It has come to this: These days it takes real courage just to show up. So my hat's off to the 39 brash, young start-ups in Palm Desert, Calif., that have the stuff to stand up and present their innovative ideas, products and services at this year's DEMO 09 Conference. In the past, I have found events produced by trade group DEMO -- this '09 riff runs through March 3 -- to be forgettable events for the Silicon Valley clique. Though the organization claims to have given the likes of Google ( GOOG) and Salesforce.com ( CRM) their start, take a deeper look at the alumni list and you'll see my point: Jambo Networks? Ohhhh. LiveDeal? Please. Hardly the stuff of the next Google. But not this year. A dark economy and our insistence in taking our world view from Marvin the Paranoid Android of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- "I think you ought to know I'm feeling very depressed" -- means DEMO events now have the feel of a "Power of Now" symposium, an uplifting, even transformative event. These companies showing at the event have not given up on the future. I am giving these operations a thorough look-see. And so should you. With that in mind, here is a quick roundup of companies showing some spunk out in the desert sun: 7 Billion People Inc.: Austin, Texas-based 7 Billion People has a decent idea: Make e-commerce a positive experience instead of the digital hate mission it is now on Amazon.com ( AMZN), eBay ( EBAY) and BestBuy.com ( BBY). The company claims it has created customized, Web-based transactions that change on the fly based on the preferences of shopper. The company says its software infers from what shoppers click on and react to while online and then creates shopping sequences they prefer. Browse guns and ammo, say, and you get a short checkout with a big button. Or putter around in perfume and birthday cards and you get lots of chatty screens asking for details about your kids. Fascinating idea.