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Startups strut their stuff for investors at StartUp Connection

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 26, 2012 - Dozens of innovators, investors and leaders in the entrepreneurial community gathered Thursday evening at the St. Louis Science Center for this season’s StartUp Connection.

“It’s wonderful to see all these people come out,” said Jim Brasunas, director of the Information Technology Entrepreneur Network (ITEN), one of the event’s sponsors. “I know a lot of the people here but there are a lot of people I’ve never seen before. I think it’s a testament to how things are really starting to gather some momentum in St. Louis.”

Brasunas said more than 500 registered for the event with walk-ins accounting for dozens more entrants. About 250 to 300 participants came to the previous get-together in May at the Railway Exchange Building downtown.

This time, the trade show-style event, which began as a networking session in 2009, featured 45 entrepreneurial presenters, also a 50 percent increase over May’s total, manning booths promoting their nascent companies to roving groups of investors, clients and other interested parties. Thousands of dollars in prizes were also available to participating startups.

The showcase of startup talent in IT, clean tech and the life sciences featured not just a new venue but also a new fee. The formerly free confab now charges $25 but it certainly didn’t seem to dampen participation. Chris Ortiz, head of Morphe.biz, a three-year-old process orchestration company aimed at small businesses, was one of many first-timer attendees who said he was there to network with other entrepreneurs who often face the same challenges he does.

“Whether they are good sounding boards or whether it’s just a social thing or it turns into something better or greater with a mentor or an investor, that’s gravy,” said the 50 year old. “It’s just the connections that are worth every bit of the money and time involved in coming here.”

The highlight of the event was an ongoing series of brief “elevator pitches” onstage. The oddly named 90-second presentations by exhibitors derive their unusual moniker from the hypothetical situation of running into a potential investor in an elevator and having to earn their interest before the doors open. The idea is to burn an entrepreneur’s spiel down to the bare essentials.

“What are you going to tell them in the minute and a half or two minutes it takes to get from the bottom to where you are going so that he’ll want to meet with you again?” said Brasunas. “You’ve got to say something really important and compelling so people want to find out more.”

Tom Cohen, CEO of Nanospore Diagnostics, a biotech concern he founded this summer, said he felt ready for his moment on the big stage.

“The only thing I would say I’m nervous about is the time and going over,” said a smiling Cohen who said he has participated in Idea Bounce events at Washington University, which were similar in format. “For some reason, I seem to fluctuate within 15 seconds. … I guess I use different words every time I practice.”

He said he was looking for investors at the event, but he also hoped to find a seasoned executive to help lead Nanospore, which aims to produce a simple blood test that can detect lung cancer based on research from Mizzou.

“We need to raise some money to move it outside the university and push it toward a commercial path,” he said.

At a nearby booth, Tom Pernikoff said he wasn’t nervous at all about his moment in the spotlight.

“I’m actually a musician so I’m on stage a lot,” he said with a laugh.

And, tonight, in a different way, music was still his reason for taking the stage. His company, Tunespeak, founded last year, is an Internet-based platform that allows artists to create contests for their fans to participate in via social media where they can earn points and promote their favorite music to friends.

The 30 year old is a veteran of previous startups, having spent about four years in Silicon Valley, but he returned to his native St. Louis to start Tunespeak. He said he was attending StartUp Connection to build awareness of his business and, like Cohen, he was on the hunt for staffing talent and cash as well.

“We also just want to be a part of the St. Louis entrepreneur scene,” he said.

On the other side of an aisle, Jane Baker gets a steady stream of attention from passersby. Saving Memories Forever, the company headed by her and her husband, Harvey, began with making a family tree but it didn’t end there.

“With a family tree, you know when a person was born and when they died. That’s about it,” she said, describing the couple’s website, which allows participants to record and share stories while pairing a companion iPhone app with the company’s Internet presence. “This gives you the stories behind them like their first car, where they met their spouse, little funny stories that add up to give the full picture of a person.”

She said they were mainly here for investors but anything that raised the enterprise’s profile was a good thing, noting that the two-person operation just got a mention in the most recent issue of the Saturday Evening Post.

“The more people learn about our organization, the more people sign up and we grow,” she said.

Meanwhile, in the resource section of the event, others were on hand simply to promote their latest initiatives. Handing out copies of a graphic that showed the Gateway Arch being used as a magnet to pull in new entrepreneurial talent, Sarah Spear, head of Arch Grants, said it was all part of the organization’s latest branding campaign for its next round of funding infusions. Earlier this year, the group handed out 15 allocations of $50,000 each to innovative companies. This time around, it’s going to distribute 20 grants allowing it to reach the million dollar mark.

“It’s the same concept,” she said. “We’re upping the number because we have the funding and the capacity to manage that scope. We feel like the entire community of startups in St. Louis is growing so it can support this level of seed funding.”

Brasunas estimated that there may have been as many as 50-70 investors in attendance.

As director of due diligence for the St. Louis Arch Angels, Kyle Welborn was on hand scouting out deals for some of them.

“Where you are going to find your best opportunities is tough to say,” said Welborn, head of the FinServe Tech Angels, a group that recently merged with the larger organization. “You can’t predict where the next great company is going to come from so you have to go out into the community and find these opportunities and you can potentially find the next big thing.”

Brasunas said that ideas were already under discussion for next year. and the spring and fall sessions of StartUp Connection could take different courses. The autumn meeting will focus on investment opportunities while the spring gathering might find a way to partner with Gateway to Innovation, a heavily IT-focused event.

“It’s not like this where you’ve mainly got potential investors,” he said, noting that no final decisions have been made on whether to make the change. “[Gateway] would give potential customers so it could be a good mix.”

Either way, he said he believes the event is helping to shift the startup culture in St. Louis, a slow effort he likened to “turning a battleship.”

“Some people who’ve studied ecosystems say it is a 20-year exercise,” he said. “We’re probably about a quarter of the way into that. Good things are starting to show but the best is yet to come.”

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