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Innovation that makes a difference
O'Reilly urges Internet mavens to help solve world's problems

  • Google.org's Larry Brilliant, center, joins Tim O'Reilly, left, and John Battelle, right, on stage at the Web 2.0 Summit 2008 Wednesday in San Francisco. (James Duncan Davidson/O'Reilly Media)

SAN FRANCISCO -- Forget the frivolous. Innovate to make a difference.

That message was delivered Wednesday by Sebastopol tech guru Tim O'Reilly to hundreds of Internet royalty -- the people who design applications for Facebook, iPhones, and even the people who created those platforms.

"There are enormous problems to be solved, and enormous opportunities," O'Reilly said at the fifth annual Web 2.0 Summit, the influential and exclusive technology conference co-produced by O'Reilly Media and TechWeb.

He told the collection of online innovators to focus on changing the world by designing applications that will help solve food shortages, global warming or other problems plaguing Earth -- and avoid designing more sophomoric programs like ones that let people swap virtual beers on Facebook.

This year's Web 2.0 conference, which started Wednesday and ends Friday, focused on connecting Internet entrepreneurs with social activists trying to change the world. Speakers range from the founders of Facebook, MySpace and Yahoo to activists such as former Vice President Al Gore, Lance Armstrong and Larry Brilliant, who runs Google's philanthropic arm.

"It's time to use technology to make the world a better place," said Brilliant, director of Google.org.

The Internet search giant started an unconventional philanthropic arm by taking 1 percent of its equity and 1 percent of its annual profits to fund a for-profit charity. Google.org invests in companies it thinks will make a difference, and hopes its early investment will help the companies succeed. That's good news for entrepreneurs who want to design applications that can change the world.

Google.org's investment criteria are limited to alternative energy, early prevention of disease, and tools used to inform and empower the public.

But other firms are also looking to fund game-changing technology, even in this economy, said John Doerr, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, one of Silicon Valley's top venture capital firms.

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