At SwitchPitch, big companies pitch projects to tech start-ups

SwitchPitch founder Michael Goldstein addresses the crowd during the event at UCLA in May. Boeing Co., Warner Bros. and Experian were among companies that pitched projects to start-ups. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times / May 22, 2014)

Start-up entrepreneurs are used to pitching their ideas to investors and big-name companies, hoping somebody will give them a break.

But the tables were turned recently at SwitchPitch, a role-reversal tech event where start-ups gathered to hear proposals from established companies looking for outside help.

Boeing wanted to create a video game to teach kids the science behind building planes. Experian was interested in developing an app to help consumers share credit scores with potential landlords and others. Warner Bros. hoped to track every Twitter post and YouTube video that mentions one of its movies, and promote some of that content on the studio's own website.

The six-hour event, held in a ballroom at UCLA, attracted 140 entrepreneurs and a handful of well-known companies including Hewlett-Packard and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Founder Michael Goldstein said he came up with the concept as a way to shift some power to fledgling companies and to better bridge the two sides. He started SwitchPitch last year and has held the events in New York; Washington, D.C.; and Miami. The UCLA event was the first on the West Coast.

"I saw firsthand that there's a disconnect between start-ups doing the innovating and the large companies who need the innovation," Goldstein, 40, said. Established tech brands "recognize they need help and they are not afraid to ask for it. That's a big change."

SwitchPitch is a twist on the usual job fair or networking session, where mingling and face time tend to be the priority. Instead, it's a chance for established brands to find qualified start-ups to complete pre-funded projects for which they don't have employees to spare; other times, the firms' workers don't have the right skills.

Because the companies are outsourcing specific projects, the process can be more efficient — the work doesn't get bogged down by corporate bureaucracy and languish in internal development cycles.

"Smaller companies can be a little bit more nimble for a project like this," Jeremy Wasser, vice president of mobile and connected devices at Experian Consumer Services, said of the firm's credit score app idea.

Arroyo Labs, a Century City software start-up that helps build apps and websites for clients, planned to apply for about half of the 10 or so projects presented at SwitchPitch, including the Boeing video game and Warner Bros. social media pitch.

Founder John Arroyo, 38, said the company typically finds clients by tapping its three employees' personal networks, by checking LinkedIn and through word of mouth.

"What's hard is knowing who to hit. We could find someone at Universal or MTV, but we don't know that they actually have a need," he said. With the big companies at SwitchPitch, "knowing that they have a need and a project that fits what we do, it's so much easier to target."

Executives from the large companies said they also saw SwitchPitch as a way to get plugged in to the start-up community.

It's "not just a work-for-hire situation," but an opportunity to build relationships with entrepreneurs and hear fresh, ground-level ideas, said Richard Berger, senior vice president of global digital strategy and operations at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

"We want to challenge the technology community to help reinvent the online viewing experience and not just replicate the things we do on disc," Berger said. "We have some ideas, but we want to know what we're missing."

At the start of the L.A. event last month, the companies outlined their needs during formal presentations that were followed by five-minute, one-on-one "SpeedSwitch" meetings — think speed-dating between established companies and start-ups. Each entrepreneur paid $95 to attend.

All told, the projects have generated more than $1 million in revenue for start-ups, Goldstein said. A start-up entrepreneur and investor himself, he plans to ramp up the SwitchPitch schedule starting this fall by holding an event a month. Future dates are already set for New York and London.

After each SwitchPitch, start-ups have a few weeks to place bids for the projects they're interested in. Those not able to attend the event can view the projects online and submit applications as well.

Most start-ups ultimately will be unsuccessful: Only 20% of projects were matched with a start-up after the first SwitchPitch event, held last year in Washington, D.C., Goldstein said. The second event, in New York City, led to signed deals for 40% of the projects presented.

Arroyo, of Arroyo Labs, said that even if nothing works out, he won't be too disappointed.

"Anecdotally we've heard of other companies who, because of those connections, get future work," he said.

paresh.dave@latimes.com

Twitter: @peard33

andrea.chang@latimes.com

Twitter: @byandreachang