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On Demo Day, celebrating entrepreneurs but feeling we've only started a long journey

ST. PETERSBURG

Backstage early Thursday morning in downtown's elegant Mahaffey Theater, six entrepreneurs prep for a spotlight moment on the grand stage. Each will have eight minutes to pitch his startup idea.

Combined, these entrepreneurs will be asking for nearly $4 million to help take their startups to the next level.

The audience, nearly 300, is made up of a key core of potential investors, supportive members of this area's business community, families, friends and curious locals.

Ty Mathen, founder of Dropost.it, is off in one backstage corner rehearsing his pitch about a next-generation gift card service. Bret Tobey and his team all wear matching green polo shirts adorned with their AutoIQ logo. Sean Davis of Red Hawk Interactive, first up to pitch this morning, looks ready to go. Jeff Baird, just 23 and still a university student, struts about muttering his pitch for Kngroo, a scavenger hunt game to help tourists and cities get to know one another better. Then he grabs a water bottle to moisten a dry mouth.

For all six, this is graduation day from Gazelle Lab, a business accelerator affiliated with the University of South Florida St. Petersburg's College of Business and the TechStars national network for startups out of Boulder, Colo.

It's show time. Gazelle leader Daniel James Scott welcomes the audience, reminds them of Gazelle's ambition to create more locally based businesses and jobs in the area, and then sets the hook.

"We're looking to be a great community partner," he says.

Gazelle's now looking for the next crop of exciting startups and new mentors who can guide entrepreneurs. And, Scott adds, Gazelle is looking to raise a $3 million fund that will allow the business accelerator to continue operating here for the next five years. Scott calls it the "Big Ask."

So how did the six founders do? Some were sharp. Others less convincing.

Red Hawk founder Davis' delivery is forceful, though his business plan to provide a new service for TV content over the Internet puts his startup in a chaotic industry. He asks for $500,000.

AutoIQ's Tobey pitches his business as a "digital health record" for cars. Some people think the niche has potential in a big-dollar industry. He asks for $1.5 million.

Leads Direct's Jerry Lamb wants $750,000 to fill the information "hole" between property owners and property managers. It's less tech-sexy than some pitches, but the founders boast decades of experience.

For Kngroo, Baird's pitch is youthful, cleverly localized, sometimes funny and occasionally hesitant. It's a cool idea but, as one observer notes, it could become very competitive with more startups considering similar services.

At Dropost.it, Mathen is smooth on stage and his service is compelling (if you've ever been frustrated with gift cards). It also sounds complex to pull off. He asks for $500,000 to push into five markets.

Finally, Teburu's Greg Ross-Munro comes across as polished and funny explaining his online menu and ordering service for smaller restaurants. He's testing it with Clearwater's Gondolier Pizza chain and drops names like ex-Beef 'O' Brady's president Nick Vojnovic as advisers. Teburu seeks $500,000.

Serial entrepreneur Tom Wallace, who runs Tampa's Red Vector, a provider of online education services, attended most of Demo Day. He's a big supporter and even a personal investor in Gazelle Lab.

"I have absolutely no doubt that some of today's presenters are going to be building successful companies that create high-paying jobs, as well as wealth for the entrepreneurs and their shareholders," Wallace says. Some of that wealth, he predicts, eventually will get invested back into other tech startups.

As of Thursday evening, no investment deals with the Gazelle Lab startups had been announced, Scott says. But that's no surprise. We'll hear more in the coming days or weeks whether any deals are struck. For now, kudos to those curious enough in the Tampa Bay community to come and hear the pitches.

Truth is, Tampa Bay's behind the entrepreneurial (and investor) times, so all of our regional efforts are still playing catchup.

So now it's up to the Tampa Bay community not to squander what it's finally started. It's time to put some skin in the game.

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

On Demo Day, celebrating entrepreneurs but feeling we've only started a long journey 11/17/11 [Last modified: Friday, November 18, 2011 7:03am]
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