moving beyond demo days and into show ‘n tells

michael raspuzzi
6 min readJul 1, 2023
midjourney v 5.1 making a yc colored demo day into a football field

y combinator demo days pack in startups like the super bowl does its commercials: millions of dollars of value in minutes trying to win over the audience. this works as a menu option to filter follow ups. it trades convenience for understanding.

from 5 minute demo day pitches to 8 minute ted talks, ideas about building the future have been compressed into mere minutes of entertainment. the density of information can be high, but the richness of context is left behind.

this works generally well for software based startup — similar metrics, comparable products, straightforward business models. it’s limited when dealing with topics that are more complex or have higher levels of uncertainty.

for example, mit the engine, a $200M deep tech fund making some of the boldest bets on the future: lab grown furniture, fusion in a box, and drill-less geothermal to name a few. they host an entire two days unconference for their founders to share progress as well as build meaningful relationships with people beyond investors. neuralink hosted a 3 hour show ‘n tell of progress to date across their brain computer interface implants, surgery, software, simulation tools, and more, available on youtube. tesla also in the running with ai day and battery day. the more ambitious the company and bolder the bet, the more time is needed to properly convey what they are working on.

when finishing season 1 of climate dojo, a 3 month incubator program for early stage founders, we wondered what demo day would be like with more show ‘n tell technical depth.

what we got was a 3 hour immersive experience that was somwhere between an art pop up, science museum, and startup pitch.

elliot, ceo of spira, during the interactive pitch portion of the event.

behind the scenes: a replicatable process if you work with founders

for all the climate founders we worked with, we made it opt in. each one was in a different stage of development and some not fundraising at the moment, which means it wasn’t a one size fits all demo day.

for those who opted in, we started with what’s their intended outcome was to then work backwards. here’s what it looked like for spira, a biomanufacturing startup using engineered algae for decarbonizing the supply chain.

design process

  1. why are you hosting this? what are the intended outcomes you are trying to get? for spira, it was: (1) get connected to the bay area community as they recently relocated from l.a., (2) build meaningful relationships in different ways to help attract the right supporters as they kicked off their latest fundraising round and (3) demo their product in a way that’s memorable.
  2. in the agenda, figure out how to make it as engaging and interactive as possible. in this event, spira’s lead scientist led the first demo, their recipe r+d team led a tasting, and the founder ended with an interactive pitch. each part of the experience included a different team member and part of the company including the science, product, and big vision behind how the business is evolving.
  3. be clear on the audience. the initial invites matter. 20% of attendees can determine 80% of the culture of the experience and outcome. for spira, it was about including super connectors in the biotech community. that included investors, advisors, and builders. invites were sent to the team’s immediate network, the founder’s network, as well as paired with different communities, like discord servers and the synbio beta conference happening near by.
  4. allow enough time for natural discussion. some events feel so rushed and forced for the stage time, that the audience members feel pushed out of the conversation. more breathing room means more active participation. for the science demo, it was batched in groups of 25 people with q+a alongside the talking points prepared. the product tasting included time to mix and meet other attendees, and the final pitch ended with 25min of q+a with the founder as well as an additional 25min of mix + mingle time with everyone in the room.
  5. capture irl events digitally to share and scale distribution. for spira, that was a recording of the pitch and q+a. for other examples that is full live stream.
spira red, blue, green, and yellow all in ai generated bites with an interactice tasting of their current biopigment products

more details if you’re curious on the set up. if not, feel free to skip this part

the venue: studio 45, a design fabrication space for creative technologists, fully equipped with warehouse and backdrop for a food tasting.

virtual invites sent withluma for automated email flow and receive feedback and rating at the end.

the agenda:
(10min) welcome introducing the problem. most people don’t know biopigments come from refined petroleum
(25min) science demo with foundng scientist going over process of engineering, growing, and refining.
(60min) tasting demo with the current spira blue, green, yellow, and red dyes showing off ai generated recipes as if dining in the future.
(45min) pitch and q+a with elliot, ceo + founder
(30min) mix + mingle

the audience:
- 25% investors
- 50% friends of spira and super connectors in the community
- 25% friends from synbio beta (always good to bookend events as after parties to large conferences as evening programming is not always set)

the result:
a full evening to get to know the team, the product, and velocity they are approaching its vision. for many in the room, it was eye opening and inspiring. and for the spira team, it was comforting to find belonging in the way they wanted to be displayed and portrayed.

“this was hands down one of the best synbio events i’ve been to.” said one attendee.

^ little did they know, this was not part of the formal programming of a multimillion dollar conference…

but it’s an interesting thing to note, pair specific kind of events with other regional gatherings happening in the area for even more serendipity.

the limits of this kind of format

while it may work well for biotech, deep tech, or hardware based startups, as they have a lot to cover, this may not make sense for other startups. timing and agenda can be adjusted to what is most effective for the topics and audience.

this also may not scale when working with dozens of startups v. working with <20 startups. one way around this is to switch up irl + url events. it’s easier to host 20 podcasts across 3–5 days than it is to do 20 in person demo experiences.

also, each founder instills initial values into their startup which may change the style of event. starting with the founders and founding team helps align it

if you’re a founder in the bay area looking for an immersive demo, feel free to email me at michael at raspuzzi dot com as i’m helping studio 45 run their community events.

and if you’re algae enthusiast or early stage investor curious to learn more about spira, reach out to elliot at elliot_at_spira_dot_com

until next time

🌊

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michael raspuzzi

building something new. previously @tks @harvard @culinaryai