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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.

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“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.”

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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.”