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TechCrunch Disrupt: Startup Battlefield

Several startups pitched their plans to revolutionize aspects of the music, grocery, contracting, currency, and health businesses. Some might even succeed.

At the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco Monday afternoon, a handful of startup companies tried to convince judges and attendees of the merits of their respective business models.

The first round of presenters consisted of Tonara, Farmigo, HouseFix, Openbucks, and CakeHealth.

Tonara provides a way to follow sheet music on an iPad, using a system that listens to a musician playing and turns the page of the score at the appropriate moment in the piece. With paper sheet music, page turning is done by the musician or an assistant, so having an app that can keep up with one's playing without missing a beat is undeniably appealing.

"This is the future of sheet music, " declared chief music officer Ron Regev, who demonstrated that the software knows where it is in a score even when multiple musicians are playing.

Tonara plans to make money selling sheet music, a market that CEO and founder Yair Lavi insisted is significant, despite the skepticism of some on the judging panel.

The downside is that while Tonara works with classical or pop music--when was the last time anyone saw Lady Gaga consulting sheet music?--it doesn't support jazz, because jazz voicings are not written out on a lead sheet.

Farmigo is a service that attempts to match food producers with customers, like a subscription-based farmers market at a more varied set of locations. The company's goal is to promote a relationship between consumers and farmers, while taking advantage of group buying dynamics to offer fresh goods at prices below those at a typical farmers market.

The company has some 40,000 families participating already, many of which appear to be at companies like Google, where dropoff points can be convenient to a large number of participants.

The judges were interested in what they saw as a version of OpenTable for produce, but they didn't appear to be completely convinced by the idea. If the company does take off, it may be as a corporate benefit: Large companies have a critical mass of potential subscribers and the infrastructure to receive and hold deliveries for employees. For the typical family however, it's hard to believe that participating in such a service would be helpful when visits to Whole Foods or Safeway or some other grocery store would still be necessary for goods not covered by Farmigo.

HouseFix launched its online service to help homeowners and contractors connect. The service faces the challenge of requiring a critical mass of people to be useful and of encouraging people to want to participate in a social community concerned with home maintenance and repair. While there's undoubtedly a need for better information about contractors and about customer leads for contracting work, it's unclear that HouseFix brings enough value to the experience to displace similar customer information plays like Redbeacon.

Perhaps the most intriguing company to present in the first round was a startup called Openbucks that provides a way to spend the value in gift cards on digital and virtual goods. For example, a teenager with a Subway gift card could redeem the card's dollar value on virtual goods sold by one of Openbucks' game company partners.

While this might seem unnecessary to anyone with a credit card, some 97 million Americans don't have access to electronic credit, according to Openbucks. What's more, Openbucks transactions don't require personal information. They are also paid for at the point the card was purchased, limiting the potential for fraud after the fact. Openbucks is a company to watch.

Finally, CakeHealth promises a way to organize and keep track of health insurance information and payments, in the way that Mint helps people organize and track their finances. It was an idea that resonated with the judging panel. All that's necessary is for the company to make its value proposition clear to consumers.

There's certainly a need for a better way to organize healthcare information, though many companies have tried and failed, Google Health being a recent example. In any event, it's hard to imagine a market with more potential at the moment.

Attend Enterprise 2.0 Santa Clara, Nov. 14-17, 2011, and learn how to drive business value with collaboration, with an emphasis on how real customers are using social software to enable more productive workforces and to be more responsive and engaged with customers and business partners. Register today and save 30% off conference passes, or get a free expo pass with priority code CPHCES02. Find out more and register.

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