First State Innovation seeks to rally money

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DOVER, Del. (AP) — Nikhil Paul had the job any recent college graduate would envy.

He worked as an electrical engineer for Delmarva Power, with good pay and great benefits. He liked the company and his colleagues.

"It was very comfortable," said the 2009 University of Delaware alumnus. "They make you want to stay for life."

But he didn't. Almost two years ago he quit, taking a risk to build something of his own. He's now the CEO and sole proprietor of Nfoshare, a new social networking platform geared to helping college students study.

His sacrifices to create the company resulted in a small victory last week, when he got the chance to stand in front of a room of local investors to try to convince them to put their money behind his vision.

Nfoshare was one of four tech startups presenting at an event Wednesday organized by First State Innovation, a local nonprofit formed to help entrepreneurs in the region survive and thrive. The organization primarily focuses on getting entrepreneurs in front of men and women with the excess cash to finance their ambitions.

"For all the great things Delaware has, what it's lacked is a strong entrepreneurial culture," said Ernie Dianastasis, chairman of First State Innovation. "We've been working on changing that."

Frank "Skip" Pennella, a member of the group's advisory board, thinks of First State Innovation as "kind of like a dating service" for entrepreneurs and investors. The four companies presented to a crowd of about 75 people in a ballroom, events they call "showcases." They each had 10 minutes to make their pitch to investors and another five minutes for rapid-fire questions.

"Normally, it would be hard for startups to get in front of people like this," Dianastasis said.

In addition to playing matchmaker, First State Innovation also pursues other initiatives it believes will make Delaware a more hospitable place for innovation.

The group is in the early stages of coordinating an effort to start a new venture capital fund. The fund, which would be managed by a separate entity, would focus on developing start-up companies in Delaware and surrounding region.

The state desperately needs more sources of funding to develop cutting-edge companies, and a new venture fund will help, said Michael Bowman, president of the Delaware Technology Park in Newark.

"There's never enough money around," Bowman said. "I'm not going to tell you with this there will be, but it's a good start."

While starting that type of venture fund is a worthy and worthwhile goal, it won't be easy to get off the ground, said Colin Blaydon, director of the Center for Private Equity and Entrepreneurship at Dartmouth College.

A successful venture fund needs significant capital, a group of disciplined investors and a good supply of local startups with dynamic ideas and quality management. Even with all those challenges met, many venture funds don't survive, and the number of venture firms has been declining since 2004, Blaydon said.

"They're going to have to be very well networked and know where to find the right people," he said. "Wilmington might well be a place where it could happen, but there's a lot of uncertainty, and there will be a lot of work to do to get it done."

Starting such a fund would require raising several million dollars for investment. For example, the Brandywine Hundred-based Delaware Innovation Fund maintains a $10 million portfolio, which is relatively small compared to most venture funds, Blaydon said. Dianastasis would not say how the new Delaware fund hoped to raise money.

But to help get the fund started, the group has also pushed some public policy changes, including a new law that would provide tax incentives for people investing in Delaware-based venture capital funds. In 2010, First State Innovation got a bill introduced in the state House of Representatives that would have given investors a tax credit worth 25 percent of their contribution to a venture fund. The bill met some resistance and never got out of committee.

"With the state's budget situation, it hasn't been something people are ready to move forward on," said Richard Eckman, a partner at the law firm Pepper Hamilton LLP, which researched the law for First State Innovation. "We will keep trying, and we think it's something the state is under-invested in."

At least 20 other states have similar laws, according to Eckman's research, and while the state Controller General's office did not study the impact of the bill on state revenue, Eckman believes it would be marginal.

Whatever the outcome of the fund or the legislation, First State Innovation plans to keep assisting entrepreneurs. In 20 showcase events featuring 75 companies, 15 entrepreneurs have secured funding from investors.

The showcases feature a range of startups - from those in their infancy like Nfoshare to more established companies looking for bigger capital investments to take their business to the next level.

At the most recent event, CEO Justin Nolan asked investors to consider a $1.5 million investment in BuildingBlok, a mobile, cloud-based platform for construction management. Nolan developed the technology over the last five years with the help of EDiS, one of the state's leading construction firms.

BuildingBlok stores blueprints, work orders or any other document associated with a big construction project digitally, allowing them to be easily shared with subcontractors and consultants. The platform has allowed EDiS to operate nearly paperless. BuildingBlok was looking for the capital to keep expanding its business to other construction companies around the country.

"It's a tremendous opportunity," Nolan said. "There's a tremendous amount of people to network with, not only for the money, but to network with people who know how innovation works."

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