Saturday, January 19, 2013

Report from Brown University's West Coast Accelerator 2013

I attended a terrific entrepreneurial event today down in Silicon Valley at the invitation of my entrepreneurial colleague Jonathan Speed.  He's the driving force behind the West Coast Accelerator of Brown University's Entreprenuership Program.  Brown University students get expert mentoring from technology executives and pitch their business plans to a panel of VCs.  The presenting teams deserve mentions here.

Consignd applies social media endorsements to e-commerce in consignment goods.  Boutique product designers have a difficult time with branding and distribution in e-commerce.  Consignd enables consolidated blogger endorsements of products offered for retail purchase.  I can see how this would appeal to people who buy stuff after following power users of Pinterest and other social media sites.  Popular bloggers could also use it to monetize their social media feeds by making product endorsements.  

Durgood is an online product recommendation site for buyers of durable goods.  Existing product review sites don't fully address non-obvious nuances like a home space's size constraints.  If you've ever bought a refrigerator or microwave without first measuring your kitchen door's swing radius, you'll understand how easily you can make a poorly sized purchase with many product reviews online.  Durgood users are presented with qualifying questions on their budget size, lifestyle, and home space to present them with workable product selections.  

Elevate is an umbrella brand for athletic apparel and equipment serving disabled athletes.  The current market for disabled athletes is fragmented with no clear pipeline for innovative products.  Elevate intends to license limited-run specialty equipment and donate a portion of its profit to disability awareness projects.  I noticed that this startup has a page on Start Garden, a funding project that selects portfolio candidates through crowdsourcing.  That's a unique twist on crowdfunding, and financier Rick DeVos is willing to see his VC fund's capital allocation decisions made by the public.  

Exersaur is designing an interactive watch that encourages children to exercise through social gaming.  I couldn't find a corporate website for Exersaur, but they do have a page at Brown's SII Hub.  The point of connecting the watch's animated character to an online community is to motivate children to track their fitness goals.  I've heard a lot about gamification at plenty of Silicon Valley technology conventions.  Pretty soon you'll be seeing game-like competitive metrics in your corporate performance evaluations, so getting your kids started early might help them win the corporate rat race as adults.

gSuccess is a mobile app developer for the standardized collegiate entrance exam market in China.  I couldn't find their official website, but descriptions of their concept are available at the MIT $100K Competition and the Dell Social Innovation Challenge.  Their concept is to incorporate study materials into apps that provide customized performance feedback and tips for improving test scores.  I'm curious about the price points of typical Chinese middle class mobile app users, and whether their rising per capita incomes will get them as addicted to downloads as Americans.  

LoveGov is a non-partisan political information platform that matches voters to causes they can support.  User-generated data from political preference questions and demographics will create a community of interest to political campaigns and public causes.  I think a whole host of user-driven sites with a narrow focus will spring up as Facebook exercises more control over the broad range of content now posted there by users.  Flagging controversial Facebook wall posts will eventually drive those users to niche services that welcome their preferences.

The folks running this incubation program are doing everything right.  The best practices of many leading academic incubators include matching business students with university scientists who want to commercialize technology developed locally.  I think university-run incubation programs can really benefit from connecting entrepreneurs with technologists at government labs.  I'm specifically thinking of DOE Innovation Hubs and wondering whether their scientists are in contact with sharp business students.  The Livermore lab community has been a prominent participant in a public-private partnership that commercializes energy technologies.  If I were a student today, I'd check out Technology Ventures Corporation for the latest government research that deserves to be made into a viable business.

Well done, Brown students.  Your concepts reminded me of a business plan competition I participated in as a senior at Notre Dame in 1995.  My idea for copyright protection marks in digitized intellectual property briefed well but didn't win the top prize because I didn't have the coding experience to make it viable.  I had a virus-based idea that would have been too much trouble to execute in the portable media market.  Leading book publishers and movie studios were just about to beat me to the punch anyway with their own watermarks, so I wouldn't have had a chance to license it out even if I had made a finished product.  Every viable business idea has a correct time to launch.

Full disclosure:  I have no financial positions in any of the startups mentioned, nor was I remunerated in any way for this article.