TechCrunch Disrupt: Top Picks for Startups
Close to 2,000 startup founders, investors and assorted tech junkies converged on New York last week for TechCrunch Disrupt, a one-of-a-kind conference to discuss where the internet is headed and who gets to lead us there. The three-day event was held in the abandoned back offices of Merril Lynch. It was a fitting symbol of startup culture – giants fall as nerds with Macbook Pros chop the beanstalk out from underneath them. That’s what disruption is all about – not the incremental change of building a slightly better mousetrap, but inventing a whole new category of products that makes mousetraps (or maybe even mice) totally obsolete.
After hearing from 100+ startups, did we catch a glimpse of the next Google? Or Facebook? Or Foursquare? It’s hard to say. If I had a nickel for every time I heard a founder use the phrase “paradigm-changing,” I’d have enough for a first round of seed funding. But lofty rhetoric aside, there were a number of startups that could become disrupters. Here are a few of my favorites:
Soluto – The most compelling / original idea I saw, and incidentally the one Techcrunch selected as their winner. Soluto is downloadable software that allows you to log moments when your PC frustrates you (something doesn’t load, driver issues, etc). Soluto then checks to see if other users have been frustrated by the same thing, and then crowd-sources the issue to nerds around the world. When someone finds a solution, you’re notified of the fix. If you pay to use the software, it will operate in the background and automatically download the patches for your problem. Huge potential here for partnering with software / device makers to improve their products, and there’s no competition in this area (since they essentially invented it).
Movie clips – Share clips from actual movies with friends, or mashup a bunch to create something entirely new. The big differentiators are that they have LOTS of movies (12k+), and you can search and find clips by actor, dialogue, situation, etc. They managed to negotiate deals with 6 major studios; an accomplishment akin to climbing Mt. Everest. MovieClips was the most ‘viral’ of any startup at TC Disrupt – certainly has the potential to create a social media loop on par with Jib Jab or Someecards. Two big flaws though – 1) making your own movie clip mashup is still pretty tough now; 2) they need a really talented creative staff to put great mashups in front of users, and inspire them make their own mashups.
CompassLabs – These guys have developed algorithms to analyze content streams (e.g., twitter feeds) and semantically identify messages that signal a user is ‘ready to buy’ or ‘in the market’ for something. They’ve spent a lot of time tailoring their algorithms to different vertical areas that are important (consumer electronics, travel, etc.), and understanding the phrasing and language people use in each. They showed a demo of a hypothetical partnership with Seesmic where they could display highly-targeted, real-time marketing messages to users. It ranges all the way from obvious applications like showing Nikon ads to people expressing interest in buying cameras, to more subtle and interesting ones like notifying people of hotel and flight rates if they mention attending a particular conference. The CEO is a former Google exec, and the technology has the same type of feel as Google’s paid search ads.
Plantly – A place to invest money you have sitting around in a savings / checking account. It lets you have easy access to your money, but allows you a higher rate of return than putting it in the bank. You select the proportion of your investment that will be put into a basket of stocks, and the proportion to put in treasury bonds – it’s designed to show you exactly how much risk/reward you’re setting yourself up for. The whole service is extremely transparent, and these guys are filling a gap in the market – people who don’t want to be on E-trade, don’t trust Wall Street, and see investment as a boring, safe place to put extra money.
Zazuba – “OpenTable for anything” – schedule haircut appointments, nails, massage, etc. The site is still a bit rough, but the concept behind it is solid… If they don’t succeed here, someone else will.
Grogger – A platform that allows for “group blogging” around a topic. It can also function as an add-on to your CMS that allows users to submit content, and for you to review it and filter it into the areas you want. I think this is a good place to be – helping turn user-generated content into curated, front-page content. I can think of several instances on HealthCentral sites where community members have developed into full-fledged experts over time, writing articles and answering questions after dedicating themselves to learning all they can about their condition and helping others who are living with it.
Invisible Bracelet – A web service that allows members to share critical health info with emergency medical responders. The American Ambulance Association has partnered with them; if they could get insurers on board as well to help spur adoption of the service and training for EMS members, there is obviously a huge potential to improve emergency care.
On the flip side, there were also a huge number of startups that were all competing to do more or less the same thing. These are the areas that are clearly attracting a lot of funding, but the chances for disrupting an industry or becoming an undisputed leader seem daunting. Here are some examples:
There were also a plethora of services that basically aggregated all your content feeds (Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, email) into an easier-to-use dashboard / stream. If someone is going to become the “king aggregator,” though, it’s much more likely to be Google or Facebook, rather than yet another social networking service no one has heard of.
In Part 2 of my TechCrunch Disrupt write-up, I’ll take a look at some of the larger themes that came out of the conference.