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[Hartford Courant] Connecticut Entrepreneurs Turn Their Hang-ups Into Startups

August 17th 2012

By Janice Podsada

Ever wonder how entrepreneurs come up with new business ideas? One way to find out is to ask them what task drove them crazy.

Ned Gannon, chief executive officer of New Haven-based eBrevia LLC found it tedious to summarize stacks of legal documents. Asmau Ahmed, chief executive and founder of Color p.i./Plum Perfect in Stamford got tired of trying to find a purse to match her dress, and 14-year-old Keshav Patel, co-founder of MeritBooster, hated selling candy door-to-door to raise money for after-school activities at Catherine M. McGee Middle School in Berlin.

This past year, these entrepreneurs and others have turned to LaunchHaven to help design and perfect their business plans. The one-year-old New Haven group meets every third Thursday to mull ideas, match entrepreneurs with mentors and munch pizza.

“We get about 35 to 50 people at each meeting,” said Derek Koch, founder of Independent Software, who organizes the group’s informal sessions.

But Thursday’s meeting took on a more formal air as six entrepreneurs pitched their business ideas to two judges. Each startup had just six minutes to convince judges of their company’s merit. At stake—a chance to attend DEMO, Startup America’s pitch presentation contest, to be held this fall in California.

The contest will give 20 finalists the opportunity to compete for up to $18,000 prize money. Startup America, a nonprofit alliance of entrepreneurs, supports the growth of startups through meetings, mentoring and more than $1 billion worth of commitments from dozens of partners, according to the group’s website.

Sponsored by LaunchHaven and Startup’s state affiliate Startup Connecticut, Thursday’s event drew more than 50 enthusiastic spectators.

Judges Ryan Duques, founder of Madison-based Tutapoint, an online tutoring service and William Gordon, entrepreneur-in residence at the Stamford Innovation Center, scored the six contestants on their pitch, which included how well they explained their product’s application and its innovative qualities.

“We’re picking a winner to do battle against other startups in the U.S.,” Koch said. “The Connecticut champion gets thrown in the mix with 20 other state winners.”

And the winner was — eBrevia.

“It was a tough decision,” Gordon said. “All the pitches were very good. ”

eBrevia’s software — designed by Gannon and chief operating officer Adam Nguyen, Harvard-educated attorneys, and their co-founder Jake Mundt, the firm’s software engineer – can summarize legal documents, eliminating the need for “tons of junior attorneys to comb through hundreds of pages of documents,” Gannon explained.

The subscription-based program can “analyze a batch of 50 documents in less than a minute” and has drawn interest from law firms and corporate in-house legal departments, Gannon said.

If eBrevia makes it to the final rounds, its founders will find themselves on the same California stage where E-Trade, TiVo, Salesforce and other successful companies got their start, said Eric Knight who is helping Gov. Dannel P. Malloy implement a plan to establish four entrepreneurial hubs in Hartford, Storrs, New Haven and Stamford.

The hubs are intended to provide support for startups and second-stage companies, said Knight, founder and president of Remarkable Technologies Inc. in Farmington.
“We were impressed by all the other companies,” said Gannon, who found a supportive network of mentors and entrepreneurs at LaunchHaven meetings.

Other pitch contestants included Charlotte Creech, chief executive and co-founder of Combat2Career. Finding a lack of a one-stop shopping to help military veterans locate vet-friendly colleges, Creech told judges she founded an online platform designed to locate vet-friendly colleges, companies and instituions.

Frustration was also the mother of invention for Adam Boyajian, co-founder of Buses2. Boyajian was a college student who wanted to enjoy off-campus concerts without worrying about how he was going to get there and back. As a result, he and his partner came up with a formula to connect students with bus companies. Using Facebook, they brokered a deal that put 1,000 University of Connecticut students on 17 buses for an off-campus event and, in so doing, earned $22,000. Now they hope to expand their business to campuses across the country.

Tom Nassr and Stanley Martone, co-founders of Minds Technology told judges that their startup is designed to increase the use of digital coupons by rewarding consumers who share their digital coupons with their friends. “The more a person shares coupons, the more coupons they receive,” Nassr told judges.

With his father’s help, 14-year-old Keshav Patel founded MeritBooster, which uses social media and crowd-funding to support middle school and high school projects and events.

Instead of having students age 13 to 18 sell candy or popcorn or gift wrap door-to-door, Keshav said, “I built a venue that allows kids to organize a clean-up day or a project at a nursing home to fund youth activities.”

“How many of you wanted the stuff you bought?” he asked the audience.

Their collective chuckle provided the answer.

“Youth funding is a $2 billion a year industry,” said Keshav’s father, Rajesh Patel, 42. “Less than 40 percent goes to youth activities. Our goal is to drive more money to the kids and gets kids active in the community.”

And MeritBooster has a feature that blocks requests from kids who’ve gotten the thumbs down from parents, Rajesh Patel added.

You won’t find any pleas for money because “mom and dad won’t buy me a BMW3. We do screen out for that.”

Read the original article here.

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