Startup expos and hackathons are becoming pretty common these days in this new-age, entrepreneurial landscape. Recently, I attended one at Plug And Play Tech Center — one of the premier service providers for startups in Silicon Valley. Regular readers may remember my feature on them in February (Read: Plug and Play). They had organized a Spring EXPO March 22. These expos are Plug and Play’s quarterly flagship events showcasing “best of breed,” emerging technology companies and introducing new products and services. This was an all-day affair with various interesting events and presentations. This expo provides a platform for startups to pitch their ideas in a couple of minutes and spread the word about their product. The startups are also hoping to impress investors and raise some capital. It’s a great event to attend if you want to understand the tech landscape and look for trends and ideas. Some of today’s startups are going to shape our lives tomorrow and I felt like I got a head-start on the future at this event.
There were several brilliant ideas from many smart entrepreneurs on display. In addition to pitching their ideas, the startups had a booth in the open area where you could talk to them and understand their companies better. This is also the place where entrepreneurs, investors and guests could mingle, network and build new relationships. Networking is obviously a big part of the startup scene and events like these provide the perfect platform for it. But for me personally, the startup pitches were the highlight of the day as I saw entrepreneurs present their ideas and try to convince the audience that they had a billion dollar business on their hands. There were several young entrepreneurs at this event and their hopes, drive and excitement are fun to experience. The boundless energy at this expo was contagious to say the least. If you had a pulse, you will walk out of an event like this with a big smile on your face.
Apart from the pitches and the booths, the expo also featured several useful talks and panel discussions. The expo started with a keynote address by Deborah Magid from the IBM Venture Capital Group. She spoke about IBM smartcamp, their global program for startups. This was yet another sign of increased corporate interest and involvement in the venture field. The startup pitches began right after her speech with 16 companies going in session 1 and 16 more, later in the day, in session 2. The startup pitches involved all areas of life - mobile ads (Mobspire), social games for adults (Spyragames), finding nightclubs (Nixter), wedding planning (Merrymarry.me), mobile security (TrustGO) and cloud storage (zadarastorage), just to name a few. Videos, crowd sourcing and mobile were some of the over-arching themes of the day. The entrepreneurs came from all over the world and Indians were well represented as well.
There was a VC panel in-between the two pitch sessions and this ended up being one of the more entertaining parts of the day. Indians were well represented here as well. Vispi Daver from Sierra Ventures talked about how he spends 15 percent of his time on India these days and how they are funding more and more Indian entrepreneurs building products for the global marketplace, not just for the Indian market. Deepak Kamra from Canaan Partners explained how it’s hard to build meaningful companies without raising outside capital. He made a distinction between startups that are looking for a quick sellout and the ones that are looking to build a long lasting company. All of the VCs in the panel spoke about the importance of the startups finding the right investor for them. The first step in that process is to approach the right investor for their sector, stage of the company and the geography. They also asked the startups to focus on the cultural and people fit with their investors – all valuable advice.
The VCs were engaging, funny and thoughtful as they dished out several life lessons, which even the non-startup types in the crowd could benefit from. Joe Addiego from Alsop Louie partners said, "Any new person to a team typically adds, but great people multiply the benefits." Chris Rust from U.S. venture partners quoted Wayne Gretzky and implored folks to “go where the puck is, not where it's been.” Deepak Kamra joked that the entrepreneurs should “look for grey hair. Connections and experience are important.” The event ended with another keynote address in the evening by Toni Schneider, CEO of Automattic (the company behind Wordpress). It’s not hard to imagine how emerging entrepreneurs could learn a lot from Toni, whose company is now quietly powering 16 percent of the internet and serving 8.4 billion pageviews every month.
Last, but not the least, any pitch session or hackathon needs to have its winners identified and recognized. The three startups that wowed the judges at this expo were Jetlore, MindSumo and Mozio. Jetlore has developed technology to infer semantic context from social posts. They can categorize short posts typical in social networks and identify mentioned topics (e.g., products, movies, sports references). MindSumo wants to fix college recruiting. MindSumo is a marketplace where companies post challenges for college students to solve. Businesses can then filter candidates based on their work samples instead of relying on outdated recruiting methods. Mozio claims to help you travel like a local, wherever you go. The Mozio search engine presents the cheapest or quickest bus, train, ferry and flight options and includes the most difficult part: figuring out how to get to and from departure and arrival hubs. They try to integrate all modes of transportation and all the associated logistics.
While these three startups tallied the most votes and impressed the judges, I felt like everybody involved had a great time. It’s safe to assume that each and every one of us there learned something new, discovered a cool idea or a new website, or made a new friend. There were no losers at this expo.