By LAURA LOREK
Publisher and Reporter with Silicon Hills News
More than 800 people turned out Thursday night at ACL Live at the Moody Theater to celebrate 17 companies that made the Austin Chamber’s 2017 Austin A-List of the Hottest Startups.
“In many ways, A-List is a lot like SXSW in that it helps shine a very bright spotlight on all the creativity and all the out of box thinking that originates in our amazing city,” said Hugh Forrest, chief programming officer with SXSW, which co-sponsors the awards with the Chamber.
This year, the Austin A-List received 176 nominations, he said.
“The quality was some of the best I’ve ever seen,” Forrest said.
A panel of independent judges chose the winners in three investment stage categories: emerging, growth and scale.
“High growth startups play an important role in Austin’s economic success,” Jonathan Packer, Interim Senior Vice President, Global Technology and Innovation, said in a statement. “Through entrepreneurship, Austin has become an established center of innovation, with companies operating in myriad traditional and emerging industries.”
Now in its seventh year, the A-List is a chance for the city to show off its best and brightest young companies. Doreen Lorenzo, Director for the Center of Integrated Design at UT Austin and former president of Frog Design and Quirky, served as master of ceremonies for the event.
In the emerging category for early and seed stage companies, the winners included Banyan Water, Convey, data.world, EverlyWell, Maggie Louise Confections and Orca.
In the growth or mid-stage category, the winners included Aceable, Digital Pharmacist, Dropoff, High Brew Coffee, Opcity and Tenfold.
In the scale or later stage category, the winners included Certain Affinity, DrillingInfo, FloSports, Pivot3 and Tiff’s Treats.
A new feature this year, several Austin business leaders gave five-minute lightning talks on a variety of topics including artificial intelligence, gaming, empowering women, venture capital, healthcare and cultivating ideas.
Also, new this year, Southwest Airlines gave certificates worth 10,000 bonus reward points to the first 800 people at the event. Other sponsors included Google, Facebook, AT&T, SkylesBayne, DellEMC and Merrill Lynch.
Mike Smerklo, Co-founder and Managing Director of Next Coast Ventures, delivered the first lightning talk.
He advised entrepreneurs to think big, think of disruptive ideas in large markets, create amazing customer experiences and build a phenomenal company culture.
“It’s never been a better time to start a business as an entrepreneur,” Smerklo said. “It’s never been less expensive, there’s never been more capital available, there’s never been ease of things like AWS in terms of compute power.”
Akshay Sabhikhi, CEO and founder of CognitiveScale, gave an overview of artificial intelligence and the applications his company is developing.
The convergence of cloud, mobile, data and digital natives are driving the adoption of artificial intelligence, he said.
Burnie Burns, Co-Founder of Rooster Teeth, started his company in 2003 in a spare bedroom in his house with his friends. Their goal was to create videos that would make their friends laugh.
Today, the company has 300 employees and it regularly produces 40 different shows.
“And we get asked all the time, why build this company in Austin. Why not build an entertainment company in Los Angeles? Why not move it to New York?” Burns said.
Austin has provided inspiration and opportunity to Rooster Teeth, Burns said.
Burns showed a video clip from a show Rooster Teeth produces. For the shot, the company closed Congress Avenue. In Hollywood, it would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions of dollars to do the same shot, he said. But Rooster Teeth did the shot for $10,000 in Austin, he said. That’s a huge competitive advantage to being in Austin, he said.
Other speakers included Ruben Rathnasingham, Assistant Dean for Health Product Innovation at Dell Medical School, talking about improving healthcare delivery in Austin and creating new startups through its Texas Catalyst program. And Ingrid Vanderveldt, Founder, Chairman & CEO at Vanderveldt Global Investments & EBW2020, with her mission to empower women through entrepreneurship.
Lastly, Roy Spence, Co-Founder and Chairman at GSD&M, showed a picture he took of a double rainbow from his backyard in Austin. He told people it was a sign to double down on their dreams. He gave an inspirational talk about America being the land of opportunity and he implored everyone to focus on ideas and to appreciate hard work done in factories, farms and cities. He even thanks TSA agents, he said. People need to value the hard work of others, he said.
“We are the people who create the answers and the solutions to the wicked problems,” Spence said.
The next big challenge for entrepreneurs in Austin is to help America become the nation of ideas again, Spence said.
In an interview following the event, Bob Metcalfe, professor of Innovation at the University of Texas at Austin and Ethernet Inventor, served as a judge for the A-List Awards and said it was fun reading all 176 nominations.
“You get what you celebrate,” Metcalfe said. “And what we need are startups.”
The A-List Awards is a great opportunity to showcase all the talented entrepreneurs in Austin, Metcalfe said.
“I would give a round of applause to all 176, not just the winners,” he said. It was very hard to choose the winners, he said.
And although many of the startups are tackling big ideas, Austin still doesn’t have enough big ideas – those ideas that are non-apps, Metcalfe said. And the city doesn’t have enough CEOs to run the big idea startups here, he said. A lot more venture capital will come to Austin when the city has seasoned CEOs that can provide a return to investors, he said.
“We have to develop our talent base for CEOs in particular,” he said.
The startups in Austin are the training ground for the next generation of executives and entrepreneurs locally, Metcalfe said. That’s why they are so important to the city’s technology ecosystem, he said.
In an interview following the event, Chris Skyles, partner in SkylesBayne, an Austin-based Commercial Real Estate firm founded in 2006, said he sees the technology industry as the lifeblood of Austin. And the growth is not slowing down, he said.
“We’re early in the game,” Skyles said. “I’m very impressed with the caliber of the entrepreneurs.”
As a result, the city’s deal flow is expanding, Skyles said. Technology is now, by far, the largest industry in Austin and it was not that way 15 years ago, he said. And the emerging life sciences industry is also going to contribute significantly to the city’s growth, he said.
“My biggest concern is that developers get more product out faster, more buildings up faster,” Skyles said.
Forrest with SXSW said Austin is still growing and developing.
“If you look at this show, we’ve grown significantly over the five years I’ve been involved,” he said. “There is still a ton of buzz, a ton of momentum about Austin on a national and international scale. People are still coming here and wanting to be involved in the startup ecosystem so I think we’re still growing.”
Austin’s best days are still ahead of the city, Forrest said.
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