WBT Conference Draws Eclectic Innovation Mix, San Diego Included
Can innovation come in more than one flavor?
We have become so accustomed to the Silicon Valley way of doing things that it’s easy to forget that ingenuity engenders a million flowers to bloom. The WBT Innovation Marketplace, an annual tech conference that moved to from Texas to San Diego last year, provides a stage for entrepreneurs from the far corners of the world to present technology innovation from both beaten, and not-so-beaten paths.
“This is what I call hard tech; it’s very different from your usual software and Web technology conference,” said Ping Wang, a co-founder of San Diego’s Ansir Innovation Center (a technology incubator), during a break in the proceedings Tuesday.
“This conference appeals to a different kind of investor,” Wang added. “A lot of the shoppers are large corporations looking for deals.”
The two-day conference, which ended yesterday at the Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina, included a Federal Lab Consortium Regional Meeting with representatives from the U.S. Department of Energy, NASA, Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies. The conference also was scheduled to follow Monday’s Global Connect Summit, which draws organizations from around the world that are working to nurture their own regional technology clusters.
As a result, the WBT Innovation Marketplace features an eclectic mix of speakers and topics. The defense contractor Northrop Grumman is the biggest conference sponsor, and retired Vice Adm. James Zortman, who oversees Northrop’s aerospace systems operations in San Diego, outlined his view of the innovation ecosystem from 38,000 feet. By contrast, Bill Reichert of Santa Cruz, CA-based Garage Technology Ventures provided more of a “street view” of the hot markets and innovation sectors.
The main attractions of the WBT Innovation Marketplace, though, are short presentations by nearly 70 startup founders and research scientists. The 6-minute pitches were pre-screened by a WBT selection committee that included technology and life sciences investors from San Diego to New York, and they offer a great opportunity for tech investors who are searching for great deals in unusual places. But here again, the eclectic mix of technologies and startups can pose challenges.
Take The TalkList, for example. The TalkList is a software platform that offers online instruction of English as a second language. In his presentation Tuesday afternoon, TalkList CEO Andres Abeyta explained that the program uses a network of low-cost tutors and provides Skype-like classes for students in foreign countries.
To me, the San Diego-based company’s online technology didn’t seen particularly innovative, and I was unmoved when Abeyta said, “Over the past two years, we’ve been successful with the [U.S.] Marine Corps and Navy.”
TalkList also faces competition that ranges from established old media companies like Berlitz International, McGraw-Hill, and Simon & Schuster to Arlington, VA-based Rosetta Stone (NYSE: RST), which has been expanding its online offerings by acquiring startups like Seattle’s LiveMocha and Boston’s Lexia Learning Systems. TalkList also faces online competition from foreign rivals like 51Talk, based in the Philippines, and EnglishTown, based in Switzerland.
On the other hand, Abeyta contends that the market opportunity is enormous, especially in Asia. TalkList is focusing initially on China, where millions of college students are expected to learn “American” English as China pushes ambitiously into the globalized economy. Abeyta said TalkList can also provide its online tutoring services at a low cost, and the company plans to recruit American tutors, whose pronunciation represents the gold standard for Chinese ESL students.
“We don’t need [to recruit] 1 million students in our first year,” said Abeyta, who was seeking $500,000 in startup funding. “We only need 20,000, and they will be incentivized to bring more people into the program.”
In other words, there seemed to be a lot of room for a variety of innovations in this market.
Here is a rundown of seven other San Diego startups that presented during the WBT Innovation Marketplace.
—Agency for Student Health Research
With about 8 million U.S. high school students competing in sports—and sustaining about 2 million injuries each year—this startup has developed Web-based software to collect athletic injury reports. CEO Charlie Wund said the system would eliminate the need for paper-based injury reports currently filed by roughly 22,000 U.S. high schools. More importantly, data would be aggregated into the startup’s database, enabling health systems, insurers, and others to analyze trends in sports injuries. Schools, looking for ways to eliminate injuries and reduce insurance price hikes, could subscribe to the Software-as-a-Service for $450 a year, while health systems and insurance companies would pay for data analytics. Wund is looking for about $400,000 in equity funding, as well as licensing or strategic partnership deals.
