InnoVenture seeks to pair emerging companies with venture capital firms

Young companies with a hot idea and hungry for money will be pitching their business plans to venture capital firms at the third annual InnoVenture conference in Greenville.

But if you want your company to be among them, you’d better hurry. Applications are due Monday, Jan. 9.

The conference is designed to pair so-called emerging companies in search of funding with venture capital firms looking for investment opportunities. This year for the first time, organizers also hope to pair researchers who want to commercialize their innovations with potential business partners.

Special committees will pick 15 emerging companies and 15 researchers to make presentations during the conference, which is scheduled for March 28 and 29 at the Palmetto Expo Center. Interested companies and researchers may apply online at www.InnoVentureSE.com.

Also for the first time this year, large research organizations such as Michelin Americas Research Corp., the research arm of Greenville-based Michelin North America, will make presentations at InnoVenture about what technologies and companies they’d like to have physically near their own campuses.

“We want them to document the kind of innovation activities that can grow up around them,” said John Warner, a Greenville businessman who is InnoVenture’s founder and chairman. The idea, he said, is to help economic development organizations recruit a cluster of technologically compatible companies around research anchors such as the Michelin research campus south of Greenville.

Research anchors scheduled to make presentations — besides Michelin — are the International Center for Automotive Research, the research park that Clemson University is developing in Greenville; the Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken; the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn.; the University of South Carolina; and the Carolinas Microoptics Triangle, a collaboration between Clemson, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Western Carolina University.

InnoVenture has grown each year since Warner founded it in 2004 as a way to get out-of-state venture capital firms to pay more attention to South Carolina.

“This time last year, we had raised maybe $15,000 in sponsorships,” Brenda Laakso, InnoVenture executive director, said Wednesday. “So far this year, we’ve got over $80,000 in sponsorships committed. That’s a big difference.”

Laakso is also executive director for small business and entrepreneurship at the Greater Greenville Chamber of Commerce.

She’s one of two employees the Chamber dedicates to organizing InnoVenture each year. The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce also promotes the conference.

Major sponsors so far this year, Laakso said, are Michelin Americas Research Corp.; the Nexsen Pruet law firm; Fuji Photo Film; the Elliott Davis accounting firm; and the South Carolina Department of Commerce.

The research foundations at Clemson University and the University of South Carolina are also sponsors, as are Clemson’s research division and its Spiro Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, Laakso said.

The Commerce Department gave $12,500 to InnoVenture this year in an ongoing effort to help “seed” it, said Will Lacey, director of the agency’s Business Solutions division.

Lacey said InnoVenture is the only full-blown venture capital conference in South Carolina and enjoys a “lot of buy-in” from the private sector as well as university and government research organizations.

“Hopefully deals will come out of it,” he said.

Eric Dobson, chief executive officer of Navigational Sciences Inc. of Charleston, said his firm received the “modest but meaningful” investment of several hundred thousand dollars as a result of presenting its business plan at the first InnoVenture in 2004.

“It certainly gave us a good deal of exposure that we needed,” Dobson said.

His company uses global positioning system technology to track shipping containers and employs nine.

Also new this year, InnoVenture organizers are setting aside one-fourth of tickets for college students or young professionals who “reflect the diversity of the region,” Warner said.

As in years past, companies will be coached in the best way of presenting their business plans to venture capitalists and corporations and research organizations will set up displays in an exhibit hall.