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Let's see: There are reality programs (online and on TV) that purport to pick the best singer, the best dancer, the best chef, the most agile traveler, the nicest house makeover, the most adept survivor, who can eat the most disgusting stuff, who gets the fanciest Sweet 16, and who can use the best tricks to nab the perfect husband/wife/job/etc.
But forget the phony world of "reality" TV. There's plenty of thrills, chills and action in the world of Internet startups - enough for a reality show in and of itself, it turns out. And that's exactly what the folks behind Exit '09 are doing. With the current contest a result of brainstorming between several Israeli companies, Exit '09 was the brainchild of Sergata, which does development and coding work for Israeli startups.
According to Sandy Hammer of Conference-Art, a production company that has been helping to put together the online contest, Sergata hears from many Israeli startups that have great ideas but no resources to turn their ideas into reality. Seeing a potential "next big thing" going to waste, Sergata, along with Hammer, industry veteran Ben Hirsch and Assaf Gurney of Nascent (a branding company) came up with the contest, which will put the winner on the Israeli startup map in more ways than one.
For you see, the winner of Exit '09 doesn't just get a nice plaque to hang on the wall: The startup chosen by fans and judges gets a prize package worth $250,000!
Besides $100,000 in cash, the company gets a package of services provided by some of the top companies in Israel: software development from Sergata; patent advice and support from law firm Luzzatto & Luzzatto; business planning, startup support and accountancy services from worldwide giant KPMG; marketing and branding help from Gurney's Nascent; services from Israeli PR pros Doran Tikshoret; legal advice from Israeli "white shoe" firm Shavit, Bar-On, Gal-On, Tzin, Nov and Yagur; hardware from Sun; middleware and worldwide introductions from IBM; and last but not least, high-profile publicity on the Nana10 and TheMarker Web sites, and more!
It's a package that most entrepreneurs wouldn't have the chance to put together - even if they had $250,000. But with the help of pros who know the business, says Hammer, startups "have a great chance of succeeding. They take care of the vision and the application, and we take care of the details that will turn them into a success."
"We've actually created a platform - one that will hopefully propel the chosen startup to great success," he says, adding that this is the first time such an idea has been tried in Israel - or anywhere.
Out of 50 applicants, the judges' panel - which includes Meir Brand, CEO of Google Israel; and Michael Oran, head of IBM's Global Technology Unit in Israel; among others - chose 26 companies to participate in the contest. The companies are listed at the Exit '09 Web site. To introduce themselves, most companies have put up videos that either display their product (the contest accepted only Web applications for its initial run), or some other creative presentation that shows what they want to do (companies do not necessarily have to have a running demo of their project).
Viewers of the site get to vote on their favorite companies, and each week a winner is announced based on the number of votes. The winner gets to schlepp their votes to the following week, while everyone else starts at zero, hoping for better luck.
This goes on for four weeks (the contest is in its second week now). At that point, the four highest-scoring companies, based on viewer votes, get into the semifinal round, along with four other companies chosen by the judges. This is to account, says Hammer, for companies that for various reasons - such as not wanting to publicize their great idea - do not put up a video. The eight companies are then expected to produce a provisional application (with help from Sergata), if they haven't yet.
The judges will then pick the two finalists (this is set for August 23, known among tech wonks as IBM Innovation Day). They'll then go head to head - with help from all the service providers sponsoring the contest - putting the finishing touches on their application, drawing up a business plan, coming up with a marketing strategy and anything else needed to make their ideas shine. The judges will consider, decide and announce the big winner on September 13.
While the videos of the ideas and products that are on the Exit '09 site are fun to watch, the big show takes place during "hell week," when the startups work with their mentors to be the best. Portions of that process will be broadcast over the Internet, just like in a reality show, with the developers letting us peer into their lives, their hearts - their very souls.
So who are the candidates - and what ideas have they come up with? Some of the ideas in the videos looked very interesting, while others were probably not going to be declared winners, based on what I could see.
The contest, says Hammer, has attracted a mix of veterans - folks who may have been involved with a successful product in the past - as well as first-timers. Which is exactly what the Exit '09 people want, he says, adding: "All the ideas are good and have been checked for their potential, and all the applicants are reputable as well. The main thing we're interested in is innovation."
That said, there have to be losers when you're running a contest, but even the losers get to take something away, Hammer says.
"The second-place company gets to keep the application, business and marketing plans, and anything else the service providers helped them put together for the finals," he says, while those who don't make it that far get the benefit of having been exposed to tens of thousands of viewers, including VC people, many of whom are following the contest closely.
"Everyone has an equal chance, and every idea could be a life-changing one - for the winners, and maybe for the way we work or play," Hammer says. "For the first time, we're democratizing the process of getting on the hi-tech map, giving entrepreneurs access to experts they probably would not have been able to reach otherwise. And that's going to be great for innovation."