BY SUSAN LAHEY
Special Contributor to Silicon Hills News
Winners included the Funf Project in the News category; Ginger.io in the Health category; Vitzu Technologies in Innovative Web Technologies; Mobile, Condition One; Wemo Media in the Entertainment Technologies category and Thirst Labs in the social category. Brand Yourself won the Bootstrap award.
Winners—who were judged on creativity, viability, product and team–received $4,000, tickets to next year’s SXSW and a Swiss backpack to carry their gear when they return, among other things.
The categories and the local competitors in each category included News Related Technologies–Umbel, Social Media and Social Networking Technologies—Hoot.me and Scene Tap, Mobile Technologies—Toopher and Foreca.st, Innovative Web Technologies, Entertainment Technologies—Tugg Co., and Health Technologies.
Hoot.me and Umbel made it to the finals.
Michael Koetting of Hoot.me had just left the stage 10 minutes before the winners were announced.
“We just feel really privileged, really blessed we made it this far. We’re just waiting to see what happens. Regardless South By’s been an awesome experience for us.”
Of the 600 initial applicants the list was whittled down to 48 that were permitted to pitch in two minutes presentations on Monday. Tuesday, the 18 finalists each had five minutes to present, followed by a question and answer period.
Emcee Brad King, a professor of journalism and Emerging Media Initiative Fellow at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana and former reporter and editor at Wired and MIT’s Technology Review has been at SXSW since its inception and has served four years as an emcee. He’s seen the quality of the Accelerator program improve over the years both in terms of the quality of companies and the caliber of judges who are able to share their expertise with participants.
“The quality of companies is improving as Chris (Valentine) and the group have understood health and innovative technologies and where the different segments are coming from. The three medical companies are amazing…it used to be easy to see that one was better than the others but this time the overall quality was really high.”
Part of the reason for that was the coaching done by volunteer coaches using a system devised by the Houston Technology Center Incubator. Greg Wright, Director of IT Acceleration for the center had a coaching system that Valentine chose to use across candidates, Wright said. In it, candidates do not send Wright and the other coaches their SXSW applications or other information. They only send their two minute and five minute pitches. That way, coaches have to respond only to the effectiveness of the pitch and can’t fill in the gaps mentally. They are helping participants prepare pitches with an audience of venture capitalists in mind.
“A lot of these founders are so familiar with their technology, their solution, they don’t know how to describe what it is. They’ll tell you it’s cloud based and interactive and mobile and you have to say ‘I have no idea what it is you do,’” Wright said. “The coaches really listen and reflect back ‘It sounds like what you’re doing is….”
“It’s important to make sure they describe what the problem is they’re solving and who has that problem. If we can relate to the problem, it’s often easy to appreciate it….. If it comes across like a marketing pitch we try to make it more authentic.”
Presenters can have several phone calls with their coaches to get ready for the presentation and they were “all over the board” Wright said. Some were bootstrapped, others had up to $5 million in investment funding.
Besides the high quality of companies, there’s a high caliber of judges who can offer deep insights to participants.
“Tim Draper (founder of Draper Fisher Jurvetson) can speak to things as an entrepreneur, as venture capitalist…people like Bob Metcalf (professor of innovation at the University of Texas) can give the panel really good feedback. It’s not ‘You should have a business model, it’s here are the four things that you should do to increase your presence in your industry.”
Months before the event, Houston Tech center got the idea to throw its own accelerator event at SXSW and within weeks of announcing it had nearly 100 participants from as far away as Finland for it’s HATCH accelerator competition. Ironically, Wright said, while it was worried that it hadn’t had time to properly publicize the event, it did manage to get an blurb in the SXSW Interactive calendar with a “read more” link that led only to a notation: #HATCH2012.
Nonetheless the event filled to capacity and beyond. Perhaps, Wright considers, having nothing but the hashtag indicated “If you don’t know about HATCH, you’re clearly not cool enough to be there.”
Wright and King both praised Valentine’s choice to keep all the startup activities in one Startup Village.
“Chris really worked to make the Hilton the epicenter of entrepreneurship. This is the first year and we’re seeing the fruits of that. The Hilton was just swarming with people…I’m imagining the Hilton being the place you book to stay if you’re a startup.”
The advantage to having so many tech startups in one place is multifold. For one thing, conversations can reach a higher level.
“You don’t have to say let me explain this…I don’t have to convince you that the web is important.”
Throughout the sessions, entrepreneurs expressed relief at having so many people who shared their experiences and at being validated in the competition.
As Alan Gardner of Funf put it: “It’s good to know we’re not crazy.”