Rolf Muller, co-founder of San Diego-based Biomatrica, spun out Cyternity to commercialize breakthrough “cellstable technology” for ambient cell preservation, in which cells stored anhydrobiotically (alive without water) maintain their viability and potential to proliferate. Aside from cryopreservation, which requires temperatures below -80°C, Muller contends that no other technology can preserve eukaryotic cells at ambient temperature. Cyternity’s technology would enable cell-based therapeutic approaches in areas like diabetes, wound healing, burn treatment, blood product supply, reproductive health, and other stem cell-based therapies. Muller estimates the market for Cyternity’s cell stabilization products for wound healing and pancreatic beta-islet cell therapies alone would be in the multi-billion dollar range. The company seeks $10 million in funding, as well as licensing and strategic partnerships.
Founded in 2012 by Joshua Windmiller, a post-doctoral fellow at UC San Diego’s Laboratory for NanoBioElectronics, Electrozyme has developed electrochemical sensor technology that analyzes the chemical constituents of a wearer’s perspiration. These non-invasive, skin-conforming sensors are fabricated using low-cost screen-printing, cheap enough to be disposable following a workout. Windmiller says Electrozyme’s technology can augment the physical measurements of existing sensor technology (such as the user’s heart rate or steps taken) with insights into the wearer’s metabolic response. The startup is seeking $650,000 in debt or investment funding, licensing, or strategic partners that can provide the cash needed to refine and commercialize the technology.
Founder and CEO Curt Becker is a 21-year veteran of Applied Biosystems, which merged with Invitrogen in 2008 to become Carlsbad, CA-based Life Technologies. Becker has been developing next-generation technology for synthesizing DNA. The biologically and enzymatically based technology would produce DNA strands up to 30 times longer than are now produced using the classical chemical methods commercialized almost 30 years ago. Becker says the relatively short DNA strands produced by the classic method are unable to meet the needs of the emerging field of synthetic biology. He also says the new technology under development represents a three-fold reduction in cost, and would eliminate tons of toxic waste produced using the existing method. Molecular Assembly is seeking $1 million in initial funding, a licensing deal, or a strategic alliance.
NEEM has been adapting advances in nanotechnology to develop high-throughput manufacturing technologies for use in existing industrial infrastructure. The company says Row-to-Row Scanning Laser Interference Patterning manufacturing platform provides fully automated batch production, and uses less environmentally harmful chemicals. Potential uses include solar cell manufacturing, hydrogen production, nanowire-based light-emitting diodes, and healthcare-related products. Neem CEO Hungtao “Ted” Hou is seeking $750,000 for prototype development, and to build out the company’s market and intellectual property.
After winning the grand prize at the San Diego Tech Coast Angels’ Quick Pitch competition last month, OvaPal founder Giovanna Scheidler is seeking $100,000 to develop prototypes of the startup’s fertility tracking technology. OvaPal’s system is a wearable sensor that measures a woman’s temperature and other physiological parameters of ovulation. Data are transmitted wirelessly to a smartphone or mobile device that uses predictive algorithms to optimize the odds of conception. With 4 million women in the US trying to get pregnant annually, OvaPal estimates the current infertility market at $3.5 billion, and growing to $5 billion by 2017.
Founded by Jason Oberg, a doctoral candidate in computer science at U.C. San Diego, Tortuga Logic has developed a hardware security tool known as Gate-level Information Flow Tracking (GLIFT). The technology ensures that the software cryptographic “key” installed in a computer system cannot be compromised, regardless of the operating system. Tortuga Logic says its GLIFT technology can be used to prove that hardware-specific vulnerabilities remain secure at any layer of the hardware/software stack. Tortuga Logic says potential customers include Intel, Cisco, Microsoft, Qualcomm, Northrup Grumman, Apple, BAE, Green Hills, Windriver, and Boeing. The company is seeking $500,000 in funding, licensing deal, or strategic partnership.