Feature Story

Startup trends for 2014

by Amy Cortese

A look at the wearable, shareable & social trends you'll see in the coming year.

Tech bubble? What tech bubble? Despite the vertiginous valuations of some tech darlings, the pace of innovation shows no sign of slowing down. And it’s coming from all over: startups these days are just as likely to spring from the Midwest —or Mideast—as Silicon Valley and other traditional tech centers. Y Combinator’s incoming class of entrepreneurs is the incubator’s most diverse to date, with entrepreneurial teams from 22 countries, including Croatia, Denmark, Switzerland and Turkey. And 2013 saw countries including Libya and Iran celebrate Global Entrepreneurship Week for the first time. Add to the mix crowdfunding, which is unlocking new pools of capital, and you can count on an explosion of entrepreneurial activity in the months to come.

Here are some interesting startup trends to watch for in the year ahead:

Smart is the New Black

Technology continues to adapt to on-the-go lifestyles and seamlessly weave itself into our everyday lives. Mobile increasingly means wearable. The Pebble watch, with its groundbreaking $10 million Kickstarter campaign, inspired a new crop of smart watches that can relay text and email messages and much more without having to fumble for the phone.  And Google Glasses—love ‘em or hate ‘em— are ushering in a new era of connectedness (not to mention creepy geeks).

But that’s just the beginning. Wearable tech is becoming more fashionable and functional. Hexoskin, a Canadian startup, makes athletic clothing out of new fangled fabric that is infused with biometric sensors, so your $399 shirt can collect data and monitor vitals such as breathing rate and volume, heart rate and recovery time and calories burned—and stream it to your iPhone. The company is reportedly in licensing talks with major clothing brands, so the day may not be far off when your Nike shoes tell you how well you’ve just done, or your Dockers deliver a well-placed jolt when you’ve been sitting at your desk too long.

Wearable technology is a fluid concept and is quickly evolving. Brazilian “beauty tech designer” Katia Vega, for one, has infused nail polish, eye makeup and false lashes with conductive technology that can control devices and even launch drones. (With apologies to Helen of Troy, we may soon have a face that launches a thousand drones….).  And at CES, Seattle-based Innovega showed contact lenses that can project digital information, such as driving directions and video calls.

Making Sense of Data

Wearable tech feeds into the ‘quantified self’ movement, where individuals can measure (and obsess over) all sorts of information about themselves—from quality of sleep to mood—in an effort to take control of their health and lives. But beyond selfie analytics, there is a continuing thirst to quantify and make sense of the enormous amount of data—big and small—that have been unleashed in the past few years. In particular, tools that analyze and make sense of social media from Twitter to Linked In will continue to be a big area of focus for startups such as Simply Measured, Umbel and Swipp, to name just a few. Already indispensable for marketers, social data analytics will also find new applications, such as helping lenders predict which consumers and businesses might be a good credit risk.  Someday, your social profile could be more important than your FICO score. 

Airbnb for Everything

Digital technology will continue to create profound economic and social change in 2014. One area that I‘m particularly excited about is the sharing economy — the term used to describe the proliferation of Internet-based marketplaces that let people share or rent out their property—whether a spare room, a car or a power tool—to other individuals (with the web site taking a small fee).

The juggernaut of the sharing economy is Airbnb, which started in 2008 as a way to help a couple of struggling guys pay their rent, and blossomed into a global virtual hotel that puts up nearly 60,000 people a night in 192 countries and is valued at $2.5 billion.  Given its success, there seems to be an ‘Airbnb’ popping up every day for some new area. Lyft, based in San Francisco, is an inexpensive peer-to-peer ride-sharing site that connects people needing to get somewhere with nearby drivers.  Tap your request into your smartphone and a Lyft driver will offer to pick you up and drive you (for a suggested donation). In 20 cities today, Lyft has raised $83 million to help fuel an international expansion. Getaround, another startup, lets people rent out their unused vehicles.

There are plenty of other opportunities for sharing. TaskRabbit, for example, lets people bid on errands or other services, creating a vibrant marketplace for skills and services. Shelf.com, a startup listed on AngelList, notes that the average U.S. household has $7,000 worth of unused items sitting around—items that the startup hopes to help their owners easily sell. On Vayable, in San Francisco, people can create and offer custom experiences to travelers seeking a unique local experience.

What all of these collaborative consumption sites have in common is that they empower people economically by allowing them to monetize their assets and supplement their income. At the same time, they are helping to create a more intimate and eco-conscious form of commerce that encourages reuse rather than consumption. And that’s one trend we can hope has legs.


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