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A four-minute speech is potentially all that separates four Lancaster startups from a $100,000 investment from AOL co-founder Steve Case.
So it’s an important four minutes.
The Lancaster companies are among nine Central Pennsylvania finalists competing today for the investment as part of Case’s Rise of the Rest initiative, which seeks to highlight and fund startups outside Silicon Valley.
After events today in Lancaster and York, the tour will visit Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center, where each finalist will have four minutes to pitch an idea to Case, followed by three minutes of questions.
The four Lancaster firms — BeneFix, Fizika Group, Schedule Engine and TurnoutNow — each apply information technology to a different field: benefits administration, brain health, contractor scheduling and event management, respectively.
“It would certainly mean a lot to be viewed as a favorable investment from somebody with a reputation like Steve Case,” said Austin Haller, co-founder and CEO of Schedule Engine, which helps streamline scheduling for home service contractors.
And while Case’s team has already reviewed the firms and their businesses, the final pitch could be decisive.
“Skilled investors can often see through poor pitches and rescue an otherwise great idea from a poor pitch. But a poor pitch may not inspire confidence in the company leadership,” said Steve Fafel, of Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern PA, a state-funded organization that provides funding and consulting to early-stage companies.
Fafel, who has worked directly with some of the Lancaster finalists, said being able to give a succinct explanation of your company is vital to fundraising.
“Investors entertain many business opportunities on a regular basis and when you are given the opportunity to pitch, you need to pitch well,” he said.
Fafel says he hopes the Rise of the Rest finalists come to the finals well prepared, having practiced their pitches often, while understanding that it’s about more than what they say.
“A pitch includes a presentation of material and information — and also a presentation of yourself. Investors invest in people in addition to ideas,” Fafel said.
On the Road with Steve Case
This week’s tour is the sixth for Rise of the Rest, which previously visited 26 cities and invested more than $4 million in over 50 startups.
Central Pennsylvania is the first stop on this tour, after which come Ann Arbor, Michigan; Indianapolis, Indiana; Columbus, Ohio; and Green Bay, Wisconsin.
With four of the nine Central Pennsylvania finalists from Lancaster, it’s clear Rise of the Rest has uncovered something in Lancaster.
“The fact that four of the companies are based in Lancaster is a real testament to the focus of the last decade in particular on a creative economy and an ecosystem to support entrepreneurship,” said Martha Lester Harris, founder, president and CEO of Fizika Group. She’ll be pitching Fizika Flex, a brain fitness program for people at risk of Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia.
Harris says the pitch competition comes as she’s beginning a push to raise $400,000 for her startup.
“The discipline of preparing all the materials we need to prepare for this is an investment in time we’d have to make anyway,” she said.
All four Lancaster finalists said they planned to give a shortened version of a spiel they’ve already been giving to customers or investors.
“The biggest challenge is four minutes goes by very quickly,” Harris said.
The four finalists also said getting this far was already significant validation of their own efforts and the good things happening in Lancaster.
Matthew Ranauro, founder and CEO of BeneFix, agrees, but he adds that he’d “be bummed” if his company doesn’t get the $100,000 investment.
“I want to win very much,” said Ranauro, whose company is creating an online platform to manage health benefits.
“Bottom line, if we don’t win, we still had the opportunity to share our mission and message and shed light on tech companies in Central PA,” he said.
For Harpreet Chatha, founder and CEO of Turnout Now, the result of the pitch competition won’t really alter his immediate plans.
“If we do win, we’ll probably celebrate for a couple hours, then we’ll be back to work,” said Chatha, whose company has technology that helps event organizers passively track attendees to reveal insights about their behavior.
“If we don’t win, well, we have no time to mope around,” he said. “We’ll get back to work.”