Startup Paradise Demo Day Shows Hawaii’s Progress

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IMAG2276Hawaii is not yet a hotbed of startup innovation, but the progress of our local entrepreneurial ecosystem continues to raise the bar for what we–and those on the mainland–should expect from Hawaii-based startups. Although Hawaii entrepreneurs have some ground to gain, given the number of Startup Paradise companies with little to no prior connection to Hawaii, it’s still beneficial for local entrepreneurs to interact with these mainland startups and for these startups to spread the word on the legitimacy of Hawaii as having had a part in helping to improve the prospects of their businesses.

In keeping with the inclusive nature of Startup Paradise, the June 2014 demo day included startups from both Energy Excelerator and Blue Startups. And while not one presentation included an actual demo (many seemed to not even be in beta), the presentations did show some novel ideas and interesting approaches, especially on the energy side.

Additionally, every local startup event seems to draw out more and more new faces, young and old, again showing the growth and impact of the efforts of our Hawaii ecosystem.

Here are highlights of some of the startup teams that presented…

Energy Excelerator’s Teams

Oroeco, based in San Francisco, started the day by explaining that their platform gamifies the greenness of your life and helps people “close the gap between what they believe and how they behave.” Oroeco tracks your spending, mainly through an integration with the Mint personal finances app, and integrates that with your home’s electrical usage data, then uses points and rewards to help incent better behaviors. They’ve gained quite a bit of media exposure and plan to do many additional integrations to broaden their impact on users’ lives, from carbon offsets to tracking of travel.

As with most startups these days, they eventually plan to sell user data to advertisers as what I thought would be their main revenue source. However, in an interesting twist, they are working with financial services firms to create an energy-related exchange-traded fund, for which they would pitch to their users and share management fees. The “twist” here was when the presenter stated that the management fee revenue would eventually be the only revenue Oroeco required.

With that unique spin, I was left with one question: Is Oroeco a web startup or the lead generation tool for an ETF?

People Power, based in Palo Alto, pitched their idea for turning old smartphones into wireless cameras for home security and automation, from climate control to lighting. Their approach was to use an old phone’s camera as a motion detector, then use that data to control lights or notify homeowners.

One might think, “I have three bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen, so I guess I need at least five old smartphones?” But, People Power didn’t dive very deeply into how their system worked, although USA Today chose their surveillance abilities as a “very best” app of 2013! And, their partner list is long, so it will be interesting to see if they can branch out beyond old smartphones and into a broader home and office automation play.

IMAG2279Autowatts, based in Honolulu and Denver and started by former Sunetric CEO, showed their plan to turn car dealers into a solar PV sales channel. Autowatts softare enables the dealers to easily pitch PV to electric car buyers as a way to offset their electric car’s energy consumption, essentially offering a way for dealers to upsell buyers with add-on products and services. It took a while for the pitch to eventually get to the crux of the business, and they were a bit confused on whether they were “selling” their idea to car buyers or dealers, but the dealer as the customers seems like an interesting approach.

Autowatts said that they are currently working in eight states, but it was unclear from their map if Hawaii was one of those states.

(Note to Autowatts:  When showing the slide of auto manufacturer logos and subtly imply that you’re working with them, you should probably eliminate those that are no longer manufacturing cars, like Saab, Coda, and Fisker. It’s a knock on your credibility.)

Ballast Energy, based in Berkeley, CA, but started by an Iolani grad, is working on a new manufacturing process for lithium ion batteries. While the need for new battery tech is pressing, and has the potential to be a hugely profitable industry, Ballast is still in the early stages of “optimizing their batteries and the technology” for manufacturing, with at least another year of optimization and two years until pilot manufacturing. At that point, they plan to license their tech to existing battery manufacturers.

IMAG2283Shifted Energy,  based in Hawaii and an offshoot of Kanu Hawaii, aims to turn hot water heaters into grid-connected smart batteries. According to Shifted Energy, since hot water heaters keep water warm for 6 or so hours, and demand is sporadic, they can be used to store excess grid energy. In other words, instead of topping off your hot water whenever you have the need, why not make it a smart internet-connected device that only heats when there’s excess energy in the grid?

