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12 minutes for millions at Florida Venture Forum

Can 12 measly minutes yield millions?

That is the mantra of the Florida Venture Forum, an annual gathering of venture capitalists in the state who listen to 12-minute pitches by Florida entrepreneurs seeking to grow their businesses with fresh capital.

In this aching economy, you'd think they'd get at least 13 minutes.

This is not mom-and-pop stuff. Companies invited to seek 12 minutes of potential fame are culled from many by venture capitalists from Virginia to Florida. The young businesses must show a track record of revenue, growth, a proprietary technology and a management team just to get their foot in the door.

At this year's 25th Florida Venture Forum, held next month in Naples amid the worst recession in a generation, 19 handpicked Florida companies hope to catch the imagination and purse strings of attending venture capital firms.

Of those 19, four are from the Tampa Bay area.

One is Clearwater's SunBelt Software — "We help keep the bad guys out," says the company's phone message — which designs and sells security software.

SunBelt pitcher and CEO Alex Eckelberry says his business wanted to grow faster but instead watched financing dry up thanks to the credit crunch last year. SunBelt, 14 years old with 160 employees, makes money, has no debt and enjoys its independence. But Eckelberry still thinks it prudent to deliver the best 12 minutes he can to the Florida venture capitalists next month.

At first, SunBelt planned to pitch its story to big venture capital firms in Boston or Silicon Valley because of the large sum of money it sought. But the tighter economy and resulting distractions by distant venture capital firms led Eckelberry to look in-state.

"These (local VC) firms can drive over and see us and touch the furniture," Eckelberry says. That comfort level is key in these tough times.

Three Tampa firms also will make 12-minute appeals. Ott Lite will pitch its natural lighting fixtures. Online learning provider Red Vector will show how busy it is as more people retrain to build new skills. And consulting firm Tribridge will explain how it helps businesses make the most of Microsoft systems.

Any company that accepts money from venture capital firms must eventually deal with the Exit. Venture capitalists invest to make money so they want a way to exit, or pull out their profit. That usually happens in one of two ways.

Either the young company is purchased or goes public. But mergers are backburnered due to a lack of financing. And initial public offerings, or IPOs, are DOA until 2010.

In fact, experts say the time it takes to exit an investment has doubled from 10 years ago. It's just rougher out there.

Still, the Florida Venture Forum says it has helped funnel $1.7-billion in venture capital to promising young Florida businesses. In 2008, venture capital slowed, but still anted up $235-million through the third quarter.

One high-profile business called DayJet Corp. raised $50-million after its pitch to the Florida Venture Forum. The promising small-jet taxi service was launched in 2007, but had to pull the plug in September when funding evaporated.

High risk. High return, sometimes. What do you want in 12 measly minutes?

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

12 minutes for millions at Florida Venture Forum 01/12/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 12, 2009 10:56pm]
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