Brainstorm Tech Startup Idol: And this year’s winner is…
By JP Mangalindan and Kurt Wagner
FORTUNE — Five innovative startups showed up in Aspen, Colorado; one walked away victorious. Brainstorm Tech Startup Idol, the annual competition held during Fortune’s technology conference, promises the winners a swanky office set-up worth thousands, courtesy of Herman Miller, makers of the iconic Aeron office chair. Meet the contestants, and find out which startup took home the title for Startup Idol 2013:
The pitch: This iOS app alerts college students about nearby users, called “matches,” based on location and shared interests. Available at four schools including the University of Illinois, founders Cory Levy and Michael Callahan will roll out One to at least 10 other schools by the fall thanks to nearly $2 million in seed funding from Ron Conway, Keith Rabois, True Ventures, and other backers. Fun fact: Levy gate-crashed Brainstorm Tech three years ago. “I snuck in and sat next to Keith [Rabois] and connected with him,” said Levy, who convinced Rabois to become One’s first investor.
Judge’s comment: “I would just add that the companies in this area that have taken off, like Tinder and Grindr have very specific use cases,” offered Dana Settle, a Greycroft general partner. “I think it’s hard to launch with a concept as broad as this.”
The pitch: Launched in September 2011, OwnerListens helps customers leave feedback for business owners in safe, private interactions. Consumers use the app to text a message they want the business owner to see, and OwnerListens delivers the message, even if the business isn’t on the platform, says CEO Adi Bittan. Businesses often respond within hours — again using the app as a middleman — meaning consumers get their voices heard, businesses get fewer negative online reviews, and changes can be made. Since its launch, OwnerListens has accumulated 2,000 businesses and restaurants in its database and has a slew of investors, including Menlo Ventures and serial entrepreneur Steve Blank to name a few.
Judge’s comment: “There are a lot of companies trying to do this,” pointed out GGV Capital partner Jeff Richards. “How will you get to a scale where you can build a business around it?”
The pitch: There are 400,000 full-time, accredited tour guides around the world who account for a $16 billion market, but just 5% of them have any online presence. Introduced this April, the bootstrapped San Francisco-based AnyRoad from well-traveled brothers Daniel and Jonathan Yaffe offers guides an online platform to list tours for one of six cities, from Tokyo to Rio de Janeiro. AnyRoad makes money by shaving a small fee from the customer and the guide but gives 5% back to local nonprofits. The startup plans to expand into Greece and Korea within the next two months and wants to be in 15 cities by summer of next year.
Judge’s comment: “I like the idea of ‘software-eats-travel guide booking,” admitted Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. “And I think in terms of local and travel it’s about how familiar you are with the market. I like that you’ve actually been to these places.
The pitch: A Jewish refugee from Soviet Russia, Nataly Kogan Kogan rolled out Happier last February, an app she describes as an “emotional bookshelf in your pocket.” Users upload anything that makes them happy, from posts chronicling their small daily success stories (“I got a great parking spot!”) to photos of their favorite foods or places. The Happier app is only the first step along the way, however, and Kogan hopes to build the business into a media company and lifestyle brand. In addition to “Happier TV” and “Happier Videos,” Kogan envisions licensing Happier products, like clothes, cars, even a Happier airline.
Judge’s comment: “I’m not sure Happier is a business that’s easily defensible against others,” remarked Casey Wasserman, CEO of the Wasserman Media Group.
The pitch: The problem facing many organizations sitting atop massive amounts of data is how to make any sense of it. Three years ago, Pamela Arya, then a vice president at the counterterrorism firm A-T Solutions, recognized and seized the opportunity. She co-founded Optensity with IT engineer Scott Zimmer and built AppSymphony, a product largely used within the Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance, or “ISR,” community by three clients to make sense of surveillance data.With it, clients can make decisions quickly without worrying about where the data is located, how it’s formatted, and how it’s changing.
Judge’s comment: “It’s a little murky who your customer base is,” Settle commented. “I think you need to give a very specific use case. … Talk about your background, and offer a little vision of where it [Optensity] is going.”
The winner: AnyRoad, by a landslide. As the Yaffe brothers put it at a Brainstorm Tech dinner post-victory, they have another challenge now: how to furnish their San Francisco offices with all that new Herman Miller loot.