It’s an amazingly clever idea, but seems like it would take a lot of work for a homeowner to install. Do I need a plumber? An electrician? For a hot water heater, it’s not like you just put a smart plug between your existing outlet and your heater’s cord (was with a lamp). And, what happens if I need to take a shower but there hasn’t been any recent excess energy? I’d bet that, after their first lukewarm shower, most homeowners would opt out. But, hopefully Shifted Energy has plans to mitigate those costs and concerns. With $500,000 in revenue already, along with live testing in Hawaii, I hope we hear more soon!

Blue Startups’ Teams

Vantage Sports, based somewhere (it’s not listed on their minimal website, and their 800 number has “yet to be activated”), wants to bring big data to sports, starting with the NBA. Their current model is to capture deep player stats, then sell them via subscription back to teams and agents. Showing one of the few actual product demos during the day (albeit in a video), Vantage Sports claims that it takes only about $500,000 to capture their broad data for an entire NBA season. They didn’t say how they captured that data (software or human?), but it did seem to be extremely robust compared with currently available data.

Future plans call for expanding to other sports, plus selling data to fantasy sports services, the media, and even gambling services. With data becoming such a daily part of everything, it’s a very interesting play.

Cultur, whose website is currently inoperable but their Twitter profile lists their location as “global,” intends to monetize FOMO, or the “fear of missing out.” Clever!

Basically, you create your Cultur profile and they push to you concerts and events that are nearby and which mesh with your preferences. From there, Cultur intends to make money off of referral fees for event ticket purchases.

It’s definitely a problem in need of a solution, but the challenge will be for Cultur to somehow get their app on a  consumer’s phone and at the top of an event-seeking consumer’s mind. Towards the end of their pitch, they quickly mentioned potential partnerships with wireless carriers, which could be a great way into consumers’ hands.

IMAG2286Focus Opus, based in Honolulu, boils down to a modern, refreshed approach to the Franklin Covey and 7 Habits techniques for behavior management and goal attainment. They started with a paper planner (and a book written by the founder), but are now moving their approach to the online world. They have an interesting target of “business students,” so not sure why other students are excluded.

Quic, another one with an inoperable website but apparently based in San Francisco, allows people to monetize the content they post to social networks. Honestly, I didn’t really get this one. I couldn’t follow the pitch or understand how they made money, who they targeted, or what they were really “selling.” Maybe it was just me.

Ingollow, based in Boston, aims to eliminate the need for pre-vacation planning and research by connecting travelers with local businesses. In an interesting twist, travellers will get paid for leaving reviews, which prompts me to immediately question the legitimacy of those reviews. The presentation didn’t dive into their differentiation, and although they claimed to allow instant bookings, they didn’t mention how they’d integrate with the hundreds of different booking engines. It’s a very crowded field, so I’d be interested to learn more about their differentiation, their marketing plan, and their approach to pitching it to local merchants.

Making Progress

While this “demo day” was less demo and more of just an exhibition of startup ideas and potential plans, I’m hopeful that future events allow the startups to both go deeper into their solutions and to take questions, either from the audience or from a panel of experienced startup entrepreneurs and investors. Progress has definitely been made, with pitches being much more professional and complete than in the recent past, but Hawaii is at a point where startups need to be more credible, provide deeper insights, show live product demos, tout some customer case studies, and answer probing questions from the audience. Energy Excelerator’s teams showed a bit more “real” solutions and progress over Blue Startups’, but it’s not a competition, and neither group showed much.

Getting to a deeper level of pitches would also be incredibly informative for the new, budding entrepreneurs in the audience, and to help prepare Hawaii’s startups for the tough questions to come from local and mainland investors, pitch competition judges, potential partners and customers, and media. It’s a natural progression, so I’d expect to see these demo days move into more detailed and critical presentations very soon.