plug and play tech centerAs the startup reporter for VentureBeat, I go to a lot of demo days. The seats are always filled with venture capitalists, angel investors, and press, and in a way we all have the same goal: to identify the most exciting, most promising companies.

Yesterday I attended the Plug and Play accelerator expo in Sunnyvale, Calif., and listened to 25 entrepreneurs from around the world pitch their businesses. I tried to look at the startups through an investor lens and consider which were compelling enough to invest in (assuming I had money to invest).

Per usual, a few stood out, a few were pretty underwhelming, a few I need more information on, and the rest fell into that unmemorable netherworld of “meh.”

The panel of VC judges selected Atizo, JD Sound, and Vuact as the winners.

VC Picks

Atizo is a crowdsourced platform for market research. Market research is slow and expensive, and it can be tough to get real information. Atizo is a community of 20,000 people that provides feedback on ideas to give marketing managers actual insight into whether a new product will succeed.

One of the biggest benefits of raising money through crowdfunding campaigns is the ability to validate the market. Platforms like Kickstarter are not meant for use by big brands, but these companies also have the same need to find out whether consumers are willing to pay for something.  Assuming Swedish company Atizo’s community is an accurate representation of mainstream consumers and engaged enough in the platform to regularly provide feedback, I love the concept.

The second winner, a Korean company called JD Sound, won me over immediately by performing the song “Gangam Style” on stage. JD Sound has created a portable DJ system. It’s like a Jambox for DJing — the hardware is small, lightweight, and cheaper than existing DJ systems. Company president Robin Lee said that it is the world’s first and only truly mobile and standalone DJ mixer and music production device.

I am a sucker for cool hardware, particularly when it makes me dance, and I can totally see this device taking off. JD Sound already has license agreements with LG and Philips, and more big box retail partnerships are in the works.

The third winner, Vuact, is a platform that increases viewer engagement by prompting people to provide easy feedback. Videos are a powerful vehicle for conveying information, but viewers have short attention spans. Vuact’s solution encourages viewers to find the best moments in videos and mark their reactions as the video plays. Vuact is based in Finland.

I certainly understand why content publishers would want this technology. It increases viewer engagement and gives them an idea of what works and what doesn’t. However, as a viewer, I am not sure how motivated I would be to provide that input. When you choose “like” or “dislike” on Pandora, you ultimately get a more personalized playlist, but what’s the value to the consumer here?

My shout-outs

Buzz around the event told me that software-defined networking startup NoviFlow is an internal favorite. These startups are super hot right now, and it seems like every VC firm wants to scoop one into its portfolio. NoviFlow develops high-performance Ethernet switches using network processors.

This is complicated stuff, though (“stuff” is the technical term), and if the team can execute, it could be huge. Founder Dominique Jodoin claimed that NoviFlow provides the missing link required for this sector to really take off: high bandwidth and flow capacity switching. He said that this technology enables NoviFlow to release new version of switches faster than competitors and gives it a time-to-market advantage of 12 to 18 months.

While the actual breakdown of the technology eludes me, I do understand the importance of creating scalable network architecture to respond to the massive quantities of data we are currently generating. This sector has created a lot of excitement after network-virtualization startup Niciria was acquired by VMware for $1.26 billion in 2012. Competitive companies like Plumgrid, Big Switch Networks, Pluribus Networks have all raised hefty rounds from big name VCs, and Intel and Cisco are both getting in on this action as well.

I also liked Kalibrr, a company that also went through Y Combinator. Kalibrr is based in the Philppines and provides online learning and assessments to help people get jobs. Large companies like Accenture, JP Morgan, and IBM outsource work to the Philippines, and Kalibrr wants to help them improve their recruiting efforts. The founder is exceptionally passionate, and I have heard enough about outsourcing and hiring challenges to see the value.

Japanese startup Capy was another favorite. You know those weird twisted letters or number sequences that websites use to confirm you are, in fact, human and not a spam bot? Capy makes customizable cute ones. Not exactly earth-shattering stuff, but considering that traditional CAPTCHAs are used 280 million times a day and most entrepreneurs I know are willing to pay for a more customizable, on-brand, consumer-friendly experience, this company could rake in the dough without much effort. I was also impressed by Irisnote, which is already working with 70 corporate, academic, and government labs including BP, NIH, the CDC, and Johns Hopkins to improve (and digitize) the way researchers organize their work.

A couple of the startups had interesting ideas, but I have already heard and seen (and covered) their competitors before.

The startup scene is so glutted with startup accelerators and incubators that it can be difficult to sort through the noise. Y Combinator, 500 Startups, and Tech Stars are the most elite, and now we are seeing vertically oriented programs like Rock Health that focus on a certain area of expertise.

Plug and Play’s niche seems to be its international emphasis (which Dave McClure is also pushing for) and its ability to support companies later in their life cycle. What really stood out for me is the number of companies that already have significant traction abroad and are using Plug and Play as the U.S. launchpad.

The world is coming to Silicon Valley. American entrepreneurs, gird your loins.

Photo Credit: Plug and Play Tech Center