New Orleans’ reputation as a haven for business innovators continued to grow during the past year. The national business press kept investor eyes focused on local incubators, mentorship programs and business plan competitions that are designed to encourage entrepreneurship and help startups find funding to get their ideas off the ground.
The decade-old business accelerator Idea Village was among programs that snagged praise. It won plaudits from a Forbes magazine blogger who said that Idea Village and two similar organizations, in Boston and Boulder, Colo., represent the country’s “most ambitious and rigorous attempts to nurture the startup ecosystems in their communities.”
Meanwhile, among the many local innovators of all ages who are attracting attention, a group of biomedical engineering students from Tulane University recently won a national student design competition with their invention of a potentially life-saving device. Scott Kleinpeter and four other Tulane students spent six months designing an endotracheal tube that will allow “continuous bronchoscopic assistance” while protecting the tracheal wall and providing a back-up airway during surgery.
The students, who called themselves Team Cut-Throat, presented the project in competition with finalists from six other schools at the annual conference of the American Society for Artificial Internal Organs in Chicago last fall, and they carried home the top prize of $20,000. They will use the money to develop a prototype of the device at the Tulane School of Medicine, in hopes of eventually gaining FDA approval to proceed with clinical trials.
Such university efforts dovetail with local business incubators and support groups such as the IP Building – conceived by Greater New Orleans Inc. and Idea Village – which today houses such successes as digital 3-D avatar provider TurboSquid and online booking engine iSeatz, along with the incubator known as Launch Pad.
The ultimate purpose of academic entrepreneurship programs, support organizations and business competitions is to keep the wheels of innovation turning throughout the United States. One indicator of such efforts’ success is an increase in startup and venture capital flowing into an area. While it’s hard to gauge exactly how much money is fueling local business growth, Louisiana’s resources clearly are expanding. There was a time not so long ago when venture capitalists were a nearly unknown breed in the state, but today a number of funds operate locally to support both startups and established firms looking to move to the next level.
The New Orleans Startup Fund, launched by area business leaders, is one of the nonprofit organizations that have sprouted to assist promising enterprises by investing $50,000 to $100,000 in their development. For-profit funders, such as Advantage Capital Partners, also have expanded their local activity and a growing number of startups are taking advantage of angel investor tax credits that the state began offering a few years ago to stimulate investments.
Here are some of the fledgling businesses that have received a leg-up through local business programs in the past year.
MiniVax, a local company that’s developing a treatment for Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP), won the latest “biochallenge” of the New Orleans BioInnovation Center during the center’s annual conference for emerging life science entrepreneurs. The company will receive $20,000 in cash, legal services, donated office space and consulting services.
Based upon research by Dr. Jay Kolls and Dr. Mingquan Zheng at LSU Health Sciences Center, MiniVax is focused on developing a vaccine for the treatment of PCP and recently expanded its scientific advisory team to include 2011 Nobel Prize recipient Dr. Bruce Beutler.
The runner-up in the biochallenge, TRUE-See Systems, snagged $5,000 worth of assistance for a photography calibration system that can improve digital photographs and files uploaded to a patient’s electronic health record. Founded by cinematographer Francis James Jr., the system has applications for medical office processes ranging from diagnostics to billing.
The biochallenge also included Advano, a startup manufacturer of advanced materials called nanoparticles, and InnoGenomics Technologies, which is developing improved human DNA identification testing. A review panel selected all four of the biochallenge competitors from a field of 19 emerging-growth companies that initially applied to participate.
Many area entrepreneurs have focused their innovations in the health arena, and one that recently was singled out as promising is Be Well Nutrition, founded by Billy Bosch. The maker of a “healthy lifestyle beverage” called Iconic took home a $20,000 prize from a business plan competition sponsored by Capital One Bank and the Louisiana Small Business Development Center of Greater New Orleans.
Also in that competition, the appropriately named Cook Me Somethin’ Mister received a prize package worth $10,000 for its pre-packaged jambalaya mixes, while a $5,000 prize went to 4D Supplements, producer of a line of health supplements for athletes.
The recent PitchNola 2013 competition, founded by nonprofit social innovation advocate Propeller, resulted in a $5,000 main prize for Crescent City Connections, which customizes volunteer experiences in New Orleans for visiting and local groups to offer support to local nonprofits.
Propeller provides collaborative workspaces and meeting places for dozens of local innovators, and offers a 10-month fellowship in social ventures aimed at pairing entrepreneurs with resources to advance social changes. Among Propeller’s incubated businesses from past efforts are a mobile dental clinic, community farms, a food hub, a wetlands kayaking tour company and a maternal health collective.
Aspiring entrepreneurs who are ready to get their feet wet or begin learning about available opportunities should have New Orleans Entrepreneur Week on their radar. The sixth annual showcase event, launched by Idea Village, is expected to draw several thousand people, including nationally known innovators and financiers. Registration information for the March 2014 event is available at IdeaVillage.org or 304-3284.
In addition to competition winners Crescent City Connections and I Heart Louisiana, the PitchNola competition spotlighted these up-and-comers:
BeneFit LLC motivates individuals to live healthier lifestyles by allowing them to donate money, based on the number of calories they expend, to organizations that alleviate world hunger.
Brothers Empowered 2 Teach encourages black males to choose education as a career path and close the achievement gap for school-age at-risk children by providing in-class role models.
Center for Restorative Approaches provides communities with training, consulting and direct services to build relationships and help persons most affected by conflict and crime develop their own solutions for strengthening their communities.
DrinkOnUs aims to create a portable device that can discretely detect common date-rape drugs in alcoholic drinks in order to reduce sexual assault.
Gradient provides training and tools to support educators in writing and tracking high-quality goals for students with disabilities.
iSTEMNOLA encourages minorities and women to enter science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields by exposing youth to role models and professional opportunities.
NOLA Eye Care aims to conduct free eye-health screenings and provide assistance with obtaining prescription glasses to an uninsured, disadvantaged demographic that lacks adequate access to vision care.
Where Y’Art is a digital gallery, marketplace and educational resource for artists, craftsmen and designers in New Orleans.