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Everyone can just get along: The SXSW Eco Startup Showcase finds its niche

The balance between business interests and academics at SXSW Eco is a little wobbly, but it seems to be working. Outside of the AT&T Conference Center, there are a slew of Chevy Volts available for conference attendees to test-drive; walk through the lobby and into the courtyard, and maybe you’ll see a young woman in a t-shirt doing yoga stretches; there are suits alongside grey ponytails and everyone seems to be getting along pretty well.

Still, some aspects of SXSW Eco must be pretty foreign to some of the crunchier, more academic conference goers. That includes the Startup Showcase, where a handful of sustainability-oriented startups compete, reality-show-style, for the investor attention and client interest that comes with winning an award at a conference with the letters SXSW in its title. This isn’t an unprecedented way for things to proceed in the business world – in addition to actual reality shows like Shark Tank, SXSW Interactive has been holding the similarly-structured Accelerator for startups that aren’t required to have a sustainability component – but it’s basically the opposite of how funding usually works in the academic and NGO world.

So it makes more sense that the hall for the Startup Showcase finals were mostly packed with the suit-wearing conference-goers. The finalists on Thursday: Planet Reuse out of Kansas City (started by Nathan Benjamin, “the Lady Gaga of reclaimed building materials”); Numat Technology, a nanomaterials company borne out of Northwestern University; and Zeta, a sustainable residential and commercial building company.

The three founders each had eight minutes to give the pitch, and the difficulty of communicating to a number of different audiences was clear: Planet Reuse was fairly accessible and common-sense oriented, offering reuse centers (who re-sell used construction materials) the opportunity to tag, track, and sell their product online. Numat, meanwhile, was considerably more complex – nanomaterials are exciting-sounding, but the concept of materials that can more efficiently transport and contain gases (either hazardous natural gases that need to be stored or natural gas that needs a fuel tank) involves a lot of science – which isn’t necessarily suited to the reality-show format.

All of which speaks to both the challenge and the opportunity of SXSW Eco. In its second year, the conference is doing a good job of broadening its programming to appeal to a variety of people from a number of backgrounds. With that in mind, it doesn’t need to be all things to all people. The people at the conference who are preparing a startup, most likely, will have found the showcase illuminating. For the rest, there are plenty of other things to focus on.

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