Startup Innovators From SXSW

By Polly TraylorBusiness on Main

If you haven’t heard of the South by Southwest music, film and tech fest in Austin (SXSW), then it’s likely you’ve been holed up in a laboratory somewhere furiously developing the next gene sequencing technology. Receiving recognition at the show could mean launching your startup into the next stratosphere of success. We caught up with a few of the winners of the 2013 SXSW Interactive Award to learn about the inspiration behind their companies, lessons learned and what they’re hoping to do next.

Charity MilesA mobile app that helps you earn money for your favorite charity, just by working out.

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The idea for New York City-based Charity Miles came from founder Gene Gurkoff’s love of competing and his passion for supporting important causes. Gurkoff has completed 38 marathons and six Ironman races to raise money for Parkinson’s disease. He’s also a founder of Team Fox (The Michael J. Fox Foundation), which has raised $20 million since 2006. After realizing the difficulties of getting corporate sponsors at Team Fox, he decided there must be another way. The genesis of Charity Miles was to combine targeted advertising with corporate giving.

How does it work? Charity Miles supports 20 different charities and has corporate sponsors that include Promax and Eboost. After downloading the free app, “members” simply choose a charity. When the mileage counter begins on the app, an image from the sponsor appears on the phone screen. Sponsors identify their target audience based on demographics such as gender and age, and Charity Miles ensures that the branded image matches up to those members. Charities receive 10 cents per mile for bikers and 25 cents per mile for runners and walkers.

What past experience was applied to this venture? “I have learned over the years that leadership is not a single person but the function of a group,” says Gurkoff. “So my role is to lay the infrastructure for others to lead, and those people are the members. The people who download the app are the ones who are making this successful by spreading the word.”

What’s next? Charity Miles will be working on adding new features to the app and also removing others that aren’t needed. “We will be doing some hiring and adding charities and corporate sponsors,” Gurkoff adds. “It’s going to be a busy year.”

BioDigitalState-of-the-art biomedical visualization brings the working human body closer to scientists and consumers.

Frank Sculli began his career as a biomedical engineer and IT consultant but around 2002 became curious about the development of interactive technologies, such as 3-D in gaming. Thinking that such tools could help explain difficult concepts in health care, he founded BioDigital in 2003. The company provides 3-D visualization consulting services to health care providers and created a unique interactive tool for learning about the human body. “It helps companies explain difficult concepts through visualization and animation,” Sculli says.

How does it work? The BioDigital Human Platform combines advanced simulation technology with a virtual anatomy map. The company partnered with NYU Langone Medical Center to ensure the clinical content was accurate. Doctors, nurses, massage therapists and medical device companies are using the technology to help educate and communicate with patients and customers.

In some ways resembling the functionality of Google Earth, the tool allows you to view and zoom in on the entire body, but also see what’s taking place inside: the beating heart, the lungs in action or even a pregnancy in progress. BioDigital is a subscription-based SaaS service that also offers a robust free version. Any rough patches along the way?

Predicting market needs was one challenge. The company crowdsourced feedback through its website to learn what users loved and what wasn’t working well. “We probably should have put the product in front of users and customers sooner,” Sculli remarks. The team also had to build a product that could support the multifaceted audience of patients, students, marketers and clinicians, all with different perspectives and knowledge levels.

What’s next? This year, the company will work on improving features and extending application programming interfaces so that developers can embed the tool in other health care applications. BioDigital is currently working on a consumer version as well. “We are building out the architecture so it can be used in a much more mainstream and ubiquitous way,” Sculli says. “We really want to improve health literacy.”

SoundCloudA cloud-based service that allows musicians to record, share and collaborate on sounds and tracks.

If you’re a lonely, frustrated basement musician, SoundCloud is for you. If you’re an experienced musician and already performing, SoundCloud’s also for you. The company, founded by Alex Ljung and Eric Wahlforss of Stockholm, Sweden, was created to make it easier to not only upload and share music, but get feedback on it, too. The creators were hoping to “make a beautiful experience” with the site, instead of just a place to store files, says David Noël, vice president  of community at SoundCloud.

How does it work? Users log in to the site and upload their song or track. Other users can comment on the piece, even at a particular point on the track. Those comments are displayed visually in a wave format as the recording plays (click here for an example). “SoundCloud is upending the world of music to something more organic and helping people connect with other music enthusiasts around the world,” Noël says. Established artists and broadcasters such as 50 Cent, Beyoncé, KQED and CNN have used the site, and aspiring artists such as Alt-J are being discovered there too.

Road bumps? “We’ve had major scale issues because we have grown so fast,” Noël says. Just a few years ago, the company had 50,000 members; today, the community numbers 35 million and growing. “It’s been very exciting to go through this growth, and we’re just trying to stay ahead of the curve but also focus our efforts as a startup working with constrained resources,” Noël adds.

What’s next? SoundCloud has just introduced a premium version offering new profile features and storage and is also exploring corporate partnerships and mobile apps, according to Noël.

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