Beringea Holds “Office Hours” For Entrepreneurs. 15 Minutes To Sell A Dream.
“Steve Beeler,” says the cheery, bespectacled man sporting a bright green tie as he extends his hand to me.
“Nice to meet you,” I reply. “Do you have a business card?”
“Um…no,” Beeler says somewhat sheepishly. “We just settled some issues with our [web]domain name.”
Ah, the life of a high tech startup!
We’re sitting in a small room Wednesday morning at the TechBrewery near downtown Ann Arbor. Sitting across the table from Beeler is Jeff Bocan, managing director of Beringea, the Detroit-based venture capital and private equity firm.
Beeler has exactly 15 minutes to pitch Bocan on why Beringea should invest in ArborWind, a startup developing lower cost wind turbines.
Fifteen minutes doesn’t sound like a whole lot of time to sell someone on anything. But it doesn’t matter: Bocan won’t be writing any checks today. For one thing, Beringea only finances later stage companies, not early stage startups like ArborWind.
No, the real point of Beringea’s “Office Hours” is to nurture Michigan’s startup community by providing valuable feedback to entrepreneurs seeking cash for their ideas. It’s also a good way for the VCs to keep their ears to the ground for new opportunities they might not otherwise hear about.
“We give them the chance to refine their pitch,” says managing director Michael Gross. “We either affirm their strategy or point them to another direction.”
So far, Beringea has listened to some 50 pitches from across the state. The quality of ideas varies wildly, from ideas sketched on napkins to things that aren’t exactly venture capital growth opportunities—like tanning salons. But Beringea executives tend to offer similar feedback.
“A lot of entrepreneurs have not researched their markets thoroughly,” says associate David Ruby. “People haven’t thought it through. For example, capitalization, not knowing how much will it take to get from Point A to Point B, how expensive it is to build and scale a business.”
Today, about 20 entrepreneurs will present. First up is Beeler, the launch chief operating officer for ArborWind. The company has a patent pending on a wind turbine design made from light weight composite blends.
Beeler says such technology will provide potential customers like supermarkets, greenhouses, and eventually the federal government a cheaper alternative to other existing models.
The turbine “is big enough to generate meaty power but small enough to be economical,” Beller says.
Bocan patiently listens and then fires off a series of questions.
How will ArborWind market and distribute its technology? Does the company have the personnel who can close a deal? Does ArborWind have the data to prove it can manufacture the equipment and generate sustainable profit margins?
“That’s the biggest problem for wind,” Bocan says. “The margins are terrible. Any sort of price erosion and your business is done.”
Beeler mostly listens and jots down a few notes.
Now it’s Jerry Wolford’s turn. The CEO of E-Go Electric says his startup will convert gasoline-powered vehicles into 100 percent battery-powered electric cars.
He envisions large rental companies in places like California and Calgary sending their fleets to special facilities that will perform the equivalent of an electric car makeover. From Porsche 911s to low gas mileage commercial vans and SUVs, E-Go Electric will tap into growing consumer and business demand for environmentally friendly, energy efficient cars, Wolford says.
One of E-Go Electric’s major assets, Wolford explains, is its management team, which includes the former CEO of Porshe Engineering and a mysterious “Dr. C” in Europe who will only speak by phone.
Time’s up. After Wolford exits the room, I ask Bocan what he thought of the two presentations.
Both companies’ technologies are impressive, Bocan says. The problem is the business side.
Bocan thinks ArborWind will find it tough to break into such a competitive market without well-connected talent that can close a deal.
As for E-Go Electric, Bocan’s main concern comes down to demand: why would anyone pay the company to convert gas vehicles into electric cars when they could just outright buy electric cars directly from the manufacturer?
Bocan notes E-Go Electric will only convert cars that are four years old or younger, which will severely narrow the company’s potential customer pool.
Two down, 18 to go.