A rant on risk: Swype vs. Fitbit

Maybe I'm asking for too much, but I thought that "venture" in the title "venture capitalist" meant something.

This article has been corrected: One of the judges on the panel did not offer an opinion on this issue; his name has been removed from the story

After the last on-stage pitch at the TechCrunch50 conference on Tuesday, co-host Jason Calacanis asked the assembled panel of four judges which of two companies, Fitbit or Swype, they would invest a million dollars in, if those were their only options.

Both companies had been the judges' winners in their respective demo blocks. Fitbit ( review ), the $99 wearable activity monitor that will shame you into exercising, won the "Mobile" session, in which I was one of the judges. New keyboard technology company Swype ( review ) won the next, "Language and Platform Tools," and is being talked about by many attendees as the presumptive winner of the conference.

So which company did the judges Tom O'Reilly, Josh Kopelman, and Evan Williams want to invest their hypothetical money in?

Fitbit. Cowards.

Now, don't get me wrong: Fitbit is a great product. Josh Kopelman rightly called the decision to purchase one not so much a financial decision as an IQ test. And as a business, I think my co-judges would agree that it would take a creative and determined executive team to screw it up. It should make money, and a nice amount of it. It is a safe bet.

Swype, in contrast, is not a safe bet. But it is a much bigger one. If the company gets a licensing agreement with Microsoft, Swype could end up baked in to every Windows smartphone and Vista PC made. It could end up as the keyboard for living room technology products like Nintendo Wiis. Apple or Symbian could license the product as well. A smart executive team could maneuver the product into licensing arrangements with all of these companies, on the pitch that the more people are familiar with the technology, the better it is for all the companies that adopt it. Multiply the potential market of a few billion devices by a modest licensing fee, and you have yourself a swell business.

Previously, Swype inventor Cliff Kushler invented and sold T9, which ended up installed on 2.5 billion devices from numerous manufacturers. So he has some experience in this field.

The potential for the failure of Swype is real. There are competing technologies. There will be patent battles. Microsoft may go another direction. But the potential upside is so vast, and so important, that I can't stand the thought that most venture capitalists would turn it down in favor of funding Fitbit -- a predictable business, but an unsporting bet.

I want to see our venture capitalists earn their money. I want them to help Swype succeed.

Previously: Where are the big ideas?

For extra credit: On a re-read, I believe I may have found a flaw in my logic. Can you spot it? Does it matter?

The judges' view of the TechCrunch50 audience. Rafe Needleman / CNET

 

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