Brainstorm Tech Startup Idol: And this year’s winner is…

July 16, 2014, 12:34 AM UTC
Photograph by Stuart Isett/Fortune Brainstorm TECH

Five innovative startups showed up at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech in Aspen, Colo. on Wednesday, all vying for the title of Startup Idol. But only one could walk away victorious. At stake? Fortune’s golden stamp of approval, of course.

The pitch: The Walnut Creek, Calif.-based online charity site is all about raising small donations, pooling them together, and donating them to a cause. Members sign up online and select one of hundreds of non-profit charities they would like to donate to, like, say, the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation, and how much they’d like to donate each month, starting at $1. “The number one reason most people don’t give is because they think their small donation will make a difference,” said CEO Susan Cooney.

The money goes into a giving circle, or “neighborhood,” money pool the member joins. They and other members of the neighborhood can cast a vote once a month for the cause they’d like the pool money to go toward: Whichever cause snags the most votes wins and receives all the neighborhood money that month.

Judge’s critique: “I love crowdsourcing, but I’m unclear how it works and how it pays. My question? To whom do you sell this and how do you sell it?” wondered David Bell, Chairman, gyro, and Director, Time Inc.

The pitch: Why adjust that standing desk manually when the desk can do it for you? So goes the design philosophy behind Stir first product, the Kinetic Desk ($3,890), a standing desk Stir CEO JP Labrosse launched last year with a built-in touchscreen and heat sensor. All that tech tracks when someone is at their desk, learns things like how long they prefer to stand, and automatically adjusts the desk’s height. Labrosse points out the Kinectic Desk’s health benefits shouldn’t be ignored: Four hours of standing is equivalent to the calories burned from a 2-mile run.

Judge’s critique: “How many desks do you plan to sell directly via e-commerce and via retailers?” asked Jeff Fagnan, an Atlas Venture partner.

The pitch: In 2010, CEO Ryan Harwood left his job at a New York City investment bank to jumpstart PureWow, an email newsletter and lifestyle web site for women partly backed by Bob Pittman’s Pilot Group and Lerer Ventures. The content typically ranges from “how to” beauty tips (“Master the cat eye with Benefit’s new eyeliner”) to food recipes. The goal: to help readers “find special ideas they can’t find anywhere else in a unique tone of voice.” Now, PureWow’s site has over 4 million readers, while nearly 2.5 million subscribe to the newsletter, according to Harwood.

Judge’s critique: “Congrats on doing this all on HTML 5,” said Fagnan. “My question is all about the metrics. … I want to know more about what your users are doing. Because it is true: it is a scale game. ”

The pitch: Karen Moon’s startup dissects over 1 billion different online “signals” — like for instance, what people are saying on Facebook (FB)or Twitter (TWTR) about a certain trend — to help fashion industry professionals keep track of what’s popular with shoppers. The data also proves helpful for merchandisers to figure out which items to stock so they’re less likely to have excess, unsold inventory. Indeed, Moon says over 50% of all merchandise is currently sold at a loss. But with Trendalytics, that percentage could be significantly less.

Judge’s critique: “How are you going to get merchants to pay for this?” asked Wenda Harris Millard, COO of MediaLink. “They are notoriously cheap, so I’m wondering how you sized this market.”

The pitch: Former New Yorker Kyle Wong argues where brand marketing is concerned, user-generated photos and videos are king. “These photos aren’t just 1,000 words, they’re worth 1,000 words of endorsement,” argued Wong. So he developed Pixlee, a service that lets brands track which user-uploaded media are likely to resonate with shoppers and distributes them across the brand’s different platforms, including social media. According to Wong, Pixlee already has partners that include Coca-Cola (CCE), Jamba Juice, BMW and Nestle.

Judge’s critique: “I’m wondering about your competition,” mused Millard, who said she’s come across at least one other similar business. “My other question: distribution platforms. How do consumers discover it?”

The winner:

3rd place: 21% PureWow
2nd place: 31% Stir
1st place: 34% Pixlee