Penn State

Startups sling pitches, impress investors at first Penn State Venture and IP Conference

They had eight minutes to convince the judges why their company deserved the $75,000 prize.

When it was over, AdvanceRib, which is providing a minimally-invasive method of repairing broken ribs, emerged the winner. The company had tough competition: Among the 14 pitches were solutions to trapping viruses, gene and drug therapies to regenerate neural cells, anti-bullying intiatives and using fungal spores to fight bed bugs.

The amount of brainpower in The Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center would put “The Apprentice” to shame. Jordan Nechita, who was presenting for a startup seeking to market self-healing textiles, swept back his hockey-player’s hair before taking the podium. At 23, he was the youngest presenter — and also the only one who had to skip class on Thursday.

“I was practicing my pitch until then,” he said before presenting. “I had to let my professors know I was giving a speech.”

His pitch, like the rest, was delivered cleanly. It would take longer than eight minutes to decide the winner.

On Thursday and Friday, Penn State held its first Venture and IP Conference, a brainchild of its $30 million Invent Penn State Initiative. The event brought together hundreds of investors, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, who divvied their time between talking business and seeing the region’s next generation of startups.

“As someone who is just starting out his career, it’s exciting for me to see the paths that other entrepreneurs in our area have taken,” said Sam Linton, a doctoral candidate at Penn State Hershey Medical Center who was visiting.

In the room next door, young entrepreneurs sidled up to investors in bespoke suits, trading business cards and slinging their well-practiced pitches. Minutes later, they moved tables: Speed dating for the business set.

The two days included several speakers, panels and a couple of “Shark Tank”-style competitions. At the Tech Tournament held Thursday, Nechita and his competitors vied for the top prize. At lunch on Friday, Neil Sharkey, Penn State’s vice president for research, announced the top three and the “people’s choice” winner, which spectators could vote for via text message.

AvoColor, which is seeking to commercialize food coloring from avocados, took home $50,000 as the second-place winner, while anti-bullying startup Project TEAM secured $25,000 for placing third. Lasers for Innovative Solutions, an ultraviolet laser imaging outfit, won the “people’s choice” prize of $10,000.

“Our sense is these people are going to be responsible with the money because many of them have mortgaged their homes, for instance,” said James Delattre, the university’s assistant vice president for research and industrial partnerships. “That’s the reality of starting a company.”

The Venture Connection session a door over, which paired more than 80 startups with about 40 venture capitalists, sowed the seeds for potential partnerships. Glasses clinked and hands shook.

In total, the event had more than 580 attendees. Delattre said he was pleased with the turnout.

“Is there a capacity for it? Your gut says ‘yes,’ so you don’t really know until you do it,” he said. “I think today’s event validates that need.”

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy