Young innovators learn to pitch big ideas

‘Boot camp’ in Maine teaches them how to get their message across in five minutes.

By , Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor

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    Selling it: At the PopTech conference in Camden, Maine, Manoj Sinha discusses how discarded rice husks can be used to generate electricity.
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You’ve got a world-changing idea. And a passion to make it happen.

That’s good. But you need a third element: The ability to “pitch” your idea to venture capitalists and others who can help turn your dream into reality.

Budding business tycoons or Hollywood script writers know the importance of marketing themselves and their projects. But those in the nonprofit world, whose goal is altruistic, may never have thought about how to put a dazzling sheen on their quick “elevator pitch.”

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Learning what goes into a perfect pitch was just one of the practical skills taught to a group of up-and-coming “social innovators” last month at the 12th annual PopTech conference in Camden, Maine.

PopTech has always been a place to hear about new ideas to improve the world. But this year, greater efforts have been made to turn those ideas into a reality, says its curator and executive director, Andrew Zolli.

“People don’t want to just sit around and talk about things,” he says. “They want to connect and collaborate and have a meaningful impact.” The idea, Mr. Zolli says, is to “transform PopTech into a factory for making big bets on great ideas.”

This year, 16 innovators were chosen from more than 100 finalists in 30 countries. They touted projects such as a way to survey the world’s 1 billion “invisible” poor people, introduce distance learning over the Internet to Nigeria, and protect people in developing countries from harmful, counterfeit drugs.

Many already had put their idea to work in the field and now were looking for ways to “scale up” and help more people. “They’re not Bono,” says Zolli, referring to the U2 musician turned social activist. “They’re not the most famous people. They represent the next generation of people.”

These young innovators took part in a four-day “boot camp” before the conference with a faculty of experts. Later each innovator gave a five-minute “pitch” to the 600 or so people who paid thousands of dollars each to attend the event – an audience that includes executives from the worlds of venture capital and technology. The pitches will live on at the PopTech.org website, where videos of conference speakers attract thousands of viewers.

The young social innovators made remarkable progress during the boot camp, says faculty member Cheryl Heller, CEO of Heller Communication Design in New York. She advised the group on how to create an effective brand. With today’s economy uncertain, creating an effective pitch becomes even more important. “An entrepreneur’s ability to quickly explain what it is they’re doing and why it’s important is priceless,” she says.

A number of elements go into an effective pitch, says Robert Fabricant, another member of the boot camp faculty and creative director at Frog Design, a global innovation firm in New York.

“They have to have a story about the rigor with which they’ve thought through their model so that people who give them money know that they’re going to get an impact,” he says. “And they have to have a personal story about why they’re so passionate about it because people have to walk away believing in something and being willing to help that individual.”

Among the young PopTech social innovators polishing their pitches were Chip Ransler and Manoj Sinha, cofounders of Husk Power Systems in Charlottesville, Va. The business partners, who met while attending graduate school at the University of Virginia, have built five mini-electric power plants in remote villages in India. The plants use discarded husks from locally grown rice as fuel. The two hope to have 20 miniplants online by next summer.

Access to electricity at a reasonable cost could vastly improve the lives of millions of rural Indians, Mr. Ransler says.

He and Mr. Sinha were already used to presenting their business model to possible investors, getting 15 or 20 minutes to do it. The boot camp helped them get their message across more quickly. “To establish what the problem is, establish what your solution is and where you’re going with it ... all that in five minutes, that was challenging,” Ransler says.

As a result, their pitch at PopTech stripped away all of the financial details to get to the core – why it mattered. They told the audience, “Somebody needs to do this,” Ransler says. “If we get this right, this could be the biggest opportunity out there right now.”

“Being able to get across a complicated idea simply and effectively is a skill that you cannot put too much emphasis on,” says Erika Jonietz, senior editor at Technology Review magazine, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Ms. Jonietz, who also attended PopTech, heads up Technology Review’s TR35 program, which honors 35 potential future stars of technology under 35 years of age. At a September conference, the TR35 are literally put under a spotlight and given 90 seconds to tell an influential business and academic audience why their research is worth supporting.

“Ninety seconds isn’t a lot of time to get across something that might be extremely technical,” she says. “So the best presentations, in my mind, are those where they focus on a single aspect of their work and focus it on what they hope they will accomplish – what it’s wider impact on the world will be.”

The PopTech boot camp is just in its first year, but Zolli says the early results have been encouraging. “Every single one of them has had meaningful, ongoing, new conversations about new funding sources, new collaborations, new partnerships, other fellowships,” he says.

Some of the innovators had been “surprisingly inarticulate” when they arrived for the program, he adds. But by the time they made it to the PopTech stage, they “were incredibly graceful.... They had gone from caterpillar to butterfly.”

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