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Tech showcase crowns unlikely winner in pitch contest

July 12, 2013

App developers, social network creators and dot-com services crammed the interior of the Dallara IndyCar Factory on Thursday in Speedway.

But it was a drug developer—a capital-intensive business notorious for scaring off investors—that pulled the most interest from would-be financiers, even though its product is still in pre-clinic development.

Emphymab Biotech, with a treatment for emphysema developed by a group of Indiana University medical professors, received the top prize at the Innovation Showcase's pitch competition.

“I’m shocked because the event is pretty tech-heavy, and we’re a life-sciences, a drug company,” said Joe Trebley, business manager for the seed-stage firm.

The company won a suite of business services worth $60,000 as part of an investor-judged, 60-second pitch competition in which investors voted for the most promising venture out of 60 participating startup companies.

More significantly, Emphymab and other winners will have guaranteed meetings with investment firms, said John Wechsler, a board member for Venture Club, which co-hosted the expo with entrepreneurship organization Verge.

Trebley acknowledged that Emphymab, incorporated in late 2011, will need a lot of money to cover its steep R&D costs.

It will take $250,000 to $1 million in seed money just to finish the product, while other equally young businesses at Thursday’s showcase were looking for half as much, if not less.

“Yeah, the capital expenditures are huge, but there’s still big returns in drugs,” Trebley said.

The startup resulted from research by Dr. Irina Petrache, Dr. Matthias Clauss and Dr. Brian Johnstone. Emphymab says it uses antibodies to slow down or halt emphysema, rather than mask its symptoms, like current medications do.

The company projects a $12.6 billion market by 2017 for treating emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

It helps to win over investors by mentioning Emphymab has already pulled in $1.3 million in research grants, Trebley said.

“Our main competition is an oxygen tank,” he said.

Ryan Pfenninger, a venture partner for Elevate Ventures in Indianapolis, was not put off by pharmaceutical companies’ high development costs. He said he intended to set up a meeting with Emphymab.

Pfenninger also was intrigued by Revive Electronics LLC, which won in the startup subcategory of the pitch competition.

Joel Trusty and Reuben Zielinski developed a countertop device that repairs water-damaged electronics in minutes after Trusty’s wife sent her phone for a ride in a laundry machine.

Trusty improvised a way to use heat and vacuum suction to fix the phone, which led him and Zielinski to realize they had a lucrative prospect, considering the number of phones and other devices that break down from water infiltration. So they began tinkering and came up with the devices they presented Thursday.

They brought on Trusty’s cousin, Micah Trusty, to steer business development and find an investor or another partner to help scale up production of the devices. The company is looking for $2 million to ramp up manufacturing and penetrate a mobile-phone market that technology research firm Gartner estimated at 1.75 billion units in 2012.

“If even 1 percent of those break, 1 percent of a few billion is a big number,” Zielinski said. Revive's product also works on other devices like laptops and tablets, Zielinski said.

The Innovation Showcase grew this year to an estimated 700 attendees, which was enough to bump the event to the Dallara venue from its previous home of Developer Town, south of Broad Ripple.

In addition to the pitch contest, the Showcase included panel discussions and dozens of exhibitions. But the real draw was the opportunity to network with venture capitalists, angel investors, business executives and entrepreneurs.

About 50 of the visitors were investors, Wechsler said.

Pfenninger, of Elevate, which has close ties to the Indiana Economic Development Corp., said the investment prospects appear to be improving since he  started attending the expo in 2011.

“The first year I came to this, I found one company. The next year, maybe two or three,” he said. “This year, I found seven.”

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