Page last updated at 11:35 GMT, Friday, 7 September 2007 12:35 UK

The green shoots of hi-tech success

By Mark Kinver
Science and nature reporter, BBC News

Large flat-screen TVs (Image: AP)
Businesses are investing big money to make products greener

Environmental technologies have become big business.

Having blazed its way to the top of the political agenda, the environment is now a hot topic in company boardrooms around the globe.

Firms, keen to extol the green virtues of their products over rivals' goods, are investing serious money in an effort to clean up their acts.

And those not leading the way are having to get to grips with the ever increasing volume of environmental legislation limiting what can be put into their products and what can be buried in the ground.

But one company's burden is another's bounty. There are more than 7,000 companies operating in the UK's environmental technologies sector, which is forecast to be worth 17bn ($34bn) by the end of the decade.

REMOTE CONTROL

One company to capitalise on the eco-tech boom is 1E. It has developed software called NightWatchman and SMSWakeUp that enables large organisations with thousands of PCs to switch them on and off remotely when its staff has left for the evening.

Office block (Image: AP)
We believe we can safely say that we could turn-off between 17-18% of the UK's PCs; that equates to 700,000 tonnes of CO2 savings
Sumir Kayari,
1E founder

The software has proved to be so successful for 1E that it posted a turnover of 12m ($24m) last year and now employs 93 people working from offices in the UK and US.

But 1E's founder and chief executive, Sumir Karayi, said he did not set out with a mission to save the planet.

"We started as a company that focused on reducing the cost of managing Windows PCs in large companies," he told BBC News.

One customer, a Swiss bank, wanted to be able to install security updates at night, when most of its staff were at home.

"So we wrote a piece of software that did the opposite of turning off computers; it turned on computers so that IT departments could actually install security patches in computers at night and over the weekend," he recalled.

"We (also) worked out that we also could turn off computers when they were not being used," he explained.

Mr Karayi calculated that the bank saved 2m ($4m) a year as a result of being able to switch on and off its PCs remotely.

He added that substantial savings, both in money terms and carbon emissions, could be made by switching off computers.

"We believe we can safely say that we could turn-off between 17-18% of the UK's PCs; that equates to 700,000 tonnes of CO2 savings."

STANDBY TO SWITCH-OFF

Failing to switch-off is not only a problem in offices. Government estimates say that about four power stations-worth of electricity is wasted each year by devices being left on standby in homes across the UK.

Research by the Energy Saving Trust showed that the average home had up to 12 devices charging or on standby at any one time.

Bye Bye Standby devices
The device offers a simple plug-and-go solution, say its designers

It was the sheer number of devices left on when not being used that triggered the idea behind Bye Bye Standby, a system that allows people to switch off all their equipment by pressing just one button.

Darryl Mattocks, managing director of Domia, described his eureka moment for his device.

"I was leaving my house early one morning, and you could just see there little red lights everywhere," he recalled, "and when I arrived in the office, again there were little red dots all over the place."

The system has two main components: "smart sockets" and a remote control.

"You plug a smart socket into the wall socket and then you plug your device into the smart socket," Mr Mattocks explained.

STANDBY EMISSIONS
Estimated annual CO2 emissions from devices left on standby:
Stereos - 1,600,000 tonnes
Videos - 960,000 tonnes
TVs - 480,000 tonnes
Consoles - 390,000 tonnes
DVD players - 100,000 tonnes
Set-top boxes - 60,000 tonnes
(Source: Energy Saving Trust)

"When you go to bed, you press a button on the remote control and everything switches off. Likewise, in the morning you press the button and everything switches back on."

But why don't people just switch off or unplug things when they have finished using them?

"At the end of the day, there is an off switch on the socket and there is no reason why you cannot press that but, in reality, the socket is often in an inconvenient place - such as behind furniture."

Because the system uses radio frequencies to allow the remote control to communicate with the smart sockets, it needs to draw a small current itself in order to work.

But Mr Mattocks said: "We have got consultants to actually go through a typical lifestyle and usage and the small amount of power the unit consumes is far outweighed by the savings you make."

He says the system would help a typical household cut its electricity bill by 38 each year and save the equivalent of 166kg of carbon dioxide emissions.

COUNTING THE CALORIES

The mobilisation of the web has also opened the door to eco-entrepreneurs looking to tap into people's growing desire to do their bit for the environment.

Walkit.com map (Image: Walkit)
The web hosts a vast array of tools for eco-aware surfers

One site, walkit.com, has combined people's growing awareness of all things green with concerns over expanding waistlines. It encourages would-be walkers to burn calories rather than carbon.

By entering a street name, postcode or place of interest for the starting and finishing points, visitors to the website get a map and a list of pedestrian-friendly directions for their journey.

As well as a route that points out some of the sights and attractions along the way, it also offers users calorie and carbon calculations as well.

Founder Jamie Wallace said that the cost and limitations of a traditional printed map would have meant that a start-up company like walkit would have never got off the ground.

"The key factor was distribution," he explained. "You get this viral distribution effect that you cannot get with a book or a map.

"We also haven't been on the streets shouting 'use walkit.com', it is all a result of emails and word of mouth that is making it take off at the moment.

"Being web-based, it is also possible to update very easily, whereas if it was on paper an update would require reprinting the booklet or map.

People queuing for buses (Image: AP)
Sites like walkit.com could save people time and money

But how does the site distinguish itself from the big players in online mapping, such as Google?

"We have a direct relationship with one of the big global mapping suppliers called Navteq," Mr Wallace said.

"By having this relationship with them, we have much more control and flexibility in what we can do; we can add links, alter the appearance and have things that make us different."

This includes giving walkers an estimate of how many calories the selected route will burn, carbon saved and a list of sights and sounds they will encounter along the way.

As well as offering coverage of central London, there are also walkit maps for Edinburgh and Birmingham.

Mr Wallace has plans to expand the network of maps to include the UK's largest 12 cities by the end of next summer, and he is also in talks with a number of US towns who are keen to bring the website to the other side of the Atlantic.

PUMP PRIMING

Probably the biggest challenge facing a budding inventor is being able to get their design into the marketplace

University laboratory (Image: BBC)
Investors are keen to tap into students' eco-designs

A number of UK universities have set up their own companies that act as "incubators" for students who want to develop their ideas.

One example is Imperial Innovations, which has about 70 firms in its portfolio.

"We were originally set up about 10 years ago to commercialise technology from Imperial College," said Lucy Ahfong, Imperial Innovation's marketing executive.

"But now we have expanded to commercialise ideas from outside sources as well.

"While most of our inventions still come from within Imperial College, we have a joint initiative with the Carbon Trust to promote and incubate low carbon technologies."

The growing demand for technological solutions to cut carbon has led to Imperial Innovations managing a 2m ($4m) Low Carbon Seed Fund on behalf of the Carbon Trust and the Shell Foundation.

When it comes to spotting a bankable invention, Ms Ahfong says there is not a one-size-fits-all formula.

"It's pretty broad, really," she said. "The managers of the incubators have a lot of propositions sent to them, so we have to do a lot of filtering.

"We have market analysts who scope out the markets, so when the inventions come in to us we decide which ones to back.

"It is a case-by-case basis rather than a fixed criteria that people have to adhere to."

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