TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield can create overnight tech success 

Tomer Dvir felt nervous and worried under the bright stage lights. His company was a finalist in an international tech talent show, and some German music company named “UJam” had just slayed the audience with its product pitch. UJam’s CEO started singing a song, and his program automatically began playing music behind him.

“It was so cool,” remembered Dvir, CEO of the Israeli “anti-frustration software” company Soluto. “The judges shouted ‘Amazing!’ in the first three seconds. We thought to ourselves, ‘We’re doomed.’”

Then it was Dvir’s turn to present.

Although making old computers go faster isn’t very sexy, Soluto had survived the intense application process for TechCrunch Disrupt 2010’s New York battle. Then the 20-person company survived a day one preliminary battle. Finally, on day three, Dvir and his colleagues won the whole prize.

“It’s maybe the most significant experience we’ve had,” he said. “It’s a great place to launch a product.”

Silicon Valley’s version of “American Idol” sweeps into San Francisco from Monday through Wednesday, when up to 24 previously unknown tech startups will battle one another before an all-star cast of celebrity judges from the tech world. About 2,000 VCs, technologists, CEOs and reporters will spend about $3,000 per ticket on the sold-out event, which will be streamed to tens of thousands more online.

The winner of the semiannual, bi-coastal TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield gets $50,000, the Disrupt Cup, and massive exposure not only to the public and press, but the most powerful venture capitalists in the world. The event is sponsored by TechCrunch, a Silicon Valley news network that just formed its own venture capital fund.

On Sept. 1, company founder and editor Michael Arrington announced that this new “CrunchFund” will invest in the kind of companies that TechCrunch writes about and invites to Startup Battlefields. The $20 million fund included a $10 million investment from the news network’s owner, AOL.

But following articles about the journalistic conflicts of interest raised by such an arrangement, AOL removed Arrington from his position as TechCrunch editor. That provoked a high-profile spat between Arrington and AOL, and at press time it appeared as if Arrington had been ousted.

Yet the journalism issues aren’t likely to deter entrepreneurs, and thus the new CrunchFund should only make Startup Battlefield more attractive to startups.

Applications for this year’s San Francisco event closed July 31 amid strong demand, a spokeswoman said. Contestants and brackets will remain a secret until the contest, said Kelly Mayes of AOL.

In May’s New York battle, five companies per session competed in five separate sessions grouped around search, location, enterprise, the real world, and “something else.”

An applicant must submit a video of no more than five minutes that shows the product, its key features and what makes it different, as well as a five-slide PowerPoint.

All startups’ public websites must have been live for fewer than three months at the time of application, and companies can’t have presented at other public launch events. Companies from all around the world apply.

“It has a pretty good filter ahead of time,” Dvir said. “You have to meet some experts and TechCrunch guys, and if you’re not doing something interesting with the potential to disrupt a market, you’re not going to get through the stages.”

The victory bump from Startup Battlefield brought Soluto’s servers to their knees, but also led to its highly rated free software being downloaded more than 2 million times. After spending three years building powerful, free tools to help consumers speed up their sluggish computers, Soluto was able to build upon its experience at Disrupt by securing $10.2 million in Series B funding on June 23.

Three days of battles commence Monday, wherein the startups make their pitch to all-star judges such as Google’s Marissa Mayer, who judged in May 2011 alongside Roelof Botha of Sequoia Capital, Ron Conway of SV Angel and TechCrunch’s Arrington.

“You’re getting questions from the smartest people in the industry,” said Dvir. “The ones that get to the highest levels are really companies that have the potential to be greats. Just like ‘American Idol,’ if you’re not a good singer, if you’re not a good performer, you’re not going to get to the end.”

Battlefield startups usually consist of small teams of tech veterans who use Disrupt as a launch platform. For example, the founders of storytelling search engine Qwiki, which won the September 2010 Battlefield, included Alta Vista legends Doug Imbruce and Louis Moneir.

“‘Startup’ just means it’s a small company with new ideas,” said Odeo and Google veteran Kevin Systrom, founder of popular photo application Instagram, who will speak on a panel at TechCrunch Disrupt. “There are startups with fantastically smart people with a lot of experience.”

Instagram started out as a “check-in app that let you take photos, but became a photo app that lets you check in,” he said. Benchmark Capital invested $7 million in Instagram in February. Today, Instagram has 8 million users and four employees in San Francisco.

TechCrunch hands out the $50,000 check and the Disrupt Cup on Wednesday at 7 p.m. New companies also can pay to launch and demo in a “Startup Alley” where they are eligible for the Audience Choice Award. The prior Audience Choice Award winner was Happy Toy Machine, a custom plush toy design and creation company.

