By Will Doran The Cary News (Cary, N.C.).
Back from a one-year break, Morrisville's HOTTovation program returned in 2015 with what organizers say was a great success.
And now they have even grander plans for 2016.
The program's goal is to help entrepreneurs develop business ideas, connect with mentors and get the chance to make a pitch to interested venture capitalists. It's run by the Morrisville Chamber of Commerce and the Morrisville Innovation Foundation.
The program attracted five teams in 2015 and concluded with presentations in front of potential investors in November. N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall kicked off the culminating event with a short speech.
Applications will soon be accepted for the 2016 session, which is sooner than in previous years. But organizers hope the early enrollment will allow participants -- either individuals or teams -- more time to work on their plans and meet with mentors.
"We have had a lot of positive feedback, and we're working on taking some feedback to make it better in the future," said Sarah Gaskill, president of the Morrisville Chamber of Commerce.
HOTTovation -- which is a play on Morrisville's motto, Heart Of The Triangle, and the word innovation -- started in 2013. That inaugural session launched one of the participants into a successful business.
Ed Burgard, co-founder of Dignify Therapeutics, brought his idea to HOTTovation for a drug for people who lose control of their bladders or bowels. Since then, Dignify Therapeutics has established an office in RTP and has attracted more than $4 million in private funding, plus other government and private grants and partnerships.
None of the recent 2015 projects have had that same level of success yet, Gaskill said.
But Aura Life, one group that went through the program, drew high expectations on the final pitch day and since then, Gaskill and other said.
Aura Life is the brainchild of Ellie Ismail, a young professional who wanted an all-natural solution for yeast infections and couldn't find one that was widely available. She teamed up with a chemist to create a solution, which ended up being a coconut oil-based wipe. They say it has the same effect as pharmaceuticals but without the hassle and chemicals.
The venture capitalists at HOTTovation's final pitch session praised Ismael for her compelling sales pitch and for having an idea that can sell to a typical customer of a millennial, who cares less about brand names and more about organic, natural solutions. None committed funding on the spot, however, and instead suggested she try to license the product to an established company, such as Burt's Bees.
Cary-based Aura Life, like Dignify Therapuetics, presented a solution to an embarrassing medical problem.
But not all the ideas that have gone through HOTTovation fit that mold. The 2015 class also featured:
-- Data Crunch Lab, an analytics company aimed at helping other businesses use data more strategically.
-- Cast Away Therapies, which offers holistic therapy consisting of massages as well as nutrition and fitness plans.
-- LoboStim, with an idea for a non-invasive way to treat chronic pain.
-- PRI Gym, a physical therapy company.
Some of the companies from 2013 and 2015 were based in Morrisville, though not all of them were. Gaskill said she hopes the program continues to grow in the near future, and that no matter where the participants are from, they find success, and maybe even decide to expand in Morrisville.
"There are a lot of ways to pursue economic development," she said. "And we need to keep going after the big companies. But it's also important to help that entrepreneurial spirit in the community."
Morrisville Council member Steve Rao, a member of the Morrisville Innovation Foundation, has been involved in HOTTovation since its inception. He said he would like to help other local towns start similar programs.
"There's so much in the area going on with start-ups," he said. "There's cities like Garner and Rolesville that are asking, 'How can we do this?' "
He said the program could continue to grow in Morrisville, too. He has long had hopes of turning part of the mostly abandoned Morrisville Outlet Mall into a business incubator space, he said, and also thinks future innovation programs could do more to introduce local teenagers to the world of entrepreneurship.
His theory is supported by a report on innovation released in December by the N.C. Department of Commerce. The report identifies infrastructure and education as two areas as in need of improvement and concludes North Carolina is below average in fostering innovation.
"Overall, North Carolina's innovation ecosystem is moderately healthy and has improved slightly since the early 2000s, but is lagging slightly behind the improvements of the nation overall," the report said.
The report says North Carolina needs to leave behind outdated industries in favor of ones that require more expertise and pay better.
"This transition will happen only if a larger share of the state's population has the education, training, resources, and infrastructure needed to start, grow, attract, and sustain companies that are innovative, entrepreneurial, and able to compete in an increasingly dynamic global economy," the report said.
Information Go to morrisvilleinnovation.org for details and applications.