When my colleague Tom Krazit wrote about YCombinator’s Demo Day last week he compared it to a farmer’s market — with rich investors traveling out of their way to shop for freshly grown ideas among the numerous startups stalls. TechStars Demo Day in Chicago isn’t that much different, except the commute for Silicon Valley-based VCs was much further, and the atmosphere a bit less intense.
Formerly Excelerate Labs, the Midwest incubator melded with TechStars in February, and on Thursday it graduated its first class. Though the name has changed the format hasn’t. Instead of a bevy of eager companies, TechStars accepts only ten applicants, and at Demo Day each got a leisurely 10 minutes to pitch their companies and ideas to the assembled audience in Chicago’s House of Blues. That may not seem like much, but compare that to YCombinator’s 48 presentations, each two and a half minutes in length. There’s a wealth of information you can deliver in that extra seven and a half minutes.
This summer’s batch had the usual complement of social media and online services companies, even an online dating service, but there was definitely some twists on the old formulas.
For instance, Trading View is building a paid social network around day traders — those not quite big enough to shell out for the expense of a Bloomberg terminal but who have graduated beyond Yahoo Finance. Rather than just provide another financial information portal, Trading View is letting people build up social clout within the community by sharing investment ideas and then comparing their predictions against the real performance of the markets.
Some of the most interesting companies at TechStars, though, were those merging consumer-facing apps with data analytics and the internet of things. On the big data front, Findit is indexing its users’ every email, every Dropbox and Google Drive file, and every Evernote scribble to create a mobile search app that sifts through your information rather than the web at large.
The most interesting presentation, however, came from SocialCrunch, which had two entirely different faces. On the one hand, it’s a social portal where people can go to anonymously ask and answer seemingly random questions, comparing the results against those of the SocialCrunch community and your own group of friends.
But on the flip side, SocialCrunch is analyzing all of those answers to create psychographic profiles of its community. It then makes that information highly useful to marketers by inserting key product questions into the mix. For instance, CEO and founder Alex Griffiths mined this little nugget: Diet Coke drinkers get laid four times as much as regular Coke drinkers (or at least claim to). That kind of information might lead Coca Cola to target a sluttier class of consumers in its next ad campaigns.
There were also a few startups trying to introduce social media elements into the emerging market for wearable gadgets and the internet of things.
Nexercise has created a social gaming platform around physical exercise, figuring that the ultimate motivation for losing weight or getting shape is seeing your friends lose more weight and get in better shape than you. Right now it’s running on smartphones, but the company hopes to integrate directly with other fitness apps, trackers and wearables in the market. Sqord is adopting similar social gaming principles in its own proprietary gadget, a waterproof highly durable activity-tracking wristband for children.
My favorite presentation of the day surprisingly came from Sarah Press, CEO and co-founder of Project Fixup, the latest entry in the old and tired field of online dating. Like so many dating services, Fixup claims to really be an “offline dating” service. But Fixup really means it.
There are no profiles to peruse and no emails or messages to exchange between perspective love interests. Singles answer a questionnaire and then they pick a dating context such as a dive bar, sporting event or bike ride. Fixup then matches two people up, picks the place and time you meet based on your respective locations and schedules. Then it sends out invites. If you both accept, you each pay $15 and the rest is up to you.
That might sound weird to some, but to the tech-savvy it makes perfect sense, Press said. We’re willing to hop into a stranger’s car after summoning them with an app, and we’re willing to stay in a stranger’s home after perusing it online. Why not let an app set us up on a date?