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TechCrunch Disrupt: Beyond building a better mousetrap

The tech expo/celebration that is TechCrunch Disrupt isn't just about showing you a better way to do X. It's also trying to prove the tech industry is as vibrant as ever.

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Young companies line the aisles of Startup Alley at TechCrunch Disrupt.

Erin Carson/CNET

What's the next big thing? Is it Everlywell, a mail-order blood test? Perhaps Pundit, a social network for short voice clips. Maybe it'll be Spincle, a virtual reality camera app.

No matter what you may think, the tech industry sees these as possibly the next billion-dollar idea.

A few times a year, including this week, a flock of hopeful startups take the stage at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference to compete against each other for $50,000 and the chance to become internet famous for the day. Perhaps they'll even end up on Hacker News, Product Hunt, Techmeme, or one of the industry's other booster websites. Their CEO might be mentioned in the same paragraph as industry icons like Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos.

Those who don't compete set up shop in Startup Alley, which is your basic expo floor with tables, banners, signs and lots of awkward eye contact.

This isn't a scene out of the HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley." This stuff is real, and it's happening in San Francisco.

For a lot of these startups, Disrupt is a milestone -- a moment before the winnowing. It's both the fertile ground of the next Uber, Airbnb or Facebook, and a graveyard of great ideas gone south.

Not that anyone is thinking about the downsides here. Optimism about the tech industry is high. Everyone in this repurposed shipping pier is excited.

Tech, we are told, is awesome. And if you're wondering where they're all getting that idea, consider the raw power and influence Silicon Valley has today: Facebook, whose population of users is larger than any country on Earth, is doing fantastical things with drones. World leaders are making pilgrimages to the Bay Area. US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who spoke here on Tuesday, has been out here at least four times already. There's even a hit television show that expertly parodies this very event.

Nevermind the reports that venture capital is drying up and the bubble is poised to burst. A July report from CB Insights showed that the number of unicorns, or companies with billion-dollar valuations, is dropping, and when investors hand over money, they tend to give it to companies that are already doing well. Bloomberg reported that the city of San Francisco is actually creating a plan in case economic disaster strikes.

And don't worry that Fortune estimates nine out of 10 startups will fail. That's just rank pessimism to these technorati.

If you're hoping TechCrunch Disrupt is a window into the tech industry's health, or the latest datapoint in the yearslong debate of whether we're in a bubble, maybe check in with the winners in a year and see if their email addresses still work.

The list of reasons why so many companies fail is long and sad, ranging from poorly managed funds to office infighting to the harsh reality that the world just does not need this idea right now. Or ever.

Something familiar

One interesting trend among these companies is they're covering familiar ground instead of creating something truly innovative.

"There's a lot of building better mouse traps out there right now, and I think that it's really unfortunate," said angel investor and former Disrupt judge Joanne Wilson, invoking the much-loved startup metaphor.

There are lots of startups banking on the idea that there's a big enough market to support a better way to do X.

I'm not kidding. Slide is offering a better way to make slide decks, BlazingDB is a creating better way to query your SQL database, Robin is a better way to cut your lawn, Myki is a better way to manage your passwords, and Carbon Data is a better way to track your health data. It's almost like tech MadLibs, only they believe there are potentially billions of dollars on the line.

That's also why there are plenty of skeptics. "A more complicated mouse trap isn't always a better mousetrap," said Arvind Gupta, investment partner at SOSVentures and a judge at this year's Disrupt.

The real question, he said, is whether people are feeling enough pain from the way they do whatever it is they do that they need a better way to do it. In other words, is it really so much hassle to do your laundry that you're willing to pay a $15 premium?

One company that presented while Gupta was judging pitched a drone that would scan boxes in a warehouse. The drone malfunctioned in the middle of the demo, though thankfully it didn't go all "Terminator" on us. Gupta told me later that he wondered how much better is it than dragging a ladder to the shelves?

Diamond in the rough?

For some, it might not be that hard to justify their existence. UnifyID is a company that wants to replace a password with data about your body. Forget fingerprints -- they want to use machine learning and factors like the way you walk to identify you as you. That's great. Passwords are risky. Even fingerprints can be stolen. The way you walk seems like it would be a little harder. UnifyID was one of the six startups making it through to the finals.

Also, don't mistake tired rehashes of old tech ideas with genuine improvement, Gupta says.

"Every piece of the iPhone existed before that iPhone did," he said. Apple is the company that put them together in a way that was right and pleasing for the market. Maybe UnifyID will be the ones to combine machine learning and biometrics in that manner. Maybe not.

What gives Gupta heart about the whole challenge though, is just how many different startups there are.

Five years ago, he said, startups were mostly software companies building things like security software.

"There's a growing diversity of what is startup-able," he said.

After all, there's something techy going on in just about every industry you can think of, from medical tourism and health, to virtual reality and agriculture.

"I think we'll look back at the last decade and say, 'this is when everything changed,'" Wilson said.

For now, it's a sea of fresh faces in matching t-shirts reaching out to you from their booths like souls from the River Styx. But you never know. One them might actually make your world a better place. Or at least get sold to Facebook for a billion dollars.