This past week I attended SF Disrupt 2012, a conference put on by startup news site TechCrunch.  Thirty or so startups presented their ideas, many for the first time publicly, to the audience.  These were trimmed down to finalists and then a final winner.  I only attended the first two days so I missed the excitement of the final voting.  However, I wanted to capture interesting ideas I saw while at the conference in this post.  This attempts to be more journalistic.  If you want more of a rant my feelings toward its startup culture, see my other post.

The Best Panel

Since my day job is building a collaboration tool, I was most looking forward to the "Disrupting Collaboration" session on the schedule but all of its entries fell flat to me.  Most of them consisted in taking a Dropbox-like tool and integrating it with something else.  Yawn.  However, I highly enjoyed the education and technology discussion.

Education + Technology: But Where’s the Revolution?:

Salman Khan (Khan Academy), Joel Klein (News Corporation), Sebastian Thrun (Udacity)

Good speakers on an important topic.  I think most people think the problem of education is about not having enough funding.  However, we’re in a fundamentally broken system that was consciously invented to socialize workers in the industrialized economy.  The fact that the U.S. is now focused on an information economy and that technology has allowed us to experiment with alternatives to the one teacher, one class model is very intriguing.  We’re already so far behind on education in all disciplines that if we don’t prioritize these types of projects, our nation will only be raising a generation of passive consumers of the products of other countries who do learn how to educate for the contemporary world.

(Watch a recording of this session.)


My Five Favorite Quotes/Facts

  1. Approximately one third of online reviews are fake (i.e. they are ads paid for by the product/service under review).
  2. It is not uncommon for Africans to spend 5% of their monthly salary on SMS fees.  (Robert Lamptey, CEO of Saya)
  3. The average patient only receives eight minutes of instruction when they leave the hospital after surgery or pregnancy (KnockedUp)
  4. In the current educational system, collaboration is cheating.  Yet employers really want collaborators. (Sebastian Thrun from the talk above)
  5. First there was Encyclopaedia Britannica.  Then Encarta came and we thought that was disruptive but it really was just an electronic version of the Britannica.  The real disruption was Wikipedia because it could not have existed without the web. (WattPad Co-founder, Allen Lau)


My Five Favorite Startups (In Order)

1. Saya

This is like VoIP for SMS.  In the developing world, smart phones are rare.  Saya is an app for feature phones that sends text over the internet, avoiding high SMS charges and giving it a nicer UX more like a smartphone.  This company got one of the best audience reactions, a testament to the presentation skills of the founders and the originality of the idea.  It got me thinking about all the opportunities going on in the emerging economies and how these types of ideas are going to be more and more common and totally missed out on by First World companies (until the acquisition stage, that is).

2. Lit Motors

With surprisingly little money, they built a prototype electric enclosed motorcycle that balances itself like a Segway and could be sold for $19K.  I was surprised that this company didn’t win the prize because it’s a such a potential growth market and they’ve solved most of the problems already.

3. Tovbot

A personal robotics company.  They showed a demo-friendly music-playing robot.  I was most interested in their concept art for a kitchen robot that knows your recipes and ingredients and can chop and mix things for you.  Want.

4. WattPad

It’s a net-native collaborative writing site.  Their pitch was about disrupting publishing by allowing people to publish directly.  What got me interested was the ability to publish novels serially and write a story collaboratively, like someone writes a paragraph and then someone else writes another.  I’m most excited about trying this myself.

5. BrightContext
They demoed a real-time sentiment analysis slider which could be used to gauge opinion during political speeches, tv shows, etc.  They did a great job showcasing a hardcore technical product with a demo-friendly use case while also hinting at the more radical possibilities it enables.

Despite the negative mood of my other blog, I thought it was really valuable to attend this conference and I look forward to seeing how the finalist and winners do over the next year.  I hope it’s not too long before a see a Lit Motors cycle driving in the city.