Six-minute pitches crucial to start-ups, state economy

On a bright stage in a darkened Georgia Aquarium ballroom, Dr. Lucienne Ide faced a school of sharks.

She wasn’t a tourist gawking at fearsome sea creatures. Ide was one of 31 tech dreamers with just six minutes to show investors that their startups are the Next Big Thing.

The event is called Venture Atlanta, Georgia's largest confab of startups and tech investors. For entrepreneurs, it's a chance to attract precious money and make connections that could lift their fledgling firms to the next level.

For the state, much more is at stake.

Georgia has a thriving financial technology sector, dozens of information security and health care IT companies and well-regarded research universities. But it has not done so well with the kinds of technology investors who help take companies such as Apple from a garage to the heights of corporate America.

Georgia startups have picked up less than 2 percent of the venture capital funding in the U.S. this year.

Economic development officials say the region needs a virtuous circle: upstarts that succeed at raising capital, thus attracting more venture investors to cultivate the next generation of Georgia companies. The hope is these startups will put more people in a job-hungry state to work.

In the wake of the Great Recession, which exposed the vulernabilities of a housing-based economy, state and regional economic development groups are paying more attention to startups as engines of job growth.

Ide is the CEO and co-founder of Rimidi Diabetes, a company that uses analytics — pooling patients’ health data with real-time information from apps that track their workout regimens — to help manage diabetes patients’ blood glucose levels and improve care. Rimidi’s systems are designed to help health care providers get a more consistent picture of patients’ progress. Ide said the goal is to help reduce health care costs.

Ide started Rimidi two years ago. Her company just recently started earning revenue, and has just four employees and four contract workers. The company recently got its first client, an accountable care organization in California, and separately has a grant to deploy its technology at a hospital in Toronto.

Ide’s father helped start the company and is chairman. Her sister is general counsel, and the company raised $500,000 from friends and family.

Ide and the other entrepreneurs spent a month training with Venture Atlanta organizers on how to pitch to investors.

“You’re talking about your baby. I could stand up there and talk about it all day,” said Ide, 38. “The hard part is talking about in just six minutes.”

David Hartnett, who heads efforts to develop the health care IT and bioscience industries for the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said participants are trained to keep it simple. The pitch has to be easily understood and needs energy.

Six minutes is a lot of talking when so much is on the line. Something as simple as keeping your mouth moist can help keep a presentation from coming apart, he said.

This year’s Venture Atlanta conference in October drew 31 tech startups and some of the biggest venture capital firms in the country. There were dozens of earliest stage investors known as angels and 65 venture capital funds, including 51 from outside Georgia — the most the event has ever seen, organizers said.

The roster of startups represented some of metro Atlanta’s top sectors: health care information technology, mobility and financial technology. Some haven’t made their first dollar of revenue. Others have revenue and clients but need critical funding and advice to jumpstart growth.

Venture capital firms invest in startup companies seen as having high risk but also high growth potential. Venture investors, in addition to taking a stake in the company, also often provide key managerial or operational expertise. These new companies usually can’t issue debt to finance their operations because of a lack of operational history.

Competition for venture capital firms’ attention and money is fierce. Investments in emerging technology are notoriously risky, but the right bets can pay huge dividends.

This year’s conference drew 700 industry insiders, local media and reporters from national outlets like TechCrunch and Black Enterprise.

Ide said her firm doesn’t need funding now, but she said she wanted to connect with companies that one day could be vendors, customers and potentially investors.

“I wanted to make a personal connection,” Ide said. “I had people come up to me afterwards and say, ‘My father has diabetes’ or ‘My child has diabetes,’ or ‘My neighbor has diabetes.’ And really, (that embodies) the statistics.”

Hartnett said the six minutes can mean “everything” to a startup.

In the last 10 years, he said, presenting companies at Venture Atlanta have raised more than $1 billion. Much of that investment came from the relationships formed at the event or from the handshakes, coffee breaks and dinner meetings that followed.

Venture capital investing peaked in Georgia in 2000 at more than $2 billion during the tech bubble. It was about $262 million last year.

Georgia’s off to a better start at $374 million in the first three quarters of 2013, according to data from the National Venture Capital Association. But Georgia still accounted for only about 1.8 percent of the U.S. total so far this year, which was not up much over the last two years.

Dick Kramlich, an early investor in Apple and a co-founder of New Enterprise Associates who spoke at the two-day event in October, told the crowd he sees Atlanta as a Top Five tech hub and said his firm doesn’t do enough business here.

His words made the aquarium ballroom hum. Forget the beluga whales floating in the picture window, the venture capital sharks on stage like Georgia.

Ide, an OB/GYN who also has a Ph.D, said she reverted to her medical school training to help her stay cool under pressure.

“I’m much less nervous than standing up at the surgical table and if I screw up someone could be injured or die,” said Ide. The Rimidi team has had a few meetings with angel investors since the conference.

“No one dies if I mess up my pitch,” Ide said. “They might just not return my phone call.”