By Jessica Shambora and JP Mangalindan
FORTUNE — Much like competing on Fox’s American Idol, selling a business idea requires raw talent, mastery of the material, and command performance. So this year Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference was back with the third “season” of Startup Idol, our answer to the hit singing competition.
In our version, five entrepreneurs vied for top honors before three investor-judges and the conference audience, who voted for the winner via text. Each contestant had five minutes to make their pitch, and for the first time a big prize was at stake: $10,000 in Herman Miller products.
The pitch: Eight of ten physicians still use paper electronic records, according to Elation co-founder Kyna Fong. Elation offers a web-based electronic medical record (EMR). Fong, who helped set up her father’s primary care medical office, says other EMR systems get it wrong because they misunderstand medical records. Elation is easy to use like paper, but unlike paper, it’s smart enough to offer contextual and clinical search functionality.
Current status: Just moved out of beta; Has paying customers; Raising series A round of funding; Angel investors include Ron Conway.
Judge’s Comment: “The big issue here, as much as technology advantages sound exciting and looks pretty on the screen, distribution will be a key issue and there is already a bunch of certified solutions out there, even a cloud solution. So if you can solve that problem I think you can do well.” — Aydin Senkut, Founder and President, Felicis Ventures
The pitch: As many companies will likely vouch, finding superior talent can be an incredible challenge. That’s where Mixtent hopes to make its mark. By having users hook up their LinkedIn (LNKD) and Facebook accounts, Mixtent asks you to answer a series of questions (essentially the professional version of “Hot or Not”) that pit two connections or friends together until the startups establishes what it calls a “professional reputation graph.” In this way, the startup hopes to eventually assemble rankings and listings of qualified candidates based on different skill sets. “We’ll keep great people and great companies who aren’t a good match from working together, and we’ll help great people and great companies who are good matches work together,” said co-founder and CEO Jonathan Geller.
Current status: Launched last January, though Gellar admits it could take years, as many as five or seven, before the service is fully-cooked.
Judge’s comment: “I think the problem you’re trying to solve is a great problem, but I think you’re going to have to get users comfortable with the accuracy of the accuracy and measurements and avoid the sort of Lord of the Flies-type reaction.” — Amy Banse, managing director and Head of Funds, Comcast
The pitch: While Mixtent’s focus appears to be filtering the most qualified candidates for a particular job, Novel’s mission with an upcoming Software as a Service product is to give candidates a “realistic job preview” by way of a Web portal with job simulations offering social game mechanics. The goal is to eventually develop a service that helps companies turn people away and get more people get into well-suited positions. Ideally, organizations would pays to send candidates to the portal or pay for candidates that are prescreened, while candidates could pay and use the service pay to find organizations within their region that are good matches.
Current status: In development. According to CEO Brayden Olson, he’s looking for corporate partners and engineers.
Judge’s comment: “This is going to require a ton of behavioral change and a ton of capital, but I really like it. I really like that it’s consumer technology in the enterprise, and if it works, I can really can see this becoming a huge hit.” — Peter Sonsini, Partner, New Enterprise Associates
The pitch: Calling his company “Pandora for the real world,” Clever Sense co-founder and CEO Babak Pahlavan described the difficulty people face when trying discover the things best suited to their taste, especially when they are on-the-go. Search engines bombard us with results that we then have to research, still not certain if they will match our tastes. As engineering graduate students at Stanford, Pahlavan and cofounder, Nima Asgharbeyghi, worked for two years on the technology that powers their solution to this problem, a mobile app called Alfred. First, an artificial intelligence engine crawls the web and learns how to describe places based on how people talk about them. Then you train “your personal robot,” teaching it about places that you like. Finally, you let Alfred go to work, discovering new favorites for you in the real world.
Current status: Since launching in Apple’s (LNKD) app store last Thursday, Alfred is now number ten on the list of the most downloaded lifestyle apps.
Judge’s Comment: “You’re going to see Google (GOOG) and Groupon and Yelp at every turn, so it’s going to come down to competing with them. But I like it. If it works and you can get it into people’s hands and keep it there, it could win big.” — Pete Sonsini, Partner, New Enterprise Associates
The pitch: Do you know the names of your next-door neighbors? 75% of Americans don’t. Hey Neighbor is a location-based social network connects neighbors so they lend a cup of sugar, borrow a ladder, or get help moving something. Neighbors can help “right here, right now,” explains CEO and co-founder Barbara Pantuso. “Hey Neighbor provides a virtual knock on the door.” Pantuso says Hey Neighbor will succeed because it ties into the trends of hyper-local advertising and collaborative consumption. And there’s big money at stake: Peer-to-peer marketplaces, like Airbnb and Zipcar, are estimated to be a $26 billion market in 2012.
Current status: Just launched in July; Neighbors are joining from all over the world.
Judge’s Comment: “I rely heavily on my own village and am a big believer in collaborative consumption. I wonder how many social networks I can keep up with; I can barely keep up with the one’s I currently have. And I’m a little bit curious about the monetization.” — Amy Banse, Managing Partner and Head of Funds, Comcast Ventures
And the winner was: Clever Sense.