A hackathon that doesn’t involve BART

Bay Area residents might be a little bit sick of “hackers” after the vigilante group Anonymous published private data belonging to BART riders and police officers on Aug. 14.

That was just the latest in a series of hacking headlines involving Anonymous this year. They’ve pilfered sensitive information from U.S. police departments, and waged denial-of-service attacks on banking companies and PayPal.

But the TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon on Saturday in San Francisco promises a more benign type of hacking. While hacking is often negatively associated with violating computer security systems for fun and/or profit, “hacking” can also mean the customization of computer software and hardware by hobbyists.

Hacking parties around the globe often seek to cobble together new consumer services or remix existing ones. Facebook, Google and Yahoo! spur the creation of new features with hacking parties. Companies routinely provide hackers a set of programming tools for using company data, called application programming interfaces or  APIs, as well as the data itself.

The TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon will be held in conjunction with the Startup Battlefield as part of a conference sponsored by the leading tech news network Monday through Wednesday.

Hackathon sponsors include cloud-services supporter Twilio, cloud storage provider Box.net, location data companies Quova and CityGrid and even Ford, which offers voice-recognition in cars. These companies will make their APIs available for free as tools to build new products and services. A similar event held in May in New York drew about 500 hackers.

Fueled by free Red Bull and pizza, small teams of mostly males as young as 14, as well as some women, build apps and show them off the next day. The Judge’s Choice award in May went to the project “Gilt-ii” — which enables auctions around sales at the designer e-commerce site Gilt. “Docracy” won an award for creating a service to share and sign legal documents, as did “Doach,” a digital dating coach.

Hackathons often express the whimsy and humor of the hackers, which is how you get projects like “Venture Crapital” — a game based on the Silicon Valley tech bubble. Then there’s voice-activated machete “MrStabbyphone” and drinking game app “Drunkerator.”

Hackathons have also spawned companies like GroupMe. The group messaging service lets users create private phone groups with others, send text messages throughout the group, and conduct free conference calls. Born at the NYC 2010 Hackathon, GroupMe raised $10.6 million before Skype purchased it in August. GroupMe delivered more than 100 million messages last month.

“GroupMe’s done a fantastic job of becoming a very relevant company and a top app in the app store,” said San Francisco technologist Kevin Systrom, founder of the hot photo-sharing app Instagram.

Hackathon is free to hackers Saturday at the San Francisco Design Center Concourse. TechCrunch Disrupt’s fourth Hackathon kicks off at 2 p.m., runs all night, and goes till 2 p.m. Sunday, when final awards and recognitions will be provided by judges.

— David Downs

Ready for launch

The TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield consists of the following steps:

  1. Develop an idea for a company that disrupts the markets for existing products or services.
  2. Build a prototype with a small team of entrepreneurs.
  3. Meet the Disrupt application deadline by submitting a five-minute video and a five-slide PowerPoint presentation.
  4. Survive a vetting process that includes sessions with industry experts and TechCrunch judges.
  5. Present as a finalist in a preliminary battle before an all-star judges panel, 2,000 investors, CEOs and global media, plus 250,000 online viewers.
  6. Compete against fellow preliminary winners in a final battle.
  7. Winner gets the Disrupt Cup and $50,000.

Where are they now?

Previous winners and runner-ups.

DoAT

  • Product/service: Mobile search
  • Award: Finalist, Disrupt N.Y. May 2011
  • Now: Raised $7 million
  • http://www.doat.com/


Getaround

  • Product/service: Peer-to-peer car rental
  • Award: 1st Place, Disrupt N.Y. May 2011
  • Now: 1,600 cars in first 24 hours of public launch May 24
  • http://www.getaround.com/


GroupMe

  • Product/service: Group text messaging and conference calls
  • Award: Honorable mention, Disrupt N.Y. May 2010 Hackathon
  • Now: Acquired by Skype for an estimated $43 million Aug. 21
  • http://groupme.com/


Qwiki

  • Product/service: Story-telling search engine
  • Award: 1st Place, Disrupt N.Y. Sept. 2010
  • Now: Raised $10.5 million in three rounds
  • http://www.qwiki.com/


Soluto

  • Product/service: Speeds up old PCs
  • Award: 1st Place, Disrupt N.Y. May 2010
  • Now: $10.2 million funding June 23
  • http://www.soluto.com/


UJAM

  • Product/service: Online music creator
  • Award: Runner-Up, Disrupt N.Y. May 2010
  • Now: 50,000 alpha testers as of June 2011
  • http://www.ujam.com/

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David Downs

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