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An Extra $50K For Five Top Startups At SF's Launch Festival

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By Nishat Kurwa

Reflections from tech industry leaders like Twitter's Evan Williams and (the especially engaging) Chamath Palihapitiya were the banner events at the Launch Festival in San Francisco this week, but the energy that fueled the conference came from the inventive young founders debuting their startups at the three day showcase.

If you've never been to a startup pitch event, it delivers all the highs and lows of human emotion that drive us to reality TV and hit talent competitions, combined with insights from judges who reflect on cultural, economic, and industry trends to deliver on-the-spot assessments that can inspire an entrepreneur to a wholesale product revamp. You watch with empathy or delighted voyeurism as these earnest (ok, occasionally slick) and eager young people climb onto an intimidating stage and coordinate their delivery with temperamental digital displays and novelty elements like chair massages and trembling rabbits (it happened), bracing themselves for blistering feedback from the judges. And there was plenty of that at Launch, along with near-unanimous excitement over startups like AdStage. Herewith, a few of our favorites -- some of which didn't pass muster with the judges when it to articulating their revenue models.

You Commentate: The worst. That's what most judges on the panel labeled YouCommentate, a live audio commentary app, that's starting by targeting sports aficionados. The app lets amateurs layer their own live commentary over games (and in the future, other live events). The demo commentary the founders used, which re-imagined a clinch play call during the Superbowl, didn't necessarily inspire one to use the app. But as I listened to their example, I was fantasizing about a livecast by someone like Dave Zirin, the Nation's incisive political sports commentator. You can see how communities of interest (e.g. political junkies who love sports too) would quickly trade the aging ranks of the major networks' sports commentators for an autodidact obsessive who could add their own spin. I did agree with a few aspects of the judges' critique of the app. One objection they had: the app might be covering a very small slice of the market when you consider the marginal overlap between sports bloggers who have enough of a following to attract listeners to their stream and sports bloggers who have game-calling skills respectable enough to keep them there.

Povio: The anti-humble-brag photo sharing app. The app centers on the social web's golden goose, image-sharing. It lets your friends request photos of "what you're doing right now," and when the app pings you, you receive a notification, share your photo, and then the pinger is notified that the photo's arrived. Simple, right? When a judge asked about the loss of the vanity factor that drives so much of what we broadcast via status updates, presenter Jugoslav Petkovic said they're sensing a certain level of vanity fatigue. That's why the app is demand-based, he said. This way, you don't feel like you're bragging when you share that happy feet picture from Beaulier-sur-mer, because you're sharing only with those loving friends and relatives who actually request to glimpse awesome moments of your vacation without them. Petkovic characterized the service as "playing photo ping-pong," citing one test in which a user at a party volleyed 60 photos with friends within a three hour period.

Apparently they considered a more frictionless version of the app's current functionality, i.e. allowing you to just hold the phone up to trigger picture-taking...but that proved too scary for users.

Hubskip: An app that uses arbitrage to find users the cheapest plane tickets by registering and analyzing flight prices. Once you've created a profile on the app, and confirm your travel plans, you sit back and wait for your refund: the difference between the higher cost of the ticket you might have booked without Hubskip, and the cheaper fare the service finds for you. The service predicts when flights might drop, and delays buying the ticket until they do. It launched this week in six hub cities that connect to a limited set of destinations. The judges gave this one a lukewarm reception, with Robert Scoble telling the presenter "My mind never got woken up on this presentation," and "when you're in a crowded space, you have to be mind blowing."

Launch founder Jason Calcanis, who served as the startup founders' wingman, pointed out that it might make the app more compelling to have an "if this, then that" mechanism that would allow the user to set triggers, e.g. "only buy me a ticket if it drops 20 percent."

Speaking of a crowded space, one of the first lively debates on the judging panels erupted over Blurbity, a headline-scanning app which one judge said was essentially "Twitterizing the news." But misleading news headlines are also implicitly the problem that this app is trying to solve. The app lets users see the most interesting content from a text article, and tries to eliminate the wasted time and disappointment of following a Tweeted headline only to find a wildly different story at the other end of your click.

"I keep looking at this area and seeing a feature, not a company," said Scoble. "It didn't quite get there for me." Another judge said the app's founders needed a value proposition they could sell to publishers, e.g. "We can distill (your content better into blurbs) than you could write on your own."

But, the judges also pointed out, more accurate insights into text could lead to fewer clicks, citing Business Insider's much-lambasted click-bait headlines as an example. What if users have a better experience getting accurate news, but publishers have a worse return because their links aren't clicked on?

Quick Posture: A new system of assessing one's posture that the founders claim will increase efficiency throughout the medical system. Founded by a chiropracter and a physiotherapist, the hardware/software service combines 3D motion tracking that can be done via proprietary hardware with an assessment of your spinal alignment. If it were used broadly, their pitch asserted, patients, doctors, and insurers could all benefit from more efficient doctor's appointments by allowing people to assess their spinal alignment at home and let the doctor get right to treatment.

There were only a handful of hardware-based companies in the lot, and as second-day judge (and comic relief) Yossi Vardi pointed out, "dealing with hardware is 100 times more difficult than dealing with software." On the other hand, he said, "sensors and mobile are going to change the world." In a year, he said, a hardware-based service might be much improved, based on technological advances. The price point for various hardware elements were an important factor for judges, who kept asking if the price could come down in increments of $50, as well as founders, one of whom responded, "We'd like to make some money."

Speaking of increments of 50, that's what Yammer's David Sacks promised at the end of today's onstage interview with Calcanis -- a bonus $50k investment to each of the five top startups emerging from Launch.