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New companies try to solve hard problems

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Like waves rolling onto shore, there is a ceaseless tide of new companies in the tech world seeking to hit it big….really big. A well-screened, select number of them were on display at the DEMO Enterprise conference in San Francisco yesterday and they offered a fascinating glimpse into a future that could either make our lives infinitely more enjoyable or complicate things more than ever.

The conference, where companies such as Salesforce, E-Trade and TiVo historically made their debut, spotlighted a diverse and generally intriguing set of startups this year. As DEMO’s executive producer Erick Schonfeld put it in his opening remarks, “Our overall arching goal is to find new technologies that solve big problems.”

One of those problems involves getting new employees rapidly integrated into a company culture and recruiting more. CultureSphere demonstrated a photo sharing app designed to be used internally within firms where new employees take and post photos to be shared only with their colleagues. The company can then choose to make these available to new recruits as well. The product is already in use at Genentech which is not a bad first customer to have.

Along the same lines of making life better for business, Apruve showcased an online payment system designed to remove all of the needless red tape and complicated approvals that often surround the corporate purchasing process. “We just made buying stuff for your job as easy as clicking a button,” said Apruve’s CEO Michael Noble.

In what might have been a DEMO “first,” Julian Miller, CEO of Learnmetrics, opened his presentation by impressively singing the opening stanza of Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” His point was that a teacher encouraged him to pursue singing as a young boy, so he’s designed a dashboard software tool for schools to better measure and track performance for every student.

And in one of the showstopping moments during yesterday’s sessions, a company from Finland revealed indoor mapping software for iOS and Android called IndoorAtlas. As CEO Janne Haverinen gave his pitch, an associate moved around the conference theater in real time tracked by a blue dot projected by his mobile app on-screen for all to see. The app is currently available as a free download and should come in handy the next time you are in LaGuardia Airport or any Home Depot.

The stage demonstrations by startups were buffered by presentations from other speakers during the day. Schonfeld interviewed Aaron Levie, CEO of Box which is a rapidly growing cloud storage firm. Because Box is limited by the “quiet period” in preparation for an expected public offering, Levie was guarded in his comments. But he did declare that his company “has not had any NSA requests” despite speculation that the surveillance community had been mining data from cloud storage firms like his.

Rising interest in drone technology was also the subject of a separate presentation by Helen Greiner, who previously co-founded iRobot which got its initial start at this conference 14 years ago. Greiner is now the CEO of CyPhy Works which has built the PARC Aerial Robot.

Her drone is not the free flying kind commonly seen today, but is instead tethered to the ground by a microfilament cable that supplies power and communications. This allows the drone to remain 200 feet above the ground 24/7 and is not subjected to regulatory controls because it does not fly. According to Greiner, CyPhy’s robot will be used for “protecting and inspecting” by the military, law enforcement, oil companies, and other uses.

Another panel discussion focused on email and how to make it better, which definitely falls in the category of a hard problem. Despite all of the gripes about email, usage is not slowing down. “I get more email today than I received last year,” said Joshua Baer, founder of Capital Factory. He was joined by Bill Gross, the CEO of Idealab, who announced that he was seeking a management team to help design a new email client.

Gross showed the audience some prototype email functions that included viewing twelve thumbnail messages on the screen at once, and being able to sort more effectively by letting you first see only emails from people you’ve corresponded with before. “Something that would improve productivity in email would be a big life changer,” said Gross.

At the start of yesterday’s on-stage interview with Levie, Schonfeld opened the conversation by politely asking if he had any summer plans. Levie stared blankly at him. “Just work,” Box’s CEO replied. When you are solving hard problems in technology today, there is simply no time for anything else.

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