Start-ups get feedback at Innovation Expo

Some hoping to find investors, but many glad to gain insight from expert panelists

Anna Sobaski of Iowa City, creator of Breads From Anna, makes a practice pitch to Chris Sackett with BrownWinick (right)
Anna Sobaski of Iowa City, creator of Breads From Anna, makes a practice pitch to Chris Sackett with BrownWinick (right) and David Hensley of the University of Iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (left) during a Technology Association of Iowa "Pitch and Grow" session at the EDC Innovation EXPO 2012 Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012 at the Coralville Marriott Hotel and Conference Center in Coralville. (Brian Ray/The Gazette-KCRG)

CORALVILLE — In an Iowa version of the reality TV show “Shark Tank” here Tuesday, the bloodletting was minimal and the rewards less immediate.

Two dozen start-ups presented concepts for critique Tuesday at the 2012 Innovation Expo in Coralville. While some were hoping to find investors, many were glad just to gain the insight from expert panelists.

In one of the event sessions called “Pitch and Grow,” Josh Cramer and Troy Miller were pitching Koala Pay, a new mobile payment platform they will launch in about 45 days to help Corridor merchants develop more customer loyalty.

Miller had adopted the Dwolla cash-based Internet payment platform at his North Liberty businesses, Naomi’s Kitchen and Isaac’s Creamery, “but I couldn’t get anyone to use it,” Miller said.

He joined up with Cramer to develop Koala Pay as a smartphone app that enables merchants to electronically offer deals and dispense customer loyalty rewards riding on Dwolla’s payment system It’s like a smartphone version of the customer loyalty punchcards or savings stamps, but with data collection features that merchants can use for market research.

As Cramer and Miller got into their pitch, the jam-packed room in the Marriott Convention Center was riveted. Then, the questions poured in from a four-member feedback panel.

It started with the basic and easy to answer — such as why the presentation ran over it’s 10-minute time limit (“We were planning for 15 minutes,” Cramer explained) to the deep and delving — such as “how do you help your merchants work with an audience that isn’t in the 18-30 age group?”

After the 30 minutes had rocketed past, Miller seemed to know more — about what he needs to know.

“There’s a lot of valuable questions we don’t even know the answers to,” Miller said. He planned to educate himself on some of the answers, particularly on a question regarding what intellectual property Koala Pay might need to protect, or avoid infringing.

The all-day event attracted about 640 registered participants, making it perhaps the largest entrepreneurship event in Iowa.

Entrepreneurs could pitch to venture capital firms at an afternoon event called the Seed and Venture Forum.

Presenters ranged from a company that wants to open the nation’s only plant for processing horse meat for human consumption and zoo animals, to a company creating a online platform for musicians to promote their songs and gather data on their audience.

“It tends to be for the kinds of deals that need input,” said Curt Nelson, chief executive officer of the Entrepreneurial Development Center of Iowa, which organized the event — “getting feedback, building partnerships, meeting new people.”

Several presenters were established businesses that are looking for funding, resources or ideas to let them grow.

Terpenoid Therapeutics’ Raymond Hohl seemed to dazzle his critique panel at the Seed and Venture Forum with his description of the company’s progress developing first-in-class small-molecule drugs to treat prostate cancer and brain cancer. The company aims to build value for investors by providing safety in human trials and then identifying a drug company partner to carry out further clinical development and take the products to market.

“It’s remarkable the amount of development you have been able to do on so little capital,” was one comment.

Venture capital companies had their chances to make a pitch as well, explaining how their funding deals can work and what they look for in start-ups.

Gabe Greenbaum of OCA Ventures, Chicago, was one of several venture capitalists who emphasized the importance of the executive team in a startup.

“You either know one industry intimately had have confronted most of the issues in that industry, or you have a valuable and unique skill set in that industry,” he said.

Greenbaum said the company also looks at the size of a company’s particular market, because some companies wouldn’t be able to provide the “10x” returns OCA Ventures expects even if they dominated an entire market.

The expo included an afternoon “pitch-off” competition, an exhibit of startup companies called Entrepreneur Showcase,” and a networking event called Startup Drinks.The event was organized on a collaborative basis, with the University of Iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center, Technology Association of Iowa, and Iowa Capital Investment Corporation joining the Entepreneurial Development Center in organizing events.

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