Stellar Start-Ups: Hi-tech 'reality' show to give away $250,000

Let's see: There are reality programs (online and onTV) that purport to pick the best singer, the best dancer, the bestchef, the most agile traveler, the nicest house makeover, the mostadept survivor, who can eat the most disgusting stuff, who gets thefanciest Sweet 16, and who can use the best tricks to nab the perfecthusband/wife/job/etc.

But forget the phony world of "reality" TV.There's plenty of thrills, chills and action in the world of Internetstartups - 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 betweenseveral 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 productioncompany that has been helping to put together the online contest,Sergata hears from many Israeli startups that have great ideas but noresources to turn their ideas into reality. Seeing a potential "nextbig thing" going to waste, Sergata, along with Hammer, industry veteranBen Hirsch and Assaf Gurney of Nascent (a branding company) came upwith the contest, which will put the winner on the Israeli startup mapin more ways than one.

For you see, the winner of Exit '09 doesn't just get a niceplaque to hang on the wall: The startup chosen by fans and judges getsa prize package worth $250,000!

Besides $100,000 in cash, the company gets a packageof services provided by some of the top companies in Israel: softwaredevelopment from Sergata; patent advice and support from law firmLuzzatto & Luzzatto; business planning, startup support andaccountancy services from worldwide giant KPMG; marketing and brandinghelp from Gurney's Nascent; services from Israeli PR pros DoranTikshoret; legal advice from Israeli "white shoe" firm Shavit, Bar-On,Gal-On, Tzin, Nov and Yagur; hardware from Sun; middleware andworldwide introductions from IBM; and last but not least, high-profilepublicity on the Nana10 and TheMarker Web sites, and more!

It's a package that most entrepreneurs wouldn't have the chanceto put together - even if they had $250,000. But with the help of proswho know the business, says Hammer, startups "have a great chance ofsucceeding. They take care of the vision and the application, and wetake care of the details that will turn them into a success."

"We've actually created a platform - one thatwill hopefully propel the chosen startup to great success," he says,adding that this is the first time such an idea has been tried inIsrael - or anywhere.

Out of 50 applicants, the judges' panel - which includes MeirBrand, CEO of Google Israel; and Michael Oran, head of IBM's GlobalTechnology Unit in Israel; among others - chose 26 companies toparticipate in the contest. The companies are listed at the Exit '09Web site. To introduce themselves, most companies have put up videosthat either display their product (the contest accepted only Webapplications for its initial run), or some other creative presentationthat shows what they want to do (companies do not necessarily have tohave 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. Thewinner gets to schlepp their votes to the following week, whileeveryone else starts at zero, hoping for better luck.

This goes on for four weeks (the contest is in its second weeknow). At that point, the four highest-scoring companies, based onviewer votes, get into the semifinal round, along with four othercompanies chosen by the judges. This is to account, says Hammer, forcompanies that for various reasons - such as not wanting to publicizetheir great idea - do not put up a video. The eight companies are thenexpected 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 forAugust 23, known among tech wonks as IBM Innovation Day). They'll thengo head to head - with help from all the service providers sponsoringthe contest - putting the finishing touches on their application,drawing up a business plan, coming up with a marketing strategy andanything else needed to make their ideas shine. The judges willconsider, 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 ofthat process will be broadcast over the Internet, just like in areality 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 upwith? Some of the ideas in the videos looked very interesting, whileothers were probably not going to be declared winners, based on what Icould 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 peoplewant, he says, adding: "All the ideas are good and have been checkedfor their potential, and all the applicants are reputable as well. Themain 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, businessand marketing plans, and anything else the service providers helpedthem put together for the finals," he says, while those who don't makeit that far get the benefit of having been exposed to tens of thousandsof viewers, including VC people, many of whom are following the contestclosely.

"Everyone has an equal chance, and every idea could be alife-changing one - for the winners, and maybe for the way we work orplay," Hammer says. "For the first time, we're democratizing theprocess of getting on the hi-tech map, giving entrepreneurs access toexperts they probably would not have been able to reach otherwise. Andthat's going to be great for innovation."

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