Steve Wozniak in Charlotte: Apple should try self-driving cars next

Wozniak's Q&A with Grant Thornton CEO Mike McGuire capped the two-day Southeast Venture Conference, the largest gathering of entrepreneurs, startup founders and venture capitalists in the region. The conference coincided with the last day of the Charlotte Venture Challenge, a 14-year-old pitch contest offering startups the chance to pitch ideas to investors for possible funding.

BY JONATHAN MCFADDEN. 

APRIL 1, 2015

jmcfadden@charlotteobserver.comApple co-founder Steve Wozniak on Wednesday gave current CEO Tim Cook a “big thumb’s up” for the iOS 8 and iPhone 6 and said if the Fortune 500 tech giant wants to keep growing, it should tap into self-driving cars.

Speaking in a Charlotte ballroom packed with startup founders, high-level venture capitalists and angel investors, Wozniak – often called “Woz” – dished his thoughts about Apple’s leadership, including blunders his co-founder, the late Steve Jobs, made with holding back the release of certain products.

And while Wozniak told the Observer after his keynote address that he’s unfamiliar with Charlotte’s emerging startup landscape, the Silicon Valley tycoon said the city’s leaders should welcome tech-focused companies because “that’s where everything’s going.”

Wozniak’s Q&A with Grant Thornton CEO Mike McGuire capped the two-day Southeast Venture Conference, the largest gathering of entrepreneurs, startup founders and venture capitalists in the region. It was the second time the conference has been held in Charlotte – returning after it was held here in 2013. It was Wozniak’s first trip to the Queen City.

He praised the autonomy afforded by startups and detailed his foray into education – which included an eight-year stint as a school computer teacher.

When Jobs died in 2011, people often asked Wozniak if Apple would lose its innovative edge. He disagreed, saying his co-founder delayed releasing some products, which undercut the company’s potential. Case in point: large-screen phones.

“We left the larger-screen phone world totally open to all the other companies ... Samsung, Nokia and others,” he said. “That was a marketing mistake.”

Critics who say Cook will never replicate Jobs’ charisma or drive are wrong, Wozniak said, who voiced approval for the iOS 8 and the iPhone 6.

“I really give Tim Cook a big thumbs up for being able to break through the technology barriers,” he said. “I also admire his care and concern about humanity and charity. I look at it as a new Apple, and I’m very happy with that.”

He said if Apple wants to keep growing, it needs a product based around something people spend a lot of money on – their cars.

A self-driving “automobile makes a lot of sense for a company like Apple,” he said. “Tesla has set an example that a new car company can come, not out of Detroit, but out of Silicon Valley. Just the price of cars make me think Apple should work on it.”

Pitching debut

The conference coincided with the last day of the Charlotte Venture Challenge, a 14-year-old pitch contest offering startups the chance to pitch ideas to investors for possible funding.

For the first time this year, finalists pitched to more than 600 investors at the venture conference. Tennessee-based General Graphene took home the top prize of $20,000. The company makes graphene, the “wonder material,” that has dozens of new applications.

The competition was the firm’s pitching debut, founder Vig Sherrill said. He hopes to snag funding from top-tier investors in Silicon Valley and raise $7 million in capital.

“What we need to do is not small-dollar,” said Sherrill, 54. “It’s expensive.”

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