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Absurd CES startup contest ends with Richard Branson flying the losers to his private island

Absurd CES startup contest ends with Richard Branson flying the losers to his private island


"Be prepared to kite-surf, to jump off my favorite cliff..."

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I did not think it was possible for Extreme Tech Challenge — a startup contest where the winner is determined after a week of kiteboarding on Richard Branson's private island — to get more more ridiculous. I was wrong. The semi-finals hosted yesterday at CES began with a disembodied voice asking everyone to rise while Lexi sang the American national anthem. I don't know who Lexi is, but Richard Branson is British. His private island is in the Caribbean. Oh, and tech events never start with the national anthem. Why would they?

XTC, as they like to call the contest, began with 2,000 applicants. Yesterday, the 10 semi-finalists were judged by a panel including "startup liaison" and ex-Google Glass evangelist Robert Scoble, as well as Gary Shapiro, the producer of CES, and Dr. Boris Nikolic, the "scientific advisor to Bill Gates." The judges were supposed to narrow it down to three startups, who would receive a free trip to spend a week on Necker Island for the chance to pitch Branson and rub-elbows with a different set of island-based judges, including Lars Rasmussen, the head of Facebook search, and Young Sohn, the president of Samsung. There would be kiteboarding.

There would be kiteboarding

The thing is, many of the 10 semi-finalists were impressive. Their ideas were ambitious and already being executed, they were making money, their pitches hooked you in. There was Breathometer, the Bluetooth-connected breathalyzer that wants to use breath as a way to analyze a user's health. Skully, a safety-focused motorcycle helmet with a heads-up display and rearview camera that is working on sensing vehicles around you. CEO Marcus Weller echoed a major theme of this year's CES when he said one day we would look back on the idea of letting vehicles crash into one another as "barbaric."

Some pitches were even slightly self-aware. Austen Heinz, the controversy-seeking CEO of Cambrian Genomics, a DNA laser printing company, mocked the standard startup sales tactic when discussing how he created DNA to make a glowing plant. "Plants have been around 3 billion years, they never glowed. But guess what? We fixed that problem!"

"Plants have been around 3 billion years, they never glowed."

However, it's hard to avoid the fact that asking founders to kiteboard and shmooze in order to get ahead sounds like a more extreme sport version of networking at the golf club. Investor and entrepreneur Bill Tai, the primary organizer, didn't really see the problem. When we spoke on the phone before the semi-finals, he said there was a correlation between "outstanding performers in extreme sports and outstanding entrepreneurs." It had to do with "an attitude towards getting it done and pushing it to the limits, breaking through." In order to kite surf, he insisted, one had to possess "a mind that likes multi-variable equations."

Tai sent me a link to the video below because he said it had the "crispest positioning" to help me understand the concept. It looked like an ad for Carnival Cruise.

Tai is responsible for the kiteboard connection. The venture capitalist is a sponsored athlete, who once told Business Insider that 70% of his investments have founders who kiteboard. He and fellow athlete Susi Mai organize a regular event series called MaiTai that attracts a lot of entrepreneurs. The idea behind XTC is opening that up to companies that need help "scaling" their ideas. An investment from Branson isn't guaranteed, maybe that depends on your kite sport game. But the winner does receive prizes like free cloud hosting and database infrastructure.

The end of the judging, before a packed ballroom, was just as goofy. People kept getting on stage to hand out oversized checks for secondary prizes, Ed Mcmahon style. A news aggregation app called "Anews" gave out a scant $200 in cash to one moderately lucky CES attendee who downloaded the app.

One of the winners was Wanderu, who is building the Kayak for bus travel, a $20.6 billion market rife with crappy PDF schedules and no way to compare prices. Surprisingly, most people using buses are millennials, a demographic that CEO Polina Raygorodskaya — the one and only woman to present — described as "connected social explorers with severe ADD." The other two were Breathometer and Doctor on Demand, a service that lets you have a live chat with a doctor through your phone. Doctor on Demand was founded by Jay McGraw, son of daytime diva Dr. Phil, who also helps fund the company.

"Millennials are connected social explorers with severe ADD."

In fact, many of the startups already had connections that made the notion of pitching Branson seem less like a once-in-lifetime experience. Breathometer, for example, was on Shark Tank, got all five judges to invest, and has billionaire Mark Cuban on its board. Another startup, Canva, has ex-Apple evangelist Guy Kawasaki do their pitch. (He came out of "semi-retirement" to become the "chief evangelist" for the design startup.)

After the winners were announced, Richard Branson showed up (via pre-recorded video) and announced that he would pay for the other seven companies to drop by Necker island. "Be prepared to kite-surf and jump off my favorite cliff," said the billionaire.

Readers, do you have a favorite cliff? If so, let us know the coordinates in the comments!

See all the latest CES 2015 news here ›