROS SAY: Mehra: "I like this because it is addressing a shortage and it's a focused market. This could be a very profitable smallish business, at a minimum." Little: "This is a company that I would want to see bootstrap itself and prove that there is a clear business. You could do that by developing the business in one region first, and then expanding geographically if it clicks."

CelebrityDigs

START WITH $1M

ELEVATOR PITCH: This startup gives customers the rock-star treatment by enabling hotels to customize rooms and suites for maximum luxury.

TARGET MARKET: Luxury hotels and resorts took in about $4.4 billion in the United States last year, according to Smith Travel Research.

BUSINESS MODEL: The company sells hotels Web-based software that lets visitors tailor their stay online and takes a cut of in-room luxury goods sales.

What if you could make your hotel rearrange your room to your exact specifications, just as it does for J. Lo or Tom Cruise? You might demand Frette linens on the bed, a vase of tulips on the dresser, a chaise longue instead of a desk, some Oban scotch in the minibar, your favorite CDs and DVDs stacked by the entertainment system, a tray of M&Ms with the brown ones removed. CelebrityDigs makes everyone a diva by automating the process of personalizing your room and your entire resort experience.

Partnering with luxury hotels and resorts, the company will incorporate its customization software into their websites. Guests go to a hotel's site, retrieve a screen shot of a room, and scroll over different areas. Pop-up menus show what comes standard and what upgrades are available--things like high-thread-count sheets, gourmet foods, Dom Pérignon champagne, fresh flowers, seasonal fruits, spa products, and concierge services. Resorts would probably limit some options to those who book the most expensive suites. But certain services, such as the ability to preorder dinner so it's waiting for you when you arrive after a late flight, would be available to all guests.

In addition to licensing the software, CelebrityDigs will supply the hotels with the luxury products. Since the luxe options must be requested online in advance, CelebrityDigs will know exactly what each hotel needs. Guests can also buy the products, creating an ancillary revenue stream that CelebrityDigs will split with the hotels. And by partnering with many resorts, CelebrityDigs will achieve scale in purchasing that would be difficult for any but the largest hotel chains to do on their own.

• HURDLES: Convincing hotels that the demand will materialize and that they don't want to try this themselves.

• WHAT THE PROS SAY: Neuman: "I'm a firm believer in mass customization. Any service organization needs to give the customer choice. I like the idea." Grosser: "I'd love that. I choose my hotels by how enjoyable a stay I had. You'd have to constrain the choices somewhat, but it's promising."

Let's Make a Deal

START WITH $3M

ELEVATOR PITCH: This Web-enabled service tends all your subscriptions and monthly services--cell phones, movie and game rentals, magazines, and anything else for which you pay a recurring fee--and finds you better deals as they pop up.

TARGET MARKET: Overall spending on entertainment and media is projected to grow at a compound rate of more than 6 percent annually and reach $1.7 trillion worldwide in 2008, fueled by an explosion in digital and online subscription services, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

BUSINESS MODEL: Let's Make a Deal generates revenue by taking a cut of the savings it realizes for people using the service. Additional money comes in from special offers developed exclusively for its members. The service also takes commissions on new subscriptions generated on the site and gets ad revenue from companies hawking related products and services.

Whether it's Netflix, cell-phone minutes, or AOL, the number and complexity of services purchased and managed online are increasing. And as the competition among the providers of those services heats up, the array of promotions and price reductions they offer rises exponentially. But companies often aren't eager to tell existing customers that there's a better price to be had. Let's Make a Deal scours the world on a consumer's behalf, sniffing out deals and simplifying the process of signing up for them.

After an initial setup in which users specify the recurring fee services they currently use (along with their expiration dates and restrictions) and those they might be interested in purchasing, Let's Make a Deal finds potentially better options. Depending on the users' preferences, the service either notifies them of the better deals or automatically takes action on their behalf. In the latter case, the software shoots out an instant e-mail summary of what can be done, the savings realized, and what Let's Make a Deal's cut would be. Users merely click "agree," and the deal is done. Special prices are also negotiated for the exclusive use of Let's Make a Deal members.

• HURDLES: There are regulatory issues around steering people toward some services, particularly insurance and mortgages, and existing comparison-shopping sites might be in position to provide heavy competition.

• WHAT THE PROS SAY: Mehra: "I'd sign up for something like this. There's a demonstrable benefit, no risk to sign up, and some interesting directions you could take it. I would be especially interested in how you could trigger buys with the service." Little: "This is worthy of consideration. I think most people will look hard at savings when it comes to high-ticket items like a mortgage. You'd need to figure out how to attract users to the site, probably through some viral marketing component, and keep them from disappearing once they sign up."

Spotcaster

START WITH $5M

ELEVATOR PITCH: This startup creates a search engine for podcasts and other digitally distributed recordings.

