From patent trolls to plastic speakers

Times are tough, but innovative startups can win the support of venture capital, and trade shows like Demo still play a key role in the industry

Going to Comdex this year? And how was your trip to PC Expo last June? Oops. Doors closed and as unlikely to reopen as Lehman Brothers. So why did I just return from a trade show that's not only alive and well, but going strong after more than a dozen years? That was Demo Fall 09, which just concluded in San Diego with a full house of more than 60 startups paying as much as $18,500 to demonstrate their wares, and nearly 600 attendees, including a sizable contingent of sharp-eyed venture capitalists.

Well, it's because innovation remains the lifeblood of our industry, and even in tough times, money and ideas need to flow. And unlike the dear, departed trade shows of the past, Demo has been able to evolve with our rapidly changing industry. (I should disclose that Demo is owned by IDG, which also owns InfoWorld. But I'd add that I attended and enjoyed previous editions of the conference long before I worked for this company and no one told me to write this column.)

[ Check out more of InfoWorld's coverage of the Demo Fall 09 conference. | Keep up on the day's tech news headlines with InfoWorld's Today's Headlines: First Look newsletter. ]

This year, the conference organizers presented a basketful of lifetime achievement awards to executives and technologists whose companies debuted at Demo and who went on to become significant forces in the industry. Their names will give you a sense of the show's scope and influence. Not to slight anyone (a full list is available) but you've got to note that the list includes Marc Benioff, who debuted at the show in 2000; Diane Green of VMware, 1999; Donna Dubinsky, Palm, 1999; Mike Cassidy, Xfire, 2005; and Shah Agassi, TopTier, 1997.

Move Demo to Silicon Valley
Is Demo as good as it could be? Of course, not. The conference needs to do more to retain its relevancy.

One big issue is the decision to hold the show in San Diego, when so many of the companies and venture capitalists who attend are based in Silicon Valley. San Diego is certainly a lovely city to visit, but in this economy, forcing companies to spend thin resources on travel and hotel bills doesn't make sense.

And as others have pointed out, there should be a boot camp for the presenters. Poor pitches are distracting and block the flow of ideas. What's more, the presenters are spending big money to be on the stage and attendees are paying to hear their ideas, so putting more polish on those pitches would result in more ROI for everyone.

From patent trolls to plastic speakers
Sure, listening to 70 pitches in two days, not to mention lots of informal chats, can be mind numbing. But where else can you get a snapshot of the tech industry's future and the issues real entrepreneurs are thinking about?

Consider patent law. Not a fun topic, but it's a mark of our litigious times that a Shakespeare-quoting electrical engineer turned lawyer was well received. Cheryl Milone heads Article One Partners, a startup that offers a marketplace of experts who will help young companies navigate the very tricky waters of patent law. I'll be writing more about this in the near future, but for now, be warned: Patent trolls are out there.

Two of my top picks at the show, Emo Labs and Liaise, shared a $1 million prize offered by IDG. (Hey, it's nice to be right now and then.) Emo has turned acoustic engineering inside out by inventing a speaker made of a thin sheet of plastic, while Liaise offers an e-mail management solution that parses message for key meanings. The founders of the company trained the system by taking a deep dive into the millions of publicly available e-mail messages emanating from the Enron scandal. See the full list of award winners. And here, as Chris Matthews likes to say, is today's big number: More than $1 billion in venture capital has flowed to presenting companies at Demo in the 13 years that she has headed the show, says Demo's executive director Chris Shipley.

Another mark of our suspicious times: Intelius offers a product called DateCheck, which does a quick background search on potential dates to see if they have a criminal record or maybe still live with their moms. I don't know if the company has a future, but it did win a Demogod for its funny presentation.

Hint to developers: Don't let somebody's idea of political correctness put you off. I ran into the developers of Trapster, a mobile app that uses crowdsourcing to warn drivers of speed traps and other police activity in real time. Sure, you can argue that Trapster is abetting bad behavior, but the little company has some 2 million downloads, including 1.2 million on Apple's App Store, and is close to making a major deal (I can't write about it yet) that will really surprise you.

A final note: Chris Shipley, who headed the show for 13 years, a woman notable for her good humor, sympathetic ear, and discerning eye for technological talent, is moving on to devote her energies to her own company, the Guidewire Group. Matt Marshall, a founder of VentureBeat, will become the show's executive director.

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