$100,000 competition hopes to draw tech businesses

Panelists Bart Patterson, Jeffery Cummings, Howard Asher, Vicki Burnett and moderator Jim Rogers, standing, listen to panelist Walt Borland at the SciTech Hookup Thursday, Oct. 25, at the World Market Center.

A blend of optimists and pessimists, visionaries and doubters, entrepreneurs and investors, all with a common goal – diversifying Nevada's economy by cultivating science and technology businesses – hooked up Thursday night in a historic gathering in downtown Las Vegas.

The first-ever SciTech Hookup, a fund-raising showcase for entrepreneurs, investors, business people and community leaders, drew more than 150 people to the World Market Center to hear speakers and panelists discuss the challenge of building the technology economy in Southern Nevada's gaming industry-dominated landscape.

The event set the stage for the announcement of a $100,000 competition for entrepreneurs to pitch ideas for new tech businesses.

Most boosters admitted they're in for an uphill struggle but were generally satisfied that so many people had come together to take the first step toward the goal.

"I think there's a lot of opportunity here," said Miguel Luina, vice president of Hamilton Lane, a private, independent firm that manages more than $23.5 billion in investments. The company has been hired by the state to oversee its Permanent School Fund, established by the Nevada Legislature in 2011 as a means to support public education through profits generated by investments in science and technology companies.

The SciTech Hookup, the first of what organizers hope are many gatherings dedicated to furthering the goal, was organized by Chandler Marrs, president of the nonprofit Parallel Innovation Labs, which is working to develop a science and technology incubator in Henderson.

The incubator would be a cluster of offices for innovators to get their start-up tech companies established before building their own facilities.

Those attending heard from State Treasurer Kate Marshall, who supported Senate Bill 75, the legislation that established the Permanent School Fund. The fund has $50 million in seed money to invest in tech companies with the objective of investing the profits in schools.

Keynote speaker Howard Asher, president and CEO of Automated TeleMedicine, explained how a similar investment strategy was used to develop the world's third-largest biocluster in San Diego.

"I think you have an unfair advantage with all the assets you have here," Asher told the crowd.

He listed the city's abundant meeting facilities, ease of access and the many chief executives who have retired to Southern Nevada or who have homes here who could be financial or educational resources.

"And the other thing you have is leadership," he said in reference to government officials who are embracing the tech sector to diversify the economy.

A panel that included Asher, Nevada State College President Bart Patterson, Jeffery Cummings, director of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, Vicki Burnett of Henderson-based Quertle and a member of Parallel Innovation Labs' board of directors, and Walt Borland, president and CEO of the Nevada Institute for Renewable Energy Commercialization, discussed the next steps in the process.

The panel was moderated by former University Chancellor Jim Rogers, who admitted he's been frustrated for years about the lack of investment in education and business diversification in the state.

"It's been frustrating to me beyond belief," said Rogers, the owner of Intermountain West Communications, which operates NBC affiliate KSNV-TV, Channel 3. "I don't see how we're going to get there without a competitive university system."

He said most of Nevada's richest residents are from somewhere else and have historic connections with other universities and won't donate to Nevada schools.

He said several philanthropists have given billions of dollars to schools, but "we've never had a gift over $20 million."

Most in attendance concurred that the goals are lofty, but attainable with hard work and teamwork and by communicating some of the successes that occur in the state.

That set the stage for what is hoped to be a high-profile competition that is being announced today for Nevada Day.

Project Vesto, a collaboration between the Nevada Institute for Renewable Energy Commercialization and the Governor's Office of Economic Development, will offer a $100,000 prize to a startup and early-stage venture with less than $1 million in revenue and less than $100,000 in external equity investment.

A panel will judge five-minute pitches by entrepreneurial contestants. Following pitches, 10 finalists who demonstrate growth potential will set out to prove market demand for their product or service by promoting their concept through the use of social media, online videos and blog posts. Online voting by Nevadans will ultimately determine the $100,000 grand prize winner.

Project Vesto's tagline: "$100,000 cash. Your business idea. A room of investors. 5 minutes. One chance to prove you have what it takes."

The winner is required to become based in Nevada and hold a Nevada business license prior to receiving the award.

Entrepreneurs can participate in the competition by entering online at ves.to through Nov. 30.