TARGET MARKET: There are an estimated 50 million MP3 players, 80 million multimedia phones, and 700 million PCs that can download digital sound files.

BUSINESS MODEL: The company matches advertisers with podcasters and other creators of digital audio content distributed over the Web to multimedia-ready devices like iPods and cell phones. It splits the ad revenue 30-70 with the content disseminators.

Now that there are millions of weblogs, the next logical evolution is already here: podcasts. These are blogs in the form of sound-recorded shows distributed digitally over the Web, where audiences can subscribe and listen to them on any device that plays sound files. Unlike with blogs, though, there's no easy way to search podcasts by topic or for advertisers to support them.

Spotcaster gives podcasters the chance to make extra bucks by inserting 30-second recorded ads in their shows in exchange for a cut of the resulting revenue. Since sound files can't be searched by keyword, Spotcaster will create software that podcasters can download for free and use to tag and index the contents of each podcast. That way Spotcaster will generate a searchable inventory of podcasts for both Web surfers and advertisers. Spotcaster will allow advertisers to bid for 30-second spots (just as they do on Google for paid-search ads) in both the most popular podcasts and those that target specific niche audiences. Spotcaster's software will then automatically insert the ads in the appropriate podcasts.

Spotcaster's technology will work not only for podcasts but for any digital audio content, including digitized radio programs and music albums. Eventually the technology could be extended to digital video as well. As people consume more and more digital content on their iPods, not to mention cell phones and computers, such automatically generated digital advertising could become the norm.

• HURDLES: Podcasting may never take off the way blogging has, and even if it does, the window of opportunity could close quickly. Podcasting has already created enough buzz to draw a small group of entrepreneurs who have begun to ponder how to create a podcasting ad model.

• WHAT THE PROS SAY: Krausz: "It's a reasonable idea. That's one where you very quickly test-market it to see if there is any uptake." Little: "It may be early, but if you generalize to delivering audio content to mobile devices and delivering audio inserts, then you're talking about a much broader market than audioblogs. There is a natural role here for someone who could syndicate the ads and target them down to users."

MedTrack

START WITH $10M

ELEVATOR PITCH: This startup uses radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to track drugs and supplies in hospitals.

TARGET MARKET: Preventable errors, such as administering patients the wrong drugs, kill as many as 100,000 people a year in the United States. Meanwhile, hospitals write off at least 15 percent of inventory because of lost or stolen supplies and equipment.

BUSINESS MODEL: MedTrack creates an RFID system for hospitals. It partners with medical equipment suppliers and drug distributors to sell hospitals the system, inventory-tracking software, and supplies tagged with RFID chips.

RFID chips promise to replace bar codes as a way to wirelessly track everything, but they aren't yet cheap enough to use on most individual items. Typically it makes sense to put the chips only on pallets, boxes, or items expensive enough to justify the additional 20-cent cost of each RFID tag. Hospitals, however, have a wide variety of expensive--and lifesaving--items. MedTrack would develop both the hardware and the software needed to track the whereabouts of every heart monitor and vial of morphine at any given second.

Once the RFID system is in place, a hospital should be able to rapidly recover its cost by streamlining inventory. MedTrack will sell its systems through existing medical supply distributors, so the distributors can plug into each hospital's inventory software and automatically replenish supplies when they get low. Ultimately the margins in this business are in the software, but creating a complete system will be necessary to jump-start the market.

• HURDLES: Information technology systems are still not a high priority for most hospitals.

• WHAT THE PROS SAY: Mehra: "This is a big issue. I have seen data that shows the hospitals have to overprovision equipment because they can never find the blood pressure monitor on the floor where they need it. Selling to hospitals is a challenge, but crack them and you've got a huge market." Little: "Even more interesting would be a company looking at the whole supply chain--from Big Pharma through distributors to pharmacies or hospitals--to make sure that the pill Merck stamped out is the same one being given."

EnMiser

START WITH $15M

ELEVATOR PITCH: This software-centric company develops easily customized applications that enable energy savings in residences, small businesses, and large industrial plants.

TARGET MARKET: With the possibility of a long-term spike in oil prices, consumers and businesses alike will be increasingly hungry for technologies that save energy; analysts see an initial market of roughly $500 million for the right energy-saving systems, with potential growth into the billions of dollars.

BUSINESS MODEL: EnMiser sells commodity hardware coupled with a proprietary software package that can be fine-tuned for a specific business or residence.

Among utilities today, the big trend is toward open standards that allow automatic load balancing and redundancy to prevent the power shortages that have become a regular occurrence. Intelligent thermostats are already being deployed to collect intricately detailed data on energy usage. EnMiser uses such data to develop software to more efficiently power any business or home.

