With $100,000 at stake, entrepreneurs make the pitch in Camden

Members of the judging panel listen as John Burns, fund manager at the Small Enterprise Growth Fund (far left) asks a question of one of the entrepreneurs pitching at the Juice Conference in Camden. Companies were competing for $100,000 in convertible debt.
Members of the judging panel listen as John Burns, fund manager at the Small Enterprise Growth Fund (far left) asks a question of one of the entrepreneurs pitching at the Juice Conference in Camden. Companies were competing for $100,000 in convertible debt. Buy Photo
Posted Nov. 06, 2011, at 12:52 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 07, 2011, at 2:13 a.m.
Enrique &quotRick" Sales, president of Abierto Networks in Eliot, makes his business pitch to a group of judges on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011, at the Juice Conference in Camden. Companies were competing for $100,000 in convertible debt.
Enrique "Rick" Sales, president of Abierto Networks in Eliot, makes his business pitch to a group of judges on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011, at the Juice Conference in Camden. Companies were competing for $100,000 in convertible debt. Buy Photo

CAMDEN, Maine — Some questions were deeply technical: Where is your intellectual property, exactly? Others were more straight-forward: So where will your product be placed in the grocery stores?

The judges wanted to know about management teams, revenue projections, distribution models, sales goals, economic studies, patent protection and the background of key executives.

The entrepreneurs, after their 10-minute pitches, were eager to answer questions, explain their business model a bit more, invest the judges a bit deeper into the plan.

After all, $100,000 was at stake.

One of the key components of this year’s Juice conference was a dual track pitch contest. One contest for scalable business models offered $100,000 in convertible debt, which is basically a loan that can be turned into stock ownership if the startups attract more financing down the road. The second offered $25,000 in flexible debt financing from Coastal Enterprises Inc.

Both contests attracted interest from entrepreneurs around the state. Sixty-five companies or organizations entered. After initial meetings with coaches and evaluations, they were narrowed down to 25. On Saturday, the 25 gave pitches in front of teams of judges and the public, and were narrowed down to six.

Zeth and Betsy Lundy, owners of the Central Street Farmhouse in Bangor, were in the hunt for the $25,000, hoping to use the funds to expand operations to include small-plot gardening lessons on some adjacent open space. David and Sarah Carlson of Three Tides in Belfast were in the same competition, thinking of enhancing their recent brewery expansion — possibly to get into cans.

And the $100,000 competition drew some high-tech challengers, such as Enrique “Rick” Sales, president of Abierto Networks, a high-speed payments and digital retail marketing technology company that’s aimed at the convenience store sector; Susan McKay, CEO of Cerahelix Inc., a company in the Target Technology Center business incubator in Orono that uses nanotechnology for water filtration devices; and Dr. Scott Patch, a Yarmouth MD and founder of Refill Management Systems, a provider of software that would automate prescription refills.

Those companies, and the others, were narrowed down to six finalists, three in each contest. Those three competed in intense “shark tank” question-and-answer sessions, closed to the public, where the judges pushed deeper into the business plans.

The winner of the $100,000 challenge was Newfield Design of West Newfield, Maine, a company whose technology aids the interoperability of radio communications between emergency response agencies.

The judges were hard-pressed to decide between two finalists in the $25,000 competition, said Skip Bates, regional manager for Bangor Savings and board member of Midcoast Magnet, which runs the conference.

So CEI agreed to provide $25,000 in flexible financing to both companies, said Bates.

The first was Evergreen Home Performance of Rockland, a home energy contractor. Bates said the company participated in the Juice conference’s first business pitch contest several years ago, and what was then a husband-wife company won $500. Today the company has 23 employees, and hopes to grow statewide, said Bates.

And the other winner was Alternative Rock in Union, owned by Paul Powers and Marcel Valliere. Alternative Rock makes artisanal concrete countertops, sinks and custom work surfaces. The money will take the company to the next level, said Powers.

“It was very, very fulfilling. It takes it out of a hobby business to a full-time business,” said Powers. “We’ve been doing it out of our driveway and barn — in essence, we can become a real company with a real place.”

Down the road, said Powers, he and Valliere plan to expand the business and hire craftsmen.

The money will help Alternative Rock secure future funding to allow it to grow, said Powers.

“It’s an affirmation that, number one, we have a viable business, and, number two, if this group of professionals deem it so, then so can anybody else,” said Powers.

Chris Risley, a Cumberland resident, CEO of Foxboro, Mass.-based Digital Reef Inc. and an operating partner with Bessemer Ventures, was one of the judges of the $100,000 competition. His job was to weed out companies that aren’t quite ready for investment, maybe need a bit more work, he said. Harder to predict were the companies that would provide a return to investors, Risley said.

But that’s part of the business, he said, noting that more than half of the deals that top-tier venture capital firms never make a return on investment. Another 30 to 40 percent barely make a return. And 10 percent of the deals provide 80 percent of the returns, he said.”

Tim Agnew, judge and principal at Masthead Venture Partners, noted that Maine sees a lot of the one- to two-person companies growing into four- to five-person companies. But they tend to plateau at that level. Ideally, more companies would grow beyond, either by gaining capital or going beyond the common comfort level.

Agnew said he hoped a recent $3 million investment by the Blackstone Group into some Maine programs would “put some real adrenaline behind entrepreneurship in this state.”

And judge John Burns, fund manager at the Maine Small Enterprise Growth Fund, said he was looking for some key criteria in companies. They must address a market pain that really exists, and must have a team that can execute on opportunity. And, said Burns, they must be able to differentiate themselves from competitors.

Judge Heather Onstott of Launch Capital in Boston said she saw a common theme among companies competing.

“I think there’s a deep understanding of what Maine’s needs are. There’s a focus on keeping Maine as a leader in the sustainable movement,” she said. “That’s something engrained in Mainers — to focus on growth, but in a sustainable way.”

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