Search for Next "Startup Idol" at Brainstorm TECH

Jul 24, 2013

Entrepreneurs often have an easier time innovating than getting financial backing for their ideas.   At the Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen this week, five startup companies got a shot at selling their innovations to tech execs and big investors.  Think American Idol... startup style. For grand ideas that might have taken years to develop, they were given ... five minutes to convince the panel.

The format was similar to the TV show except there was no singing or dancing at the Startup Idol contest at Fortune’s Brainstorm TECH conference this week at the Aspen Institute. Instead, entrepreneurs pitched the talents of their companies to venture capitalists and executives.  In return, they received sage advice, and high praise or tough love.

“It’s truly an honor to be here today because, three year’s ago, when I was in high school, I snuck into this conference, into that very same seat.”

That’s Cory Levy, the COO of the startup company “ONE.” His idea? Our smart phones, instead of sheltering or providing an escape outlet from the people directly around us, could serve as beacons that connect us. And by us, think the person sitting next to you on the bus.

“How many times have you been physically surrounded by people that you’ve wanted to meet? ONE solves this problem by notifying you of the people that are right next to you that share a number of rare interests in common.”

The idea may sound novel, but the judges weren’t easy to swoon. They acted like hard-nosed investors even after the most captivating performances.  Here Startup Idol judge, and Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer.

“I would want to know more about the science and technology behind it. Because I think to surface interesting people, concepts around you, you need to have great Machine Learning and AI behind it.”

The common thread between each of the contestants was technology.  New technological solutions to age-old problems.  The Startup Idol winners were Daniel Yaffe and Jonathan Yaffe of Any Road.

The brothers have a vision for an online network that connects tour guides from around the world to customers. They want to make it easier for you and your family to escape the hustle and bustle of the Roaring Fork Valley, and go climb a remote mountain in Peru.  Getting down there is the easy part, they say.  But finding the guide to help you climb the mountain can be tricky.

“Your friend hand’s you a slip of paper with an email address. You correspond back and forth, send an international money transfer to a sketchy bank account on the other side of the world, and hope for the best.”

The judges had mostly praise for the brothers of Any Road. Casey Wasserman is CEO of Wasserman Media Group, “I think it’s a brilliant idea. Aggregating these kinds of communities is clearly hard and finding them, but you focusing on an industry that exists, that’s big, that’s ripe for opportunity... I think you’ve got a good chance for success.”

That the judges liked their idea was no surprise to the brothers, but that they won was.

“We didn’t think we were going to win, honestly. Going into it, we said, ‘we’ve already won.’ Being here, meeting the fantastic investors, and founders, and investors we won long ago.”

That’s a slightly different take from the tears you see on American Idol.

On that show you know you’re going to get singing.  It might be blues, or hip-hop, or country, but it’s still singing. At Startup Idol, the contestants are peddling everything from a faster way to find a mountain guide to new ways to manipulate Big Data. It’s sort of like if American Idol were a search for the next musical talent, top chef, and/or best dancer.  

But, then, that’s almost the point.

Here’s judge, and venture capital investor, Jeff Richards: “We’re all thinking about when he’s going to get to the point where I go, boom, that’s different.”