Key to EnMiser's approach is developing expertise in specific types of operations, whether it be a 20,000-square-foot chemical plant or a 600-person stock brokerage. EnMiser will initially focus on midlevel businesses and, using increasingly cheap wireless sensors and off-the-shelf chips and screens, build a network that monitors and efficiently calibrates energy usage with little or no input from humans.

Depending on the flow of information being collected and analyzed by the EnMiser network, the people running the business have the option to operate a machine at a given time for a given price or do it later for a better price. The interface and notification would happen through the Web, onsite touchscreens, or wireless devices in an office. For added security, the devices could come with fingerprint readers. As more efficient machinery becomes available, it can easily be plugged into the system. Ideally, EnMiser would partner with utilities to offer the system to all their customers.

• HURDLES: The utility industry is slow to adopt new technology, and there is substantial competition from huge players like Honeywell, though they are also potential partners.

• WHAT THE PROS SAY: Paul Koontz, partner, Foundation Capital: "All of the trends are moving in the right direction for something like this. There is so much inefficiency and laziness in how we use energy that the potential cost savings is enormous. This is a great opportunity for a young company."

G Mob

START WITH $100M

ELEVATOR PITCH: This mobile virtual network for videogamers optimizes existing 3G wireless connections for a new generation of handheld gaming devices.

TARGET MARKET: Gamers will spend more than $5 billion in 2006 to do battle online over high-speed connections.

BUSINESS MODEL: G Mob leases high-speed pipes from existing network operators and optimizes the online gaming experience, charging gamers a monthly fee for access to its library of popular multiplayer games, much as premium channels on cable networks do with the latest Hollywood films.

Phone service providers Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile have proven that mobile virtual network operators, or MVNOs, can make big bucks. Most MVNOs have concentrated on voice-related services, but G Mob focuses solely on gamers, especially those hooked on wireless multiplayer combat--and as devices like Gizmondo, Nokia's N-Gage, and Sony's PSP demonstrate, handheld gaming is coming on fast. G Mob leases space on a carrier's high-speed network and creates proprietary technology to optimize the gaming experience in ways the slow-footed carriers would be hard-pressed to match. Offering subscription-only bundles of premium games, G Mob can draw players sick of paying $8 for a single download of, say, War of the Worlds. G Mob works with developers to get "early release rights" to much-anticipated games, the way Hollywood studios offer cable channels early access to some movies.

• HURDLES: There's currently little content optimized for the kind of souped-up MVNO that G Mob would create. Carriers might wake up and try to take back the market.

• WHAT THE PROS SAY: Krausz: "This is going to be a huge business. What you really bring here is the platform, the back end. Market that well, and leave the device and content to someone else." Roberts: "I like it. Mobile games are getting more sophisticated and more interactive. The challenge is the device."

HeavyCE Systems

START WITH $150M

ELEVATOR PITCH: This company develops software and hardware that monitors and controls all of a boat's onboard systems--and will ultimately expand into automating everything from oil tankers to aircraft carriers.

TARGET MARKET: Recreational boaters spend an estimated $15 billion a year on marine electronics, and the market for electronics for larger ships runs an additional tens of billions annually.

BUSINESS MODEL: HeavyCE will initially sell cheap systems utilizing off-the-shelf components like sensors and touchpads, and then move into higher-margin specialized hardware.

The nautical set spends boatloads to have the latest gear. Much of the focus of marine electronics has been on narrow tasks like displaying oil pressure, and systems tend to be proprietary and clunky. HeavyCE offers a high-powered nautical operating system, knitting together everything from navigation to propulsion to environmental controls to entertainment. Displays, both fixed and handheld, link wirelessly to a central server that's always connected to the Web via satellite. The captain can monitor engine performance or change the music being piped through the boat's speaker system from anywhere on the boat. Down below, guests in a cabin could call up one of the movies stored on the ship's hard drive.

One key is not to waste resources reinventing things that already work well, but rather to integrate them into HeavyCE. Want iTunes, even from the midocean emptiness? You got it. Similarly, HeavyCE incorporates the existing marine charting and navigation software.

Entrepreneurial legend Jim Clark has been working on something like this for the megayacht world. HeavyCE cedes that to him and focuses initially on smaller watercraft, a less glamorous but larger market. Once perfected, HeavyCE's low-cost system has potentially enormous applications: It could be adapted to automate the operation of far larger commercial and military vessels and could even be deployed by landlubbers to run homes, office buildings, and industrial plants.

• HURDLES: It could be tough to get the fiercely independent existing marine equipment manufacturers to open up their systems for integration into HeavyCE. The larger vision is capital intensive and could face competition from much bigger defense contractors and others working on bits and pieces of similar systems.

• WHAT THE PROS SAY: Mehra: "This is fun. The boating industry is interesting because it is seeing a resurgence--people are getting older and have more discretionary income. The monitoring aspect is easy, but you have to be leery of liability. You have to be 100 percent certain you don't send the boat off on the wrong course and hurt somebody."