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Demo days can be a glimpse into the cultural zeitgeist of the moment. If that’s the case, Tuesday at the TechStars Austin demo day the zeitgeist is all about marketplaces, big data and connected devices. A dystopian might view the startups on display as a symptom of the breakdown of the full-time job and the rise of the machine while an optimist might see the chance for people to build a job on their own terms and the efficiencies that automation can bring.
Let’s start with the marketplaces. There were three companies that are trying to make a market, with Testlio, aiming to match software testing experts with developers, ProtoExchange, which is trying to connect companies with 3-D printing capacity to those needing that capacity and Gone, a marketplace for selling used or unwanted consumer products. Of course, building a marketplace is tough — building up the supply side of the market while also ensuring demand is a balancing act. Add in some kind of reputation management and understanding the niche your market will fill for both the supply and demand side is essential.
The company here with the most immediate promise seemed to be Testlio, which noted that it had a backlog of demand. Because Gone is focused on the consumer space, it has a huge challenge of finding users. Its ease of use — you snap a picture and start describing the item you want to rid yourself of and the app does the rest finding a buyer or a home for the item — demoed well, but finding the audience will be key. The demand side already exists through finding buyers on existing markets.
Over the long term ProtoExchange has the biggest opportunity bridging the physical and the virtual. Everyone, from Amazon to major software companies, are trying to push their internet fiefdoms closer to the consumer and the real world, so a company that can deliver physical objects via a network of small 3D printing companies based around the world can offer both elasticity and agility. Ensuring consistent quality will be one of its biggest challenges.
The other strong theme was connected devices. Atlas, a big-data-influenced fitness tracker that can actually tell what a person is doing based on the biometrics, keeps that data on the device as opposed to in the cloud. This is exciting when you think about the data and algorithms it could offer a wide variety of potential partners in the health space. The question for CEO Peter Li will be whether it will become a device company or use the data their device will generate and license it.
Accountable is another startup worth keeping an eye on. As medicine becomes digital, the number of companies covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act expands. The company lets companies from startups to doctors ensure that they are HIPAA compliant with a few single steps. Meanwhile, also in the intersection of health and data is Filament Labs, which helps doctors and patients track and comply with a doctor’s instructions on the patients’ smartphones. The company has shifted its business a bit from the last time I covered them from offering advice based on a person’s activity and health data to ensuring compliance with a doctor’s advice.
Finally, on the big data side was a company called Embrace that could be summed up as big data meets e-commerce. Yet, the benefit of Embrace is that it takes its algorithms applied to a business’ customers and then sends its learnings to people — flagging potential customers in need of personal attention. I liked the idea that software is only the first step for this product and that people taking action is a necessary second step. If this approach proves better than algorithms alone, perhaps we haven’t let the machines take over.