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Off to a good start

Updated: December 14, 2012 - 10:19 am

Posted: December 7, 2012


Last summer Jeremy Alessi's home air conditioning unit died and he and his family found themselves sweating in 90-degree heat.

But with hot air came a great idea - Handheld Handyman, a dedicated video chat application. It was picked as one of the three winners of Start! Peninsula held at Christopher Newport University in Newport News earlier this month.

The idea came after a professional told Alessi he needed to see the unit in person to properly diagnose the problem but wouldn't be available for two days.

Unwilling to wait, Alessi used FaceTime on his iPhone to video chat with the repairman, allowing him to see the unit and fix the problem.

"That's when I had my ah-ha moment," Alessi said. "There was a dedicated objective for using video chat and it worked."

As a video game programmer, Alessi, 33, of Norfolk, was able to develop the technology on his own. He signed up for Start! Peninsula in search of branding and legal advice. He came away with both and $10,000 to get started.

The idea for Start! Peninsula came after StartNorfolk, which was first held in November 2011. Thomas Flake, director of the Peninsula Technology Incubator in Hampton, thought the Peninsula needed a startup weekend of its own.

Like StartNorfolk, Start! Peninsula was a weekend-long event designed to connect entrepreneurs with people who have investment capital, management, design and programming experience, to jump-start the best business ideas.

The cost to pitch a business idea at Start! Peninsula was $50 for students and $75 for nonstudents.


Of the 150 people who attended the event, 35 made a business pitch. Some of the products and service ideas presented were treadmill desks, theme swimming pool toys and personal shopping consultants.

A panel of three judges narrowed the pool of entrepreneurial hopefuls down to 10 on Friday. Each was awarded office space in one of the five sponsoring area incubators, free telephone and Internet service, and xTuple, a business management software program that's produced locally in Norfolk.

On Sunday, judges chose three finalists from the group of 10 and awarded each $10,000.

The sponsoring incubators included the James City County Business and Technology Incubator, the Hampton University Business Incubator, 757 Creative Space and the Peninsula Technology Incubator.

By the end of the month, Flake said he expects to have eight businesses operating out of the Peninsula Technology Incubator.

With a good turnout and a number of viable business ideas, the event's judges had the biggest problem - selecting the best 10.

"There were another five or six ideas that didn't pass that are still viable businesses," Flake said. "When you get that number of business ideas it's a great success."

In addition to Handheld Handyman, Oralize, a device to detect the early stages of oral cancer through saliva, and Olde Virginia Cidery, a hard apple cider brewery, were the other two finalists.

Ankit Shah, 27, behind the idea for Oralize, is a doctorate student at the University of Virginia. He's studying at the NASA Langley Research Center and plans to stay in Hampton and develop his product idea. Last Wednesday, he said he was still trying to figure out how to utilize the money and proceed with development of the company.

William Correll, 22, creator of the Olde Virginia Cidery, is a student at Hampden-Sydney College. The college's Center for Entrepreneurship and Political Economy sponsored his trip to the event and his entry.


Originally Correll's plans were to locate the brewery in Martinsville, but now that he's made so many East Coast connections at Start! Peninsula, he wants to locate the brewery in Hampton Roads.

Event coordinators decided not to exclude candidates from outside Hampton Roads although the event wasn't advertised across the state.

About the cidery, Flake said, "The judges felt it was an idea of sufficient quality that should create jobs in the commonwealth, so it won the award."

In the future, Flake said, the plan is to make Start! Peninsula an annual event separated from StartNorfolk by six months.

"It's part of our overall strategy to put in place an entrepreneurial ecosystem," he said.

Start! Peninsula was sponsored by the James City County and York County economic development departments, the cities of Hampton and Newport News, the Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce and various area businesses.