The buzzwords at PitchfestNW this year are hardly words—they're acronyms. MR, AR and VR, as in, mixed, augmented and virtual reality, came up frequently during pitches to a wizened panel of venture capitalists.
Thursday, the first of two Pitchfest days, featured two days of startups pitching proposals and plans and more than its share of bombast, mellifluous superlatives and multiple versions of "reality."
Limits? What limits? Computers have limits? The Japanese, German, Spanish and Aussie accents heard during tightly-controlled five-minute presentations evidenced only the limits of human language, not the coding wizardry and financial plans.
Nearly 400 companies applied for 74 spots. Themes included health care, cannabis and adult beverages, the aforementioned "MR, AR and VR" and data/metrics.
Anecdotally, the fest felt more diverse than one might have imagined given the tech industry's much-discussed lack of diversity. In the end, it's tough to pick between all the great pitches—that's the panelists' jobs, and five finalists and winner will be announced tomorrow afternoon.
But there was no denying some of the most memorable pitches were female-centric:
- Madorra’s founder/CEO Holly Rockweiler took the stage with aplomb to talk about her startup’s innovative ultrasonic-based approach to post-menopausal vaginal dryness.
She looked the all-male panel dead in the eye. "You heard me correctly—I said 'vaginal,' here on this stage."
While Viagra and similar products have received huge investments, Rockweiler noted, the estimated 32 million women who suffer from vaginal dryness—half of post-menopausal women—have few options besides pharmaceutical lubricants.
Madorra offers an "innovative tool" that's not a vibrator and has two pending patents. Rockweiler notes gynecologists are the target, and cancer patients—for whom some lubricants are a risk—"are our beachhead."
- Upstream Research’s Nick Bedbury says his company’s not trying to “draw conclusions” by synthesizing an enormous amount of health, toxin-related and scientific data—rather, it’s providing a much-needed, and previously-lacking Big Picture that “where you live matters.”
The Seattle-based environmental health company met with some 200 health care executives, Bedbury recalled, but their response was not encouraging: "They basically said, 'please don't take this public.'"
So the company's going in a whole different direction: its unique aggregating service brings together toxicity and health data points in a startling way.
Bedbury showed a map of Chicago lead exposure and noted that across the nation there are thousands of areas that have lead exposure on the level of Flint, Michigan. Government, academic and health companies and agencies are the target market.
- Mashup Machine co-founder Ben Cole says his startup creates “choose your own adventure game” — “next generation entertainment experiences powered by machine learning and crowd creativity.”
In Mashup Machine, which Cole notes was listed by AT&T as a "startup to watch," users aren't separated into viewers and creators, Cole says, but are participating in the interactive entertainment product of the future — which Cole believes can succeed through a combination of subscriptions and selling analytics.
"We're teaching computers the principles of cinematic entertainment," Cole says.
- Truece is a software and mobile application that facilitates effective co-parenting during a divorce and offers a broader range of tools and messaging and communication options than any other platform on the market, a presenter noted.
"When you're co-parenting, how do you deal with all the messy details of a divorce?" is the question Truece tries to answer—and the app could also eventually be repurposed for the foster care or adult care markets.
The startup is seeking $250,000 to half a million in seed money, and to date has been mostly based in "no-pay equity" from a dozen people who believe in it.
- WeGrow is a Boulder, Colorado-based startup and app that creates what founder and CEO Mason Levy calls “personalized micro-learning experiences” for people who want to learn more about how to grow cannabis and hemp.
"We'll become the largest cultivator in the world without ever touching a plant," Levy said. "We're literally crowdsourcing how to grow the best cannabis in the world."
Levy identified a target market of 57 million who are interested in growing cannabis, between 21 and 34 years old and who—like an estimated one in five Americans—now live in places where cultivation is legal. (A panelist noted that the target market might be far larger than that.)
The app gets top hits for important search terms, has had 20,000 "conversations" to date, and been listed as a top ten site by industry website Leafly. So far it's survived on $125,000 in initial capital investments from "family and friends," angel investors, and "just launched a full-blown product yesterday."
Disclosure: Willamette Week is the founder and presenter of TechFestNW.