February 4, 2007

By Jim Wyss

If tonight's game leaves you thirsty for more cut-throat competition and high drama, stay a few days and catch the Florida Venture Capital Conference in Boca Raton.

Starting Tuesday, entrepreneurs from across the state will be trying to pry, cajole and charm millions of dollars out of the pockets of some 200 venture capital investors attending the annual conference.

The main event will be a high-stakes presentation where 26 preselected companies will have 12 minutes to pitch their ideas to a room packed with potential VC investors.

It may not be the Super Bowl of venture conferences, but the two-day event is certainly one of the biggest games in Florida.

Since the conference started in 1984, presenting companies have bagged more than $968 million from venture funds, said Robin Kovaleski, executive director of the Florida Venture Forum. Of the 19 entrepeneurs that presented lasy year, 17 have received funding in excess of $100 million. And this year promises to be even better. she said.

Not only are there a record number of presenters, including nine from Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, but many investors are eager to shed their heavy real estate positions and foreign-based funds also are finding that a weak dollar is making investing in the United States a bargain.

"There is simply a lot of capital out there to be deployed," said Kovaleski.

There's another reason this year's event could be a blowout: "Some of the larger VCs are coming, in part, because of the Super Bowl and staying for our conference," she said.

The Sunshine State needs all the attention it can get. While venture investments nationwide soared 10 percent last year to $25.5 billion, Florida's take dropped 17 percent from 2005 to 2006 to $303 million, according to the Price Waterhouse-Coopers MoneyTree report. However, a rival report released by Dow Jones Venture One found investment in the state was flat versus 2005.

Either way, if Florida entrepreneurs hope to close more than last year's 55 deals, they will need to start laying the groundwork in the hallways of the Boca Raton Resort & Club.

Brian O'Malley is a senior associate at Battery Ventures, which has $2.5 billion under management and offices in Silicon Valley, Boston and Israel.

While the bulk of Battery's investments land in the tech and research hubs close to its offices, the company has a sweet spot for Florida. One of Battery's most lucrative deals in its 24-year history was a stake in Boca Raton's QTera, which sold for $3 billion. And Battery also recently invested in Boca Raton online trading company TradeKing.

But the state's real allure is the fact that it remains off the beaten track, said O'Malley from his office in Menlo Park, Calif.

"Finding investments is getting more challenging in your steroetypical geographies," he said. "Silicon Valley is full of good opportunities, but there are also investors sitting on every corner."

In Florida, there seem to be entrepreneurs on every other corner - and most are screaming for attention.

Peter Pezaris is the founder and CEO of Multiply.com, a Boca Raton social networking and media sharing site that will be presenting at this year's event. The company has 3.6 million registered users, saw 500 percent growth last year and has a management team with a proven track record - Pezaris and his collegues were behind a fantasy sports website called commissioner.com that was sold to CBS Sportsline. But despite their success, getting noticed is tricky, he said.

"Being a Florida-based company, we have to work a little bit harder to raise our profile in the investment community and within our own industry," he said. As a result, Pezaris said, "We're the largest social networking site that no one has ever heard of."

Keith Kramer, executive vice president of STS Telecommunications - a Cooper City firm that provides Voice over Internet applications for small and medium-sized businesses, will also be at the event. Despite being in business since 1994, debt-free and profitable, he said his company has never had any luck wooing venture firms. That is until STS won a spot as a presenter at this year's conference and its name was posted on the conference website.

"Once you are on that list, it kind of shines light on you, and the VCs themselves are pretty aggressive - we've already had [several] calls," he said.

Kramer said he has been practicing his 12-minute spiel for the last two weeks and the company is determined to strike a deal while the interest remains hot. After all; he said, "We went 10 or 11 years without a call like that."

Meet the players pitching their ideas


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