Start-ups and venture capitalists are meeting up and mingling at this year’s Vator Splash Oakland. It’s like watching speed chess: They’re playing a very intelligent game at an audacious, breakneck clip. Everyone’s hustling and trying to win the future, rebuilding the way businesses work, the way cities work. It can get especially heated, given the ongoing Silicon (V)alley, price-per-square-foot war pitting Oakland vs. San Francisco vs. everyone else. (“Let’s make this arbitrage happen,” emcee Ezra Roizen said at one point.) It puts a whole new spin on “painstaking,” but it’s thrilling to watch. What’s the next move going to be?
At the afternoon sessions, all the incubators, influencers, and innovators (ignorable or not) really started showing their stripes. Investor Tim Draper, a walking franchise, “the McDonald’s of venture capital” the interviewer Heidi Roizen called him, said he wants to see more risk, more “causalities,” start-ups taking on “oligopolies” like big medicine, education, even government. (Draper, a techno-libertarian type, started a petition to divide California into six states.)
The day settled into the OaktownTech Startup Comptetition, which brought in five local businesses for a Shark Tank-style match-up. Each founder had five minutes to pitch an idea, five minutes of Q&A, with $30,000 of in-kind prizes on the line.
First up was Oakland’s Yozio, a tool that helps companies expand on mobile, fast. Founder Lei Sun described the product as more than an analytics engine, it’s essentially about automating the work of data scientists and seeing around the corner to the next big thing. “[Yozio] can dig much, much deeper,” than app user behavior, he said, and it’s got that up-and-to-the right momentum. (Read more bout Sun and Yozio: Yozio: An Oakland Startup That Optimizes Mobile Apps)
Next, headquartered just around the block in Jack London Square, was Back to the Roots. Founders Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora dropped what they were doing after graduating from U.C. Berkeley to try out a hayseed-ish business idea: You can grow pounds of oyster mushrooms from recycled coffee grounds. Turns out, it scaled quickly, going from fraternity house experiments in a bucket to a patented do-it-yourself kit at Whole Foods.
Back to the Roots found itself in a blooming “grow, make, eat” ecosystem, answering two of the biggest foodie/techie questions going at the moment: “Can I do it from home?” and “Where does my food come from?” (Read more: Shop Local: Back to the Roots Mushroom Kit)
mileME, a mileage tracker app, showed Vator Splashers how to commute smarter. Trips are automatically logged and it’s hands-free, making for a “download and do nothing,” rich experience. What counts is the mechanics: mileMe uses more than just a device’s GPS so there’s less battery-drain. Plus: No more doing math on the back on receipts crinkled in glove-compartments.
One more for the app arsenal: Co-founder Kyle Killion introduced Suiteness, a mobile app that helps travelers book four and five-star hotel rooms on the cheap, on the fly. Today, it only helps out in Las Vegas, very hush-hush, but the team’s about to make a push for New York, Miami, and L.A. Couch surfing it ain’t. For all the hype about the sharing economy, Suiteness is moving in the opposite direction, feeding high-roller envy with the rooms rock stars get in trouble for trashing. If you’re going to stay, stay memorably. ( “I am downloading this right now,” said a judge pulling out his phone.)
Last up was Rockbot, a reinvention of the antiquated jukebox for bars and businesses. Diners and drinkers who think of background music as “a piece of the spend” can open this app and choose which song comes up next in any participating location. Founder Garrett Dodge said choice motivates users to stay where they are longer. No more muzak or filler. There’s even a workaround for the jerk who wants to listen to the same song on repeat. Rockbot, Dodge said, is “drunk-idiot proof.” (Read more about Rockbot: Oaktech: Oakland-Based Rockbot Moving Into DeLauers Building, Tripling Staff)
Check back in with Live Work Oakland for the winner of the OaktownTech Startup Comptetition and day two of Vator Splash.