Richard Loewe makes a device that automatically regulates tire pressure. Gareth Pronovost has an appliance to chill beer as it pours. Franck Boistel is making sandals based on original Aztec designs. Nicholas Hu has a wireless brain pressure monitor.
They are just four of the approximately 200 entrepreneurs who answered a call seeking the best business idea in Southern California. TriTech Small Business Development Center, which specializes in helping high-tech, rapid-growth companies, sought them out for its fourth annual "Funding the Big Idea" Conference Thursday in Riverside.
The innovators and inventors came in search of funding, exposure, advice and practice at pitching their fledgling firms to investors and potential partners.
"It's about gaining visibility," said TriTech Director Mark Mitchell. "Our purpose is to build and serve the entrepreneurial ecosystem of Southern California."
Such an entrepreneurial environment is important to the economy, said Rachel Baranick, deputy director of the Santa Ana office of the U.S. Small Business Administration. "Small businesses create two-thirds of the new jobs," she said.
The event sought fun and profitable ways to achieve the goals. Ten entrepreneurs were selected to "fast pitch" their concepts in 90 seconds to the conference and three TriTech counselors who asked questions and provided advice. About 90 entrepreneurs pitched ideas one-on-one to angel investors in a form of "speed dating." Each entrepreneur met with five investors, an opportunity that money can't buy.
Then the top four scorers in speed dating got another opportunity to pitch five members of the Tech Coast Angels, a network of professional angel investors, and the entire conference in "Piranha Pool," a takeoff of the ABC-TV show "Shark Tank."
"If you're looking for funding for your business or you're an aspiring entrepreneur learning how to do that, this is the place for you," said master of ceremonies Greg Lee, economic development manager for Riverside.
Ted Patience, founder of ThermaQuatic Inc. in Laguna Niguel, had a unique perspective on the day's events. He was the only entrepreneur to participate in all three pitches.
"Fast pitch was my least favorite; getting up in front of an audience isn't my forte," he said after completing his speed dating session. At that moment he didn't know he would be selected for the Piranha Pool. "I'm very comfortable talking one-on-one with investors, but they always want to know the numbers. I'm getting better at that."
Patience's company has developed a heating and cooling therapy system for recovery after surgery, sports injuries and patients with chronic ailments such as multiple sclerosis. He got the idea because his mother has multiple sclerosis.
He has been developing the product, now in its fourth design, for more than three years and hopes to be on the market within six months. He is seeking $250,000 investment to get through the tooling stage and U.S. Food and Drug Administration approvals.
Loewe, with the tire pressure product, stood alone at a tall table practicing for his speed dating session. The Tustin resident said he has been developing the Wheel Pump since he retired as chief scientist from Hughes Corp. 22 years ago.
"It started when a friend said to me, 'Why hasn't anyone come up with an automatic means to maintain tire pressure?'" Loewe explained while fingering a dime-sized magnet that is part of his product. "I've spent three-quarters of a million dollars on this. I sold my house, went through most of my investments. But this will save thousands of lives!"
He has attended many venture capital conferences and tirelessly dogged car manufacturers. He recently modified his product to satisfy a German car manufacturer. "What attracted me to this conference is they're looking for a big idea and I have a big idea," he said. "This is going to be on every new car within five to 10 years."
A walk through the buzzing speed dating room was instructive. Some entrepreneurs waved their hands as they spoke rapidly to beat the time limit. Others showed drawings or data on their iPads. San Juan Capistrano shoe designer Boistel carried a plastic foot with his Aztec sandal on it.
"I was a bit frustrated," he confessed after the session. "I only saw five investors and I was cranked up to see 10."
Boistel, a native of France, has been designing action sports footwear and other products for 20 years. He's been an independent designer since 2005. His company, Mocactia, offers footwear inspired by cultures from other times all over the world. The Aztec, whose strap extends through two toes, sells online for $25.50. He's planning a Kickstarter fund raising drive in May.
While everyone who wanted to talk with investors seemed to have an opportunity sometime during the day, the Piranha Pool ended on a note of unanimity.
The finalists were Patience of ThermaQuatic; Keith Mullin of Gamer Grub of San Diego; Carlos Orellana of Gift Card Sender in Irvine; and Nicholas Hu and BranchPoint Technologies. The company is in Baltimore and Los Angeles but may move to Irvine or San Diego.
Audience members could text their favorite among the four and chose BranchPoint, developer of the wireless brain pressure monitor. The judges also picked BranchPoint for the top prize of $20,000 in business services. While the first product will make brain pressure monitoring safer than hard-wire versions, Hu said the technology can be used for many implant monitoring needs. The company has a contract with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, he added.
Gamer Grub placed second winning $8,000 in services. The company is developing snacks packed with vitamins and "neurotransmitters" to keep gamers sharp, Mullin said. He's targeting gamers because computer gaming is a $12 billion industry.
ThermaQuatic was third, winning $5,000 in services. And fourth was Gift Card Sender, an Irvine startup selling gift cards by mobile phone to 75 companies such as Walmart and TGI Fridays, said Carlos Orellana. Since launching a few weeks ago, 700 people have downloaded the app.
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