Local startups swim in 'shark tank'

PubTalk event based on television show

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 
photoRichard Biggs of Atlantric moderates and evening event at PubTalk on Tuesday in Vancouver.

(/The Columbian)

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Most of us indulge in impulse buying on occasion, perhaps choosing a smartphone that has more dazzle than functionality, or a sporty car that's fun but doesn't quite fit the family's needs or budget.

But "sharks" who invest in startup companies aren't exactly impulse buyers. They want to put their money into startups that will yield a large return, very quickly. They've learned to look beyond a great idea to ask questions about the business skills and financial investments of the company's founders and core staff; a company's growth and marketing plans; the state of competition; and when they expect to make a profit.

Four local companies — three from Southwest Washington and one now based in Portland — entered the "shark tank" Tuesday evening at Clark County PubTalk, making their best pitches to a panel of five business investors and experts. The presenters ranged from a self-described geek inventor with the Camas company Focus Designs, which makes self-balancing unicycles, to the practical-minded ePark Systems, based in Woodland, which has devised an in-vehicle parking meter that can be used in place of on-street meters.

Other presenters were Epoch Inc. of Vancouver, which is creating technology for storage and organization of media production; and On The Go Platforms, registered in Washington but operating in Portland, which is developing software for the budding Smart Glasses technology.

In the end, the "sharks" gave their highest ratings to On The Go Platforms, which offered the most detailed presentation. The second-place prize went to Focus Designs, which delivered the flashiest presentation, with David Martschinske, the company's young chief operating officer, riding a unicycle up the aisle at the event at the Fort Vancouver Artillery Barracks.

The networking event was the last PubTalk of the season, and it was the year's most popular, with almost 150 people in attendance. The format was loosely based on ABC-TV's "Shark Tank" series, which features entrepreneurs pitching their business ideas to big-name executives of innovative companies. While the television series offers big financial prizes to winners, the winner's reward at PubTalk was $1,000 plus business consulting services from several local firms.

Shark tank panel members were George DeCarlo, founder and CEO of the social marketing software firm Woobox, based in Vancouver; Betsy Henning, fonder and CEO of the AHA! marketing and communications firm in Vancouver; Paul Kollar, founder and CEO of Loki Scientific, a Vancouver-based laser technology firm; Lisa Lowe, attorney at Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt. who is based in Vancouver; and Rick Nagle, co-founder and managing member of VectorPoint Ventures, a Portland-area venture capital investment firm.

The format didn't allow much time for questions from the panel of business panel. But some of their questions did have a shark-like edge. When Dave Driggers, vice-president for sales at ePark Systems, reported that the company had earned $175,000 in revenue last year, more than seven years after it was formed, Nagle posed the question: "You have virtually no revenue. Why would I invest in you?"

And when Martschinske responded to a question about the company's marketing strategy by describing how the company's employees are a "nerd herd" who like the quirkiness of a unicycle, Henning pushed back. "Talk about your customers," she said.

David Barton, president and CEO of Epoch Inc., worked hard to explain a highly technical service that is primarily oriented to the video production and entertainment industries. "The science is very much at the deep end of the pool," he said. But he was hampered by a PowerPoint presentation that didn't work

and faced questions from panelists about how his company's offerings differed from cloud-based data storage.

Tyler Phillipi, co-founder of On the Go Platforms, completed his presentation well within his 15-minute allocation and delivered information about products, investment funding and staff expertise as part of his pitch. The company is pitching a "ghost runner' product that runners can use to set their pace. If a person is running slower than his or her desired pace, a ghost image appears through the Smart Glasses as an encouragement to speed up.

Clark County now takes a break until Oct. 15, when the topic will be "raising capital."