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Venture Forum aids first impressions; Startup companies pitch products, seek investor funding

A Toronto startup company uses tobacco plants as a platform for growing anti-cancer drugs.

A Syracuse startup wants to replace sheet music with a touch-screen music stand.

A Rochester startup has created an ergonomically friendly vest to help workers properly lift heavy materials without straining their backs.

These companies all believe they have the next million-dollar idea, but they need seed money to help them take their concepts to the next level.

Entrepreneurs from these and 30 other startups made their pitches over two days here to potential investors in a high-stakes matchmaking session.

"You get all of the investors in upstate New York in one place, as well as all of the people involved in the investment process. Which is the companies, the entrepreneurs, the universities and the money. Get it all in one place -- everyone gets to talk to each other," said Richard Honen, a partner with Phillips Lytle who works in the law firm's Albany office and runs the firm's venture-capital group.

The 2012 Venture Forum merged the Bright Buffalo Niagara investment conference with the Upstate SmartStart UNYTECH Venture Forum, a production of Albany's Center for Economic Growth.

The event encouraged innovation in the private sector and emphasized the role that high-tech startup companies can play in revitalizing the economy.

"We are taking this seriously. We believe that Buffalo needs some assistance in this and that the university's role should be in providing such assistance," said Alexander Cartwright, the University at Buffalo's vice president for research and economic development, in welcoming remarks.

More than 300 people attended Thursday's Venture Forum in Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Guests heard pitches from entrepreneurs and networked over meals and in breaks between speakers.

Bright Buffalo Niagara and the SmartStart UNYTECH forum had operated independently. But when Buffalo was in line as a possible host for this year's SmartStart UNYTECH forum, organizers decided to merge the two conferences.

The 33 companies -- including 12 from Western New York -- selected to participate in the combined forum received between one and 10 minutes each to make their cases to investors in the audience.

The only Buffalo company in the first group to pitch, Ladybug Teknologies, makes kiosks, hand-held devices and mobile apps that let people measure their blood-alcohol level.

Christine Montag, co-founder and CEO, said the company's products should be popular within the alcoholic-beverage and hospitality industries because they allow social drinkers to responsibly enjoy alcohol while keeping the roads safe from people who are too drunk to drive.

Ladybug was looking to raise $500,000 from investors to help pay for a larger pilot study that would place 12 kiosk machines in bars and restaurants.

Don Stewart's PlantForm Corp. uses tobacco plants as a platform to grow drugs that are biologically similar to existing drugs, such as the breast-cancer therapy Herceptin, but cost much less to produce.

"We have a very significant advantage here," said Stewart, PlantForm's CEO. The company has licensed research performed at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

Rochester Institute of Technology students Sean Petterson and Justin Hillery showed off a lifting vest made by their Strong Arm Technologies. The vest contraption, which includes gloves that connect to the vest and back brace using high-strength wires, provides support while making sure people bend down to lift heavy weights properly.

The other presenters included IMUZIK, of Syracuse, which is developing a music stand that allows musicians to replace their sheet music and turn the music with a foot pedal.

Peter Rothberg, a limited partner with the ARC Fund of New York City, said he was impressed with the six presenters but thought Strong Arm's vest had the most potential.

"Their presentation is very energetic, very informative. They have a product that I think has huge legs. It's something that everybody -- I mean, I threw my back out lifting my 3-year-old out of the back seat of my car," Rothberg said.

In addition to UB and the Center for Economic Growth, the sponsors of the 2012 Venture Forum included Superior Group and the New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences.

Thursday's forum was preceded Wednesday by NYTECH's Partners in Open Innovations program in the Center for the Arts on the University at Buffalo's North Campus.

Today, the Business Incubator Association of New York State is holding its annual meeting in the bioinformatics center in Buffalo.