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SAN JOSE, Calif. — Tech confabs tend to be pricey, pay-to-play affairs. “If you’re launching the Next Big Thing, you need a big venue,” declares a sales pitch for DemoFall 09, the next iteration of a 19-year-old tech spectacle that commands fees of $18,500 for presenting companies that pass a screening process.

Then there’s the kind of up-close-and-personal demo that Tunebug’s Richard Brown did at a reception for Launch: Silicon Valley, a conference for the budget-conscious. Tunebug is a little gizmo designed to turn motorcycle helmets into sound systems.

“Do you mind?” Brown asked before placing the device against this reporter’s forehead. The sensation was as if the skull suddenly delivered surround-sound.

If Demo positions itself as a Ferrari, Launch is a sensible Honda Civic that seems well-suited to the recession. The 30 screened companies that debuted products at the Microsoft campus in Mountain View, Calif., paid a top fee of $750 — or $595 for members of the Silicon Valley Association of Startup Entrepreneurs (SVASE), the nonprofit that launched Launch in 2006.

For that price, startups from across a tech gamut and regions — among them a Chinese 3-D game maker, a Philippines-based maker of exercise bicycles and some valley cleantech companies — were able to court a potentially lucrative audience of about 400 angel investors, venture capitalists and tech scouts from companies like Intel, Nokia, Hitachi, Fujitsu and NetApp.

“We’re looking for $10 million,” said Barbara Lang, CEO of LiveGlass, a Palo Alto-based company. LiveGlass is targeting a $37 billion market, Lang said, with “intelligent architectural glass” — an innovation that would allow morning sun to heat a building and later in the day be electrically tuned to block heat, but not light, to reduce energy costs.

About a dozen startups that debuted at Launch have gone on to raise a combined $80 million in venture funding, according to Chris Gill, an angel investor and CEO of SVASE.

Like a startup

Launch is something of a startup itself, born of the frustration of lean startups that couldn’t afford pricier venues. Founded by SVASE and Garage Technology Ventures, a small seed fund led by Bill Reichert and Guy Kawasaki, Launch is establishing its place in the busy calendar of events staged by such businesses as O’Reilly Media, AlwaysOn, TechCrunch, VentureBeat and others.

“A demo of our own,” Reichert called it.

The recent event, Gill said, attracted submissions from more than 400 companies. That compared with about 300 last year, 250 in 2007 and 180 the initial year. A panel of VCs winnows the applicants to the 30 presenting companies.

Launch’s growth, Reichert suggests, partly reflects Silicon Valley’s constancy amid a recession. Even though angel and early-stage venture funding is down in the valley, it has disappeared in many parts of the nation and world.

If only five products unveiled at Launch catch on, it’s not hard to imagine an office worker leaving a building “greened” with LiveGlass, donning a motorcycle helmet equipped with a Tunebug sound system and arriving home to order dinner on CellWand’s system by dialing PIZZA.

In a home lit by energy-efficient lamps from Lumiette, he might burn calories on an Electronic Sports exercise bike equipped with a screen and handlebar triggers to simulate an ultralight dogfight.

“There’s no carnage,” assured Electronic Sports CEO Joseph Dean. Shoot down your virtual rival and he safely ejects.

Beauty contest

Launch is competitive as well — a kind of tech-business beauty contest. Five startups are pitted against one another in six sessions: one for “cleantech,” three lumping together “next generation Internet” and “mobile,” and two catchalls simply labeled “technology.”

That’s why Electronic Sports found itself squaring off, oddly, against Nortel spinoff Blade Technology Networks, which makes infrastructure that competes with Cisco Systems.

Hoping to tap the proverbial “wisdom of the crowd,” the audience cast ballots for Most Likely to Succeed. But that didn’t mean the runners-up were left discouraged.

Tunebug’s Brown, a 63-year-old Los Gatos resident, said he has been retired for 13 years, working on his golf handicap and dabbling in venture capital, until an inventor first showed him the Tunebug.

He has since raised more than $2 million to focus on the motorcycle-helmet market, since ear buds are illegal in California and many other states.

Nope, he said, it doesn’t block ambient noise like horns and sirens.

And nobody, he says, complains that it isn’t loud enough. “We can make their eyes bleed at 110 miles per hour,” he said, laughing.