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Business Observer Friday, Feb. 5, 2016 6 years ago

Fast pitch

Four early-stage companies pitched their ideas to investors at a Shark Tank-style event in Naples recently. Technology binds them together.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

Asking for money is getting easier.

While securities rules still exclude ordinary investors from participating in startup venture funding, the popularity of shows such as Shark Tank has spawned public events where companies can pitch their ideas.

An initiative launched by Tamiami Angel Funds in Naples, VenturePitch SWFL brings together early stage companies in quarterly pitch events from Sarasota to Naples. Although the funds' own events are limited to high-net-worth individuals, anyone can attend the VenturePitch events.

Recently, the organization drew more than 120 people at an event in Naples where four companies made seven-minute presentations. Then, a panel of investors and entrepreneurs probed them for answers to questions about their business.

Here are their pitches:

Company: Testimonial Tree
Headquarters: Estero
Chief executive: Jason Dolle

The Pitch: If someone says something positive about your business, Jason Dolle wants to help you promote that all over social media.

Dolle created a service called Testimonial Tree that makes it easy to gather and share testimonials from raving customers on social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter. The first company to use the service was Michael Saunders & Co., the upscale Sarasota real estate firm.

Since he launched the service in 2013, Dolle says Testimonial Tree has grown to 30,000 users. “We just did a big deal with,” Dolle says.

For $29 a month or less, depending on the number of testimonials, subscribers can ask their customers to visit the Testimonial Tree website, write a testimonial and share it with their friends on social media. Customers can do it easily from a single website, which saves them time.

In addition, Testimonial Tree subscribers can track the customer responses and post them on their own website, too. That's important for search engines such as Google, which promote sites that generate original content.

Dolle started the service when he joined his wife, Mindy, to sell real estate for a brief time. A computer engineer and programmer by training, he built the system for himself and realized how effective it was.

Now it's not just real estate agents that can benefit. For example, he's working with a group of 15,000 doctors who could benefit from the word-of-mouth marketing that the company offers, Dolle says.

Because Testimonial Tree is automated, Dolle says he's still the company's sole employee and owner. As a result of his success so far, the VenturePitch panel and the audience at the event voted his company to be “most investible.”

Health care executives David Gibson and Patricia Oliver developed software for home-care agencies called Koala Home Care. Photo by Brian Tietz.

Company: Koala Home Care
Headquarters: Naples
Chief executives: David Gibson and Patricia Oliver

The Pitch: David Gibson remembers when the idea for Koala Home Care really hit home.

Gibson's father had suffered a stroke, but his sister was in Germany and his brother was in Saudi Arabia. “I was the closest — three hours away,” he says.

The challenge of coordinating home care for a distant relative sparked the idea for Koala Home Care, a software service that promises to link patients, relatives and home care agencies together. The company recently partnered with Verizon to offer this service on any device, from a simple flip phone to a tablet.

Koala's prospective customers are the 33,000 home care agencies in the U.S. “They provide it to their clients as an added service,” says Gibson, who co-founded the company with fellow health care executive Patricia Oliver.

The service, which costs as little as $10 per user per month, will help keep track of doctors' appointments, send reminders to take medications and help coordinate home-care staffing from afar.

For now, Koala is focusing on the private-pay part of the market. “Medicare adds a tremendous amount of complexity,” says Gibson.

If the company's pilot projects are successful early this year, Koala could generate as much as $350,000 in revenues in 2016. So far, Gibson and Oliver have funded the project themselves but plan to seek $600,000 from outside investors to grow the business.

Nervanix CEO Adam Hall says measuring brain activity could tell teachers if the material they're teaching is being comprehended. Photo by Ed Clement.

Company: Nervanix
Headquarters: Fort Myers
Chief executive: Adam Hall

The Pitch: Teachers know each child's attention span is different, but comprehension is often a guessing game.

Adam Hall, a successful education technology entrepreneur, says a sleek headset that measures brain activity could tell teachers how their students are learning the material they're teaching in real time. His company, Nervanix, would help educators personalize learning for students, he says.

Much like devices that measure exercise, the Nervanix headset uses electroencephalography to measure electrical activity in the brain. “Think of it as a Fitbit with an EEG,” says Steve Miller, chief scientist with Nervanix. “We collect data on attention.”

Instead of teaching a subject in the same way to all students, a teacher using this technology would instruct groups of students who would be more receptive to one kind of lesson over another.

The applications stretch beyond the traditional classroom. Education publishers and corporate training programs could use the Nervanix tools to measure how effective their materials really are, for example.

Hall has a track record of success in the education technology field. He sold his prior company, Impact Education, to publishing giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing in 2010 for an undisclosed sum.

Hoteliers James and John Ayres plan to bring hotel services such as yoga and fine dining to people in their homes using a smartphone application. Photo by Ed Clement.

Company: Relax and Order
Headquarters: Naples
Chief executives: James Ayres and John Ayres

The Pitch: James Ayres honed his skills picking vendors when he managed a small but successful hotel on Miami Beach.

Demanding clients wanted the best caterers, massage therapists and yoga instructors, and Ayres knew how to deliver. “What if you could get the best vendors at your home?” James Ayres says.

Now, with his father, John Ayres, the founding partner of Naples-based Coral Hospitality, James Ayres plans to bring the same kind of attention to people at home using an app called Relax and Order. “I grew up in the hotel business with my dad,” James Ayres says.

Relax and Order vets vendors with the same rigor as it does in hotels. For example, to test the market in Tampa, Ayres rented a home and rated prospects on their punctuality, appearance and other criteria. So far, the service is available in Naples and Tampa but there are plans to expand to other cities such as Miami.

The benefit for service providers is that they can freelance during their time off from their regular jobs. For example, a hotel chef might want to make extra money catering events on his days off. The smartphone app connects and manages the financial transaction between vendors and customers.

The application has its own GPS tracking device, so it alerts the customers when the vendor is arriving. Each market has a coordinator who is available in case of problems and the company is quick to drop any vendor that doesn't measure up in customer surveys.

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