Feds Catch Start-up Fever

A quartet of Sunnyvale, Calif., start-ups got a high-profile visitor in early January: the White House's chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra. The government's tech czar is on a mission to build connections between young Silicon Valley tech companies and similar start-ups in less techie places, such as Detroit, Cleveland, Maine and Washington D.C. His ultimate goal: create new jobs nationwide by "out-innovating the rest of the world," as President Obama put it in his State of the Union address a few weeks later.

The selected California upstarts were Micello, which creates online indoor maps; LeanTaaS, which sells efficiency software programs; Nor1, which upgrades travel booking systems; and a less obvious choice, consumer electronics review and ecommerce site

Chopra found a willing cheerleader in Retrevo CEO Vipin Jain. "Start-ups are amazing places full of talent, passion and optimism," proclaims Jain. "They not only find solutions to some of the world's biggest challenges, but they are also a growth engine for jobs."

As Obama's CTO, Chopra sees analytics as a solution for tough national problems. He quickly zeroed in on how Retrevo uses artificial intelligence to research products for shoppers. Customer ratings, Facebook recommendations and sponsored advice may proliferate all over the Web, but Retrevo - with a staff of just 26 - takes a different tack. It uses more than 50 million real-time online data points to put together unbiased, customized and timely product analysis and summary graphics for shoppers. To give it a try, Chopra asked for the site's advice on a personal purchase that he's been struggling with - a good Blu-ray player. The answer came back quickly: the Sony S570.

What drew Chopra to Northern California in the first place was the Plug and Play Tech Center, a group of about 300 start-ups in the Web 2.0 software, semiconductor and telecom industries. In the last five years, the center has helped fledgling businesses get about $400 million in venture funding and in the last year more than a thousand new jobs were created through Plug and Play start-ups alone. "I want to understand how many plug and play centers we can have in the United States," Chopra told his hosts. "I want to understand how many other ecosystems can connect back to the Silicon Valley."

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