AUSTIN, Texas -- The Queen City sent a strong delegation last week to SXSW, the nation’s biggest tech festival. LISNR, Proto Build Bar, Wyzerr and Kapture were among the thousands of companies from around the world to descend on Austin, Texas.
For the uninitiated, the South by Southwest festival is a beast: It starts out with five days of film and interactive programming that leads into five days of music shows. The venue is practically the entire city of Austin: Every hotel, theater and club in the downtown area is taken over for festival events, and empty lots get turned into pop-up marketing installations that are as impressive as they are temporary.
Barbecue, beers and breakfast tacos are ubiquitous (and often on the house) for the duration of the Interactive festival, as startups and mega-corporations vie for the attention of the more than 30,000 registrants, many of whom pay more than $1,000 for the privilege of being there. Though the Interactive conference consists of hundreds of panel discussions and presentations by thought leaders from all over the world — including President Barack Obama this year — most of the value of being at SXSW comes from the connections you make. The person you’re standing behind in line for ribs at Stubb’s could be someone who opens just the right door for your project.
And it’s also about building awareness: SXSW has been Ground Zero for a number of hot tech launches; though it launched several months prior, Twitter finally blew up there in 2007. Countless new apps hire street teams of college-age kids to walk around downtown Austin for the festival, wearing goofy outfits or full-body costumes while handing out promo codes and free treats. On the more official side, SXSW’s Interactive Innovation Awards don’t come with a cash prize, but the visibility is clutch. This year, two of the finalists selected by industry experts were Queen City favorites: LISNR, based in Cincinnati, and Proto Build Bar, based in Dayton.
LISNR was born on a startup bus headed to SXSW in 2012, so in a way, the co-founders’ annual trip to Austin is a homecoming. In the past four years, Rodney Williams and Chris Ostoich have grown the company to include more than 40 employees in Cincinnati, New York and San Francisco, and have attracted $14.4 million in funding.
The brief explanation of LISNR is that the company has developed a way to transmit data to smartphones (or any device with a microphone) via inaudible tones. LISNR technology can be embedded in mobile apps to create interactions that work even offline and at long distances. Over Labor Day, LISNR’s Smart Tone technology enhanced the Budweiser Made In America music festival in Philadelphia even when mobile networks were overburdened. Using inaudible tones broadcast over the existing speakers, the app sent live updates to festival-goers about line wait times, schedule changes and exclusive offers based on their location and interests. At one concert, users’ phones became the light show itself.
It’s all about connecting with consumers at a moment that matters, Ostoich says, and their goal is to turn LISNR into a communication platform like Bluetooth. The company is working with Visa to enable payments via encrypted tones and has partnerships in the works with major social media companies Ostoich could not yet reveal. The technology is even in use at the company’s headquarters Downtown on Race Street: Because the company is on the fourth floor without a buzzer for the front door, the team tires of running up and down the stairs to let people in. So a developer put a tiny speaker next to the buzzer and created a LISNR-powered app for the door, with a tiny audio key to let the right people in.
SXSW is “arguably one of the biggest events of the year,” Williams said. “Every year it’s done well for us. We set a strategic goal and focus to figure out how to make that happen.” Winning the award would be bragging rights, he said, but he wasn’t sweating it at the pre-awards party LISNR hosted with Wyzerr, a Covington-based startup that makes a customer survey tool for businesses.
Maker Space With A Twist
The other local nominee for an Interactive Innovation Award was Proto Build Bar, a “maker space” with a twist in downtown Dayton that opened in October 2014. It’s got a ton of 3-D printers and eight fully tricked-out maker benches, sure, but it’s also got a full bar and espresso machine.
Chris Wire and Marc Stevens were on site at SXSW representing Proto as well as Real Art, their design agency, and Krush, their digital agency, all based in Dayton. They’re all about building wonder, Wire says. He was inspired to create Proto because he felt intimidated by maker spaces with monthly fees where he felt like he had to prove his cred. “Can we lower the bar and make it about learning new things for all ages?” he asked, and they have done exactly that. “The best ideas come when people are just kicked back.” They hope to open a few more locations this year — perhaps even in Cincinnati.
Just a block from the Austin Convention Center, Krush took over a house to demonstrate Moveo, a 360-degree virtual reality simulator, as well as their other new apps, and lines were out the door. Wire and Stevens had been to SXSW just for fun in the past, but this was their first time as official exhibitors. “This is a great place to reach our audience, and the award nomination was a sweet bonus,” Wire said.
Elsewhere In Austin
Matthew Dooley flew from Cincinnati to Austin for the networking. His startup, Kapture, didn't have an official presence at SXSW this year, and he was taking the opportunity to focus his attention outward.
Kapture is a wristband that with the tap of a finger saves the previous 60 seconds of sound. Conferences like SXSW tend to divide your attention into so many pieces that it’s impossible to put back together. His new marketing campaign for Kapture is about giving attention. He’s asking people “What’s the best thing anyone has ever said to you?” And then, “How would it feel to experience or hear that again?”
The first round of funding, $1.1 million, underwrote the manufacturing in China, and the second round of funding — Dooley is aiming for $1.5 million — will go toward continued product development and building inventory, as well as marketing, sales and distribution. Kapture has sold about 350,000 units so far.
Dooley had an orange Kapture on his wrist when I met him at a bar in downtown Austin before the insanity of Interactive began. Dooley says the prevalence of devices that are listening to their surroundings all the time — like the new iPhones and Amazon’s Alexa — works in Kapture’s favor. “It makes sense to be skeptical about someone who’s recording all the time,” he says. But the human element of trust is the special sauce, and in a way asking for permission to record what someone just said is a compliment. Kapture has a flashing light when it’s on and requires touch activation to save audio. “If you’re trying to spy, there are many better ways to do that.”
Kapture has started working with the Cincinnati Association for the Blind after getting a message from a blind German customer who uses the device to capture audio “snapshots” of his day. The startup plans to add full voice-control capabilities to the next version of its app.
Even more Cincinnatians were on hand in Austin for the Impact Pediatric Health competition, which included experts from Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center as judges. And a number of musicians from the Queen City were on deck to perform during the music portion of the festival.
Fashionable Cincinnati rapper Insomniac Lamb$ performed at the Palm Door on Wednesday, and Vacation rounded out the bill at the Velveeta Room on Thursday. K-Drama, a Christian rapper, was slated to perform at PromiseLand Church on Friday, and “absurd” rock outfit Automagik was scheduled for Valhalla that night.
When SXSW’s Interactive Innovation Awards were handed out Tuesday night, neither LISNR nor Proto Build Bar were called to the stage. But neither was gutted by the loss — it’s an honor just to be there.