Investors on motorcycles look to to spur local businesses

MIDDLEBURY — A group of bikers rumbled into town on their motorcycles Monday morning with a unique goal — to hear pitches from entrepreneurs and owners of business startups looking for advice and capital. The group that gathered at the Middlebury Inn was made up of about a dozen venture capitalists and entrepreneurs with experience in early-stage business investment in Vermont.
This was the first stop on “FreshTracks on the Road,” a four-day tour in which 32 businessmen and women would visit seven small towns in Vermont, hearing 41 pitches. Twelve riders came to Middlebury.
Cairn Cross, co-founder of Shelburne venture capital firm FreshTracks Capital and organizer of this week’s motorcycle ride, said the trip was a way to bring advice, networking opportunities and potential investors to entrepreneurs in underserved parts of Vermont.
“In smaller communities, entrepreneurs have a smaller number of people to talk to. The thought process is to help those entrepreneurs make connections,” Cross explained.
At the stop in Middlebury four entrepreneurs gave short pitches of 10-15 minutes, with additional time for questions and advice, at the Middlebury Inn.
The business opportunities represented were Ekopolimer, which plans to manufacture shipping pallets from recycled plastic; Waterotor, a company with an innovative design for an underwater rotor that generates energy in extremely slow-moving water; CloudFarm, a company that wants to combine urban gardening and social media; and Gataca, a bioinformatics company that will develop software for virologists.
Ekopolimer’s Caleb Rick pointed out some advantages of Vermont’s business climate. The state’s branding as a place with a clean environment, its regulatory system that is favorable to sustainable business, and its Universal Recycling and Composting Law (known as Act 148), all contribute to Vermont’s appeal to businesses like Ekopolimer.
Ekopolimer aims to recycle waste Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE) — the type of plastic used in grocery bags — to create pallets and other products. The U.S. uses 7.5 million tons of LDPE annually, 23,000 tons in Vermont.
The company is actually a subsidiary a Turmaks, a manufacturer based in Ankara, Turkey, but is investigating the possibility of opening a manufacturing facility in the Green Mountain State. Rick, who lives in Chelsea, Vt., notes access to rail transportation and intellectual capital from Middlebury College as further reasons for Ekopolimer’s interest in manufacturing in Middlebury.
Though most of the pitches were made by Vermont entrepreneurs, Gataca CEO Johanna Craig is an out-of-stater interested in moving her developing business to Vermont.
Jamie Gaucher, director of the Middlebury Office of Business Development and Innovation, met Craig, who lives in Virginia, at a conference in Washington, D.C. He invited her to come pitch her business idea to Vermont investors.
Gataca has been developing bioinformatics software for virologists for the past nine years, with funding coming through grants from the National Institutes of Health.
Bioinformatics technology provides storage and analysis software for biological data. Though it has been used widely by scientists working on mapping the human genome, bioinformatics has largely been ignored as a tool for scientists working to cure viruses like hepatitis C and HIV.
However, scientists have recently come to an understanding of the virus life cycle that allows them to study viruses in petri dishes, instead of in clinical trials. As a result, new treatments are being developed to fight hepatitis C. Craig sees a business opportunity in helping those new treatments mature.
“The new (treatments are) very expensive, and Medicare is paying for it,” she said at the Middlebury Inn on Monday. “It’s going to break healthcare.”
Additionally, this drug addresses only one of 70 known strains of Hep C. By helping scientists to upload and analyze data and integrate workflows, Craig believes Gataca can increase the efficiency of virologists’ research, lowering costs and aiding the development of new drugs.
“We are filling a gap that commercial bioinformatics software does not address,” Craig said.
Craig adds that she and her husband are enthusiastic about moving to Vermont as the new software enters commercial production, if the business climate here proves conducive. If Gataca were based in Vermont, it would provide jobs in scientific research, IT (information technology) and business administration, she said.
Cam MacKugler, a Middlebury College alumnus in his 20s who lives and works in Addison County, pitched CloudFarm, a project that targets the intersection between food and IT by providing social media applications for urban gardeners to share their techniques, in addition to recipes made with their produce.
Consumers can design their gardens with an online application. Raised seed beds with onboard sensors provide data to mobile devices, helping users decide how much to water and shelter plants.
MacKugler said CloudFarm’s product is aimed at so-called Millennials (adults in their 20s). People in that generation are increasingly interested in where their food comes from, and in taking part in its production.
Mike Palmer, a Middlebury resident, is the executive vice president of Waterotor, a startup whose underwater rotor design can draw energy from exceptionally slow-moving water, streams flowing in the 1-to-6 mph range.
This makes it ideal for placement in irrigation canals in underserved agricultural areas in places like India, or on oil drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, Palmer said.
The machine is also designed to avoid hurting fish.
Waterotor is based on Ottawa, Canada, but is considering basing the production of diagnostic equipment for use on the rotors in the U.S., probably in Middlebury.
Gaucher, who selected the four businesses that pitched their ideas Monday morning, seeks to promote local economic development through engagement with an external audience and leveraging the assets of Middlebury College.
According to Gaucher, having a nationally ranked liberal arts college in the area is a major factor in differentiating Addison County from other regions for investment.
The picture painted by entrepreneurs and investors at Monday’s pitch meeting brought out several factors important in regard to Vermont’s economic viability and attraction to outside businesses.
Vermont is a standard bearer for environmental innovation, and its business climate reflects that. Thus, it is attractive to businesses with a focus on sustainability, like Waterotor and Ekopolimer, company officials said.
The state’s efforts to preserve its natural resources have implications outside economic considerations. MacKugler pointed out the availability of high-quality agricultural products and infrastructure in the area as an incentive for CloudFarm.
Further, the quality of life provided by Addison County’s healthy natural environment is reflected in the decision of out-of-staters to move their businesses to Vermont, as in the case of Gataca.
Finally, the town-gown relationship provides a source of intellectual capital and networking that all the presenters acknowledged as important incentives for businesses with growth potential and national and international markets.
“We have a real intellectual and resource base here,” said Waterotor’s Palmer.

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