September 23, 2013 at 6:00AM
The Idea Village unveils its central class of entrepreneurs-in-training for 2013-14
MIke Eckert, left, the newly named entrepreneur-in-residence overseeing The Idea Village's 2013-14 IDEAxcelerator coaching course for entrepreneurs, speaks with U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, middle, during a visit she made to the entrepreneur support group in August, and Scott Wolfe, Jr., right, founder of the Zlien service for tracking payments in the construction industry and an alumnus of Idea Village programs. (Mark Waller, | The Times-Picayune)
The center-stage coaching course for emerging businesses at The Idea Village this year includes a newly formed corps of experienced entrepreneurs serving as mentors and a crop of enrollees who already have left other jobs to build their start-ups full-time, or soon will.

The entrepreneur support group on Monday will unveil the enterprises that made it into its IDEAxcelerator program for 2013-14 after the group sifted through 114 applications. Many, if not all, of the entrepreneurs, following a months-long educational program, will compete in the Big Idea pitch contest that culminates The Idea Village's New Orleans Entrepreneur Week festival in March, where past winners received $50,000 to develop their businesses.

A preview of the announcement shows that unlike previous years, when the participating ventures often started as concepts that had yet to take tangible form, a majority of the businesses already have started generating revenue. And all of the entrepreneurs are expected to be concentrating on their businesses full-time by the time the coaching gets underway this week, a sign of the seriousness of the ventures, said Tim Williamson, chief executive officer of The Idea Village.

"They're in and they're committed and they're focused," Williamson said. "If you say 'I'm doing this; I'm in,' that means a lot."

At the same time, New Orleans and The Idea Village have been focusing on fostering entrepreneurship for long enough, Williamson said, that the group for the first time has assembled a team of local entrepreneurs who have matured to the point where they can serve as mentors to the newcomers.

Among the 11 veteran entrepreneurs are the founders of the NOLA Brewing Company microbrewery, the Federated Sample market research data firm, the Sucre pastry, candy and ice cream shops, the Kickboard education data management firm, the Audiosocket digital music rights company, the iSeatz travel industry technology company, the Fleurty Girl retail shops and the Naked Pizza restaurant chain.

All these folks have started a company, raised money, hired people," and they've mostly done it in New Orleans, Williamson said. "They're in a position to mentor."

Leading the team of mentors is a new arrival to New Orleans, Mike Eckert, who helped launch The Weather Channel and served as the cable television network's chief executive officer before starting other firms and becoming an investor in start-ups who now serves as vice-chairman of the national Angel Capital Association. Eckert said he typically receives and reads one new business proposal every day.

He was a regular visitor because he has grandchildren living here and became a New Orleans devotee, finally moving from Atlanta recently, soon discovering The Idea Village and quickly becoming its entrepreneur-in-residence for 2013-14.

"I was just very pleasantly surprised with what's going on here," Eckert said, describing the entrepreneurial energy he found in New Orleans. "I also believe I can bring something."

He said he plans to increase the seriousness of the IDEAxcelerator program.

"We're going to have this coordinated, curated experience," tailored to each of the entrepreneurs, matching them with mentors from the most relevant backgrounds, he said. "I think it will be a substantive program."

Eckert is introducing a 39-point scoring checklist designed to help entrepreneurs and their mentors gauge progress and serve as a tool for investors watching the proceedings through Entrepreneur Week and deciding on ventures to support. Points include experience with financial management, identification of promising target markets, the degree to which products are developed and the level of commitment to growing operations in New Orleans.

"This is the first time we're doing this objective scoring," Williamson said. He said initial self-evaluations using the checklist, compared with mentor ratings, will help entrepreneurs gain self-awareness. "Do they know what they don't know?"

Of the 114 applicants joining this year's cohort, The Idea Village met with 80 of them and then narrowed the field of contenders to 25.

The 25 finalists made presentations to the corps of entrepreneur-mentors, who focused the group to 17 enterprises that will participate, two more start-ups than The Idea Village originally planned.

Of the 17, a dozen are technology companies and five are product producers. Ten already are generating revenue. More than 23 percent of the entrepreneurs are minorities. Almost 18 percent are women.

The Idea Village provided a summary of the enterprises:

  • 4D Supplements, a venture by entrepreneur Jason Navarro, sells a health and dietary supplement formula.
  • Athletic Performance Testing, a service providing testing for athletes, produces data identifying areas for improvement, developed by Doug Ellis and Lucius Butts.
  • Bar Exchange is a recruiting and career development site for bartenders founded by Simon Blezard.
  • Cajun Fire and Brewing Company, a craft brewery under development by Jon Renthrope, plans to offer seasonal beers.
  • ChargeQubes rents out battery packs called "qubes" for customers to recharge their mobile phones while traveling or attending events, using a network of kiosks developed by Sean Carrigan, Jason Palmer and Chris Miller.
  • CultureConnect is a service to help small and mid-sized museums offer digital guides through mobile devices and increase their interaction with visitors, founded by Samantha Diamond and Monika Smyczek.
  • Direct Diagnostics, founded by Theodore Brown, provides a service for individuals to gather and submit medical test results via mobile phones, initially designed for diabetics monitoring their blood sugar with plans to expand to a wider range of health and environmental testing.
  • EnricheED, by entrepreneur Andre Feigler, is a service for matching substitute teachers, guest speakers or other flexible staff members with openings at schools.
  • Healthy Plant produces organic fertilizer for lawns and gardens mostly by reusing waste from seafood processing, launched by Jonathan Toye and Dennis deBoisblanc.
  • gathers, analyzes and verifies data scanned from government-issued identification cards, helping businesses protect themselves from liabilities and collect data about customers, started by entrepreneurs Denis Petrov and Andrey Stanovnov.
  • KREWE du optic creator Stirling Barrett makes handcrafted boutique eyeglass frames and lenses.
  • Lyte Stix, created by Jorge Nagel of Rehydration Solutions, LLC, makes freezer pops designed to cool down and hydrate athletes and other health-minded consumers.
  • Maritant provides a data service to the shipbuilding industry, collecting product specifications for parts and supplies in one place on the Internet, developed by Chris Stuckey.
  • mSchool entrepreneur Elliot Sanchez designed a method for quickly opening one-room "microSchools" in community centers or school campuses, focusing on academic areas in need of more attention.
  • Munivestor is a web service that presents economic and financial data and news stories on bond-issuing government agencies to aid research by investors in municipal bonds, founded by Damon Burns.
  •, by entrepreneur Elizabeth Bates, is an online fashion store for women who stand 5-feet, 4-inches tall or less, curating clothing from major brands and independent designers to fit diminutive women.
  • SNAP Real Estate Photography produces images for real estate listings, including staging services, photos, floor plans, virtual tours and video, designed to increase the prominence and perceived value of real estate for sale, founded by Darryl Glade and Kris Haug.

- Mark Waller

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