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White House Hosts Startups at First 'Demo Day' for Entrepreneurs

The White House’s first "Demo Day" for entrepreneurs was a little like a grown-up science fair meets ‘Shark Tank.’
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It was little like a grown-up science fair meets the television show "Shark Tank." Tuesday at the White House, a group of elite entrepreneurs showed off their stuff, in some cases shooting for the moon, at the first-ever White House Demo Day. President Barack Obama called them the best and brightest and joked, "Keep in mind that in about 18 months I’m going to need a job. I’ve got some skills."

The president toured the State Floor of the White House where 30 startup owners showed off the businesses they built from scratch. Talking teddy bears and space robots stood alongside perfectly tied bowties and even smarter smartphone apps. And the entrepreneurs are dreaming big. They included representatives of Astrobotic, a company that hopes to become the FedEx or UPS to the moon, and Base Directory, an app that wants to become the TripAdvisor for military base personnel.

John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic, said the Pittsburgh-based company is working on sending everything from scientific instruments from Mexico to 80,000 Japanese children’s time-capsule messages to the moon. The first delivery mission is scheduled to take place sometime at the end of 2017.

"MoonMail," as the company's project is called, allows an individual to spend a few hundred dollars to send a personal memento to the moon. It could cost scientists half a million dollars per pound to ship their instruments.

"It’s expensive to you and me, but to space agencies it’s very affordable and a fraction of what it would cost otherwise to send something to the moon," Thornton said.

Base Directory, meanwhile, is now getting 100,000 users per month The people behind the app, Navy officer Billy Griffin and Tony Hatala, a Marine captain, met in 2010 in San Diego when they were both deploying to the Middle East. The app compiles information around military bases and tells service members where they can fill up their gas tanks or find an ATM.

"This is hugely helpful," Obama told the pair. "Is the Pentagon just going to say, 'we should have thought of this?'"

"It’s pretty fun to be able to talk about this thing you put your heart and soul into with the most important person in the world, Hatala said.

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Obama also learned about Duolingo, a free app created by Luis von Ahn and Gina Gotthilf, from Pittsburgh. The app helps users learn languages.

"Right now I’m not allowed to have a smartphone," the president joked, although he’s known to have a Blackberry. Obama noted his high school Spanish is "painful" and he hopes to take advantage of the app once he’s out of office. "I have the vocabulary of a 2-year-old," he said.

Entrepreneur Aaron Horowitz invented a talking teddy bear that allows sick children to feed and diagnose a toy with the same chronic illness they have, like diabetes. Interacting with the toy helps kids ages 4 to 9 learn about their conditions and takes some of the stress out of their sicknesses. Horowitz showed the president Jerry the talking bear, which was preprogrammed to wish the commander in chief a happy birthday. (Obama turned 54 on Tuesday.)

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"It’s great when somebody really connects with it, and I think that in part because of a lot of Michelle’s work in healthy eating and nutrition and exercise, I would hope this hit close to home in that way,” Horowitz said.

The president also saw demonstrations from Emerald, a fall-detection system for the elderly, and Partpic, a technology helps customers replace parts like screws to everyday items by simply taking a few pictures with a smartphone.

In connection with the White House Demo Day, the Small Business Administration announced awards of $4.4 million to 88 startup accelerators and 27 prizes of $50,000 each to cities and Native American communities to help them start businesses.