S.P.A.R.K Chicago – Only the strong survive

If Startup Weekend is entrepreneurship on training wheels, then we sure could use an event that’s one step more advanced. Once you understand the dynamics of choosing a team, the compromises involved in pivoting, and the pitfalls of not validating customers, there should be a place to dig deeper into your startup idea – execute, period. I’m glad to say this weekend I found that next step.

S.P.A.R.K Chicago kicked off last Friday like any other Startup Weekend, except these entrepreneurs were hungry. They knew that not only would they be judged on launching a startup in 54 hours, but the top three teams would move forward for another three days to find one ultimate winner. The stakes were high because the competition was steeper and the prizes were money. But what I saw motivating these teams was that coming out on top of this unique event would be something memorable (okay fine, the prizes valued at over $100k were part of it too).

Allow me to introduce you to some of the teams.

Unstook.It* created a means to tap experts that already exist in your social network and beyond to answer those annoying questions – the ones that you know if you had a few minutes from the right person, you could totally save yourself from pulling your hair out.

icebrkr.me wants to help you capture missed opportunities for networking and connecting with others around you. Imagine if people put a snippet of info they were comfortable sharing about themselves in a bubble right over their head. Now you walk into a Starbucks and see a lawyer who might be able to help in a legal matter, a designer you might need for your startup idea, and a single girl who seems just your type.

iMote.tv is a hardware device that liberates that hand from your standard remote control while you attempt to stay connected using so-called Social TV apps on your smartphone. Plug this bad boy into the audio connector and apps will have the ability to use the iMote SDK to interact with your TV directly. Now you can check-in to the Jersey Shore and fist pump at the same time.

Medihub is creating a social network to address medical concerns as well as create bonds between communities in similar struggles. Think WebMD with a social network as the main focus. You could ask questions, post relevant findings and connect with people who could use your support and provide you with theirs.

Wizora is a recommendation engine for not only finding places you like based on aggregated reviews as well as the deals you could score while you are there. Here is the twist that separates them from the pack – the Pandora-like auto-play interaction. The wizard (who is apparently super intelligent and super aware) plans your night so you can enjoy it.

PeopleEssence wants to be the eHarmony of job placement – A one stop website to manage your lifetime career goals and advancement. The idea is that employers want to find highly qualified and motivated potentials and everyone can use a place to find information on jobs and understand those careers from others points of view. Match made in career heaven.

ViaTask made the gutsy move to overlap target markets with Zaarly, while Eric Koester was right there as a keynote speaker for the event. Still they managed to differentiate themselves as a marketplace for errands, while Zaarly does most of their business selling and buying items. So imagine you need someone to pick up your dry cleaning and you can spare 5 bucks for their time. Lifesaver.

fooodi.es is an event planning and coordinator service that helps restaurants host tastings for some serious invite-only food lovers. They have paired the service with an App that makes it easy for these foodies to find tastings in their location. So restaurants provide the experience and the food, and fooodies provides the valuable customers – repeat business comers and vocal reviewers.

TABliss wants you to never wait to close your tab again. They want to work with your favorite restaurant’s POS system to put the power to close a check right in your hand. Walk out as soon as you put that fork down, and please remember to tip for waiter/waitress.

CodeMountain gives you and adventure to learn web development. These days finding a developer is hard, but what if you could spend a little time and learn how to code, AND what if it didn’t suck? CodeMountain wants to deliver an entry level course to get you coding and producing by scouring the net for existing vetted and recognized tutorials, screencasts, and more.

Careerli gives highschool students the guidance they need when choosing a career. When 75% of our college students arrive without declaring a major, and then go on to waste tens of thousands of dollars just trying to figure out what they should do with their lives, you know there is a place for some more advice. Careerli wants to find out how to inspire students and get them involved in careers through their own portal of information.

The judges favorites are in. After all these hard working teams presented at the Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago at TechWeek, they were narrowed down to three. Congratulations to fooodi.es (now renamed to Duck Duck Dish), CodeMountain and Careerli for winning the votes. But its not over yet so good luck!

So who is your favorite? Are any of these startups solving your own pain point, or do you have any feedback on their ideas? Try reaching out to them because, like I said, these guys are hungry and even the teams that were not chosen to move on are working hard and could use some customer feedback. Drop us a line in the comments.

If you are in the Chicago area, get tickets to the final pitches. I mean NOW, it’s tonight, and it’s free.

*special shoutout to these guys, they used the OpenTok API and gave us some great feedback. good luck as you continue your efforts!