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Pitching the next big thing

9 September 08 12:16 GMT

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, San Francisco

Star power made a pitch for business at a conference aimed at finding and financing the next big thing in the technology world.

The actor Ashton Kutcher swapped Hollywood for Silicon Valley to introduce an interactive celebrity news site called BlahGirls.

His company was one of 52 appearing at the TechCrunch50 conference before an audience of venture capitalists, industry experts and the media.

"The web is a great place to create brands," explained Mr Kutcher.

"This conference is a great place to learn and to meet people who can help us improve our content."

Indeed the organisers believe this conference will be the leg up some start-ups need to make it to the next level.

"We want to create the Sundance Film Festival for the internet industry where companies are judged on merit," said Jason Calacanis, one of the conference's organisers.

At the conference, each company is given eight minutes to make its pitch and get first-hand advice from industry luminaries and executives who will also award points for the start-up most likely to succeed.

More than 1,000 companies from 49 countries applied to take part, covering social networking, cloud computing, mobile applications, games and entertainment.

At the end of three days of judging, one company will be crowned a winner and claim the cash prize of $50,000.

'Snarky'

While it could be argued that Mr Kutcher's Hollywood reputation could give him an unfair advantage, he told the BBC his reasons for attending this public forum were about meeting the industry players face-to-face and connecting with people who knew the technology better than he did.

"Sure, I could probably go out and get money and launch a web show, but I am here to learn. I'm here to meet people that are great at doing this kind of thing and learn something from them.

"I believe it won't be long before our computers are basically just a DVR [digital video recorder] for our television and if we can be ahead of that game, we will be pioneers in this space of content creation for the web."

BlahGirls is a gossip site offering news and views with real attitude. He said it was inspired by the teenage girls he drives around in his car, namely the daughters of his wife Demi Moore.

"I have a couple of teenage girls and it's funny listening to them and their friends when I am driving them to school and that is where the heart of the voices came from.

"They are a little snarky and I think the content has to be a little disruptive to find traction in this infinite universe we are distributing on."

Dan Farber, the editor-in-chief of CNet, said he could see BlahGirls having some real success thanks to Kutcher's celebrity recognition factor.

"BlahGirls has a unique advantage in that it is original content and could become cultish," he said.

Customers for life

Also making a bid for attention at TechCrunch50 was a web-based financial company selling software to teach children to become more savvy with their money.

iThryve's co-founder Shane Kimpton told the audience: "This is not a bank, we are a platform that sits on top of a bank and allows [children] at an early stage to build that customer-for-life relationship."

In a demonstration of the software, Mr Kimpton showed how a hypothetical Lacey or Jay could be taught how to save up for things they wanted, how to invest and even how to become entrepreneurs by opening lemonade stands or being "mommy's helper".

Mr Kimpton said he also hoped his company could "help cure the epidemic of financial ignorance in this country by teaching kids how to save and grow their money".

Ron Conway, a so-called "angel investor" who helps finance companies in return for equity, counts Google and Facebook in his portfolio. He told Mr Kimpton: "I would invest in iThryve but not until you have investors or backers like banks."

Moody shares

For those lucky enough to turn those savings into something more substantial, the founders of StockMood believe you might want to use their site.

The company told the TechCrunch audience they used artificial intelligence to analyse current news articles to determine if a company was receiving good or bad press - and how that in turn affected the company's share price and the "mood" of a stock.

"Mood is a critical part of our system. So when something is in a good mood it moves the stock price up, when something is in a bad mood the opposite is true," said co-founder Brett Markinson.

Google's vice-president of products, Marissa Mayer, said while she thought "the site was clever, a concern is whether it would be too sophisticated for lay people".

3D world

If children want to escape from the serious world of finance, then where better to go than a site that blends social networking with the virtual world?

Hangout.net is a web-based virtual world aimed at children and young adults "combining the nature of the Sims, with the privacy of Facebook and MySpace's customisation features", said company founder Panos Anthos.

Mr Anthos said the secret of Hangout was its ability to "bridge the offline and the online world to create a situation where real products can combine with real kids and real experiences. It's the perfect brand/kid combination".

The company has already done deals that allow users to buy and customise T-shirts and posters.

Angel investor Ron Conway agreed that product placement inside sites like this was a huge untapped market.

"There's a new multi-billion dollar market developing before our eyes and it's product placement. It will be a big revenue driver and will join search and display advertising as the next billion-dollar ad market on the web."

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