5 cool startups at the first Launch conference

With a crowded conference space for the launch of new startups — DEMOspring, DEMOfall, TechCrunch Disrupt — is there room for another springboard for interesting start-ups?

Yep. The first Launch conference, held Wednesday and today at the San Francisco Design Concourse, showed off a wealth of entrepreneurial talent — and proved to be entertaining at the same time. Thanks to the conference prowess of founder Jason Calacanis and the on-stage cleverness of judges such as VCs Dave McClure, Yossi Vardi, and actor Kevin Pollak, who instructed startup founders to target “the C- to B+ students” who have grown up to become the vast midsection of U.S. consumer culture.

About 1,300 attendees turned out, and more than 100 startups competed for one of the prized placements on stage.

Here are a few of the startups I found interesting, both on the stage and of the demo pit:

Group{in}: Organize your work & personal lives

Appconomy’s Group{in} is a mobile app that lets you organize your work and personal life into “the groups and people that matter to you” and across the channels you already use. By simplifying group communications across multiple channels, including private in-app messaging, e-mail, SMS, phone Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and more, Group{in} makes working in groups easy, efficient and fun. It looked pretty cool to me, though the judges seemed unimpressed.

Give2Gether: Democratized social fund-raising

Anyone can instantly raise funds for a cause with give2gether, a welcome addition to the good social space. CEO/co-founder Amon Shafir gave me a deep dive into the service, which appears to be much more effective than efforts like Facebook Causes. While the average donor on Causes gives 70 cents for each cause he joins, the average person on Give2Gether has given $75 — about 100 times more — during the early going (about 30 projects). The trick is in sharing causes with your social contacts and monitoring the results in your dashboard. Says the site: “Think of it as the Twitter of philanthropy — a tailored, self-service SaaS platform helping non-profits monetize social interactions. Give2Gether turns strangers into friends, friends into donors and donors into fundraisers, at one-third of the traditional cost.”

News 360: News & multimedia on your iPad

In the demo pit, I met Nina Grigorieva, CEO of Moscow-based News360, who showed off its marvelous capabilities on an iPad. (I’m waiting for version 2 of the iPad before buying one.) It has the same elegance as Flipboard and, unlike News Corp.’s The Daily, it’s completely free and has some nice social sharing features. It aggregates thousands of news sources, tracks your favorite news sources, creates personalized news feeds by topic and lets you share interesting stories with your friends. If you own an iPad, you’ll want this app.

Brand-Yourself: Manage your reputation

Presented on Day 2, Brand-Yourself is a way for regular people to monitor and manage their online identity and reputation. The Web-based platform helps non-techies brand yourself or brand your business. Grow your online reputation by building positive content around your name that shows up high in Google, “bury” existing Google results, promote yourself to the right people on social media and monitor your progress as you build your brand.

DARfm: A DVR for radio

DAR lets you record, play and pauses your favorite radio programs, including talk radio, sports, news, music and another programming. The startup is founded by Michael Robertson, founder of MP3.com and Lindows.com.

Other startups worth a look

See the full list of demo pit startups. There were plenty of other startups worth keeping an eye on as well:

• Hashable helps you build and track relationships that matter. It’s on the iPhone now, and an Android version is coming soon.
• LawPivot is a legal Q&A website enabling companies–especially startups–to confidentially receive crowdsourced legal answers from highly qualified lawyers for a fraction of the cost. Currently, open only to California lawyers and companies.
• TaleSpring allows authors and storytellers to create animated, interactive books that can be published to mobile devices such as the iPad, iPhone and Android phones and tablets.
• Room 77 is “the world’s first hotel room database and search engine. Find the perfect room with personalized room recommendations at top hotels.”
• GreenGoose greengoose.com is a lifestyle app with gaming elements.
• Pen.io is a super fast way to publish content online, designed as an alternative to blogs.

Jason should be commended for the low cost of entry — DEMO charges about $20,000 I think, and TechCrunch Disrupt nearly $1,000. Quality, not entry fees, is what should matter when presenting best-of-breed startups to the public, and Jason nails that. Watch archives of the sessions on Launchconf’s YouTube channel.

Suggestion to Jason: Someone on your team should have been updating the website with information about each of the featured startups as they were presenting. It’s difficult — especially from home — to keep track of the names and URLs of the startups making presentations.

The second suggestion to Jason: Zero women among 15 grand jury members? What about Debbie Landa, Jasmine Antonick, Christine Herron, Kim Polese, Esther Dyson, Susan Mernit, or a few dozen other possibilities? You guys should make it a priority.

All in all, Launch is a fantastic addition to the conference circuit and a valuable new way in which startups can gain visibility and traction.

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