Is cool enough? Featured

6:54am EDT May 30, 2003
They ranged from a mass immunization device that promises to deliver safer, more effective DNA-based vaccines for diseases like small pox and anthrax to an electronic leash for parents to keep young children from wandering too far.

There was technology for recharging electronic devices without using wires and a simple, inexpensive suite of devices for monitoring the delivery of oxygen to patients in transport.

The showcase was the University of Pittsburgh's Technology Commercialization Alliance's Cool Devices 2003, where 21 academics showed off their gizmos, some near market ready, others in earlier development stages, at Pitt's Alumni Hall. All of the ideas, many in the medical products field, offered seemingly enormous moneymaking potential for investors.

Less than two blocks away at the University Club, Ramesh Mehta, founder of Medebiz and apparent savior of MOAI Technologies, a dot-com era business that nearly failed despite millions of dollars in venture investment, was poking fun at himself and everyone else who poured money into business plans that were scratched on the back of envelopes, essentially cool ideas and not much more.

Mehta, a serial entrepreneur and angel investor who managed to survive the dot-com bubble by using good old horse sense, lectured a crowd at an MIT Enterprise Forum event on the new realities of B2B, what he calls "back to basics." His message is, essentially, that having a cool business isn't enough.

To make it in today's investment climate, you have to have a real business. Investors want to see revenue, they want to see cash flow, they want to see principals who are willing to bootstrap their way to success.

So what about cool devices? Because investors these days are wizened by the lessons of the dot-com bubble, there are some that may never get past the cool device stage. Maybe one or two will see the commercial light of day, even though they're all novel concepts. And some of the age-old reasons that keep seemingly innovative ideas from hitting it big will play a role, too.

Maybe the originator doesn't have a stomach for raising money, or perhaps the device just doesn't have a big enough market to muster an investor's interest.

For the tiny number that will move to the next stage, the prospects will be much brighter because investors are a lot sharper and more discerning about where they put their money. That, I would say, very smart.

And really cool.