CHAPEL HILL — If there was any doubt that the climate for entrepreneurs has changed drastically over the past two years, it was erased once and for all at the Springboard: Southeast 2002 event on Friday.

Talk about finally getting equal time. An estimated 250 people showed up to see presentations from senior female executives representing 16 companies across the Southeast. And they saw some good ones.

One company creating much of the buzz was not a tech-focused company. RAGGS LLC out of Charlotte is an entertainment firm.

Some things didn’t change. We’re far beyond the point where any males with ponytails might be around. No one needs to joke about suits and sandals. Gray hair and bald heads certainly are in to stay. Somber and businesslike are the best two terms to describe the mood. And the media certainly avoid most of these shows now like the plague.

To be candid, this event really should have drawn more interest, given the caliber of presenters and companies. But just as investors have fled Wall Street and startups for safe havens so too have most media fled tech and returned to cubicles in search of more familiar stories – layoffs, lawsuits and scandal.

Positive signs

Certainly an encouraging sign of change was the quality of female-led companies looking to grow despite awful times. The challenges facing women in high tech even in good days are well documented — and is a major reason why Springboard exists.

The women presenting had gone through several rehearsal presentations and were well prepped with a joke or too, anecdotes, fact-filled presentation slides what investor hot spots to hit: management team experience, market domination, and such.

Statistics show, however, that there’s not much fire in the belly — let along interest – among VCs these days for funding any new ventures. Startup financing has plunged below the radar screen and is staying there. The VCs counter by saying they see far fewer good ideas that during the hype days.

Two sides to every story, right?

Still the grumbling about the lack of attendance from the venture community was evident. Some VCs were seen coming in late – or just dropping by for a while or leaving early. On the other hand, some investors were lamenting the fact that only one Peach State firm (Goodroe Healthcare Solutions) was on the program. The VCs also often say that they don’t need to attend such events because if they are doing their jobs they already are aware of presenting companies. VCs also were in short supply at the pre-event reception on Thursday.

Business is getting back to basic Woody Hayes blocking and tackling after the “dot com” fiasco, telecom disaster and Wall Street scandals. Few can argue with the necessity for that. But the long-bomb throwers like Johnny Unitas and scramblers like Fran Tarkenton are needed, too, if the tech sector is to recover. And some brave general managers in the investor booths are going to have to take a chance.

There are glimmers of hope.

Several executives outside of VC in recent weeks have told Local Tech Wire that business was picking up, orders for such things as custom software were coming in and that ad budgets were increasing for the fall. A new project or two is in the offing for the Triangle, we’re told. So maybe better days may be coming.

Want proof? The wide variety of networking and tech-related events last week — Bob Young’s LuLu Tech Circus, the Triangle Tech Journals deck party, Business Leader’s “The Gathering” and Springboard — certainly indicate entrepreneurs and techies still have dreams.

IT Spending woes

Not everyone is optimistic. Today’s Financial Times offers a dour overview of tech’s state.

A survey of the 30 top Silicon Valley IT firms (including Cisco) shows research and development funding declined five percent the first six months of this year.

“The downturn in spending is particularly alarming because since 1960 American industrial spending on R&D has never fallen, according to the US National Science Foundation.,” FT says.

IT revenues also declined 12 percent, based on what FT described as a “collapse” in corporate spending. FT also says the rate of growth in patent applications also is slowing. Instead of a 10 percent increase, which has been the norm since 1996, FT says the US Patent and Trademark Office is forecasting only 1.3 percent growth.

A surviving angel —

Thomas Roberg, a familiar face and leader in North Carolina’s tech industry for more than 40 years, is proof that angel investors can survive — even in this deadly climate.

Roberg has been involved in a number of startups and has latched on to BioMarck, a NC State University spin-ff, despite the fact many angels have lost most of their wings, portfolios and nest eggs.

As Linda Martin, an assistant professor of cell biology at NCSU, made her pitch to potential investors, Roberg was there for support. He later manned BioMarck’s display area, touting the firm’s potentially revolutionary means of treating diseases and ailments stemming from mucus secretion and inflammation — such as asthma.

Roberg and Allen Gant — both prominent supporters of NCSU — are BioMarck’s major supporters to this point. Gant serves as chairman of the board and has long been a pharmaceutical executive. Roberg is vice chairman and also is serving as acting business director. BioMarck is currently seeking to raise $1.3 million.

For more information:


Star of the show —

A number of show attendees flocked to see Antionette Steedman, chief executive officer, of RAGGS LLC. But Steedman’s entertainment company is not at all about high tech..

With a lineup of bright, lovable stuff animals that put Beanie Babies to shame, RAGGS has outlets in 30 malls throughout the country geared to children ages 8 and under. In addition to the cuddly critters, RAGGS offers music, one-hour videos and also is pursuing a TV series for launch next fall.

For details, check out:


Rick Smith is managing editor of Local Tech Wire.