From scooters to servers: The best of Launch, Day One

Rafe's top picks from the big startup conference include a service to help you get financial aid, one to get you in shape, and cloud storage company with no servers.

The Space Monkey storage pod lives in your house. Rafe Needleman/CNET

I'm an official Grand Jury judge at the Launch startup conference that's in town right now. Tomorrow I'm supposed to render my judgment on the presenting companies to help determine which ones get pieces of the $1 million in investment prizes that have been contributed to this event. Nothing says I can't talk up the products I like ahead of time, though. Here are five. And some bonus picks.

1. Space Monkey
This was the favorite of most of the judging panels today, as well as my top pick. Not only is it being a potentially very disruptive product, but it's got a killer value proposition for consumers as well as good sales potential. It's a faster, larger Dropbox for less money, and since it has a physical component it can be sold easily in retail. See my full writeup for more, including the significant challenges this business faces.

2. Alltuition
The conference demos kicked off with what seemed like a very boring product: A Web service to help you find financial aid for college, and apply for all the various programs for which you might be eligible. But any parent can tell you how terrifying the mountain of paperwork can be, and how high the stakes are if you make mistakes on it. This service addresses a real need, not a want, and it has a tangible value. It's a good business.

The uGrokIt scanner is colored bright orange so you don't lose it. Because then what would you do? Rafe Needleman/CNET

3. uGrokIt
I confess that I am ambivalent about this company, but everyone I talked to about it just loved it, and it is a fun idea. It's a gizmo for finding stuff that you lose in your house. You attach a paper-thin RFID tag to things that are likely to get lost (your 3-year-old's shoes, his favorite stuffed toy, your wallet, etc.) and then you can find these things later by docking your smatphone with a scanner gizmo (see picture) that will bleep like a metal detector as you get closer to your item. It has a range of 6 to 10 feet, which makes it easy enough to definitively, and quickly, sweep a room for an item.

4. Budge
A little mobile service that helps you pace your fitness goals over time, and that includes nags (if you ask for them) and a way to join groups of people who have similar goals. There have been, and are, dozens or hundreds of fitness apps, but something about the philosophy and design of this one seemed, to me, to be completely dialed in. We'll see if it works over time (I'll let you know), but I have a better feeling about this fitness product than most that I see.

Bonus: In the "Demo pit" (showing off in the exhibit center but not presenting on stage) there was another fitness app I liked, Wello. It's a service that connects personal trainers to clients over Webcams. The idea is to free trainers from the lock that gyms have over them (and the fee that gyms take) and allow them a more flexible, and efficient schedule. Tags are cheap (a dollar each for now, less in the future) and unpowered, so you don't have to worry about replacing their batteries. But the scanner is big and bulky and can get lost itself. Still, the number of people I talked to who said they'd really like to have one of these in their kitchen stuff drawer for contingencies tells me the company is on to something. And I could see it selling extremely well on SkyMall or QVC.

Scoot CEO Michael Keating on his product. Rafe Needleman/CNET

5. Scoot
One of the big on-stage presenters was Local Motion, a company making a special electric car that's more serious than a golf cart but not quite a "car," for campus or building owners to own so they can make it availble to employees that need to run off to a meeting. I didn't like this company nearly as much as another vehicle-sharing service, Scoot, which elected to stay in the Demo Pit and not come on stage.

Scoot is like the ZipCar of electric scooters, but they'll have two subscription models: All-you-can-scoot for around $100 or $150 a month, which will let you hang on to a scooter nearly full time and rely on it for commuting, and a pay-as-you-go for infrequent users.

The scooters are practically off-the-shelf models from China. Scoot modifies them to use a smartphone app as both the key and the dashboard. Scoot looks like it will be the simplest and least expensive way is for American consumers to get experience with electric vehicles.

Booby prize: Zabbi
I am taking an unpopular position and saying that Zabbi, the "social network for emotions," is a weak idea. While popular with the audience, this mobile app, which lets you emote with an icon and get affirmations back from your network if you're feeling down, is a superfluous product. Yes, it's simpler than Facebook for doing what it does, but it's also a whole separate network and interface people need to manage for social interaction. It feels like a social feature, not a social product, and I just don't see how it gets traction.

 

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