LAS VEGAS--The startup scene at CES this year was vibrant--although it was sometimes hard to tell.
The Consumer Electronics Association gave startups their own area this time around, called Eureka Park. It spanned two big rooms in The Venetian, far away from the main convention center and from most of the exhibitors. The goal was to let fledgling businesses participate in the massive show without getting lost amid the big boys.
In that sense, Eureka Park was a success. The booths, 10 feet by 10 feet, cost $1,000, a quarter the price for the same space in the main halls. And the CEA said it sold 94 spots, about three times what it had expected.
But the hodgepodge of startups made for an odd mix, with impressive technology plays alongside trinket makers or others that, frankly, devalued the neighborhood. (Example: a guy who developed a gadget to help you text more easily while driving).
Some exhibitors said that being apart from the main convention center was a drag.
"This is what they gave us," said Tim Abbott, whose one-year-old Hong Kong-based company, Flotsam, makes beanbag-like stands for iPads and other tablets. "They said, 'Are you selling in America?' I said no, and they said, 'Then you can go to Eureka Park.' I wanted to pay more not to be here. We're used to conferences where people place orders. This has been a lot of talk."
Ben Forman and Geoff Larson came here from Los Angeles to show off their weight-sensing electric skateboard called the Zboard, which grew out of a project at the University of Southern California. I sought the duo out after spotting someone zooming around the conference on the board. They were tucked in the last aisle of Eureka Park, as far from the flow of traffic as possible.
"We're in the ugly-stepchild room," said a frustated Forman. "It's been dead for us."
The CEO of Dropcam, a San-Francisco startup that makes a cloud-based home monitoring camera, told me that he rebuffed the CEA's suggestion that his company set up in Eureka Park, specifically because he was concerned about being out of sight.
"I just didn't think it was a good idea," said Greg Duffy, who released a new HD camera at the show that you can see on this CNET video.
Griping aside, plenty of cool startups populated Eureka Park. And as the week went on, some ended up getting lots of attention--not just from the press, but from potential distributors, business partners, and investors that were scouting the show.
"We had an investor offer us $10 million," said Mark Gross, who is with Modular Robotics, which makes a robot-toy construction kit that was a popular attraction at Eureka Park. Such a high offer sounds like tall talk designed to get Gross' attention more than anything else. But he and his partner, Eric Schweikardt, weren't interested because they're not now looking for investors.
The idea of a startup alley is a good one, but the reality is that much of the activity with emerging companies didn't take place at the booths. Some of the hottest startups, such as the one behind the video editing app Magisto, which won the CES Mobile Apps Showdown, and the one behind Swivl, which turns your smartphone into a personal cameraman, chose to show their wares at separate evening events--Pepcom's Digital Experience and ShowStoppers.
Yet CES--and, more specifically, the restaurants, bars, and late-night parties--were teeming with entrepreneurs and others who represent the startup world.
Josh Stein, a managing director with venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, was one of dozens of powerful Silicon Valley investors at CES. Stein said he goes every year, not so much to prowl for startups as to schmooze with the big companies that his portfolio companies might need for business opportunities.
"If you're a three person startup, you don't know who to talk to at Microsoft," said Stein. "That's my job--to be in the middle. You get people here in a less guarded state."
Stein said he has never invested in a startup that he's found at CES, although there was one he wish he had.
Which? Watch CNET's Reporters' Roundtable, which we recorded live at CES. Rafe Needleman is the host, and I was a guest along with Stein.
Ep. 105: CES, where new technology fights for deals.