Kempner: Which of these startups will be a billion-dollar business?

2:51 p.m Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017 Business
This isn’t TV’s Shark Tank. Owners of startup companies, most based in Georgia, recently took the stage at Venture Atlanta, which bills itself as the largest regional gathering for investors looking to fund business dreams. In crucial ways, events like Venture Atlanta differ from the popular reality TV show. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

If you know anyone who’s started a business, you know being an entrepreneur trying to market something cool and new can be brutally hard. And mighty expensive.

Which is why the last couple weeks have been big ones for owners of some Georgia startups. Dozens exhibited and pitched their businesses to investors or potential customers at several area events, from a Techstars Atlanta demo day to a cyber security conference to the big gorilla — Venture Atlanta. The latter considers itself the region’s largest annual conference connecting money and dreamers.

“The truth is, you are going to be in a dogfight that doesn’t end,” Ernie Garcia told entrepreneurs at Venture Atlanta. He’s CEO of Carvana, itself a startup that’s now a publicly traded company selling used cars online.

But the gutsy entrepreneurs I spoke with can’t stop themselves.

Amy Baxter, a former emergency room pediatrician, told me she practiced her six-minute pitch 50 times before walking on Venture Atlanta’s stage. She’s trying to raise $3 million to grow the market for her invention of vibrating cold packs (VibraCool) to treat pain without opioids.

She’s had practice corralling investors. She appeared on the reality TV show Shark Tank a few years back. Three sharks made offers for her MMJ Labs, which also makes a product called Buzzy to reduce people’s phobia of needle shots.

Then there was the guy at Venture Atlanta with a personal chef meal delivery service (“no cooking; no decision making”).

Pat Pow-anpongkul of Saige told me he’s probably hawked his company to investors hundreds of times, though never to as many people as at Venture Atlanta.

If you’ve seen Shark Tank on TV, the scene at Venture Atlanta was far different. (Though billionaire Shark star Mark Cuban did make an appearance during one of the events and made a little news.)

None of the dreamers got grilled with questions while on stage. Nor, apparently, did anyone nail a deal for hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in a matter of minutes.

Ben Narasin told me he typically gives entrepreneurs a sentence or two before he decides whether to keep paying attention.

“I want that man or woman to make me say, ‘Wow!’”

Raised in Atlanta, he was a long-time entrepreneur himself before jumping into investing. He recently joined a giant venture funding company, New Enterprise Associates, as a venture partner.

“I will see 1,000 pitches a year,” Narasin told me. “I will fund one or two.”

“It takes 100 things to get to ‘yes.’ It takes one to get to ‘no.’”

There’s a high bar just to wander in the direction of ‘maybe.’ Like a billion dollars. Narasin told me he has to believe there’s an acceptable chance that the tiny operation before him will eventually be worth that much, at the very least. (Luckily, some other investors don’t aim quite so high.)

Narasin said he thought two businesses he saw at Venture Atlanta might have a shot at that lofty billion-dollar goal.

Which? I asked.

One, Predikto based in northwest Atlanta, uses sensor and maintenance data to predict failures in industrial equipment. (Atlanta startup scene, at least on the tech side, is dominated by ventures that aren’t aimed at regular consumers. Instead, many focus on providing other businesses with smarter and faster ways to save money. That might be a great way to make money, but it’s not the kind of company that wins attention from the Atlanta masses.)

And the other maybe billion-dollar business?

Narasin showed me a small table with a sign “Grubbly Farms” and a bowl full of plump, writhing, grub-like creatures.

Umm… really?

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Atlanta-based Grubbly Farms, which raises fly larvae to be used as a food source for farm animals, used some of its bugs as props at a recent Venture Atlanta conference, which connects investors with business owners in need of funding. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

Two cousins launched the company while they were students at Georgia Tech. Grubbly raises black soldier fly larvae, which they plan to use as a less expensive and more sustainable replacement for fishmeal.

Not knocking your socks off? Well, fishmeal is used as feed for everything from pig farms to fish farms. Those are multi-billion-dollar industries that are facing rising feed costs.

(For now, Grubbly is just selling bags of dead larvae as treats for pet chickens.)

Keep in mind that different investors get jazzed about different things. And serendipity matters. Narasin already has an aquaculture investment, so he quickly saw the significance of feed costs. He also owns six chickens.

Which could be good for Grubbly. 

“I never thought I’d be growing bugs for a living,” co-founder Sean Warner told me.

He’s already raised more than a million dollars from investors recently and hopes to snag nearly a million more.

Launching a bug startup can include some crushing moments. Originally, the cousins planned to make delicious bean and insect burger patties, selling them in Southeast Asia where some people are more open to bug consumption. One big problem, Warner told me: The burgers tasted terrible.

And then there was the incident when thousands of bugs escaped from containers in the laundry room of Warner’s Atlanta apartment.

“We got out our vacuum cleaner and had to suck them all up,” he said.

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