On the surface, the StartX Demo Day last night could have looked like any other accelerator pushing its latest class of startups. Nine groups got on stage and fired off presentations about how they were working on something cool, and why they deserved funding.
But it wasn’t the rash of lightweight consumer applications you often see at other demo days. These were Stanford students, particularly technical graduate students, who have been nerding out on solving real problems for years in their labs and dorm rooms, and who are now in the middle of commercializing their hard work. Big-name investors from around Silicon Valley unsurprisingly showed up to check them out.
Before I get into the companies, which ran the gamut from health care to batteries to professional networking, it’s important to understand what StartX is. It’s the non-profit accelerator arm of Stanford Student Enterprises, which is a student-run, independent organization that handles a variety of stores, directories, financial services and other businesses for students. SSE is the business branch of the student government, and it’s independent enough from the university that StartX companies get maximum freedom. They own their own intellectual property, and neither StartX/SSE nor any other entity takes any equity.
The only requirements are that at least one cofounder of each applying company needs to have enrolled at Stanford within the last three academic quarters before the application period, and that person needs to own significant equity.
The program is young — it started in 2010 and this is its fifth class. but it’s on the right track. The energy in the room was what you feel at that rare tech event where everyone present knows they’re getting in early on something big.
We’ll no doubt be covering many of the presenting companies in more detail over the coming months, but here’s a quick look at each, in the order they presented:
MindSumo: Employers want to find smart students with skills and interests that they can develop. The problem is that student resumes are normally skimpy on this information because, well, students have mostly been in school and not the workforce. MindSumo’s answer: partner with employers to create “challenges,” or sets of questions for students to answer. For example, Recology, a large recycling and trash disposal company, is currently asking “What can you do or make with glass (A LOT of it)? Propose three alternate uses for recycled glass so that we can use our resources in an innovative way and keep them from landfill!” Currently in private beta, MindSumo has already been running challenges for seven companies (some of whom are paying), with 500 or so Stanford students participating.
AgeTak: Health care data is currently separated across insurers and health care providers, which makes it hard for doctors to do comprehensive analysis of diseases and other conditions. AgeTak uses distributed databases to combine, anonymize and get user consent for data sharing. Founder Pratik Verma, who recently got his PhD in computation chemistry from Stanford, is on a personal mission here. His father passed away in 2010 from nerve cell disease ALS, which has no known causes or cures. His father’s only option was to participate in extensive clinical trials over the years, in the hopes that doctors would make breakthroughs by discovering trends among those afflicted. But, as Pratik discovered, data from patients was not being shared by researchers because it was siloed at institutions, and held back by privacy concerns.
Through AgeTak, the anonymized and aggregated data can be used by analysts, researchers, physicians and pharmaceutical companies. Insurance giant United Health is already using it for a drug claims database, and OptumHealth is using it to offer graphs that show consumers how their health care costs stack up against the average. AgeTak has already made $3.7 million in revenue; it’s headquartered in Minnesota with offices in Menlo Park and India. Check out this recent writeup by Barb Darrow at GigaOm for more details.
Zoku: If you’re trying to build a network — let’s say, to help with your new startup — you want to know who out there is doing something relevant to your needs. But it can be hard sorting through all the noise on Facebook, LinkedIn and other sites to spot the key people and activities. Zoku lets you combine your email and social networking contacts, then pick out people and actions that you want to keep track of. It uses algorithms to filter for what you care about, then shows you the signals — people who are visiting town, changing jobs, or doing anything else relevant to what you might need to get done — in a dashboard on its site.
Vi Energy: In what looks like the most ambitious technical idea out of all the presentations, Vi Energy is developing a new kind of rechargeable battery that promises to be three times cheaper and last 50% longer than anything on the market today. Over the past twenty years, lithium ion batteries have dominated, but they can be unsafe, have relatively weak capacity, and are expensive. As a mature technology, there’s only marginal improvements to be had from them. Sister-cofounders Meghali and Sonali Chopra have, with the support of top scientific researchers, already created a pilot battery that uses significantly cheaper raw materials, can be easily synthesized, and has a unique spherical morphology with conductive codings for better performance. Their lab tests already show that the new battery lasts longer than the lithium ion ones on the market today.
Breakthrough: This online mental health treatment startup has been featured before — on stage at TechCrunch 50 (Disrupt) back in 2009. It uses secure video and chat features to help people connect with professionals to get the help they need privately and immediately. As Leena noted before, clients can search for providers (including psychiatrists, psychologists and nurses) on a variety of criteria, including price, speciality (i.e. clinical depression, schizophrenia, post traumatic stress disorder), and gender. On a provider’s page you can see his or her education, experience, pricing for services, the insurance the professional accepts, and even a video introduction of the provider explaining his or her specialities. BreakThrough certifies all providers are credentialed professionals.
TipTopMed: How much will a trip to the doctor’s cost? How much, in particular, if you don’t have a good insurance plan? That’s a question more and more Americans are asking themselves — that TipTopMed is trying to answer. Its site will show local providers, and include information about them like the upfront price, and other details about provider specialties. Users can then book an appointment, and pay online. Providers — mostly small and medium-sized businesses — want this because they lose lots of money on patients who can’t or don’t pay. The site is launching at the end of this month, and will feature a proprietary database of Bay Area health care professionals.
Smit’s Crew: The only entertainment-oriented startup out of the mix, it offers a web site and mobile app that lets venue owners (bars, clubs, etc.) create a type of loyalty program for regular patrons. The app lets customers receive advance notifications of discounts and other deals, particularly on slow nights, then buy them immediately. They then go to the establishment and show the waiter or bartender the purchase; because payment has been received, the food and drinks can be delivered immediately, without the hassle of trying to pay with cash or credit card at, say, a packed bar. Even more importantly, the app lets owners keep track of which people are visiting the most regularly and buying the most — this allows them to figure out who they should focus on providing the best service to. The “crew” concept lets customers group themselves together around specific establishments, so the venue can provide group discounts if they show up.
There were also two more health care startups that presented, but they haven’t publicly launched yet so I won’t be including them here. All in all, as you can see, this is a serious bunch of companies, that are interested in solving hard real-world problems.
Venture firms and law offices in Silicon Valley have sensed the opportunity to get in early, and they’ve rallied behind the effort. VC supporters, who provide dollars and mentorship, include Benchmark Capital, General Catalyst, Khosla Ventures, Charles River Ventures and Greylock Partners. Legal backers are Cooley LLP, Fenwick & West LLP, Dorsey & Whitney LLP, Goodwin Proctor, and Orrick. Resource partners include Amazon Web Services, First Republic Bank, Fog Creek Software, Github, Rackspace and Usabilla.
And even that distant global media and advertising conglomerate that owns TechCrunch is involved, it turns out, because it provides office space and other material support. So time for a Full Disclosure: I didn’t even know AOL was involved until I got to the event this afternoon — but good job, whoever made that call at my parent company. I also attended Stanford as an undergraduate, and while I have a variety of feelings about my alma mater, I generally expect a lot out of its graduates — maybe this connection is one reason I think StartX is pretty great? On the other hand, I worked at a key campus competitor to SSE, The Stanford Daily student-run newspaper. So maybe I’m biased against SSE and so my biases all equal themselves out….