TechStars Demo Day Yields 10 New Seattle Startups—and a Lot of Work Ahead

11/15/10Follow @gthuang

It’s pretty impressive what a few startup teams can accomplish in 90 days with a lot of hard work, mentorship, and late-night Maker’s Mark bourbon-fueled sessions. But their real journey is just beginning—and it will be a long one.

That’s my main takeaway from TechStars Seattle’s first “demo day” on Thursday. The seed-stage mentorship program—which started in Boulder, CO, and has since expanded to Boston, Seattle, and New York—accepted 10 startup teams (out of hundreds of applicants) for its inaugural Seattle program this fall. It’s part of a growing effort by local entrepreneurs and investors to foster more support for technology startups in the Northwest.

Andy Sack, head of TechStars Seattle, said the business plans being presented exceeded his expectations in terms of quality. He implored the investors in the audience (nearly 200 strong) to “get to know the teams—and write checks.” After all, demo day is all about hooking up the program’s startups with active angel investors and venture capitalists, who are all chasing the next big thing.

But the bigger goal, Sack told the crowd, is to build larger and more successful local businesses—and ultimately provide some big exits for investors, which should in turn expand the startup ecosystem. “You’re playing for the future,” he said. “Live the dream of what Seattle looks like in five years.”

My first impressions: Very polished pitches. High-energy crowd and presenters. Beautiful venue (The Triple Door). Bigger ideas than you might expect, but also a clear focus on how to make money. Lots of work still to be done.

Reactions from others in the audience: High-quality presentations, ahead of the other inaugural TechStars classes. The companies came a long way in the past few weeks. Mostly “execution plays” and not new ideas. I used to hear these ideas every day as a VC. Some pitches were for tools, not companies. Consumer Web is very noisy, and it’s hard to extract a signal. Founding teams are solid (many from Microsoft, Google). It’s very early for these businesses.

Here are a few thoughts on each company (you can also read TechStars founder David Cohen’s synopsis here). The bullet points are based on my personal impressions and, in some cases, comments from outside sources:

Highlighter
Founders: Josh Mullineaux, Matt Blancarte, Nate Whitehill
Idea: Help bloggers and publishers engage with readers by enabling the latter to highlight text, post comments, and share content online.
Tagline: Highlight, comment, and share on any device.
Analysis: Needs to continue building an elegant service that publishers really value, and that enough readers want to use. Distribution will be key if you’re charging publishers for analytics, and using contextual advertising.

Cabin Fever Toys
Founder: Adam Tratt
Idea: Motion-sensing stuffed animals (Zoomigos) and rewards to get kids to play outdoors, away from screens.
Tagline: Technology should make it more fun to go outside and play.
Analysis: I don’t think technology will solve our child obesity problem, but Zoomigos might be really fun. If so, it could be a hit. But that’s what it has to be to succeed—a hit. I don’t see health clubs, clinics, or insurance companies helping them sell this.

GoMiles.com
Founders: Michael Komanitsky, Marc Kamaka
Idea: Help travelers manage their disparate mileage reward programs and book award travel.
Tagline: Take control of your frequent flyer miles.
Analysis: Lots of competitors, but a pretty interesting Web interface that helps business and family travelers earn points faster. If it catches on, it could be big. But quite a few sites have tried to crack this market. Will probably need to sign big partnerships to get traction.

World Blender
Founders: Mike Arcuri, Peter Schlichting, Jeff Huang
Idea: Location-based strategic war games that friends can play on their mobile phones.
Tagline: Turn the real world into a virtual playground.
Analysis: This was probably the most fun pitch I saw. If the games (GPS Assassin, WarGames) can take off with college students and fraternity houses through Facebook Places, they could potentially reach critical mass. Will make money by selling virtual goods such as long-range missiles and defensive shields.

Kinizi.com
Founders: Phillip Lee, Bryan Leptich
Idea: Online deal site for renters to find discounted apartments, and property owners to fill vacancies.
Tagline: The best place to save on apartments.
Analysis: This taps into the Groupon-like, buy-it-now mentality for people in urgent need of an apartment, and (after Seattle) it’s targeting cities with high vacancy rates like Phoenix, Fresno, and Jacksonville. Craigslist and other classifieds leave room for such sites. But can it get critical mass? And is it sustainable if the economy gets better—or worse?

Deal Co-op
Founders: Nate Schmidt, Mike Schmidt
Idea: Daily-deal marketing platform for organizations and publishers in smaller markets and geographies.
Tagline: The best daily-deal partner on the Web.
Analysis: No rocket science here—this is like do-it-yourself Groupon for smaller communities (the founders come from Alabama). The service lets other websites offer and make money from group-buying discounts. Obviously this is a very crowded space with hundreds of competitors, so the team faces a long slog. But they’re already making significant revenues, so are off to a good start.

Thinkfuse
Founders: Brandon Bloom, Steve Krenzel
Idea: Better online tools for teams and businesses to manage and share weekly status reports.
Tagline: Smart tools for team collaboration.
Analysis: Sounds like it could be boring, but it’s not—there’s a growing need here. But there are tons of other companies trying to create more powerful and efficient alternatives to e-mail and SharePoint for project management. Adapting to customer feedback and building relationships with corporate clients will be crucial.

RewardsForce
Founders: Jordan Greene, Jeremy Wemple, John Brunsfeld
Idea: Help casinos manage their loyalty rewards programs using mobile devices.
Tagline: Do you know who your loyal customers are?
Analysis: Casinos have a boatload of money, and they want more. So why not tap into that market and help casino owners (and eventually hotels and others) create and manage rewards clubs in an easy and secure way? If it pays off for a few big casinos, this company will be in business.

The Shared Web
Founders: Nicolae Rusan, Kareem Amin, Nav Patel
Idea: Change how people share, discover, and consume Web content by creating a destination site that recommends articles in a smarter way.
Tagline: Social curation plus algorithms is the next big thing.
Analysis: I didn’t immediately get this concept—probably a good sign. At first it seemed like just another social filter for online information. (It’s like a social, personalized Digg.) But there’s a deeper idea here, around understanding each person’s network and who the right audience is for a given piece of info. Initial focus on food, fashion, and technology will prove whether they’re on to something.

Giant Thinkwell
Founders: Kevin Leneway, Kyle Kesterson
Idea: A social gaming platform for games that involve raising “virtual celebrities.”
Analysis: This should be more fun than it looks, actually. But whether or not the celebrity-based games are a hit, the platform could be useful. And it’s an interesting strategy to form partnerships with the likes of John Stamos and MC Hammer to push the games into the mainstream.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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