Elevator pitch fest brings Pittsburgh-area entrepreneurs together

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John Whitehill, chairman of the MIT executive committee, compared its Enterprise Forum’s annual Elevator Pitch Fest to an epic Roman battle.

"It's really like the Coliseum," he said to a crowd of more than 50 chuckling spectators before 16 entrepreneurs pitched their business ideas to four judges made up of experienced investors and business leaders Wednesday night in the Wolfe Lecture Hall in the Bayer Learning Center.

"You're going to be in head-to-head combat. One is going to win and it's a significant amount of service prizes," he said.

Duquesne gives entrepreneurs 'Shark Tank' treatment

Duquesne University hosted its own version of ???Shark Tank??? for inspiring entrepreneurs, who were given 90-seconds to pitch their product to a panel of judges. (Video and narration by Madasyn Czebiniak; 5/16/2014)

The final part of the 2013-2014 MIT Enterprise Forum Pittsburgh, the pitch fest was an opportunity for Pittsburgh-area entrepreneurs to obtain exposure for their businesses, gain advice from experienced professionals and network with other entrepreneurs.

The forum has been doing the pitch fest for at least 10 years, according to Jack Mason, director of Entrepreneurial Studies, and this year was the first time it was hosted at Duquesne.

"I think the forum role in supporting and promoting entrepreneurial activity is important. Successful entrepreneurs know that they need this type of information in order to hone their presentations, fine-tune their business plans and, ultimately, grow their business," Mr. Mason said in a statement.

Businesses competing in the fest ranged from Identified Technologies Corp., which uses drones and flying robots to create aerial surveys, to Curostem, a topical polymer gel aimed at curing non-healing wounds such as diabetic ulcers.

All 16 contestants were given 90 seconds to pitch their business plans to the judges. Three were then picked by the audience so they could give a more in-depth presentation. According to Mr. Mason, all of the businesses were start-ups in various stages.

Asked if he was ready for the 90-second pitch, Donald Taylor of Curostem said he felt confident. Mr. Taylor said he had his pitch down to 70 seconds. "It's a very delicate task because, if your mind goes off track for a second, you could lose the whole thing,“ he said.

Ryan Brannon, the inventor of the phone app My New Leaf, which helps people struggling to overcome substance abuse, was worried he wouldn’t be able to fit his message into the time allotted. "I thought five minutes was going to be a tight squeeze but 90 seconds is brutal," he said.

Nick Greco, a Duquesne graduate competing in the event, said such programs are beneficial because he’s able to meet other people who understand about starting businesses.

"When you're not together with other entrepreneurs ... there's a lot of people that are doubtful or negative," he said. "They just don't see a vision of starting your own company, and they think you're crazy for trying to start something new."

Three companies made it to the final round. The winner of the pitch fest ended up being Phizzbo, an online real-estate platform that lets customers buy and sell properties without a broker.

Douglas M. Hilling II said there were no words he could use to describe how he felt about his company’s victory, which earned sales and marketing advice and legal counseling.

"I came here not expecting to win but, as soon as they announced my name, there was actually a tear," Mr. Hilling said. "It's surreal.”

Madasyn Czebiniak: mczebiniak@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1269 or on Twitter @PG_Czebiniak.

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