Startups pitch ideas to investors in Lincoln version of 'Shark Tank’

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Posted: Friday, September 6, 2013 12:00 am

LINCOLN — Think public speaking with a lot more pressure than in college. Think of selling an idea, one that you think can grow into a profitable company. Think of the pointed questions on the ABC reality show “Shark Tank.”

That was the scenario Thursday here at the Champions Club, where five startup companies that are part of the Lincoln-based accelerator NMotion pitched their ideas as part of a “Demo Day” to a crowd of about 160 people, including investors, executives and others in the entrepreneurial community.

One was Papertale, a company led by entrepreneur Dan Castagnoli. He started his presentation by saying that lots of people are altering coupons to get more bang for their buck. They're sneakily using photo editing software, for example, to change that $5 coupon into a $10 one.

The losers, Castagnoli said, are the manufacturers. Manufacturers will lose out on $500 million from fake coupons this year, he said, because “there's no system in place to check coupons in real time.”

But not for long, he said. His company — an instant document authentication software that can spot if a coupon is legit or not — is ready to go, and, with help, he can keep it moving forward. Castagnoli aims to add a developer and two salespeople as soon as possible and launch his software in three months.

The purpose of Demo Day is to see if his idea will catch an investor's attention, said Brian Ardinger, managing director at NMotion.

Among the audience members Thursday was Des Moines investor Mike Colwell, who helped launch an angel investing group, the Plains Angels. In the last year, the group has invested $1million in five Iowa and Minnesota companies.

Colwell thought the companies covered their basics by identifying a problem, finding a solution and explaining the market.

And he thought some were destined for great success. During the presentations, he sent off three emails to other investors he thought would be interested.

“That's what we do,” he said. “That's how this industry works.”

He noted that while it's a given that not all five companies will last, he's hopeful they'll land some good leads for an investment.

“Money is the lifeblood of startups,” he said.

Ardinger said he's seen a lot of progress in the accelerator program that launched in June, and Thursday's Demo Day was an accumulation of all of it. “I'm so proud of the teams,” he said.

Other companies that are part of NMotion — which offers companies $15,000 each in exchange for a 6 percent equity stake, plus access to reduced cost resources and a variety of mentors — are:

» Cinnamon Social, a software for automated and intelligent social media content curation led by husband-and-wife founders Jason and Holly Petersen.

» SynerScan, a software to digitize hospital operations offering better health care through data led by founder Brett Byman.

» HipPocket, a software offering families better context and confidence for financial decision-making led by founder Mark Zmarzly.

» Alumni Labs, a software that simplifies and manages the college selection and application process led by founders Martin Wolff and Steve Scharf.

Demo Day holds startups accountable and offers the opportunity to receive constructive feedback and meaningful investments from investors, said Dale Eesley, the director of the Center for Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Franchising at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He for years has held pitch contests for his entrepreneurial-minded students.

“People ask tough questions,” he said, “but it's what the real world is like.”

Omaha-based accelerator Straight Shot, located in Aksarben Village, is holding its Demo Day on Oct. 3 and will follow a similar format, said managing director Faith Larson. Held at Aksarben Cinema, the event has room for about 400 attendees; people interested in attending can inquire more at

Both accelerator programs are designed to propel companies. Straight Shot focuses on e-commerce and software as service companies, while NMotion, based in Lincoln's Haymarket area, works with high-growth software and technology-based businesses in financial services, health care, manufacturing, transportation/logistics, communications and agriculture.

Other Nebraska incubators and accelerators include Scott Technology Center's incubator and Innovation Accelerator, which focuses on National Science Foundation Grant recipients.

Eesely called the local accelerators a big step forward for the state's small-business community.

An upside of local accelerators, Eesley said, is that they help startups find investors and build their business in Nebraska without “necessarily having to run off to the coast.”

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