The $50 Million Giveaway
Want to start a company? We found 11 venture capitalists sitting in business ideas they're dying to bankroll. All you have to do is send them exactly the right business plan.
By Michael V. Copeland

- Like most venture capitalists, Jim Armstrong, managing director of Clearstone Venture Partners, receives dozens of business plans every week. But when we stopped in recently, he was more interested in talking about what was missing from the pile than about any hidden gems. Riffing on the future of instant messaging, for example, and how a killer business could be hatched around his concept, Armstrong complained that he was ready to write a check to get it launched, if only a smart business plan would hit his inbox. "I've got $1 million to invest in this tomorrow," he said, "if I can just find the right team."

A column that appeared on the next day described the company Armstrong envisioned and his wish list of criteria. Those who thought they had the right stuff could send Armstrong a business plan. A few weeks later, Armstrong had a new gripe: He'd received more than 20 solid plans and couldn't decide which of three finalists he wanted to fund--not just for $1 million, but for as much as $5 million. He has since winnowed the list down to two.

That got us thinking. Why not ask dozens of VCs a tantalizing (but often unasked) question: What types of ideas would you fund tomorrow if the right pitch landed on your doorstep? After a few weeks of trolling Sand Hill Road and beyond, we got 11 leading venture firms to spill their most promising business ideas--and to pony up $50 million in funding to the entrepreneurs who can pull them off.

Touching on industries from health care to middleware, these startups-in-waiting are described in the following pages. If you think you have the right plan for one of them, send it to the VC who's cheerleading that idea; each has included an e-mail address. In a few months, we'll report back on which, if any, Business 2.0 readers got the cash.

Ready? Good luck. Oh, and if you should strike it rich, don't forget who brokered the deal. We're not asking for a commission, but we certainly wouldn't complain if you reinvested a bit of your windfall in a lifetime subscription to Business 2.0.


WHO: John Occhipinti, Woodside Fund, Redwood Shores, Calif.

WHO HE IS: A former executive at Oracle and Netscape, Occhipinti is a managing director and security specialist, leading investments in BorderWare and Tacit.

WHAT HE WANTS: Fraudproof credit card authorization via cell phones and PDAs.

WHY IT'S SMART: Credit card fraud is more rampant than ever, and consumers aren't the only ones feeling the pain. Last year banks and merchants lost more than $2 billion to fraud. Most of that could be eliminated if they offered two-part authentication with credit and debit purchases--something akin to using a SecureID code as well as a password to access e-mail. Occhipinti thinks the cell phone, packaged with the right software, presents an ideal solution. Imagine getting a text message on your phone from a merchant, prompting you for a password or code to approve the $100 purchase you just made on your home PC or at the mall. It's an extra step, but one that most consumers would be happy to take to safeguard their privacy. More important, Occhipinti says, big banks would pay dearly to be able to offer the service. "It's a killer app no one's touched yet," Occhipinti says, "but the technology's within reach."

WHAT HE WANTS FROM YOU: A finished prototype application within eight months. "I'm looking for the best technologists in security and wireless, the top 2 percent in their industry," Occhipinti says. The team would need to be working with a handful of banks and merchants ready to start trials, in hopes of licensing the technology or selling the company.



WHO: Philippe Cases, Partech International, San Francisco

WHO HE IS: Cases and his colleagues have long made smart bets in technology, backing innovative firms like Cadence Design Systems, Informatica, and Vignette. Partech currently manages more than $850 million in venture funds.

WHAT HE WANTS: A startup that converts proprietary software applications from large banks into a co-op IT service for participating members.

WHY IT'S SMART: Major banks spend $25 million a year upgrading and maintaining custom back-office software to handle tasks like mortgage applications, loan approvals, and clearing checks. Yet across the industry, 80 percent of those applications are nearly identical. The fix: Persuade banks to turn over their proprietary code to a team of software buffs who will repackage and debug the apps and then sell them as a subscription service to participating members. Cases thinks banks could save as much as 40 percent of their IT costs; the startup that can pull it off, he estimates, is looking at a $500 million market per application.

