New tech firms hope to hit pay dirt tonight; Showcase: The annual trade show for promising Maryland technology companies will feature 41 potential "winners" tonight in hopes they will attract new capital.


Mark Debinski is co-founder of NewBlood Inc., a year-old company that already is profitable, is ensconced in Baltimore's hottest new office space for budding high-technology ventures and has a merger deal on the table.

Now, the entrepreneur and his partners wouldn't mind picking up a cool $2 million tonight.

The founders of the Internet-business applications outfit won't be alone. Tonight is the opening of the annual showcase of emerging Maryland technology companies, sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Venture Association and Greater Baltimore Committee.

In the past, the annual event has had more of a trade show than deal-making focus. But organizers have structured the show to act as matchmaker for young firms and venture capitalists.

Investors are deluged each year with invitations to events orchestrated to show off budding technology companies. But the organizers of the Maryland event say they have tightened the nomination and screening process, accepting only 41 of the more than 100 companies that were considered.

"We really want this event to showcase companies we think can be winners," said Jane Shaab, executive director for the GBC's technology council. "Companies have to show that they either have or are ready to move to a new stage of their development. If they're stuck in the same place, chances are we're not interested."

The GBC and the association also have extended the invitation list to investors along the East Coast, not to just those in the Baltimore area.

Shaab said venture capital firms and other investors from as far away as Boston and Richmond, Va., have expressed interest in attending the event at the Camden Yards warehouse.

Based on anecdotal evidence, some companies have used the technology showcase to sign up new investments, said Shaab. But the GBC has no hard numbers to bolster those stories.

Later this year, however, the GBC for the first time plans to compile statistics on companies that have attracted new capital as a result of the trade show, said Shaab.

This year's chosen are mainly promising companies in the the fields of biotechnology, telecommunications, software, computer systems and Internet services. Most have fewer than 25 employees, and several have less than 10.

Some of the companies, such as LearnWare International Corp. of Baltimore, are already well along in their growth, having completed one or more rounds of financing. Other participants, such as two biotechnology companies, Minerva Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Zone Therapeutics Inc., are recent start-ups.

Executives of the show's young companies are philosophical about their chances of attracting new capital tonight.

"Finding the right investor is like finding the right girl. It takes time, and you've got to be out there," said Debinski, whose company is based at the new Emerging Technology Center in the former American Can building in Canton.

"We don't expect to walk away with a deal [at the event]," he said. "We're counting on this more as a way to gain exposure among investors who may not have heard of us already."

Clayton Ajello, chief executive officer of LearnWare, a company that was created by Johns Hopkins education researchers, also sees the event as a vehicle to build exposure.

The 2-year-old company, which develops interactive multimedia presentations for school courses and businesses, already has received two rounds of venture financing and doesn't expect to need more capital until next year.

"This seems a good venue to raise awareness -- to become familiar to a much wider part of the investment community," said Ajello.

But NewBlood, which sells a software product to manage manufacturing and wholesale supply chains over the Internet, is in immediate need of cash.

Company executives want to line up $2 million in new capital so it can complete a merger with a Malaysian company and launch two new Internet-based products.

The 18-month-old company, which derives its name in part from co-founder Karen Blood, counts itself as lucky to have been selected for the showcase because of its pressing need for money to close the pending merger.

Said Shaab: "New money is a key for most of these young companies. We've made it a primary goal that the event bring this cluster of companies to the attention of as wide a segment of investors as possible."

Pub Date: 3/04/99

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