Why SublimeVideo scooped my TV startup prize in Cannes

Judging a startup competition is difficult at the best of times — but what do you do when the industry you’re focused on is a highly defensive one like TV? That’s the dilemma I had over the weekend as one of the judges of MIPCube Lab, a pitch program aimed at sifting through some the most interesting startups working around television today.

Perhaps I should have been ready for a tough job: after all, the most disruptive idea for the television industry right now is probably the one that’s produced the least number of successful startups — BitTorrent. Still, we had to try.

Over the course of Saturday, nine different pre-selected startups presented themselves to the audience in Cannes — everything from Viewrz, a fun service that allows viewers to rewind and share moments you’ve just watched to Small Town Heroes, a system that provides second screen apps for live broadcast studios. We also heard from Pult, an app that let you beam from your phone to your TV set; Cleeng, a system for monetizing video easily; two different video discovery services, Tweek.tv and Filmaster; a video commenting service called Punndit; and Sportdub, a user-generated sports commentary site.

But in the end the winner was SublimeVideo, a Swiss video player project spun out of EPFL in Lausanne that allows video vendors to deliver their streams to hundreds of different devices by simply embedding a line of code.

It sounds disarmingly simple, but it’s no mean feat given that hundreds of devices and browsers out there. As judges, we loved the simplicity of the product, the potential breadth of the service — but most of all, we thought that it solved a massive problem that the TV and video industry has found itself confronting time and time again. Sure, it wasn’t as sexy as some of the other competitors, but we felt it was the startup with the greatest chance of success. And what’s more disruptive than making it ludicrously simple to send video to any device?

What makes a winner

I won’t go into much detail about the decision-making process that took place behind closed doors, but I will say that one big problem we came across was whether the startups would actually be able to operate in a way that could actually work.

After all, one of the things that bugs TV is the issue of rights — who owns what, and whether you have the right to do what you want with it. Rights are a pain in the ass for startups to deal with, but in a content-based environment they’re massively important: if you don’t have the rights, either you’ll have a product that’s empty (remember Joost?) or you’ll get sued into oblivion. YouTube may be able to fight off legal action, but not everybody gets bought by Google.

The reality is, yes, broadcasters guard their ownership way too jealously, but without them you’re toast.

Some of the startups were pushed over to the sidelines because they were just too complicated to use — a real killer for any service, but especially one like TV — and some because they relied on changing user behavior. Others hit the skids because they were features rather than products, or required the sort of commitment from TV companies that can take years to secure.

SublimeVideo wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t have any of those issues.

Moving magic

The Lab pitch wasn’t the only competition at MIPCube, however. The event also hosted another tech-focused TV event, TV Hack Day. Despite the fact that some of the entrants were pretty annoyed at the lack of open APIs they could use, the end results were pretty interesting.

And the winner? My friend Aral Balkan’s Kinect hack GrabMagic that allows you to screenshot from your TV simply by grabbing the picture. It’s pretty amazing stuff.