12,000 people. Over 300 startups from all over the world. 11 winners. 3 days.

I recently attended the three-day Launch Festival in San Francisco, California, where MaRS was a media partner.

Launch Festival
Launch Festival in San Francisco

A change of venue was required in order to accommodate the record number of attendees this year, and that new venue happened to be Fort Mason Center, directly across from the majestic Golden Gate Bridge (a view that never loses its novelty).

They were tough to choose, but here are my top five highlights from this year’s festival.

1. The startups officially launching on stage

This was absolutely the best part of the festival. No less than 50 startup companies officially launched their products, apps and services on stage in front of a panel of grand jury judges with a live Q-and-A session. (Think “American Idol” for startups.)

Two weeks later, I’m still telling friends about the amazing companies I watched launch.

Here are my three favourites.

  • Requested: This is a really cool app that allows you to bid on a restaurant’s empty seats (at your chosen reservation time) and receive a discount that you negotiate directly with the restaurant (to pay $40 for a $50 tab, for example). Watch the team’s five-minute pitch here.
  • Fountain: Working on a do-it-yourself or home project and got stuck on a problem? Simply jump on a live video chat with an expert (such as a general contractor, a plumber or an electrician) in under 90 seconds and pay only $7 for 15 minutes of their time. You can also communicate via text message and send photos and links directly through the app via the chat/video window. Watch the company’s pitch here.
  • Rise Robotics: In a nutshell, this startup, direct from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is intel for exoskeletons. Using 3D printing to iterate, the company’s device converts energy from batteries into a powered mobile device that assists or amplifies the wearer’s movement (think exoskeleton robots that can help lift things in hospitals and rehab centres). Still not sure what I mean? Check out the team’s quick two-minute pitch here.

2. The speakers

Some of the biggest names in the tech and venture capital scenes took the stage, including:

The following were my three favourite speakers from the conference.

Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn

It’s quite evident that Jeff is a great leader and strategic thinker. In his talk, he provided five tips on how to build great world-class products.

  1. Great products deliver on a single value proposition. Do one thing really, really well.
  2. World-class products are simple and intuitive, and they anticipate their users’ needs.
  3. Great products exceed expectations.
  4. Great products resonate emotionally. It’s about the way they make you feel.
  5. Great products have a meaningful impact on your life.

Roelof Botha, partner at Sequoia Capital (and investor in WhatsApp, Instagram and Dropbox)

According to Roelof, the best thing to do as an entrepreneur is to ask questions.

“As an investor I don’t come with the answers. I come with frameworks and experiences to help you get there. The role of venture capitalists is to ask good questions to help entrepreneurs solve problems on their own,” he said.

Peter Thiel, partner at Founders Fund (and the creator of PayPal and first outside investor in Facebook)

Peter’s talk packed the largest number of people into the Main Hall, compromising the building’s fire code!

On monopolies: “I like to invest when I know it will be a monopoly.”

On investing in SpaceX and Tesla Motors: “I would never bet against Elon Musk in anything.”

On what he’s learned as a venture capitalist: “Once something works, people underestimate it. When it’s not working they overestimate what’s not working.”

3. The Demo Pit

With over 250 companies in attendance, I spent a lot of time cruising the Demo Pit aisles, chatting with founders and checking out their products. The pit featured everything from content-sharing tools to an app that monitors and tracks your pool’s pH and water levels.

Launch Festival Demo Pit
Launch Festival Demo Pit

Each day, two or three companies were pulled from the pit and asked to present their ventures on stage.

JOLT grad Taplytics in the demo pit
JOLT grad Taplytics at their demo pit table

4. The networking

At an event with nearly 12,000 attendees, you’re bound to meet some interesting people. It’s great to connect with entrepreneurs from all over the world. I met entrepreneurs from across the United States, as well as from Berlin, Australia and Amsterdam.

For me, the most networking happened in the Demo Pit and also, oddly enough, in the UberPool taxis I took to and from the festival each day. You never knew who might be walking by at any time or who you might end up sharing a ride with.

5. The competition

Launch Festival has a proven track record of identifying “the next big thing” in the tech world. Past winners include Mint, Yammer and Dropbox. Last year’s overall winner, the social/relationships app Connect, has since raised over $15 million. With approximately three million users, the company has grown to a team of 18. The element of competition adds a certain excitement and buzz to the festival, as the attendees know that they’ll be talking about the winners for years to come.

This year’s winner, Abra, got me very excited, as it is both a financial technology and social purpose business. Here is the pitch that won them top honours and a $250,000 investment from the Launch Fund.

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Jennifer Marron

Jennifer Marron was the Manager, Marketing and Channel Development for MaRS. See more…