WHAT HE WANTS FROM YOU: First, you'll need the technical chops and engineering talent (with a team of 10 people or less) to rework all that software code into products more easily managed by the banks. Second, it's important to persuade one or two major banks to partner with you to get the project moving--no easy task, considering that banks are notoriously risk-averse when it comes to tinkering with mission-critical systems. "It doesn't have to be their entire suite of banking apps," Cases says, "but enough to prove out the model and rope in the rest."



WHO: Greg Martin, Redpoint Ventures, Los Angeles

WHO HE IS: Martin handles communications and digital media investments for the venture firm, which has recently scored with portfolio companies like MySpace and Topspin.

WHAT HE WANTS: Software that makes better product recommendations to online shoppers.

WHY IT'S SMART: Amazon may have been the pioneer in so-called collaborative filtering--matching online customers with products they'd be likely to buy--but by no means has it mastered the discipline. The percentage of buyers who make recommended purchases online is abysmal. "It's about 3 percent for major Web retailers, and for most other merchants it's lower than that," Martin says. Software that can better sort and sift customer data and increase the conversion rates by just a percentage point or two, he says, would generate a healthy business. Beyond Amazon, after all, thousands of online merchants still don't have access to such tools. "There's a lot of information out there that's being ignored," Martin says.

WHAT HE WANTS FROM YOU: A group of no more than 10 people to tinker with and refine the algorithms to make online purchase suggestions more efficient. Says Martin, "I'd want to see the technology working, with a few customers onboard." The next phase if all goes well? Developing algorithms for websites to serve up more relevant ads.



WHO: John Zagula, Ignition Partners, Bellevue, Wash.

WHO HE IS: As a top marketing exec for Microsoft Office from 1992 to 2000, Zagula helped it grow from a $50 million product to a $10 billion industry standard. In 2000 he joined Ignition, which manages $300 million in venture funds.

WHAT HE WANTS: PCs tailored for senior citizens, who would rent the machines on a monthly basis.

WHY IT'S SMART: By far, seniors make up the fastest-growing demographic in the United States; their numbers will swell to more than 70 million by 2030, when they'll make up 17 percent of the population. They're also going online in record numbers, despite the fact that many seniors find PCs too complex to use.

Zagula thinks the answer is a stripped-down PC that runs on Web-based applications, each tailored to make the most popular features--e-mail, instant messaging, photo sharing, bill paying, gift shopping, prescription ordering--as easy to use as hitting the "On" button. Leasing the machines for $30 or so per month would be attractive to seniors who are reluctant to buy. Retirement communities might lease them en masse (as part of tenants' monthly fees), and the AARP could offer them to its members at a discounted rate. "Any easy solution will be hugely differentiated, given how much the software industry seems addicted to adding complexity," Zagula says. "My mother-in-law is the customer. She's a terrific person with ample discretionary income. And her need is clear: She wants a better means of gossiping with all her friends."

WHAT HE WANTS FROM YOU: You and a team of four or five programmers need to develop a handful of Web applications with a senior-friendly format to make them irresistible. Zagula expects the initial funding to pay for limited trials.



WHO: Ryan Floyd, Storm Ventures, Menlo Park, Calif.

WHO HE IS: Floyd is a founding partner at this five-year-old Sand Hill Road outfit, which recently launched a $220 million fund focused on early-stage tech firms.

WHAT HE WANTS: A clever resurrection of the smart-card concept: a software platform for cell phones that allows consumers to make purchases or open doors by waving their phones in front of tiny infrared or RFID readers.

WHY IT'S SMART: Smart cards turned out to be pretty dumb--at least in the United States, where consumers resisted the notion of carrying yet another piece of plastic. Floyd believes it's time to bring back the technology, only this time make the cell phone the magic wand for transactions. NTT DoCoMo already offers a similar service in Japan, where consumers make convenience store purchases by waving their phones over checkout readers. Is the U.S. market ready for it? Not yet, Floyd says, but if you start now and it takes off, you could own the business.

