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A time for small firms to take tech's stage

Andrea Chang, Tracey Lien and Alejandra Reyes-Velarde, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

LAS VEGAS -- On any given day during the year, tech news is typically dominated by the Apples, Amazons, Facebooks and Googles of the world.

Not so every January, when CES descends on Las Vegas and attention turns for a few brief days to roughly 4,000 exhibiting companies, many of them little-known or completely unheard of start-ups.

Thanks to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who turned product announcements into glitzy productions, big tech companies have taken to launching their most important products in isolated, single-company unveilings and developers conferences intended to drum up as much media frenzy as possible. Although some tech behemoths still attend CES -- in a rare showing, Google has a big stand-alone booth this year -- it's not a time to roll out their hottest gadgets and initiatives.

That lets small start-ups and larger-but-less-sexy established companies take center stage. Whereas tech behemoths worry that premiering products at CES means they'll get drowned out, for the little players, it's a chance to get in front of prominent tech journalists and attempt to rise above the cacophony with their latest fitness gadgets, smart toothbrushes, cutesy robots and virtual reality headsets.

"What's special about CES is that the whole world is here," said Kyle Doerksen, chief executive of Future Motion, the creator of a one-wheeled skateboard-like device called Onewheel. "It's an unparalleled opportunity to get the word out about what you're building."

At CES, he said, the tables have turned because "the big companies are kind of like the wallpaper" while the start-ups are the ones that often have surprising products to show off.

"Everybody knows there's going to be a bigger TV, a faster smartphone," he said. So "it's the little companies that end up getting a lot of air time."

Jeremy Kenisky, creative vice president of Merge, said CES has given the virtual reality gaming company great exposure; attending the show last year led to a big surge in retail orders.

"Smaller companies can get on the same level" as bigger competitors at CES, he said.

Over the last decade, technologies such as drones, self-driving automobiles, artificial intelligence and smart speakers all premiered at CES, said Daniel Ives, head of technology research at GBH Insights. The trade show remains influential among investors, partners, buyers, and tech executives, who attend to "read the tea leaves," Ives said.

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