The Art of the Pitch

It might sound trite, but it’s nevertheless true that success doesn’t just happen by luck. It takes preparation and practice, and, as Cornelia Huellstrunk has learned in the past six years, it helps if you listen to input.

Huellstrunk, the associate director of the Keller Center at Princeton University, is the woman in charge of Keller’s 11th annual Innovation Forum, which will take place on Wednesday, February 24, at 3 p.m. at the Andlinger Center. The forum features teams of Princeton University graduate and post-docs students and faculty presenting ideas for tech and science-based startups to a panel of judges and in front of an audience of angel investors, venture capitalists, students, faculty, staff, and members of the Princeton area entrepreneurial community.

Teams compete for $30,000 in prize money, which is awarded to the top three entries. The competition will be followed by a keynote address from Gordon Ritter, founder and general partner of Emergence Capital Partners in San Mateo, California, and a 1986 Princeton graduate. Demonstrations and a networking reception will close out the event. The forum is free to attend and open to the public. Visit www.kellercenter.princeton.edu.

Huellstrunk says she is grateful for Ritter agreeing to come to the forum to keynote. “He’s a huge supporter of innovation and design thinking,” she says. “He’s really representative of the direction the Keller Center is going in.”

While the Innovation Forum is in its 11th year, this is Huellstrunk’s sixth go-around with the competition. Born in Italy, her family moved to Switzerland when she was four years old. A few years later, when she came to the United States, “English became my fourth language,” she says. For the record, the rest are German, Italian, and French, though the last two, she admits, are no longer her strongest languages.

Her father is a physicist — “which explains all the moves,” she says — who works at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Her mother, a potter and printmaker, is what Huellstrunk would call “an accomplished artist.” Even if her mother wouldn’t necessarily agree. Huellstrunk managed to get the scientific and artistic strengths of both.

In 1991 Huellstrunk earned her bachelor’s in architecture and economics from Columbia, then returned to Europe for grad school. She received her MBA from Universitat des Saarlandes in Germany, near the French border, in 1995.

A year later she went to work for Texas Instruments in Dallas, where she became the marketing manager. She worked for TI for 12 years, in the U.S. and Europe, before joining Keller in 2009.

Though she is not one of the judges for the Innovation Forum, Huellstrunk is in charge of choosing them. A strong advocate of female entrepreneurship and overall entrepreneurial diversity, she assembled a six-judge panel that she says offers a broad, diverse perspective on the business of turning innovative ideas into business.

**Boiling it down. So what exactly does it take to convert what Huellstrunk says are “years of highly technical research into three-minute pitches?” you might ask. For one thing, it takes a lot of coaching help.

Unlike a lot of student entrepreneurial contests, Keller’s Innovation Forum does not just throw people at a panel of judges and see who comes through best. Huellstrunk says teams are guided through preparing their pitches and are videoed giving their pitches weeks before the contest day. The judges ?? the actual ones from the contest ?? watch the videos and offer notes to the presenters so that when the real moment to present comes, they will have a better handle on how to make a dynamite presentation.

There also is a dry-run of the presentation the day before the contest.

Huellstrunk’s biggest tip? Listen to what the judges say. The teams that win are usually the ones that most take to heart what the judges are telling them to do. And that’s a piece of advice for anyone looking to make a pitch for the angels of the world.

A better pitch. Over the past six years, Huell­strunk has seen a few issues show up regularly in pitches and presentations as they’re being developed. If there is any advice to give, she would start with something that sounds suspiciously like the venerable old chestnut of Advertising 101 ?? always keep your audience in mind. “Know who the technology is for,” she says. “Who will be using it.”

Sounds basic, but a lot of science-based entrepreneurs are scientists first and communicators second. They know how to make astounding things, but their love for the scientific process can get in the way of making an effective case for why someone should put money behind the idea.

“If you can tie a presentation to an experience others can relate to, that’s a big, big help,” Huellstrunk says.

She admits that in many cases, entrepreneurs working on biotech or pharmaceutical innovations have a slight advantage with this. It’s easier to humanize an idea when you can show how a disease is affecting a large swath of people, she says. But it is not as easy to humanize an abstract technology no one will really think about while it’s doing its thing.

Another piece of advice: “practice, practice, practice,” she says. “As much as the judges don’t want to pay attention to the quality of the presentation, it matters.”

In other words, showmanship counts more than anyone wants to admit. If you doubt that, consider a guy like Steve Jobs, who was able to make Apple the biggest tech company in the world by delivering heady talks about the magic of connecting humanity through technology.

One last piece of advice: less is more. Do not overcomplicate a pitch that when it’s done has raised more questions than it answers, Huellstrunk says. And yes, this is the kind of stuff the judges coach teams to do as well.

“In many ways, this is a very unique program,” Huellstrunk says of the forum. “There are many business plan opportunities for students, but this is created in a true entrepreneurial mindset. It’s a true business plan competition.”

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