WHAT HE WANTS FROM YOU: A prototype application that works with several phones and checkout systems. Floyd estimates that a team of 10 can complete the software and show how existing credit card readers in stores could be retrofitted cheaply with IR or RFID chips. Who's the ideal leader of the team? Says Floyd, "The best scenario is you pull someone out of Visa, MasterCard, or PayPal."



WHO: Matt Miller, WaldenVC, San Francisco

WHO HE IS: A former exec at Oracle and Remedy and now general partner at WaldenVC, Miller got a sixfold return on his investment in Niku, an IT software vendor that was acquired by Computer Associates for $350 million. The firm completed nine deals in the past year, including a $5 million placement with Shawn Fanning's Snocap and an estimated $13 million buyout of ritzy San Francisco retailer Gump's.

WHAT HE WANTS: A startup that can create a suite of open-source applications for maintenance and upkeep of a company's IT backbone. It would give away the programs to corporate clients but charge for service and upkeep at a substantial discount off current rates.

WHY IT'S SMART: Despite IBM's push to develop cheaper open-source offerings for back-office IT, Big Blue, Hewlett-Packard, and others still rule the market with pricey software packages and even pricier maintenance contracts. According to Miller, a comparable open-source alternative--for tasks like network management and help-desk queries--would be an immediate hit with budget-conscious midsize firms willing to take a chance on a newcomer. Customers, Miller adds, would get access to the source code and a set of development tools, making the programs much easier for IT managers to customize and upgrade and slashing long-term costs even further.

WHAT HE WANTS FROM YOU: A team of five to seven open-source developers that can create a handful of back-office applications within a year, along with a couple of major clients willing to put them through trials.



WHO: Jim Lussier, Norwest Venture Partners, Palo Alto

WHO HE IS: A former exec at Accenture and, Lussier handles software and services for Norwest, which manages $1.8 billion in venture funds and won big with investments in PeopleSoft and Tivoli Systems. Lussier led recent deals with travel-services company G2 Switchworks and P2P radio broadcaster Mercora.

WHAT HE WANTS: A kind of souped-up Craigslist for every neighborhood, everywhere. Just type in a zip code, and this website will present not just garage sale listings and classified ads, but headlines and photos from dozens of local news sites run by busybodies willing to provide free content and keep it constantly updated.

WHY IT'S SMART: The idea taps into the same social-networking allure that helped make Flickr a $35 million Yahoo acquisition--that is, user-driven content, organized so that all visitors get a slick stage to showcase their stuff. In this case, the stuff isn't just photos but local knowledge: updates on a rash of burglaries, say, or a ranking of preschools. (The most popular contributors might receive a small percentage of ad revenue.) The site could also offer a marketplace for everything from baby-sitting to tree trimming. Sure, a number of regional websites already offer something similar, but this site would aggregate the content under one umbrella and provide a platform to scale it across the nation. If all goes as planned, Lussier says, paid ads could bring in as much as $100 million a year.

WHAT HE WANTS FROM YOU: A website template finished within six months on a $500,000 budget. (Lussier estimates that a team of two or three can do the job.) If it shows promise, Norwest will provide another $2.5 million to tackle the real challenge: developing a core group of users who can light the viral fire. "Building that community happens when people get value out of the service," Lussier says. "They need to feel compensated for their time by the information they get back out."



WHO: Shanda Bahles, El Dorado Ventures, Menlo Park, Calif.

WHO SHE IS: Bahles has been a venture capitalist since 1987, a year after $750 million El Dorado was formed. Among the firm's notable successes are investments in DataSage, EarthLink, and Novellus Systems.

WHAT SHE WANTS: VOIP-enabled software that merchants can use to automate and customize phone orders from their customers.

WHY IT'S SMART: Folks who've switched their home phones to voice-over-IP already know how seamlessly the service can funnel incoming or outgoing call data to the Web. Retail merchants are next in line to reap similar benefits. Imagine calling Domino's and, instead of getting the usual "Hold, please," being greeted by name by an automated voice, which asks whether you want the same large pepperoni you ordered last time and whether it's to be delivered to your work or home address. Software tailored to run on a merchant's VOIP system could mine all that data while improving customer service (imagine that) and lowering costs.

