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At Venture Fair, money, new ideas meet

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Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011

In the business world's equivalent of American Idol, undiscovered Pittsburgh inventors tried to give their best performances Wednesday in a luxurious suite at PNC Park.

There was a panel of three judges, contestants that both flourished and flopped in the span of three minutes, an audience that texted in their votes, and even a diminutive host.

Instead of national fame and a recording contract, winners of the University Technology Showcase at the 3 Rivers Venture Fair yesterday got a small cash award, confidence that their ideas could become successful businesses and connections with venture capital investors so essential to startup companies.

"It was great as far as validating my idea," said Doug Bernstein, a Carnegie Mellon University researcher who pitched his nascent medical device company, Peca Labs. Bernstein's talk about Peca's focus on creating new devices for overlooked and underserved diseases impressed the judges and audience and won him third place prize of $1,000.

The showcase was a first for the venture fair, which the Pittsburgh Venture Capital Association hosts every 18 months and attracts hundreds of investors looking for the next big technology that could make millions, or even billions, of dollars. Venture capitalists typically put money into a young company before it launches a product with the hope of a big payoff if that product is successful.

The fair, which continues today with presentations by 34 Pittsburgh-area companies, shows off the best of the region's technology companies with the intention of getting them funding. Yesterday's showcase featured 14 inventors from CMU and the University of Pittsburgh, many of whom have yet to form companies around their ideas.

Mark Heesen, president of the National Venture Capital Association, said the 3 Rivers Venture Fair is among the best in the country.

"There's a lot more interaction between the VCs and entrepreneurs" in Pittsburgh, said Heesen, a Duquesne University graduate. That's important, he said, because "you have to like the entrepreneur to want to fund the entrepreneur."

That was certainly the case for Sanna Gaspard, a CMU biomedical engineering researcher who won first place in the showcase. Gaspard pitched an idea for a new instrument that can detect early-stage bed sores. She was praised by the judges, and after her win was occupied by a line of investors and others eager to discuss her idea.

"Are you sure you're not from the business school?" Richard Lunak, CEO of Pittsburgh startup incubator Innovation Works and one of the showcase judges, asked Gaspard. "You did a great job."

Gaspard said she's unaccustomed to the attention but was pleased her company, Rubitection Inc., struck a chord.

"It shows me that people understand the need and the problem," said Gaspard, who hopes to secure total investment between $500,000 and $1 million to build a prototype instrument that can be used in clinical trials.

The presentations during the showcase, which ranged from an application that could help restaurants sell more wine to a surgical tool that may help surgeons "feel" during delicate procedures, were "very impressive," said Linda Molnar, a director of Burrill & Co., a San Francisco consulting company that helps young companies find investors.

Despite the country's economic malaise, Molnar said, it's evident that Pittsburgh has many young entrepreneurs who are enthusiastic about starting businesses.

More than 600 people were expected to attend the venture fair by the end of today, which would be slightly more than the last fair attracted two years ago, said Kelly Szejko, president of the Pittsburgh Venture Capital Association.

Venture capitalists turn out for the fair because they "recognize that Pittsburgh is one of the top high-tech centers in the country," said Alexander Paul, a fair co-chair and president of Pittsburgh accounting firm Alpern Rosenthal.

Additional Information:

3 Rivers Venture Fair

What: An event held every 18 months that tries to connect the best technology startup companies in the Pittsburgh region with venture capital investors.

Where: Lexus Club at PNC Park.

When: Started Wednesday, continues today.

Who: More than 600 venture capitalists, consultants, businesses people and others were expected to attend.

Online: .

Sponsor: Pittsburgh Venture Capital Association.

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