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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 / November 12, 2008

Selling it: At the PopTech conference in Camden, Maine, Manoj Sinha discusses how discarded rice husks can be used to generate electricity.

Courtesy of Kris Krug/PopTech

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Camden, Maine

You’ve got a world-changing idea. And a passion to make it happen.

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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.”

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.

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