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The best and worst start-up ideas of 2012

Friday, 21 December 2012 | By Michelle Hammond

FEATURE-BEST-WORST-thumbIt’s been a big year for business ideas, with everything from Twitter toiler paper to transparent solar panels. Encouragingly, some of the best ideas have come out of unexpected places, such as Nigeria.


As a way of offering you some inspiration for the New Year, StartupSmart has selected five of the best start-up ideas of 2012, outlining why they are set to be big.


We’ve also handpicked a few of the silliest ideas.


Best start-up ideas of 2012


Virtual tape measure


Earlier this month, we wrote about a “virtual tape measure”, which aims to reduce the return of clothes bought online by 30-60%.


The tape measure, known as Body Shape Recognition for Online Fashion, takes detailed body measurements via webcam or smartphone.


All it needs is a photo and height measurements. It then produces a three dimensional image advising which size to buy at participating stores.


“The potential benefits for the fashion industry and for shoppers are huge,” says Philip Delamore from the London College of Fashion.


Given the uptake of online shopping over the last few years – and the rate at which it is expected to grow – we’re tipping this sort of technology will become increasingly common in the future.


Transparent solar panels


Transparent solar panels, developed by university researchers in the United States, aim to ease consumers’ concerns that solar panels are an eyesore, which, let’s be honest, they are.


The latest solar cell produces energy by absorbing mainly infrared light, making the cells almost 70% transparent.


“These results open the potential for visibly transparent polymer solar cells as add-on components of portable electronics, smart windows and building-integrated photovoltaics, and in other applications,” says study leader Yang Yang of the University of California, Los Angeles.


According to Yang, there has been worldwide interest in so-called polymer solar cells, which isn’t surprising when you consider the rise of solar power throughout the world.


Urine-powered electricity generator


Last month, we wrote about four Nigerian teenage girls who have invented an electricity generator powered by urine.


This idea might not sound like it deserves to be on the list, but it has the potential to aid people in third world countries.


Urine is placed into an electrolytic cell, which cracks the urea (a chemical compound found in urine) into nitrogen, water and hydrogen. The hydrogen goes into a water filter for purification, which gets pushed into the gas cylinder.


The gas cylinder pushes hydrogen into a cylinder of liquid borax, which is used to remove the moisture from the hydrogen gas.


This purified hydrogen gas is pushed into the generator, with one litre of urine providing six hours of electricity.


More than half of Nigeria’s 162 million citizens have no access to electricity, and even those who do can’t guarantee having power every day, so this idea is sure to be a success.


Virtual supermarket


In August, Tesco launched the UK’s first virtual supermarket at Gatwick Airport in the hope bored holidaymakers waiting for their flights would order a delivery for when they return home.


Tesco says the facility builds on its launch of a virtual store in South Korea, which allows commuters to shop in subways and at bus stops by pointing their mobile phones at billboards.


Following on from that, Tesco set up 10 screens in Gatwick Airport’s departure lounge as part of a two-week trial.


Travellers could avoid returning home to an empty fridge by scanning images of products like milk, bread and cheese with their smartphones, and arranging a home delivery.


Virtual stores are taking off all over the world – with Tesco not the only retailer getting in on the action – suggesting the concept will continue to gain pace in the future.




TaskRabbit – an online and mobile marketplace that allows people to “live a smarter and more fulfilling life” – is gaining traction in the US. 


It connects users with people in their neighbourhood who can help them complete the tasks on their to-do list.


Users simply post a task, including the maximum amount they are willing to pay for it, and the TaskRabbit who makes the lowest bid is assigned to run the task.


TaskRabbits are paid online, so no cash is needed, with only a small percentage going towards a service fee.


TaskRabbit says it is forming a “virtual neighbourhood”. A similar service has been launched in Australia in the form of Airtasker.


It will be interesting to see how the story plays out for TaskRabbit and Airtasker in 2013.


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Silliest start-up ideas of 2012


Twitter toilet paper


Back in April, we wrote about an app that transfers tweets from a user’s Twitter profile and prints them on toilet roles.


Twitter is synched via the app, with consumers able to choose whether they want to wipe the content from their profile or someone else’s to line their tweet-embroidered toilet paper.


The selected tweets are spread across 40 centimetres of standard ply, with four personalised rolls shipped internationally for about $35.


While Twitter is one of the world’s biggest social media platforms, we doubt many people have a real desire to read tweets – either their own or other people’s – while they’re on the loo.


Boyfriend Pillow


The Boyfriend Pillow, from American manufacturer Deluxe Comfort, is shaped to resemble one arm and one half of a shirted chest.


The pillow is designed for “singles who desire to feel the touch of a man without actually having to be with one”.


It’s also ideal for people whose partner is away on military leave or work absence, the company says. It can be used as a prop-up, a neck roll or to wrap around the body.


A Girlfriend Pillow in pink is also available.


The idea was met with disbelief from our readers. The article attracted comments such as “Oh for crying out loud” and “This is not new or original at all”.


Female-friendly pen


Ballpoint pen manufacturer Bic has launched a pen designed specifically for women, dubbed Bic Cristal for Her.


The pen, which comes in an array of pastel hues, has an “elegant design” and a “thin barrel to fit a woman’s hand”.


“It has a diamond engraved barrel for an elegant and unique feminine style,” Bic says.


Unfortunately, the product has copped criticism from reviewers on Amazon.com, suggesting it won’t be selling out anytime soon.


$19,000 cardboard bracelet


Would you pay $19,000 for a cardboard bracelet? Californian jewellery designer Keariene Muizz hopes so. Muizz has created a one-off cuff out of salvaged industrial cardboard.


Muizz says the piece is “more or less a work of art” and will appeal to those who want to save the planet but embrace luxury.


Paying $19,000 for a bracelet is a big ask – even more so when it’s made out of cardboard.


While we don’t doubt Muizz’s artistic ability, the fragile state of the economy suggests not many people have a spare $19k to spend on a cardboard bracelet.


Body-lengthening gym classes


A six-week gym class in the UK promises to add at least two centimetres to your height or it will refund the cost of the class.


A-Grow-Bics – from UK fitness chain Gymbox – mixes Pilates, yoga, strengthening, speed work and a pain-free session on a rack to “stretch the body once muscles are warm”.


Developer Pierre Pozzuto says his classes induce a human growth hormone through sprint exercises, which “cause micro fractures in the bones that repair in a week, encouraging them to strengthen, remould and grow”.


Pozzuto says he grew two inches in a few months. But we’re not convinced a body-stretching contraption will be “pain-free”.