DreamIt 'Funding Day' showcases how 11 start-ups spent their summer

The future of Philadelphia’s business community was crowded into an empty retail storefront at 37th and Market streets Thursday.

The space, owned by the Science Center, was unfinished with exposed sea-green drywall. A blank canvas for something new, and thus an appropriate setting as young entrepreneurs made their multimedia pitches to venture capitalists, lawyers, accountants and “angel investors.”

Sponsored by the for-profit DreamIt Ventures, this “Funding Day” was the culmination of a three-month boot camp for entrepreneurs.

Some were still in college, starting their first company and finding out all they still had to learn. For others, this was their second or third venture, and they marveled at how much they accomplished in a summer in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia has certainly produced its share of dynamic start-ups but can hardly be mentioned in the same class as Silicon Valley or Cambridge, Mass., as a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity.

DreamIt, founded by three area entrepreneurs who built and sold their own tech businesses, is out to change that.

DreamIt invested from $15,000 to $30,000 in each of the 11 companies that participated in this inaugural Summer of Buzz. “Macaroni and cheese money” is what DreamIt co-founder David Bookspan called the capital, meaning that it was enough keep the entrepreneurs fed as they listened, learned, coded, networked, marketed and reworked their plans over 12 weeks.

Put up in incubator space at the Science Center, each technology business was paired with a mentor and professionals from the legal and accounting fields. They received coaching, advice and warnings from other entrepreneurs.

In short, Vuzit, Anthillz, Trendient and the others received nearly everything that most small businesspeople can only dream of when they’re bootstrapping along.

At 36, Jason Laan, co-founder of SnackFeed, has been there and done it. But working with his 24-year-old brother, Christopher, to develop a service that continually indexes video content on the Web, Laan said the DreamIt program enabled them to test their strategy and technology.

The Laans are New Yorkers by way of New Orleans. But for the next four months at least, they’re staying in Philadelphia to push SnackFeed forward, work their new contacts, and meet future investors.

Bookspan admits he’s not the target demographic for a service that lets him know what videos his friends are watching online. But the goal of DreamIt is to jump-start tech businesses that have the chance to catch on in a big way.

He visibly winced when I said the Funding Day presentations reminded me of business plan competitions hosted by local colleges. “There’s nothing academic about this,” he said.

While DreamIt certainly had a collegial atmosphere, there’s real money to be made (or lost) in the process of building new businesses, he said.

It’s always exciting to hear entrepreneurs explain how their ideas will change the way we do something. Whether they’ll succeed is anyone’s guess. The point is they’re trying, and some of them may even continue to try in Philadelphia.

Update from the print version: TechCrunch has been following the DreamIt program and had this post Thursday along with some shoot-from-the-hip Web community reaction to some of the start-ups. Don't hold back, folks. What do you really think?

Also, TechCrunch highlighted one of the start-ups, called PhrazIt, in August.