May 31, 2004

New Expectations for Venture Capitalists at InnoVenture 2004

Sarah Moise  /  CRBJ

Over 300 business leaders, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists attended the first annual InnoVenture Conference at Greenville's Hyatt Regency on May 20.

John Warner, the force behind InnoVenture, was ebullient over the sold-out conference, the first of its kind in the state in over a decade. "The most important objective was to begin to develop infrastructure for South Carolina's innovation economy," he says. "The second objective was to encourage awareness of South Carolina," adds Warner. "The organizers visited with a lot of venture capitalists, and found that South Carolina did not have a negative image. We actually had no image."

Thirty VCs from around the Southeast, primarily North Carolina and Georgia, listened to nine companies present business summaries, market expectations and investment needs. The three Charleston companies that presented were Argolyn Bioscience Inc., Navigation Sciences Inc. and

Eric Dobson, president and CEO of Navigational Sciences, an industrial strength wireless company with port management applications, says, "It's very exciting and shows a fantastic commitment on behalf of South Carolina to be cultivating early stage companies. We must create an ecosystem in this state that supports innovation and entrepreneurship." Dobson was hoping to "bump into venture capitalists that want to invest in technology companies and like what we're doing. You never say, 'I have too much capital.'"

Navigational Sciences is looking for approximately $6 million in capital. Gov. Mark Sanford, the keynote speaker, presented a general vision for how South Carolina intends to encourage innovation and competition in the global economy. Now that India and China have overtaken the American South in cheap land, cheap labor and the right to work, South Carolina is evaluating its assets and opportunities, he said. "Any business that invests in South Carolina is a big fish in a small pond," Sanford added. "Our state has great accessibility in leadership and a great trend in helping businesses flourish."

The venture capital panel discussion included Kathy Harris of Noro-Moseley Partners in Atlanta, Ga.; Wayne Hunter of Harbert Management Corp. from Richmond, Va.; Larry Wilson of Treyls Funds in Columbia, S.C.; and Fred Sturgis of H.I.G. Ventures in Atlanta, Ga. All four suggested that organizers pat themselves on the back for getting investors, entrepreneurs, service providers and four college presidents in the same room. "There is a high degree of collaboration among the constituents who put this together, which is what it takes to create an effective technology community," said Sturgis. "In Atlanta, we have enough critical mass, but not this kind of collaborative spirit."

The panelists suggested that the conference organizers plan InnoVenture 2005 to mesh with other regional venture conferences. They also pointed out that more entrepreneurs should have presented, including several in various stages of development, i.e., early, middle and late stage startups. The companies presenting were primarily late stage.

Most of the business community wanted to know what could be done to attract more attention from venture capital firms. Sturgis advised that because VCs invest in people, companies should focus on cultivating their management. "We like to see people who have done it before-serial entrepreneurs, people who have gone IPO and have made money for their investors in the past. It's the marriage of good management to great ideas that makes for success."

Harris added that the criteria for startups is to present an industry changing idea, not easily duplicated, that will create value-a good business model or willingness to work with VC firms to develop one. "We want to make ten times our money if not more."

Tom Persons, president and CEO of the South Carolina Technology Alliance, says he was overall pleased by the conference. "In the beginning I was concerned that maybe we had set a level of expectation for our venture capitalists from out of state that we could not meet, but as the day matured, I felt very good about what I saw. The companies that presented represented their teams very well and the state well. Our venture capital people will leave with a good impression and new expectations."

However, he adds, "The true test is going to be investments. You've got to get the right plans and some buy-in from an investment standpoint, because that's the purpose of the whole conference." He plans to personally send letters to venture capital firms with copies of the venture capital bill and invitations to come back. "I'm going to try to establish that relationship, because people buy from people."