NWEN “First Look” Forum Tells Story of Software Vs. Medical Startups: Online Travel Is the Winner

Xconomy Seattle — 

Variety was the theme of the Northwest Entrepreneur Network’s First Look Forum yesterday at the Arctic Club Hotel, a venerable establishment in downtown Seattle. There were a dozen startup companies with a wide array of ideas, each giving a five-minute pitch to an eclectic audience that included investors, entrepreneurship coaches, media, and sponsors. The startups were there to compete for a chance to win some cool prizes, and of course, score new investments. The “first look” aspect means none had presented previously to investors or venture capital groups—this is the brainchild of NWEN executive director Rebecca Lovell.

One interesting point: the initial group of companies represented much more than just software and tech. The bunch covered medical devices, techniques for combating everything from obesity to tooth decay to slow and messy colonoscopies, and applications across industries ranging from online travel to trucking to pet care. Only three of the 12 startups in the backyard of Microsoft were software companies.

But in the end, the five finalists—selected by audience voting—consisted of those three software startups plus two hardware/materials tech companies (though one of those has a biomedical application). Any of these certainly could make a promising business, but it’s also possible that the investors and other voters in the room were just more comfortable with tech than life sciences or medical companies. Or maybe it’s just that tech startups tend to require smaller amounts of startup capital that can lead to higher potential returns.

Here are my initial impressions and super-short summaries of what each of the 12 Northwest companies presented (plus more details on the finalists and winner below):

Developer of higher quality and purity techniques for doing DNA purification for automated DNA processing and life sciences applications.

Crux Medical Innovations
Producer of a special biopsy device that makes procedures like colonoscopies (done 20 million times a year in the U.S. to detect colon cancer) faster and more efficient.

Darwin’s Natural Pet Products
A six-year-old company that makes and delivers fresh, healthy frozen meals for cats and dogs; it has more than 1,500 customers, mostly in the Seattle area, and wants to go national.

DragGone Aerodynamics
Maker of add-ons to trucks that reduce fuel consumption by improving aerodynamics.

Empowering Engineering Technologies
Three-year-old company developing an elastic tendon-like medical device that helps people with gait disabilities walk; the orthopedic technology comes Cleveland Clinic and is currently being tested in patients. (This company is also presenting Wednesday at the inaugural meeting of Wings, the Northwest’s new medical device angel network, as Luke reported yesterday.)

A startup developing “biofeedback” utensils, like a special fork that measures how fast and how often you eat and helps you manage eating behaviors; the device targets people trying to lose weight.

Two-year-old online travel startup that provides an airfare search engine that includes “trip quality ratings” which estimate things like speed, comfort, and ease of trip for each itinerary choice.

University of Washington startup developing a new kind of cost-efficient cooling technology for electronics including computer chips, laptops, and data centers.

Two-year-old company developing novel tools for primary-care clinicians to diagnose and treat tooth decay; aimed at children.

Software startup developing an “intelligent platform” for meetings and conference calls. It seeks to help meeting-goers collaborate, connect their agendas and action items, and stay on topic.

New startup building online social marketplaces to help people and media companies share and sell digital content to social network consumers.

Goodwin Industries
Maker of new kinds of portable devices to combat sleep apnea and other sleep-breathing disorders like snoring.

OK, so after the first round of audience voting, there were five speakers selected to give follow-up 10-minute presentations. Here’s a little more context around their companies:

—Brian Glaister, Empowering Engineering Technologies

Really interesting approach, and a huge potential market of disabled people who want to find a way to walk. Just a comment: having personally worked in a robotics lab at MIT focused on walking and running, I can tell you that such “passive” assistive designs without motors can be limited in what they actually deliver, but they are much simpler and cheaper than powered devices, and can be successful for certain kinds of disorders or injuries.

—Dave Pelter, InsideTrip

This company fits into the next wave of online travel startups we’re hearing about more and more. Pelter is a veteran of Alaska Airlines and Farecast, and is involved with Yapta, so he knows the travel industry. He says U.S. air travel is a $300 billion market. But nobody else gives online consumers reliable ratings of things like legroom, gate locations and connection logistics, how old the airline’s planes are, and other indicators of trip quality. The business model is a mix of referral fees and advertising, and the core technology is based on relational databases.

—Daniel Rossi, Nanocel

As devices get smaller, faster, and cheaper, they also get hotter. Nanocel uses a combination of microfluidics and novel plastic materials to cool devices more cheaply than other liquid-based systems and more efficiently than cooling fans, as Rachel wrote in a profile earlier this year. (Rossi also wrote a guest post for Xconomy during the UW Business Plan competition last year.) The startup’s local supporters and advisors include Rick LeFaivre, Patrick Ennis, and Brian Crowley. Nanocel has a working prototype, a $50,000 grant from UW, and three patents pending.

—Mikal Lewis, Qworky

Lewis is a former Microsoft veteran, so he knows about meetings. Qworky’s tagline is “meetings that don’t suck.” But it makes me wonder how much technology can really solve what seems to be a fundamental social problem in which people lose focus and efficiency in meetings. Nevertheless, Lewis’s company has a working prototype and website (and is working on building a community of meeting-goers). It’s also using its system to host its own meetings. The business model will be “freemium,” meaning free for the basic stuff, with paid premium features. And look out—the company will have an iPad app soon.

—Tom Damico, Zendorse

At first glance, this company might sound a bit like DigitalScirocco, another Seattle startup building a new online marketplace for content. But Zendorse is totally different: it is about viral sharing of digital content (music, video, and so forth) and smart recommendations among social networks—what some call “social commerce.” Its “Koitunes” service helps consumers buy and share music with their friends no matter whether they use Rhapsody or Last.fm or iTunes; same with movie reviews across Amazon or other retail sites. Damico says the business is based on selling digital content, and licensing Zendorse’s data and Web services.

The ending of the event felt a little anticlimactic, after a full afternoon of really interesting technologies, markets, and opportunities. But the overall winner, from a second audience vote, was InsideTrip, the air travel rating company. And Nanocel, the cooling startup, was the runner-up.

But ultimately this story isn’t about the winners, it’s about the trends. Software and tech still rules the early-stage investment roost in the Northwest. People are watching the online travel space closely, especially here in the backyard of Expedia, Farecast, and Bing Travel. And there is no dearth of diverse ideas coming from the entrepreneurs around us. Congratulations to all the presenters, and thanks to NWEN for organizing this stellar event.

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4 responses to “NWEN “First Look” Forum Tells Story of Software Vs. Medical Startups: Online Travel Is the Winner”

  1. Ben Straughan says:

    Greg – thanks for the input, we appreciate your attending the event. I think you raise some valid points – some investors locally have a comfort with traditional tech companies outside the life science/medical device space: often a shorter time to liquidity, corresponding smaller investments, the lack of regulatory clearance. Today in particular most tech startups can get off the ground for relatively low costs.

    On the other hand, many of the medical device/health related companies have meaningful IP rights that can give them an edge over an internet/digital media company that makes the long term investment worthwhile. And many investors appreciate those facts.

    Not sure I’ve explained the results – all 3 software companies made the final grade – nor that we can. But we (NWEN) definitely sees interest in companies across a broad range of industries.

  2. Thanks, Ben. I think NWEN stands out as supporting a tremendous range of ideas, entrepreneurs, and companies. Like Xconomy, you are interested in innovation, not just Internet, mobile, or tech startups. Interesting IP issue—sounds like a theme to explore as we think about medical/healthcare vs. tech companies.