Ron Conway hit paydirt as one of Google's earliest bankrollers. But don't try to convince him the search giant has a hammerlock on the sector. Sure, Google, by some estimates, handles nearly two-thirds of the world's Internet queries. It also shells out half a billion bucks each year on research and development and plucks the top engineers from powerhouse universities. Nevertheless, Conway believes that some of the most interesting search innovations will soon emanate from companies not named Google or, for that matter, Yahoo! or Microsoft. Over the past two years, he has bet heavily on this hunch, putting his money in nearly two dozen startups. "Search is in its infancy today," says the seasoned Silicon Valley investor. "It's at 10% of its potential, maybe."

Conway is by no means alone. A flock of startups has descended on the lucrative search industry. Last year, $263 million in U.S. venture capital poured into 47 search outfits, says researcher Dow Jones VentureOne (DJ ). The figures have risen steadily since 2002, when $58 million went into nine startups. "It's shocking to go from drought to flood as quickly as we have," says Bradley J. Horowitz, Yahoo Inc.'s director of technology development.

The boom in startups suggests a technology renaissance ahead, and this could mean big changes for Internet users. While Google and other giants seem wedded to the current paradigm - type words into a rectangular box, and get a list of 10 blue links - startups are throwing caution to the wind. Without existing users to alienate, they can afford to rethink everything from the search interface to the formulas used to deliver info.

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