The Council for Entrepreneurial Development has selected the first six companies that will make presentations during its annual venture capital conference.

Venture 2003, scheduled for April 22-23 in Chapel Hill, will mark the 20th year CED has sponsored a regional forum for technology investors. The event has grown to become one of the largest such gatherings in the Southeast, attracting hundreds of people from across the country and featuring the most promising North Carolina tech startups.

The six presenting companies selected are as follows:

Biolex: The North Carolina State University spin-off uses duckweed to develop recombinant proteins. The Pittsboro company has been trying to close a $20 million funding round since the summer, and officials said recently they are still working on the round.

Kucera Pharmaceuticals: The Winston-Salem-based spinoff from Wake Forest University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is working on a technology to improve the efficacy of antiviral drugs. The firm obtained $1.9 million first-round funding this summer and is laying the groundwork for a second round.

MindValve: A UNC-Charlotte spinoff that combines data mining with predictive analysis into business intelligence software for the financial services industry. The firm obtained $1 million in seed money early in the year and likely is putting together a formal first round.

Oriel Therapeutics: The UNC-Chapel Hill spin-off is developing dry powder inhalers to treat respiratory and pulmonary ailments. The Durham company raised less than $1 million in seed money early in the year and is primed for its first institutional round.

StemCo Biomedical: The Durham firm is creating special kits to detect stem cells for use in transplantation. Company officials said they planned to start seeking a $10 million funding round this fall.

Total Billings: A 20-something-year-old company from Fayetteville, it raised its first institutional venture round of $3 million this summer. The firm has developed a web-based software program that allows companies to manage their billing systems.

Applications increase

“We’re pretty straight up in selecting the best firms possible,” says Jeff Clark of Durham-based venture firm Aurora Funds, who chairs the Venture 2003 selection committee. “We want companies that are good candidates for venture financing, that will provide a compelling story.”

But Clark does note the geographic diversity of the six firms – CED officials say this is likely the first time the conference has had a presenter from Fayetteville – and says it’s good for the event to showcase companies from across North Carolina. Usually, the bulk of presenting companies are based in the Research Triangle region.

“It’s likely that when we get through our next two (selection) rounds that we’ll wind up with a majority of firms from the Triangle,” he says. “We like to get companies from various markets, but we don’t have a quota or anything. We just try to select the highest quality.”

The selection committee will pick another 10 or so companies in January and will round out the field in February. About 20 established companies will present at the conference, along with 10 early-stage firms seeking initial funding.

Early applications this year are more than double a year ago – 28 to 12 – and those applicants that didn’t make the initial cut will continue to be considered in the final two rounds. The deadline for applications for the next round of selections is Dec. 19, while the final deadline is mid-January. Last year, a total of 72 companies applied for the 29 slots.

Biotech in favor?

Although four of the initial six presenters selected are biotechnology firms, Clark says it’s too early to say whether Venture 2003 will be skewed toward the biotech sector, which has attracted the most attention from investors in recent quarters.

“It just happened that those were four of the stronger companies we’ve looked at so far,” he says. “I would wait until we make our second cut to say if we have a trend.”

But he says the early selections earn a couple of advantages: They have extra time to perfect their presentation, and they usually gain a lot of publicity.

“There’s always a positive buzz around the early selections, and sometimes they use that to build a funding round even before the conference,” he says.

Kucera Chief Executive Russ Read says he’s pleased with the attention his company has gotten already. Kucera is in line to pass several research milestones in the next month or two, he says, which should help him impress investors at the conference.

“By the time April rolls around, we should be in position to show people the compound we have that is unique in treating HIV,” Read says.

Venture 2003: www.cednc.org/venture/2003

Biolex: www.biolex.com

Kucera Pharmaceutical: www.kucerapharma.com

MindValve: www.mindvalve.com

Oriel Therapeutics: www.orieltherapeutics.com

StemCo Biomedical: www.stemcobiomedical.com

Total Billings: www.scs-direct.com