Start-ups take stage seeking investments

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Rebecca Gaynier was getting ready to go on.

In the next 15 minutes she would be running through her slides, her charts and even a short video to persuade someone in the room to invest $250,000 to $500,000 in the Internet company she started to cater to girls between the ages of 8 and 14.

"I feel like I'm on 'American Idol,'" she said as she put on her wireless microphone.

Those 15 minutes capped a 20-week program with Innovation Works' AlphaLab that gave Ms. Gaynier's new company and five others a shot at getting off the ground using the expertise of others who have started companies before them.

Yesterday morning, just before the presentations started, iTwixie.com went live on the Internet. She and her team of five women had spent their time in AlphaLab developing the site so it would not be too babyish for preteen girls, but not also not contain the sexual content and innuendos that can make young girls (and their parents) uncomfortable.

"There are 20 million 'tween girls in the U.S. alone," she said. "They influence $206 billion in purchases a year, including $11 billion of their own money."

She did not explain how those girls were getting their own $550 a year, but she did say that there are a lot of advertisers who want it.

The presentation included her introductions of the iTwixie team that sounded like the thank-yous of an Academy Awards speech. She also projected that if iTwixie can interest just 1.25 percent of the nations' 'tween girls, the site would bring in $5 million in revenues in 2012.

ITwixie was just one of six companies that presented their concepts as their graduation from AlphaLab yesterday.

One after another the newly minted CEOs of companies presented their concepts, such as Don Charlton's one-person The Resumator, and the larger three-person presentation team of StockCastr, a sort of social media Web site in which users can post their stock picks, give their reasons for choosing those stocks and be recognized as the top stock picker of the day.

StockCastr's CEO, Jack Colletti, said the site allows people who don't work for the big firms to have a voice.

"We're making stars every day on this platform," said Arunda Endabetla, the chief technical officer for the company, which is working with engineers in India to develop the final site.

"With a half a million dollar investment we can get our site launched next year," Mr. Colletti said. Already there is an "alpha" version running, which is not accessible to the public.

Their revenue projections were for the company to have annual earnings of $20 million to $30 million in the next five years.

The fledgling companies that went through AlphaLab already have had an initial round of funding of $25,000 through Innovation Works. All of them were seeking further investors. Yesterday after their presentations, they continued to try to entice the investors such as the chamois cloth salesmen at the Home Show.

There was John Carman, who started out just wanting to be able to pull colors off a Web site to design a brochure and wound up designing a whole new system to create brochures using existing Web sites and vice versa.

"This is a new way of doing document design," he said.

His projections for annual sales were more than $6 million by the end of 2012 and $14 million by 2013.

Another company, Bueda, needs $250,000 to get to the point when it will be bringing in revenue with its model of targeted advertising using semantics, so that a video of a cat playing piano would have pet product advertising linked to it, rather than music lessons.

Bueda's CEO, Vasco Pedro, a Ph.D. candidate at Carnegie Mellon, and his partner, Kenji Sagae, who received his doctorate from CMU in language technologies, have been working on the process to use semantics to link advertising to sites for three years.

"We want to be generating roughly $30 million in sales volume by 2013," Mr. Pedro said.

The sixth company in the 20-week session was InnomiNet, run by Josh Albrecht, a tall thin computer guy, and Matthew Kaniaris, who studied music and physics and has the mohawk to prove it.

Neither of Innominet's founders gave themselves titles, instead they developed a computer program called bitblinder to induce computer users to share their machines so they can all anonymously browse the Internet. One use for that, Mr. Albrecht said, was to be able to read the New York Times from China and not have the content filtered out.

He said bitblinder keeps Web sites from capturing a computer's unique number, or Internet Protocol address, so that sites can't track who is using them.

"Unscrupulous marketers track consumers online, governments filter their citizens' Internet access or spy on them, and criminals commit identity theft," said the brochure about the problems facing those who long for Internet privacy.

It's a $100 million business currently, and Mr. Albrecht said it was expected to grow.

Each of the new companies had iyd own niche, a problem that needed to be solved, a need they could fill.

After the 20-week incubator program, though, it is up to the inventors and the investors to take over.


Ann Belser can be reached at abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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