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Bright Buffalo Niagara expo gives boost to entrepreneurs

The founders of Angiograft have come up with a way to make artificial blood vessels for people with heart disease.

IfThen helps nonprofits set up automated donations during times of need, or when they have goals to meet.

And Thimble is a monthly service that ships do-it-yourself electronics kits to teach subscribers how to build toys they can control with a smartphone.

The founders of these and 29 other companies got the chance to tout their ideas to a panel of judges – and a roomful of fellow entrepreneurs, academics and potential investors – at Wednesday’s Bright Buffalo Niagara entrepreneur expo, held at the Hotel @ The Lafayette. The event, now in its eighth year, is an opportunity for entrepreneurs to get feedback on the viability of their concepts and their business strategies.

Bright Buffalo Niagara is one of a number of events and organizations that have sprouted up to aid would-be company founders in the life-sciences and high-tech sectors. As the region seeks to grow an entrepreneurial ecosystem, and to leverage the potential of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, they connect entrepreneurs with mentors, financial backers and professional services.

“I think there’s a lot of resources for support,” said David Brenner, chief technology officer for Thimble, which raised nearly $300,000 in a Kickstarter campaign.

But this year’s Bright Buffalo Niagara had an extra wrinkle. For the first time, organizers added a business competition with prizes totaling $25,000. That only raised the stakes for the presenting entrepreneurs, who had 90 seconds or five minutes to sell their companies before taking questions from the judges.

Attendees voted Painless 1099, which lets freelancers automatically set aside money for their income taxes, the $5,000 People’s Choice Award. The judges voted Abcombi Biosciences, which is developing a “smart” vaccine for pneumonia and other diseases, the $20,000 winner.

The awards were presented after two hours of pitches in a stately hotel ballroom.

The presenters went in alphabetical order.

“I was the first person. I was very nervous,” said Sindhu Row, chief operations officer of Angiograft, which makes bioengineered blood vessels that have shown promise in testing in sheep. “I’ve been to four competitions. I’m always first.”

Margaret Finan, co-founder and CEO of IfThen, practiced her presentation in front of friends and co-workers one on one.

The company helps nonprofits reach millennials who may not donate in traditional ways and is set to make a beta launch with Catholic Charities, Meals on Wheels and seven other partners next month. She left town for college but was pulled back and is the third entrepreneur in her family, along with brothers Patrick, the CEO of City Dining Cards, and Robert, a partner in Tommyrotter Distillery.

“It was hard to stay away, and there’s all these incredible opportunities,” she said.

Adrian Dayton, founder of ClearView Social, went to Bright Buffalo Niagara for the first time last year. He said he raised $300,000 from people who heard his pitch, and got a new client, too. The company helps professional services firms with their social media marketing.

“So when this came around this year, I said I can’t really miss it,” Dayton said.

Wednesday’s keynote speaker was Bill Rancic, best known as the winner on the first season of the “The Apprentice.”

Rancic is a serial entrepreneur who gives speeches to business groups.

“These events are really about shining the spotlight on the importance of small business and entrepreneurship because, as we’re seeing in Buffalo, it’s revitalizing the economy,” Rancic said in an interview.