Entrepreneurs get chance to impress potential investors at South Side event

Fast pitches

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Tech CEOs stepping to the stage for Innovation Works' AlphaLab Demo Day and the i6 Agile Innovation System Preview on Tuesday had about five minutes to sell complex technologies to an audience of potential investors and partners.

With time short, many sped through jargon-filled PowerPoint presentations and grainy video endorsements to cut to the heart of the matter: how their products can help to revolutionize an industry or improve daily life on an individual basis.

Edan Yago, co-founder of drug discovery technology provider Enzium, used his own illness as an example of how helping companies obtain FDA approval for drugs could someday benefit anyone who has ever been taken down by a case of the sniffles.

"It's 2011 and I'm coming to you with the flu. We still don't have a cure for the common cold. Our old methodology of drug discovery is failing us," he said.

Mr. Yago went on to explain that his company's tools for screening protease enzymes will help those creating medicines that target the enzymes to get the drugs through the clinical trial phase faster.

James Wolfe, CEO of HyGenyx, displayed the image of an ailing man in a hospital bed to drive home the potential impact that his company's Room Q hospital infection reduction technology could have on patients.

"Hospital-acquired infections kill nearly 100,000 people every year. Imagine a jumbo jet goes down every single day -- that's the reality of the severity of this problem," said Mr. Wolfe, motioning toward the photo.

Six companies being supported through Alpha Lab, Innovation Works' intensive tech accelerator program, and six who are part of the i6 Agile Innovation System, an initiative by Innovation Works and Carnegie Mellon University to help commercialize local technologies, put their best pitches forward for the annual event, which took place Tuesday at the South Side's Circuit Center.

Most of the presenting companies were so early in the startup stage that they have yet to incorporate.

The i6 initiative was formed only last year after South Oakland-based Innovation Works and CMU won a contest sponsored by the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration. This group of AlphaLab companies just started their 20 weeks with the program in June.

Despite the short time with the programs, Innovation Works president and CEO Rich Lunak said many companies have made major steps toward commercialization, including securing initial rounds of investments, operating live beta sites and attracting major partners to use products.

Classroom Salon, an i6 company founded by CMU associate teaching professor Ananda Gunawardena, has formed partnerships with CMU and McGraw-Hill publishing to use its platform to modify classroom texts to social networking sites where communities of classmates read and comment on shared content.

Mr. Gunawardena said the company is seeking $500,000 in angel funds to supplement $500,000 in grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Science Foundation to bring the product to new markets.

AlphaLab company Comvibe, a property management repairs site that allows tenants to request maintenance services through a managed network, has gotten so much support from initial users that a property manager using the site pitched it alongside company CEO, Kariithi Kilemi, during a recent conference. Mr. Kilemi hopes a $250,000 investment can help the company build its sales team and expand its market share.

With a range of companies that touch upon everything from medicine and education to fashion and graphic arts, Mr. Lunak said each has something to offer local and international investors or partners. It's simply a matter of Innovation Works, CMU and Alpha Lab helping connect them with the best investors and partners for their products.

"They're just plain great entrepreneurs with terrific ideas, good opportunities are there for the investment community," he said.

In addition to Classroom Salon, Hygenyx and Enzium, the following companies are part of the i6 Agile Innovation System: Transactional DA, a company that creates custom-designed embedded processors; EEme, a company that monitors energy efficiency for customers, businesses and third party consultants; and GlobaTrek, a company working to help small and medium-sized businesses expand globally.

In addition to ComVibe, AlphaLab is currently assisting: 8020 Select, an online graphics design community; MakerCraft, a custom online jewelry design company; VitalClip, an iPhone enabled device that allows for real-time health monitoring; Krowder, a crowd-sourced delivery system for products placed in classified ads online; and PHRQL (pronounced freckle), a smartphone app that helps people living with diabetes monitor their readings and founded by Hank Werronen, former COO of Humana Health Plan.

Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652.


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