Smartphone Robots, Insect-Wing Wind Power, Online Video Game Tourneys & More Notes from the UW Business Plan Competition

Hundreds of people packed the Bell Harbor Conference Center on Seattle’s waterfront yesterday for the University of Washington’s annual Business Plan Competition. Now in its 14th year, the competition is a great showcase of energy and ideas from student entrepreneurs and some of their more experienced collaborators.

Last night, the group of 37 teams was whittled down to the “sweet 16” semifinal round. You can learn more about the particulars of the competition at the Foster Business School website, and check out the list of the 16 semifinalists.

I wasn’t there as a judge, but decided to compile a few capsules of the proto-companies that caught my eye—even though some of them didn’t make the next round, or even have websites yet, we could be hearing more from these folks in the future.

Yoi! Gaming
Massively multiplayer video games are not exactly mainstream, but the people who are into them are really passionate—there are mini-celebrity players who make a living in competitive gaming, John Madden-esque online commentators, and big tournaments with serious prizes.

But Yoi! Gaming CEO C.J. Wong says there’s a gap between those big tournaments, which can be difficult to qualify for, and the smaller, local competitions that rely on having everyone in the same place. “We feel like we’re in 1918 before the NFL started—there’s a bunch of small leagues out there,” Wong says.

The idea behind Yoi! is to set up online matchmaking that can sort people into quick groups for competing against each other, with buy-ins and prizes—something that should sound familiar to anyone who’s seen online poker sites explode in the past decade.

Wong says, however, that online video gaming competitions have avoided the heat that regulators have applied to poker companies because the games are seen as more skill-based, and not related to gambling. Yoi! already has a license from Blizzard Entertainment, the makers of hugely popular game StarCraft—which, I am not making this up, is so popular in South Korea that tournaments are shown live on TV.

These guys are developing a small, cheap robot that uses a smartphone as its brain. The little machine, which looks like an iPhone riding a miniature pair of Segway wheels, is intended mostly for entertainment purposes on the consumer side right now—tooling around the house or “chasing your cat,” as co-founder Alex Simpkins put it. But what makes this more than a Roomba, is the ability to customize with hardware and software.

If this robot hits the market, ZeroBrane envisions its users will be able to order additional parts, like arms and pinchers, and download the code to write their own programs for controlling the robot. That really hits on the tinkerer and “maker” trends that have been on the rise among some techies lately, as well as the traditional hobbyist crowd that has radio controlled cars, planes, and boats. “People are very curious, and they’re hungry for things they can hack, and change, and do things with,” Simpkins says.

That also makes ZeroBrane a good fit for education, Simpkins says, giving schools a fun way to teach a ton of technical skills, including physics, computer science, and math, along with general problem-solving, for relatively low cost—the target price is about $250, which still gives ZeroBrane a good profit for each unit.

The ZeroBrane team sees a much larger potential field as the technology develops, with possible commercial and military uses. This kind of cheap, powerful, customizable robotics calls to mind the kit-computer era of the ’70s—a parallel that makes the future of personal robots seem really exciting and tangible.

Probably the coolest-looking thing on display at the competition, Pterofin is a very small-scale wind energy generator based around the design of insect wings. The prototype looked like a chunk of some crazy special-effects giant dragonfly from Jurassic Park.

By changing the design so radically away from the traditional spinning-blades turbine, the Pterofin offers the ability to generate power from a small device, at much lower wind speeds. That also makes home installation cheaper, quieter, and less problematic with local regulators, says Dan Bush, the team’s vice president of operations. “If you’re a home right now and you want to go green and use wind energy, you’re looking at like $6,000,” Bush says.

The Pterofin, by contrast, is aiming for a roughly $500 price. The Pterofin starts working at wind speeds of about 3-4 mph, and could save a homeowner around $80 in annual energy costs running at an average 7-8 mph wind speed, Bush says—much lower than the speeds typically required to make current turbines worthwhile.

Feral Motion
This group of ski-goggle wearing entrepreneurs gives snowboarders, skateboarders, and other “action sports” junkies the ability to film their exploits without having to buy their own video equipment or recruit a friend as a camera operator. They do it by setting up weatherproof cameras that track anyone carrying a special RFID tag, and storing the video online, sorted for each unique user.

Skaters have been making their own videos for years by following each other around with video cameras, and snow-sports enthusiasts have done the same. That’s only increased in popularity with the spread of Internet video sharing and the shrinking cost of electronics, but there’s still the need to recruit a friend to act as videographer while everyone else tries their best tricks. Feral Motion‘s camera setup looks pretty rugged, but is actually inexpensive enough to produce that the company can install them for free at a ski resort. “We don’t have to sell them on a camera system,” CEO Robert Capogna says.

The revenue comes through charging users for the RFID tags, which are about the size of a credit card, but thicker. So a snowboarder, for instance, gets 10 days of filming for about $100, and can log on to the Feral Motion website later, enter the tag ID number, and watch the highlights from cameras installed at the trick-riding area. Capogna says he’s already tested the camera at a skate park and at Crystal Mountain, and plans to demonstrate the product at Oregon ski areas next.

Farmers are more technologically adept than most people might expect. When many of us were fumbling with a brick-sized GPS unit in our cars several years ago, even family farms in the heartland were shaving precious dollars from their operating costs by employing pinpoint-accurate GPS steering on their massive combines and tractors, or tagging their livestock with RFID chips.

AgComm‘s plan is to help farmers get better control over their precious crops by linking a sensor network in the field with cloud-based computing power and an easy-to-use Web display—a trio that could allow a wheat grower to monitor the soil and ensure the best use of precious irrigation water, for instance, or save electricity by making sure cooling fans in an apple orchard are operating when they need to be.

“What we’re seeing is that if there’s a way for them to have more control, they’re going to spend the money—and they’re not afraid of technology,” says Mike Warady, a business consultant with AgComm.

Another agriculture and technology play, this time tackling the sometimes opaque and inefficient markets for crops. One of the partners in this company is a pear farmer in Wapato, WA. And when that farmer takes his fruit to the middlemen, also called fruit packers, it can be difficult to know if he’s really getting the best deal because of a lack of good information about prices.

The site already is operating with some farmers, collecting data for apple, pear and cherry growers. And PackerData technology chief Jeffrey Baker says it’s showing some major advantages for real-world growers, pointing to an example from live data on the website.

“Our fruit farmer, if they had sold their load of fruit 11 miles down the road to a different packer than they had sold it to, they would have made $40,000 instead of $25,000,” Baker says. Revenue comes from subscriptions, which start at about $100 per year for one crop, and could include advertising later.

PackerData is a utility-type service that could operate with little staffing once up to scale, since the growers are the ones entering data into the system. It’s possible to take the idea beyond just agriculture—commercial fishermen face a similar problem, but so do dentists, Baker says. And the data-sharing and processing power could go vertical in each market as well, giving the fruit packers more horsepower to get good prices from retailers. “Let’s give packers the data to fight Wal-Mart,” Baker says.

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