Mentor Program Aims To Encourage High-Tech Entrepreneurs

By Laura Layden Naples Daily News, Fla.

Fusion Pointe is off to a running start with its mentoring program for high-tech entrepreneurs in Southwest Florida.

The nonprofit group has accepted seven startups into its no-cost program. Other companies are in the pipeline and will soon transition into the program, which launched in November.

Fusion Pointe's mission is to encourage, accelerate and expand the region's innovation economy. The goal of the mentoring program is to produce more investor-ready businesses in the region (think elevator pitches or pitches on ABC's "Shark Tank").

"The first key is finding those potential entrepreneurs and the second key is aligning their mentors and their skills and market expertise to the entrepreneurs' needs," said Steve Walling, Fusion Pointe's board chairman.

The group has about a dozen mentors and will continue to add more to its already impressive slate of successful entrepreneurs and business executives as its program ramps up to meet demand. The high demand for the services has surprised some, including Jim Moore, Lee County's former economic development director who now sits on Fusion Pointe's board of directors.

"We've done more quickly than I ever thought was possible," he said. "The demand is there. The ideas are there. I was concerned are there even enough entrepreneurs here and the answer is they are here."

Moore has been involved with Fusion Pointe from its inception. He was in the crowd of about 80 who attended an event Tuesday night at Northern Trust Bank in Bonita Springs that offered a glimpse into the early successes of the mentoring program, modeled after one offered by JumpStart Inc., a nonprofit that has helped turn around northeast Ohio's hard-hit economy.

"It's hard to get people to move," Moore said. "It's easier to grow your own to create companies."

The group's first mentees include:

FlyNStyle -- A mobile app connecting travelers with consumer brands and airport and airline retailers

EndLink -- A comprehensive relationship management platform that organizes and enhances engagement with members

Cydec -- Web platform, with an educational twist, that helps entrepreneurs and small to medium-sized businesses launch world-class eCommerce sites

Testimonial Tree -- A platform offering a quick way for Realtors and other professionals to collect testimonials for their websites from happy customers

Stay Secure Systems -- A technology enabling auto dealers to track their vehicles in real time

DocCharge -- A mobile medical billing efficiency platform founded by a busy physician

Bun -- A mobile app that makes capturing and sharing family photos easier

Fusion Pointe doesn't just accept anyone into its mentoring program, which is open to entrepreneurs from Marco Island to Sarasota.

More than 40 entrepreneurs have already applied for the program, but only the ones with big ideas that have the potential for explosive growth are selected, said Scott Relf, the vice chairman of Fusion Pointe who describes himself as a "midlife" entrepreneur.

Relf, who moved to the Naples area in 2003 from Kansas, is a mentor, too. "I just felt like it would be nice to help other people find their dream and be successful," he said.

The founder of Infinite Growth Group, a leading innovation consultant to Fortune 100 companies, Relf has helped develop and launch many consumer products and services. In 2006, he co-founded digital coupon startup Zave Networks, which Google acquired in 2011. He and his wife also started PikMobile, a competitor to Instagram.

Fusion Pointe targets startups that are too early in their development to get private capital. The group's goal is to help entrepreneurs prove their concept within one to two years, at which time they'd be ready to seek their first round of private funding in the range of $200,000 to $500,000, Relf said.

The idea is for the chosen businesses to succeed or fail fast. "We're trying to move companies along fast," Relf said.

Fusion Pointe has been in business since May, when it hired its executive director, Rob Strandberg, the former head of the Enterprise Development Corp., a public-private partnership that helps high-tech companies develop and grow in South Florida.

Besides Strandberg, Fusion Point only has one other paid employee, a program coordinator.

"We are going to be thinking through our strategy to continue to be privately funded, but get public support also where we can," Walling said.

With more funding, the group could start providing capital to companies itself. It also plans to open its mentoring program up to more than just high-tech companies.

"It will come later," Walling said. "But later might mean within the next year."

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