Entrepreneurs step aboard, make their pitch

J.J. Reidy boarded a garish yellow RV parked in Harbor East and shared a vision: vast greenhouses in Baltimore raising produce to feed thousands, the plants feeding on nutrients from the waste of fish swimming in nearby tanks.

In two minutes and 35 seconds of video time, the graduate business student and would-be entrepreneur delivered the pitch he fashioned with his business partner, Julie Buisson, wrapping it up with a punchy closing line: "We believe we can feed our city in our city."

He was among some 200 people from one end of Maryland to the other who have in the last three weeks stepped aboard the 33-foot recreational vehicle to convey their notions of what could be, or what could be even better, with the right support. One promoted a cancer treatment, another an app for paying restaurant tabs with the option of donating a meal to a needy person, another a card game designed to help children learn to read.

Eight entrepreneurs will advance to compete for two slots in the Invest Maryland Challenge. Hosted by the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development and Inc. Magazine, that competition awards four $100,000 prizes for new high tech and life science business.

This is the third year for Pitch Across Maryland, a project run by Startup Maryland, a branch of the Startup America project. The national effort to cultivate new businesses was launched by the Obama administration in 2011 and later handed over to local supporters.

State Startup operations run across the country, but Startup Maryland — funded by businesses and state and local economic development agencies — may be the only one to include a road trip to reach entrepreneurs near where they live. The tour traveled in the first two years in a leased bus, but this year in a Fleetwood Bounder that Michael P. Binko, founder and president of Startup Maryland, said he bought himself.

From the ocean to the western mountains, Southern Maryland to Harford County, the RV has been rolling for more than 30 stops in 15 days since Sept. 15, wrapping up in Annapolis on Friday last week.

Binko said there have been about 20 percent more pitches this year than in the previous two years, and presentations are improving as more people take the organization's recommendation to get some coaching before they board the Bounder.

"The quality of the pitches… has continued to increase," said Binko, the president and CEO of Kloudtrack, a cloud computing company in Annapolis.

Working with Startup sponsors and volunteers, about half of those presenting this year got pre-pitch advice on how to focus their presentation, what potential investors need to know and how their idea is distinct in the market.

The pitch tour is part of a growing array of programs across the state meant to give entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs support with guidance from experienced business people, shared work space and contact with potential investors. Maryland is home to some 20 "incubators" and "accelerators" running usually under the auspices of local government or quasi-governmental agencies, colleges and universities.

Binko said about 530 people have made pitches in three years, about 90 percent of whom were already in business when they gave their presentation.

About half were classified as startups, meaning they had $1 million or less in annual revenue, roughly a third were earning less than $10 million and one in 10 were earning more than $10 million a year.

About 80 percent are still in business, Binko said.

One of those is Johnny Shockley, a Hoopers Island waterman who pitched his oyster aquaculture business in 2012 in Cambridge. He was selected as one of the best five pitches of the year and was invited to the White House for a reception last year.

Just the other day, Shockley said, he spent about three hours with two representatives of the World Bank who wanted to hear more about the Hoopers Island Oyster Aquaculture Company.

Run by Shockley and his partner, Ricky Fitzhugh, the company that raises oysters and seed and also sells aquaculture gear that the company designs, just passed the $1 million annual revenue mark. Shockley said the video pitch itself might not have been as helpful as meeting Binko, who has put him in touch with investors and business advisers.

Jaclyn Paris of Bel Air had nothing but a prototype when she faced the video camera aboard the bus in 2012 and again in 2013. Drawing on her experience as a teacher and a mother of two boys, she had created a card game that could be used to teach children how to read.

Last November, she started selling the Funny Mix game on Amazon, but she was back this year in Harford County to make another video, this time to promote the product and talk about her idea for an educational public television show based on the game. Making the videos, and meeting the people surrounding the program, has helped her learn how to be a business person.

"It helped me build confidence in my actual prototype, that I had a good idea," she said.

She'll be among those whose videos will be posted on YouTube to compete for the most views. But a panel of investors and business people next month will select the eight entrepreneurs who will advance for the possibilty of winning a $100,000 prize.


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