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The next bright idea: Vermont Investors Forum matches inventors and investors

Solar energy system by groSolar

By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian

Posted October 20, 2006

While politicians will sweat out the final days of the 2006 election cycle hoping to pull in a few more votes, a handful of entrepreneurs will be focused on a roomful of potential investors who can help make their business dreams come true.

The 14th annual Vermont Investors Forum (VIF) will be held Nov. 3 at the Stoweflake Resort in Stowe. At the daylong forum, 11 companies will pitch their business plans to investors, representing a wide variety of industries — from specialty food to software as well as environmental science.

Forum organizers don’t reveal the companies that will be presenting at the event ahead of time, but two companies from last year will be back to give an update on where they are in terms of financing their ideas.

Mophie, which participated as an “innovator” last year, recently closed a $1.5 million financing round led by Village Ventures. Mophie, based in Burlington, is an innovative product development firm, launching its iPod accessory line on the international market.

Another company, groSolar — formerly Global Resource Options — recently closed a $2.25 million financing round led by SJF Ventures. Based in White River Junction, groSolar is a leading distributor and installer of state-of-the-art residential solar energy systems.

The “innovators’ forum” has emerged in the past two to the three years of the larger investor forum. “These are companies that were not ready for full blown presentations but otherwise might be of interest,” said Ken Merritt, of Merritt, Merritt and Moulton, a Burlington law firm that specializes in helping companies find investment capital.

For the main presenters, Merritt said this year’s batch — like in years past — represents companies in various stages of capital needs. “Some of them are basically at the zero revenue stage and the largest one is probably in the $5 million or so,” said Merritt.

Merritt said the forum likes to have a mix of companies present to investors because not all investors like to put their money behind the same type of companies.

“We’re talking about a diverse and eclectic mix, which reflects the Vermont economy. And, that economy is not really dominated by any one sector,” said Merritt.

The forum has had a successful track record in helping Vermont entrepreneurs get their dreams off the ground.

“This was started back in the 90s to give companies the opportunity to connect with investors and other aspects of the entrepreneurial economy as there were not as many opportunities to do so and this was the first statewide attempt to bring everyone together,” said Merritt.

For many venture capitalists, or so-called angel investors, the closest regional investor forum was in Manchester, NH, and when a number of Vermonters attended — both inventors and investors — Merritt said a few thought there might be enough interest in having a Vermont forum.

“So we sent notices out that we were thinking of having an investors’ forum and we’ve been doing it ever since,” said Merritt.

Merritt said even though the forum is geared toward Vermont companies and investors, it does draw potential funders from Albany, NY, New Hampshire, Maine, Western Massachusetts, and Boston.

“Angel investment has become more regionalized,” said Merritt.

Stellaris presented during the forum’s brief “innovator” section last year, a special forum where smaller companies make mini-presentations to investors. The results? They are getting in front of investors and have seen their business plan win national awards.

“Last year, we had small prototypes, the two co-founders, and a long list of milestones. Today, many of those milestones have been checked off: We have larger prototypes with much more testing data, a third and close to a fourth management team member, and a four-person manufacturing development team,” said Lee Johnson, the company’s chief operating officer. “We are also in due diligence stages with several top-tier venture capitalists, whereas a year ago, we had spoken to only one angel group.”

Aside from finding funding, presenting at the VIF allowed Stellaris to find people simply interested in what they were doing — which is focusing on solar and sustainable energy technology.

“I think that it allowed us to build up a network of people to bounce ideas off of,” said Johnson. “Any time a network is established, it leads to introductions which can be beneficial.”

Stellaris has won numerous awards since last year’s forum for its business plan, including winning the 2006 Ignite Clean Energy Business Presentation Competition, and second place at University of Colorado’s Sustainable Venturing Business Plan Competition.

For any entrepreneur presenting this year, Johnson has some simple advice.

“The best advice I can give to entrepreneurs presenting this year is to understand that they are the experts with their particular technology/business,” he said. “This confidence will help them plow through the tough times as they inevitably occur.”

The keynote speech will be given by Mark Magnan, of, a University of Vermont graduate and someone who has survived the tech bubble and burst of the 90s. His topic — “The Dot-Com Phoenix: Fantasy or Fundable?” — will focus on why investors should not remain wary of tech-based investments.

For more information about the annual Vermont Investors Forum, visit, or e-mail Cost to attend the event, which includes breakfast and lunch, is $75 before Oct. 30, or $90 at the door.