WHAT SHE WANTS FROM YOU: To pull off a software prototype in six months with just three or four people. "Large teams in a startup have diminishing returns," Bahles says.



WHO: Eric Buatois, Sofinnova Ventures, San Francisco

WHO HE IS: After a 14-year stint at HP running its telecom strategy in Europe, Buatois joined Sofinnova in 2001 as a partner focusing on investments in wireless. His recent placements include Upek, a fingerprint-reading technology company, and HelloSoft, a chip-design company for multifunction phones.

WHAT HE WANTS: What wireless networks have been craving for years: a single software platform from which they can launch new services.

WHY IT'S SMART: Today's networks require a separate software layer for every service, from text messaging to video, each with its own protocols and provisioning. The approach is extremely costly and complex to maintain, given the competition among carriers to offer more applications that will drive growth and reduce customer churn. A single software launching pad would allow wireless carriers to turn services on and off as they see fit and add new ones without having to reconfigure their networks. It's an opportunity best suited to a startup, Buatois says, since "this is something the big infrastructure providers won't do and the wireless carriers and ISPs can't do themselves."

WHAT HE WANTS FROM YOU: Design the basic software in less than two years with no more than five developers. Once the prototype is ready, Buatois would fund a team of 20 or so to market the product. An obvious consideration: "This is a big engineering problem," Buatois says, "and there aren't many people who can pull it off." He'll be looking for people with the right technical qualifications and experience at companies like Alcatel, Cisco, or Lucent.



WHO: David Aslin and Paul Badawi, 3i, Menlo Park, Calif.

WHO THEY ARE: Aslin is a partner in 3i's West Coast office. Badawi, a former genetic researcher for the National Institutes of Health, joined 3i last year as an entrepreneurial fellow. 3i invests $1.6 billion a year in buyouts and venture deals, the majority in health care and IT.

WHAT THEY WANT: A wireless home-monitoring network for recuperating hospital patients.

WHY IT'S SMART: No one likes extended hospital stays. Not patients, not hospitals, and not insurance companies paying bills that can exceed $5,000 a day. For the critically ill, there's no way around lengthy visits. But thousands of other patients could be sent home early if they could be monitored at home or at a lower-cost facility. Badawi and Aslin envision a wireless transmitter that would attach to existing hardware such as portable ECG machines and heart-rate and blood-pressure monitors. The device would send data through a wireless router to a cluster of back-office servers. The servers would function like a call center, routing a patient's vital signs to the right nursing station or on-call physician. Trimming just two days off the typical 10-day hospital stay for stroke victims would be a service worth $2.7 billion.

WHAT THEY WANT FROM YOU: Between you and a partner, you'll need expertise in medical device technology and database management to get a working demo ready to pitch to HMOs or insurance companies. Half a million dollars in seed money should be sufficient to get that far. "It's not the technology, it's the complexity of navigating the health-care system that's going to be difficult," Badawi says. If you can sign up an HMO to test the system, 3i promises $7.5 million more to bring it to market.



WHO: Randy Haykin, Outlook Ventures, San Francisco

WHO HE IS: Before co-founding Outlook in 1995, managing director Haykin held senior marketing positions at Apple, Viacom, and Yahoo. The firm's best bets in recent years include Classmates and Overture.

WHAT HE WANTS: Software that permits any Net-connected gadget in your home to access and display services like VOIP, instant messaging, and streaming television.

WHY IT'S SMART: Convergence is happening in fits and starts with the emergence of devices such as IP-linked LCDs in refrigerators and souped-up handsets and PDAs that can stream music and video. What's missing, though, is software allowing the devices to talk to one another, so you can use one to pick up where you left off with another on a messaging session, your voice-mail, or a tune you were listening to. ISPs need to sell the kinds of services convergence promises, but without software knitting them together, very little will converge.

WHAT HE WANTS FROM YOU: A prototype platform for a variety of devices. At least one senior member of your team should come from a consumer electronics giant.

SEND YOUR PLAN TO: Top of page