Take a closer look at my favorite LaunchBox Digital startups (plus, invites)

Looks like LaunchBox Digital is off to a good start — I just got home from the impressive Palo Alto, Calif. demo day for the first “class” of companies that LaunchBox incubated. The lineup was announced earlier this week, but this was my chance to talk to the founders and try out the products.

The Washington, D.C. firm selected nine startups to advise and fund for between $25,000 and $40,000. After three months of work the startups were ready to make their pitches — yesterday in D.C., and today in Silicon Valley.

So here’s a ranked list of the five companies that stood out, in descending order. Keep in mind that this is based on first impressions, short demos and whether the concept grabbed me; I didn’t get explore any product in-depth. Still, as I talked to other attendees, the top three in particular seemed like the consensus choice. (Interestingly, they’re also the three companies that TechCrunch selected as its LaunchBox favorites when the lineup was released.)

1. JamLegend — This is a free, more social version of the hit video game franchise Guitar Hero. Guitar Hero and the competing game Rock Band offer ways to play online, but JamLegend co-founder Ryan Wilson says those communities are limited. After all, it costs hundreds of dollars to play either game — you need to buy the console, the equipment and the games themselves. JamLegend, on the other hand, costs nothing, and you can play on pretty much any device. After the presentations, I got a chance to rock out using a computer keyboard, and I kicked butt (on easy mode).

The site is in private testing, and the song library is limited musicians. But there’s a lot of potential on that end, because Wilson says the site could become a platform for independent musicians to promote themselves, eventually leading to a much wider selection of songs than Guitar Hero’s. Wilson says it’s too early to know whether JamLegend will try for deals with major record labels, but I think those deals will be key — supporting indie bands is nice, but part of Guitar Hero’s appeal is showing your chops on your favorite hits.

Here’s a video demo.

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/1461983 w=400&h=267]
JamLegend Trailer from JamLegend on Vimeo.

2. ShareMeme — Here’s another service that wants to integrate all of your communication tools — Facebook, instant messaging, email, Twitter, SMS text messaging and so on. I’ve written about several other companies trying to do something similar — in fact, a competitor called Chatterous presented at the most recent demo day for incubator Y Combinator. But as communication tools proliferate, a service that brings everything together could be pretty useful, and no one has really knocked it out of the park yet.

On ShareMeme, it’s really easy to create different contact groups, to combine groups and to send messages, polls or event invitations through your favorite means of communication. Those messages are delivered to your friends via their favorite method. What’s really promising is how ShareMeme learns as you use it. If your friend doesn’t reply to a message via email, then ShareMeme will try again via SMS, or whatever contact information you’ve provided. With future messages, ShareMeme will automatically default to whichever method your friend has been most responsive to.

If you want to see ShareMeme in action, we’ve got 50 invites for VentureBeat readers. Just go to the ShareMeme site and enter “venturebeat” as the code.

3. Heekya — This startup (which was co-founded by VentureBeat contributor David Adewumi) dubs itself “the Wikipedia of social storytelling.” Its core feature is a story builder that lets you create a slide show incorporating different media, including videos, photos and blog posts. Of course, there are plenty of other startups offering multimedia slide show editors. The Heekya interface demonstrated today is pretty slick, and the stories are really much richer than standard slide shows. Still, it’s hard to believe the company will succeed based on the story editor alone.

Adewumi is aware of this, and says Heekya emphasizes “the context you’re providing around the media.” I like the way Heekya allows you to take someone else’s story and create your own version of it, adding your multimedia and your perspective. So there could be a number of “stories” revolving around the same event, with a mix of shared and unique content. You can also follow stories and users based on their subjects.

4. Mpowerplayer — Mpowerplayer is a mobile game discovery service. There’s a huge untapped market, says founder Michael Powers — namely, people who are interested in casual games but don’t want to spend time messing around with their phones to find them. By offering a phone emulator that lets users play a demo on their computers before buying the games, Powers says he can reach a new audience. In fact, Mpowerplayer has supported more than 15 million demos to date. It’s now expanding to social networking sites, starting with a Facebook application.

5. Koofers — This company wants to provide a one-stop shop for all your online college needs, starting with uploading and sharing notes and tests. Course Hero is one obvious competitor, but Koofers founders tell me that Course Hero doesn’t work with colleges to build a database of classes, so Koofers is more reliable. The site has also offers a way to rate instructors and the company is working on collaborative note-taking. The team tells me that Koofers’ active users include more than 60 percent of Virginia Tech’s student body, and there are plans to add more than 30 colleges this fall.

And here are the four other companies that presented today. Most of them had fun products, too, and may be worth checking out. But they just didn’t grab me in the same way, and some are trying to enter really crowded markets.

BuzzHubb — A college social networking tool that lets users create and share messages and content via groups called “Hubbs.”

MyGameMug — A gaming social network that wants to categorize and connect gamers.

Razume — A job site that helps 21- to 35-year-old job seekers create a resume, post it and prepare for interviews.

Zadby – An online marketplace for advertisers to connect with independent web video producers.


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