(WIRED) -- Six buses, 40 teams, 48 hours and one winning business idea: The StartupBus is as close to blood sport as Silicon Valley entrepreneurship gets.
Part road trip, part code jam, the annual competition plunges participants, known as "buspreneurs," into two days of frantic business development on the open road to the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas.
Once the geeks climb aboard the StartupBus, the clock begins ticking.
"Everyone needs to bring their absolute A-game for 48 hours straight," says Jonas Huckestein, one of the winners who emerged from last year's inaugural StartupBus contest. "This can potentially bring about incredible performance. Much like a man may be able to run much faster and fight much stronger when in mortal danger."
Most startups headed for SXSW have developed their ideas for months if not years. They arrive with high hopes of becoming the next Twitter or Foursquare, both of which took off during Austin's annual gathering of the geek elite.
By compressing the time from concept to prototype, the StartupBus becomes a pedal-to-the-metal business incubator, a rolling microcosm of what participants will encounter when they hit SXSW's packed panels and parties, March 11 to 20.
In fact, the StartupBus itself could be considered a meta startup: Organizers this year are developing an online game, the StartupBus Stock Exchange, in which players become virtual angel investors and invest in the companies as they're built on the buses.
Players can upgrade their firms and win badges for accomplishments, all while real-world actions by the startup teams affect their standing.
From San Francisco to Austin
This year's race began at 8 a.m. Tuesday, with two buses leaving from San Francisco's SOMA neighborhood and headed toward Texas. Teams now have two sleepless days, undoubtedly punctuated by rushed roadside meals and bouts of car sickness, to create the best startup prototype they can.
When the buses arrive in Austin, development stops. After the mental and physical brutality, teams present their hurried masterpieces to a panel of expert judges during the interactive portion of this year's SXSW festival.
Because of the networking opportunities, the publicity from last year's contest and the sheer challenge of the undertaking, StartupBus founder Elias Bizannes was flooded with applications this year from prospective buspreneurs. In 2010, 50 people applied and 25 were selected.
This year, 1,200 expressed interest when the StartupBus site launched, 300 were invited to apply, and 160 are actually going. But the numbers are only one way the project has grown.
"We've had better applicants with more impressive pitches than the ones we've seen in the job openings at the places we work," says Bizannes, who is a financial manager at search engine Vast.com and a scout for the AngelList group of investors.
Two teams won last year: DormDorm, a startup designed to rent colleges' vacant dorm rooms to travelers during the summer, and DateBrowsr, a Hot or Not for dating profiles the service pulled from several sites.
Neither actually became real businesses, but many people involved in the StartupBus' virgin voyage claim the experience was integral to both their personal and professional development, whether from skills learned or from connections made. Mick Johnson from the DormDorm team was accepted into startup funding firm Y Combinator and launched Whereoscope, which tracks family members by their cellphones.
"I've made at least a few very close friends in the experience," says Huckestein, now one of this year's San Francisco bus conductors, who does double duty as an IT worker during the beat-the-clock coding marathon. "I believe this is largely due to the incredible constraints."
Over the last year, the competition has grown from one bus to six. Buses also left Tuesday morning from New York, Cleveland, Miami and Chicago, amid send-off party hangovers. (Yes, even nerds love beer.)
The San Francisco teams drained a keg of Spaten Monday night at the offices of startup networking site YouNoodle. The meet-and-greet gave the buspreneurs a chance to sniff out potential teammates and competitors. And to exchange quips.
For an actual athletic competition, drinking the night before might be bad form. But beer is an integral part of the startup lifestyle. It takes the edge off the pressure. When the buses arrive in Austin, the buspreneuers will be rewarded with a tour of the local tech culture during the Startup Crawl, which promises "hot tech [and] cold beer."
The exact prizes for this year's StartupBus competition are still being decided (iPads and incubator access have been mentioned), but perhaps the most important rewards for participants are the networking opportunities and the potential for publicity.
Several documentary filmmakers are capturing the event and CNN, CNET and All Things Digital have reporters on board some buses.
See some of this year's StartupBus participants in the gallery above, and stay tuned for updates from the road, as Wired.com reports every glitch, bathroom stench and late-night code dump on this perilous journey into the dot-com cosmos.
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