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Surprising Tech Discoveries Seize Spotlight at Interactive Accelerator by Patrick Nichols I KELSEE BECKER 1 42 S X S W O R L D / M AY 2 0 1 3 DON BENDER VA N E S S A M A I J A J E R R I S TA R B U C K magine yourself on stage, facing a panel of experts critiquing your every word. You have two minutes to impress the judges, followed by another 10 minutes to defend your ideas during a rapid-fire Q&A. Now imagine there is also a live audience of venture capitalists, tech media and others with the wherewithal to identify and promote the next big thing, which you hope just might be you. If you are among the many who Eric Hellweg - Harvard Business Bob Metcalfe Review rank public speaking among their biggest fears, Elli Kaplan - Neurotrack this might sound like your worst nightmare. But for the entrepreneurs who make it into the SXSW Interactive Accelerator, it is a dream come true. More than 500 companies applied for a spot in this year's fifth-annual Interactive Accelerator. From that entry pool, 48 finalists were selected to demonstrate their products and business plans at the competition, held March 11–12 at SXSW Interactive. Only the top 18 from day one were invited back for day two, which culminated in seven companies being named Grand Prize winners. For each of those winners, the prize helped val- Accelerator judges (l-r), Tom Ball - Austin Ventures, Paige Craig - Angel Investor, Erick Schonfeld - Demo idate their founders' visions. "All of the finalists were extremely impressive. We were extremely Health Technologies. It's something that five years ago, I couldn't have honored to be selected as a winner," said Polina Raygorodskaya, CEO predicted, and it wasn't even a category until year four. There's a lot hapof Wanderu, the Innovative Web Technologies winner. She added that pening in that sector." the benefits of winning extend well beyond the formal prize packages: King agreed: "The winner, Neurotrack, developed a technology to pre"Exposing our company at SXSW opened up a lot of doors and really dict Alzheimer's five years out. How does that not blow your doors off?" put our business on a worldwide map." Some entrepreneurs are drawn to enter Accelerator due to its strong You don't have to capture a Grand Prize to walk away a winner history of post-event acquisitions and successful funding rounds. But though, according to Oskar Kalmaru of Memoto, which competed in not everyone is driven by the lure of financial backing. Many, including the same category as Wanderu: "Being a finalist is a mark that you're Wanderu's Raygorodskaya, cite the opportunity to pitch before a panel onto something and adds to the picture that ours is a credible company. of expert jurors as their prime motivation: "The competition had some During the competition we also got to meet people and companies that of the best investors and industry insiders as judges, and it was a great we have initiated further contacts with and that will hopefully lead to experience to be able to present our product to them and hear their fruitful partnerships." questions and feedback." This year's Interactive Accelerator continued a rich tradition of showPast juries have included influential publisher Tim O'Reilly, Facebook casing truly cutting-edge technologies, and the business world has taken co-founder Chris Hughes and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark. notice. Siri was a prizewinner in 2010, just weeks before Apple acquired Valentine takes pride in recruiting top-flight judges each year. "It's not the software company. Portalarium, helmed by renowned game designer even the A list but the A-plus list. If you're an early-stage startup, and Richard Garriott, secured $1 million in funding three weeks after the you have the opportunity to learn from those people, that's an invalu2011 competition. All told, the 2009-2012 entrants have secured over able experience." a half-billion dollars in funding, and approximately 10 percent have Equally invaluable is the opportunity to pitch in front of a live audibeen acquired. ence. Memoto's Kalmaru said the packed house made the occasion extra It is too soon to gauge just how successful this year's competitors special: "It added to the feeling of a contest, and it was fun to get audiwill prove to be, but early signs point to many bright futures. SXSW ence reactions." Interactive board member and Accelerator emcee Brad King is among The setup doesn't fit in everyone's comfort zone, but that is admittedly those duly impressed. "This year's group was the strongest from top-toby design. "One of the things I like to see is how somebody responds," bottom," he says. "I spoke with this year's co-emcee, [3Com founder said Valentine. "It's easy to back somebody when they're doing well, but and venture capitalist] Bob Metcalfe, and the number of startups that this is a test of how they do in tough situations. It puts the CEO who's were legitimate businesses blew us away." pitching on the hot seat." Chris Valentine, SXSW Accelerator and Startup Village Event proRaygorodskaya, who admitted to being "very nervous" before delivducer, pointed to one category in particular for some of this year's ering her prizewinning pitch, offered some solace for future competitors: most promising startups: "We saw some unbelievable companies in "As long as you really know your business, it won't be a problem." ■

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