At TechCrunch Disrupt Conference, Startups Take Aim at Modernizing Old Industries

From agriculture to marriage counseling, entrepreneurs from all over the world competed for prizes, attention and investments in their bids to topple tradition using technology

What to Know

  • TechCrunch holds Disrupt conferences around the world, including one in San Francisco each fall
  • Entrepreneurs exhibit on Startup Alley and have a chance to be selected for the Startup Battlefield competition
  • This year, many startups aimed to modernize old, traditional industries using software

The name says it all: TechCrunch Disrupt is a conference for entrepreneurs looking to bring disruptive change to an industry, using all the tools of Silicon Valley.

In past years, the San Francisco edition of the Disrupt conference has seen a flurry of activity around nascent fields of technology: virtual and augmented reality, robotics, and the smart home. But this year, on the show's opening day, many entrepreneurs seemed more focused on mature industries: those that, in one way or another, have been left behind by the furious pace of innovation that has taken hold in the age of apps.

As always, the conference program featured celebrity appearances, including one by actor Will Smith and director Ang Lee, who spoke about the bleeding edge of filmmaking: realistic digital humans and blisteringly high frame rates used in the 3D action thriller "Gemini Man." Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry took the stage late Wednesday afternoon to talk about his foray into venture capital investing.

Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Actor Will Smith and director Ang Lee spoke at TechCrunch Disrupt about the filmmaking innovations they used to make "Gemini Man."

But for many, the real stars of Disrupt are the unknowns: small teams of scrappy entrepreneurs, from countries all over the world, pitching out-of-the-box solutions that could change industries and make a few shrewd investors rich in the process.

"This is the highest honor for an entrepreneur," said Sean Rones, founder of LifeCouple, an app selected to compete in the Startup Battlefield pitch contest.

Rones said his app aims to "disrupt divorce" by taking the pulse of a relationship through survey questions, preventing some quarrels before they happen, and helping to peacefully end the ones that do pop up.

Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry spoke to the Disrupt crowd about SC30, his venture capital fund.

Other apps target the tradition-steeped business of agriculture. BeeApp brings the world of beekeeping into a new era, trading pen and paper for a smartphone app that helps track the health and location of commercial beehives.

Olho Do Dono, last year's Startup Battlefield winner for Latin America, disrupts the laborious (and sometimes dangerous) process of herding cattle to a corral to weigh them. It uses a portable 3D camera to estimate the animals' weight in the fields where they graze. Founder Pedro Mannato claims a machine learning algorithm trained on more than 20,000 cattle helps the app be more than 98 percent accurate.

Strawberries are among California's most valuable crops, and now a startup called Traptic is marketing a robot that can handle some of the back-breaking work of picking them.

"We use color to determine ripeness, so a berry that's entirely red is ripe, a berry that's partially green or partially white is unripe," CEO Lewis Anderson said.

Many startups at TechCrunch Disrupt took aim at modernizing agriculture, from cattle weighing to berry picking.

Using computer vision and a very delicate robot gripper, he said, the robot can pick the most obviously-ripe berries, leaving the more difficult choices for the human farm workers who follow behind it. The company claims the robot will help address a worsening shortage of farm labor that leads 20 percent of California's strawberries to go unpicked.

Still, other startups aim to address the everyday gripes of consumers — like the perennial problem of making phone calls in noisy places. A bustling conference floor is the perfect place to show off Accudio's noise-canceling earbuds, which not only eliminate noise from music, but from your voice as you speak to someone on the phone.

The earbuds also take a stab at another common tech conference problem: the language barrier. Like Google's Pixel Buds, they can translate spoken words among numerous languages on the fly when used with an internet-connected smartphone. But while Pixel Buds have a cable connecting the left and right earphones, Accudio's are wire-free — meaning two people can each take one earbud and have a nearly-natural spoken conversation.

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