By TED CARTER
Mississippi start-up companies that have labored in solitude to turn their ideas into dollars moved into the spotlight Tuesday in day one of Innovate Mississippi’s 16th Annual Conference on Technology Innovation.
An audience that included members of Innovate Mississippi’s Venture Capital Network heard five entrepreneurs pitch everything from an application designed to take podcasts into the mainstream to a tiny block box that can alert parents when their teenagers use cell phones while behind the wheel.
The Company and Investor Spotlight event gave the selected innovators an opportunity to put their ideas in front of the very people who can help them take their ideas from inception to market.
Here’s a rundown on the presenters:
» Satchel, an ad-free mobile podcast player;
» Zyn Careers, a job-search Website that matches job-seekers to companies based on how well they fit into an organizational culture;
» SocialDrizzle, a social media application for video boards at stadiums, arenas and other entertainment venues;
» VRM Telematics’ Sentinel, a vehicle-based monitoring device that detects cell phone use, including texting;
» Momentum Dryer, a new hooded hairdryer design that promises to dry hair in half the time of conventional hooded dryers.
In between the pitches, the entrepreneurs heard panels of venture capital providers detail a few key elements of their business, including what goes into determining how much of a stake they put into a start-up or early-stage company.
For John Lowery of FNC Ventures, the earlier the stage of the company the larger the share it will seek.
Ben Walton of Mississippi Angel Fund/Solidus Capital Solutions said he will “probably want 15 percent to 20 percent of the company at the beginning.”
This way, the 15-to-20 percent stake can grow significantly as the company itself grows, he said.
Paul Jones of Multicraft Ventures is looking for pre-revenue start-up companies. The size of the equity stake depends on how much “of our resources we’ll have to dedicate” to the start-up, he said.
A final panel of venture capitalists addressed “sweat equity” in start-ups by which a VC provider offers services in exchange for an ownership share. This is necessary, they said, because money is not going to happen right away with most start-ups.
Joe Donovan, director of entrepreneurial programs at Jackson’s Millsaps College, said the fast pace of technological change is a huge challenge for sweat equity providers. With that in mind, “stick to the industries you know,” he advised.
Donovan said he is much more likely to take sweat equity in exchange for his expertise if the time to get the product to market is 18 months or less.
Josh Mabus, principal of the Mabus Agency, applies his sweat equity to the marketing end of the business. In doing so, he said, “I want any sweat equity to have the highest exchange rate.”
He will also want a larger measure of involvement and control “because a check is not being written to me.”
Go into the deal knowing that the valuation of the stake you take is “basically a consulting fee,” Mabus said.
Joe Sherman had a bit of concise advice for early-stage entrepreneurs: “Know your market, study it, put some skin in the game.”
Presenters got five minutes to detail their product or service and an opportunity to take questions at the close.
Satchel’s Beau York sees podcasts as the future of radio and has developed an application that lets users find, stream and support their favorite podcasts. He said the future of podcasts is wide open, with only 20 percent of Americans familiar with the digital audio files that can be downloaded to computers and mobile devices.
His Satchel for Androids is in open beta testing. A key feature allows podcast listeners to send clips of any portion of a podcast and to financially support their favorite podcasts with one click.
The idea behind Zyn Careers is to match job seekers with companies for which they are likely to be good fits. Likewise, Zyn Carrers is designed to help employers find workers who match their company cultures.
The matching system developed with the help of management professors, organizational psychologists and human resource professionals is designed to accurately predict how satisfied people will be within an organization’s culture, said Alexander Ray, one of three 2015 University of Mississippi graduates behind Zyn Careers.
“Right now we have 501 product-user profiles and 100 company profiles,” primarily from the Southeast, Ray said.
Entrepreneurs John Walters and John Edwards have been developing SocialDrizzle with the help of Mississippi State University’s football stadium and basketball arena. “This brings social interaction” to a venue such as a stadium or arena video board, Edwards said.
Fans’ tweets and photos can go up on the video boards. The idea is to data-mine analytics from posters at 2,000 venues around the country, Edwards said.
VRM Technologies says its Sentinel device can cut down distracted driving accidents, especially among teen drivers. The small device placed under the steering wheel can detect any cell phone signals coming from a vehicle, including cell phones of passengers, VRM principal Jeremy Chalmers said.
“It notifies the parent in real time when a cell phone is turned on and turned off,” Chalmers said. “Any phone in the vehicle that is transmitting, we are going to detect that.”
Further, the device can monitor a driver’s whereabouts, he said.
Chalmers said the tiny box will sell for about $200 and include a $19 a month subscription fee.
Momentum Dryer is the work of former Jackson State University engineering student Martin McCurtis. Unlike conventional hooded dryers, the Momentum Dryer sends heated air upward for a more efficient and comfortable hair drying session, McCurtis said.
The upward heat flow cuts drying time by at least 50 percent and eliminates excess perspiration, McCurtis said.
People want it and retailers need it, he said of the dryer, which he estimates can be built for about $16 a copy.
The market he is after, McCurtis said, is the six million hooded dryers sold to individuals in the United States and the 50 million sold worldwide.
And several million more used by hair salons, he said.
The hair dryer’s prototype has undergone testing at Helen of Troy labs in El Paso, Tx., according to McCurtis.
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