Seeking success, entrepreneurs venture among capitalists Martek joins others trying to 'make it big'

November 04, 1990|By Timothy J. Mullaney

Pete Linsert sounded as if he was plotting a political campaign, or maybe an advertising plan for cars.

The audience will remember images, not facts, he said. Soft-pedal the complicated stuff so their eyes won't glaze over: If you grab people with the basics, there will be time to tell them more when they come in.

But Martek Corp., his Columbia biotechnology company, is years away from having to worry about national media buys. Instead, Henry "Pete" Linsert Jr. was explaining his strategy for selling to a much smaller, more elite audience -- the venture capitalists, investors and other business people who attended last week's Baltimore-Washington Venture Fair '90, the first fair of its type ever held in Maryland.

"Affairs like this are part of the winnowing process" that separates budding flops from start-ups that will become well-known names, said Mr. Linsert, Martek's chairman and chief executive. "Those companies that have more products and those businesses that have better prospects are going to be discovered."

"If we don't come out of this with at least $20 million invested in Maryland companies, I'll be very sur

prised," said Selig Solomon, director of the state Office of Technology Development, an arm of the Department of Employment and Economic Development. "In the technology business, networking is what it all comes down to."

Technology businesses are different from other start-up companies because they have few hard assets, said Jamie Caulfield, a senior manager in the emerging-businesses

group of the accounting firm of Coopers & Lybrand, a co-sponsor of the venture fair. They rely on networking for money because they are based on the brains of their founders, an asset that doesn't always impress the banks, he said.

The venture fair, held Tuesday and Wednesday as part of Maryland's High Technology Week, was designed to allow about 50 Baltimore-Washington area companies to tap into that network of capital sources, potential marketing partners and service businesses that can help them grow.

The speculative world of start-ups offers high rewards for a very small, sophisticated circle of venture capitalists and other people willing to take bigger risks than a bank and give some money to an entrepreneur such as Mr. Linsert -- in exchange for a piece of the action.

"They're all looking for a way to make it big," Mr. Linsert, a former venture capitalist himself for a suburban Washington bank, explained in his office the day before his presentation. "Behind everything is the notion that this could be another Apple or Genentech or Xerox."

Martek is one of many companies striving to become another Genentech, one of venture capital's all-time bonanzas. The 5-year-old company's niche is wringing useful products out of microscopic algae. There are about 70,000 strains of micro-algae out there, with potential applications that Mr. Linsert and Martek investors think are limitless.

"We figured that with so many different kinds of algae out there, somewhere in there there must be a pony," said John Mahar, executive vice president of Elf Technologies Inc. in Stamford, Conn., and a Martek investor.

The company is working on such things as products that will allow better, cheaper diagnoses of liver problems, dyes for biomedical research and algae-derived oils that will make healthier forms of mayonnaise. Sales are about $1.1 million a year, and Mr. Linsert hopes to double that every year for the next five years.

But finding new investors was only a small part of what was on Pete Linsert's mind Tuesday, the day before he gave a presentation to about 30 people in a ballroom of the Stouffer's Harborplace Hotel in Baltimore.

Martek doesn't need capital right now. Instead, Mr. Linsert wants corporate partners to help market Martek's products, the most promising of which is DHA, an acid derived from algae that research indicates aids brain development and improves vi

sion in infants.

Martek is too small and too research-oriented to market its own products effectively, he said. Instead, it wants to work with bigger companies that have more muscle. With DHA, for example, the company is attempting to make deals with baby-formula companies, which would use DHA as an additive to their products.

But Mr. Linsert also has one eye on the future, when he will be looking for more capital.

"We may have a large private placement or a public [stock] offering in late 1991 or 1992, and I'm interested in large investors being interested in us. Maybe some people in the audience will be interested, and I'd like those people to be tracking us."

Venture fairs such as the one last week are important because biotechnology investors are a small group, and there is much competition for their attention, Mr. Linsert said.

The competition for attention was a big reason that he planned to keep his presentation snappy, short and simple -- even though most biotechnology venture investors understand both enough science and enough finance to keep up with the details.

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