Hip-Hop, Soda Pop, and Voting

Impresario Russell Simmons pushes voter registration -- and his energy drink. Plus: Sniffle-free kitties, robot maids. And more

By Olga Kharif

As the country prepares to turn back the clocks, corporate notables are turning on the action. Here's a sampling:

BENEFITS ALL AROUND Hip-hop king Russell Simmons says he doesn't see himself getting into politics.Yet, these days, the founder of Def Jam Records -- one of the driving forces behind hip-hop's huge commercial success -- likes to talk about the 1 million new voters he claims he has persuaded to register. Over the past 18 months, he has orchestrated 26 get-out-the-vote events, headlined by the likes of music stars Beyonce, Snoop Dog, and Nelly. "I'm the servant for the hip-hop community," he tells BusinessWeek Online.

Still, some scoff that Simmons has simply been out to promote his soft drink, DefCon 3. It was introduced last year and may not have had quite the pop he hoped, so he plans to relaunch it after the election. "We have by far the most healthy energy drink in the marketplace," he says. Simmons says most of the initial profits from the drink will go to New York schools.

ORACLE'S NEXT TARGET? Former Oracle (ORCL ) exec Gary Bloom, now CEO of Veritas (VRTS ), goes his own way -- at least some of the time. He doesn't drive the flashy cars favored by many of his peers. His favorite is a 1947 Willys Jeep. Still, he has as much appetite for acquisitions as his former employer. Veritas, which now has twice as much cash as is it did when Bloom took over four years ago, has managed to become more of a competitor to Oracle by purchasing startups.

That doesn't mean Bloom is averse to the idea of his outfit being acquired -- perhaps even by Oracle. "There's a price at which Veritas can be sold," Bloom told BusinessWeek Online when asked about the possibility. He wouldn't tell us whether the companies are actually discussing such a deal.

TURNED OFF TV. Advertising guru Jelly Helm's latest venture had all the makings of a reality TV show -- or so it seemed. In April, Helms opened a school where students form an advertising agency and work on actual projects for real clients. A TV crew documented the adventures of the 12 lucky students, picked out of 2,500 applicants. Their final project: An advertising campaign designed to encourage young people to vote, involving TV ads and giving away 1 million T-shirts with "November 2" printed on them.

Just one problem: Helms says the reality TV realm proved too distracting for the students, so he ditched the idea of a show in favor of a publishing project instead. He'll be pitching a scrapbook-like tome based on the students' experiences at the school.

BETTER LIVING THROUGH ROBOTS. Helen Greiner hates doing chores, particularly ironing. "I'm lazy, and they're all annoying to me," admits the chairman of robotmaker iRobot, best known for robotic vacuum cleaner Roomba.

But what about the ironing? Fortunately, help is on the way: Next year, iRobot plans to unveil Roombas that can do other chores. Greiner is mum on their exact functions, but she's full of hints: She says it would be nice to have a robot that can dust, clean the toilets, and pick up leaves on the front lawn.

On Oct. 25, iRobot announced it has sold more than 1 million Roomba vacuum cleaners. The same day, the company has teamed up with equipment maker John Deere & Co. (DE ) to mass-produce robots for the military. Greiner also says the two companies might work on agricultural robots down the road. O.K., but what about the ironing?

HYPOALLERGENIC CATS. Allergies to cats are common and annoying -- and a business opportunity to entrepreneur Simon Brodie. A few years ago, this former tech sales and marketing professional found that nearly every visitor to his home was allergic to his pet cat. So two years ago, Brodie founded a company called Geneticas Life Sciences, which has discovered the secret to hypoallergenic cats. Brodie believes that suppressing a certain feline gene will mean cats won't produce the proteins that make some people's eyes water.

Such genetically altered cats won't be available until 2007. Until then, Brodie says, people looking for an exotic feline will have to be satisfied with a cloned cat. Brodie's price tag for the cloning service? A mere $30,000. No word yet on how much a hypoallergenic kitty will cost.

Kharif writes for Business Week Online from Portland, Ore.

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