Writing about business at the microscopic level of genes and cells means that I rarely get to see compelling A/V shows of products in action. So last night was a rare treat to get an up-close look at a half dozen fun and interesting startups in Seattle, from a variety of industries, who were asked to give 8-minute demos that would do no less than make a business audience fall in love with their product.
This was the scene at the Northwest Startup Demo event at One Union Square in Seattle, organized by the MIT Enterprise Forum of the Northwest. I served as one of seven judges who were asked to award the prize for the best product demo. This was my first time judging this competition, but I will say that the overall quality of presentations struck me as surprisingly good, and there may even be a couple companies with legs. Kent, WA-based LaserMotive, the sci-fi-like company that beams power wirelessly, walked away with the top prize of the evening, but in my view, this was a close call.
“This year was the best we’ve ever had in terms of overall quality,” said Villette Nolon, president of Seraph Capital Forum, and a more seasoned judge than I.
Here are some brief highlights from each of the finalists who presented their demos:
—EverSpeech. This Redmond, WA-based company, led by Charles Hemphill, offers speech recognition technology to help professionals fill out forms on the Web. Hemphill wore a noise-reducing headset, speaking clearly into his microphone, and showed on a screen how he could quickly and easily fill out an engineering inspection form without using his hands. One example he gave, to illustrate how it works, was of how an airplane mechanic who’s up on a ladder looking at parts could fill out a form without having to use his hands to jot notes.
—Lipp Sync Automotive. Entrepreneur Bob Lipp had the audience giggling from the get-go with his demo. He fired up a program on his computer to demonstrate what he calls the “Throttlebox,” which he intends to sell to hybrid car owners as a way to simulate engine noise at low speeds, to help avoid accidents that can happen by running into unsuspecting bicyclists and pedestrians. The funny thing was the sound—the engine he was simulating was that of a growling V-8 from a 1970 Ford Mustang at idle—not exactly the kind of sound people envision coming from a Toyota Prius.
You can laugh all you want, but Lipp made his case that regulations are coming to require some kind of noise emitters on hybrid and electric cars, and that many car owners will be unhappy with what gets installed at the factory. “No Lexus owner will allow his car to sound like a washing machine,” Lipp predicts. His plan is to sell the Throttlebox to fleet managers, and then through retail outlets, and offer a variety of different car sounds to satisfy all the different consumer tastes for engine noise. He even demoe’d the sound of a 1999 Mazda Miata, which I can assure you, is nothing like a ’70s muscle car.
—Mobisante. Nikhil George gave a fun presentation on behalf of this Redmond, WA-based company that is seeking to put diagnostic ultrasound into a doctor’s pocket. George showed how Mobisante plugs an ultrasound transducer into an ordinary smartphone, which can then display some basic diagnostic images that a doctor can e-mail to a radiologist colleague for help with making a diagnosis.
The images George showed to the audience, admittedly, are not the kind of vivid pictures that heavy-duty and expensive machines on the market deliver now. But the idea is that by making ultrasound more lightweight and low cost, it will enable doctors—especially those in poor countries—to get a pretty good look at, say, internal bleeding, so they can make treatment decisions on the fly. Interestingly, George said using a smartphone enables Mobisante to take advantage of the phone’s camera, which a doctor in the field can use to aid in diagnosis. Several hospitals are testing beta versions of the Mobisante ultrasound technology, although George didn’t name them.
“This is not a toy,” George said. “It’s a real ultrasound machine.”
—LaserMotive. Tom Nugent caught the audience’s attention right away with a purposely boring opening line. “We sell extension cords,” he said. What he meant is that LaserMotive has found a way to extend power longer distances, like an extension, but without the actual cord. The hope is that LaserMotive will make this into a business by selling power-beaming technology to the U.S. military, so that it can run its unmanned aerial vehicles in remote areas for much longer periods of time, so they don’t need to constantly come back to the base for recharging. Nugent showed a video of a recent demo, in which LaserMotive powered a mini-copter for more than 12 hours—long after its batteries would have run out without charging. My Xconomy colleague Greg Huang wrote a cool feature on this company back in April, and followed up with a first-hand report from this recent demo in late October.
—Spiral Genetics. Alindrina Mangubat delivered a really strong presentation of something very hard to illustrate—a software program that biologists can use to manage reams of genomic data. The company has developed a pretty simple user interface—that I can imagine even a biotech geek can use—which lets researchers compare DNA from, say, a strain of E.coli bacteria they are studying to a reference genome they might want to look at from the past, to see differences. The data actually lives on Amazon Web Services’ cloud computing infrastructure, Mangubat said, but Spiral Genetics offers software to do some of the basic analysis researchers need to make sense of all those billions of letters of DNA code.
Importantly, Mangubat says Spiral Genetics isn’t trying to do everything for biologists, and has made its program compatible with the open-source and home-brew programs many of them rely on today to do analysis. The advantage Spiral Genetics offers is in speeding up workflow, she says. “Instead of waiting five days for a result, you can get it in three hours,” she says.
—Social Yantra. Srinivas Penumaka presented on how this startup aspires to help big consumer-oriented companies to dig up actionable intelligence from what customers are saying about them on Facebook and other social media platforms. Amazon, for example, has a lot of people saying a lot of things about it on Facebook, and it’s hard to essentially separate signal from the noise. Not surprisingly, the Social Yantra engine dug up a lot of what people have been saying about Amazon’s role in the Wikileaks controversy. But Penumaka says the engine can help companies find some things being said that would otherwise go undetected. In one recent example, Sears found out that employees were complaining about working on Thanksgiving Day, Penumaka says. I’m not sure why the managers there had to learn that from reading employee complaints on Facebook, but I suppose that’s a story for another day.
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