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Local college students go to California to pitch business ideas

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POTSDAM — Entrepreneurs at local universities were thrown into the shark tank.

OK, maybe they weren’t sharks.

“They were hawks, but very docile hawks,” said Gabor Forgacs, director of Clarkson University’s Shipley Center for Innovation. “We introduced the students to professional people of every sort who are around startup businesses as investors, lawyers, bankers and financial people.”

In October, nine students from Clarkson and St. Lawrence University in Canton pitched their business ideas to the “hawks” in Silicon Valley.

The trip, organized by the Shipley Center, let the young entrepreneurs see how their ideas stood up when presented to potential investors.

“Every time they pitched, all were constructively criticized and were given valuable inputs,” Mr. Forgacs said. “Many of the constructive remarks and suggestions are already being implemented by students in their modified business plans. This is what is important for the students, the experience and the self-confidence of talking to those people.”

At the Shipley Center, Mr. Forgacs said, the students receive help with the initial steps of a startup: incorporating the business, creating a business plan, conducting exploratory studies.

“That is just the very beginning; if they want to go and continue, they will need to talk to and interact with hawks,” Mr. Forgacs said. “The major objective of this trip was to expose them to such people.”

While in California, the students talked to K&L Gates, a law firm specializing in legal issues pertinent to startup companies, such as intellectual property rights. They also met with groups of investors from venture capital firms Richmond Venture Partners, ULU Ventures and T2 Ventures, and with representatives of the Kauffman Fellows Program.

The students also visited Singularity University at the NASA Ames Center in Mountainview, Calif., and the Thiel Foundation in San Francisco.

“I think many people who embark on starting a business say, ‘Oh, my god, at some point I will have to talk to investors’ — everybody is dreading that,” Mr. Forgacs said. “We are trying to demystify that. These ‘hawks’ are human beings who are not smarter; they just happen to live in that world where money is.”

Mr. Forgacs said four teams of students were selected to pitch their ideas.

“All four ideas were considered good by the professionals,” he said.

One, Innovative Delivery Systems, presented a smartphone ordering system for food and refreshments at sporting events. Food could be ordered via a mobile device, and then delivered to a customer’s seat. The service is already in use at the Clarkson’s Cheel Arena.

Another group, Blue Sphere Industries, pitched an aeroponic farming technology that promises to take agriculture indoors, eliminating the need for acreage to feed large populations and potentially bringing food sources closer to consumers in metropolitan areas.

East Coast Ski presented an all-purpose ski that could adjust automatically to conditions on any slope.

Finally, Kommutication pitched a cross-platform application that would link commuters to transit agencies and ride-share opportunities, incorporating ticketing and way-finding on a single site.

Next Monday, all nine of the students will present their concepts to a larger audience of “hawks” — their peers. The pitches will be made at 4:30 p.m. in the Clarkson University Student Center forum.

Mr. Forgacs said the trip will become an annual event for the Shipley Center.

“It is being expanded in a sense that we want to make it an annual event,” he said. “Four companies would be the maximum we would take. Otherwise it wouldn’t carry the prestige; it would lose its magic.”

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