Thursday, May 19, 2011
As my Chicago Sun-Times pal and veteran columnist Neil Steinberg puts it: two columns for the price of one.
One: Ten years ago or so, if you’d said a growing group of people would stop toting around single-use plastic water bottles in favor of reusable metal bottles, people might have looked at you like you’d sprouted a second head.
It’s a look that a pair of local entrepreneurs might want to start getting used to. Linda Lannon and Mary Wallace, both ex-McGraw Hill executives, have an idea that’s so crazy (and yet so completely sensible) it just might work.
Lannon, a former marketing and operations executive, and Wallace, a former sales vice president responsible for a $200 million McGraw Hill division, banded together about 18 months ago to create a company called Peopletowels. Their product is a handkerchief-sized square of 100 percent free trade, organic cotton (with a special, patent-pending weave) they believe every man, woman and child in America and beyond should carry with them everywhere.
It’s a paper towel replacement, small enough to stuff in a pocket or purse and to pull out in a public restroom after hand washing to towel off. It dries very quickly. And it’s a concept that’s already caught on in Japan, which served as Wallace’s inspiration during her visits there to visit her daughter, son-in-law and grandchild.
“In Japan, personal reusable hand towels are ubiquitous. Most restrooms don’t have paper towels and it’s expected as part of the culture that you carry your own,” Lannon says. “From businessmen to school children, you learn at a very young age that the towels are required.”
Think about Japan, she adds. It’s a small island, there aren’t a lot of trees to cut down and there’s not a lot of room for landfill.
“They take their waste as personal responsibility,” she says.
Lannon and Wallace’s idea took home first prize last week at the Monterey Bay Regional Business Plan Competition, held at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. That prize comes with $13,000 in cash and $37,000 in consulting (legal and development services, for example) that can help get this bootstrapped business flying. (Full disclosure: Weekly publisher Erik Cushman was a judge at the event, and the Weekly is providing the winner with $2,000 in advertising as part of the prize. This column, however, is free, because how cool is this idea?) Peopletowels already can be found in Whole Foods, and the company is working on agreements with the Portland Trailblazers and a few other professional sports teams to distribute the towels at games and events.
Switch to a Peopletowel for a year and you can save a quarter of a tree, reduce landfill waste by 25 pounds, conserve 250 gallons of water and cut your carbon emissions by 34 pounds.
Two: Speaking of business, Monterey County is trying to float an interesting idea, developing a high-tech, automotive-focused R&D park in or adjacent to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. (See the news story on the proposal, p. 8.) County Redevelopment and Housing Director Jim Cook on Tuesday told the Board of Supes the park could be a way to capture a growing interest in “green” racing.
The supes approved going forward with an application for a Community Development Block Grant to push the project forward. And while even hired consultant and famed nonprofit SRI International (formerly known as Stanford Research Institute) agrees the raceway has potential for great use beyond hosting races, someone might want to pick up the phone and talk to Ralph Borelli before the county goes any further.
Borelli, a Silicon Valley big deal (definitely more than a millionaire, having made big bucks as a commercial developer) tried in the ’90s to develop something similar to what the county is proposing. His Club Auto Sport in San Jose is a hot place for rich people to house their car collections, but it’s also become something of a location for R&D and alternative fuel development.
Borelli’s idea, to bring a Club Auto Sport to the Highway 68 corridor, never got off the ground. I’m told that’s because he and his team could never make the water rights work – and he was willing to use his own funds to make the project fly. For a guy whose companies and partnerships have a real estate portfolio worth an estimated $750 million, not being able to make the water flow is a telling sign.
Between the late ’90s and now, I don’t see what’s changed in the water realm. Maybe Supervisor Jane Parker put it best: There are serious issues to be overcome. There’s no real harm in trying. But really, someone should give Ralph a call.
MARY DUAN is the editor of the Weekly. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.