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Seeking Traction with Investors? You've Got Two Minutes

Words by Mary Catherine O'Connor
Investment & Markets

Last week, Triple Pundit enjoyed fly-on-the-wall status at a pitch session between cleantech entrepreneurs and a panel of cleantech investors from leading Bay Area firms. Thirteen entrepreneurs took their pitches to the podium, each were given two minutes to describe their product or service, and each then fielded questions from the panel. Once the Q/A ended, the investors gave each entrepreneur frank assessments of where the pitch worked and--more importantly--where it failed.

The tension in the air was palatable.

Interestingly, the investors' chief complaints were about elements that seemed pretty, well, elemental. Sometimes the pitch failed to show, up front, what the product is, or who the intended user would be. Interestingly, sometimes I, as an observer, failed to notice these missing elements in a pitch. Why? Well, I'm not a VC, so perhaps I don't have a trained ear.

But then again, I'm a journalist. I do have (or at least should have) a trained ear. What it came down to, I think, is that there were just so many details crammed--by necessity--into each pitch. The technology or service, the economics around its production, the target market, the cost of the solution, the IP that needs protecting, the longevity of the product, the marketing plan, etc. I often found that I was honing in on the novelty or the potential of the product or service, and not on its likelihood of being built into a viable business.

No pitch will fully satisfy (or even pique) the curiosity of every VC. But it was interesting that oftentimes the entrepreneurs were so anxious to show why their ideas were novel, or how innovative their technologies were, that they accidentally skipped over some key details.

Sure, there are generally opportunities for investors to ask about those details, but there's always the chance that missing details will be turn off. Practice makes closer-to-perfect, of course, and the companies that presented their plea for funding at last week's event have a good support system from The Cleantech Open, which sponsored the event as part of a launch party for its 2011 National Competition, in which startups from around the country get a chance to compete for a the top prize of roughly $250,000. Along the way, they receive mentoring and chances to work on their pitches.

At the end of the pitch session, the investor panel (which included representatives from Applied Ventures, CalCEF Angel Fund, Claremont Creek VenturesChevron Technology Ventures, and Draper Fisher Jurvetson) convened and voted on the best pitches they heard. In the "best presentation" category, Burt Hammer, CEO of Hydrovolts Inc., a maker of small-scale hydropower turbines that are designed to be easily deployed in canals (which offer generally consistent, debris-free flow) took third place. Susan Kunz, CEO of BioVantage, a company that uses bugs to remediate polluted ponds, took second place for her enthusiastic, fact-filled pitch. And the best "best presentation" went to Tim Miller, CEO of Green Lite Motors, which makes gas-electric hybrid vehicles that sport just three wheels, two seats and a very unusual look.

The three pitches deemed "most intriguing/fundable" went to Mike Lin, CEO of Fenix International, a maker of a battery system designed for charging cell phones in countries where millions of subscribers lack access to power grids, followed by Douglas Hutchings from Silicon Solar Solutions, a startup that has designed a more efficient means for producing solar cells. Tops went to Armageddon Energy's Mark Goldman. Armageddon Energy, a residential solar energy startup which we covered in 2009.

Mary Catherine O'Connor

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).

With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes <a href="http://outside-blog.away.com/blog/the_good_route.html">The Good Route</a>, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.

To find out more, or to reach her, go to <a href="http://www.mcoconnor.com">www.mcoconnor.com</a&gt;.

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