The Biz

Asheville-based software company Jute Networks formally launched Jute, its Web-based platform aimed at helping people network and collaborate on projects, at the March 24 InnoVenture conference in Greenville, S.C.

The launch: Jute Networks CEO John Warner announced the launch of Jute, a Web-based software tool promoting project collaboration, at the March 24 InnoVenture conference in Greenville, S.C. Photo by Jason Sandford

Jute Networks Chief Executive John Warner hailed the product as a “powerful tool to help you accomplish what you need to accomplish.” By subscribing to Jute, users can share files, organize events and create online communities of people collaborating on projects. Jute can also represent relationships visually. Call it social networking for geeks.

“What we want to do is help you build community around you,” Warner told a lunch gathering of about 400 conference attendees. In a time of profound technological, economic and demographic change, he noted, “It becomes essential to grow sustainable, trusted relationships.”

The launch capped the work of Jute Networks founders Sean McDonald and Matthew Raker, who merged their company with Warner’s Swamp Fox LLC last year. Swamp Fox, based in Greenville, is an online community of innovators and entrepreneurs. Warner described Jute as a natural fit for Swamp Fox, which also produces the InnoVenture technology conference. The annual event brings together venture capitalists and entrepreneurs looking for financial support.

Just a couple of years ago, Jute was a startup looking for investors. It received funding from NC IDEA, which provides grants for entrepreneurs, and a loan from AdvantageWest, a nonprofit, public/private partnership promoting economic development in Western North Carolina. Then McDonald and Raker found Warner at Asheville’s Carolina Connect conference, and the merger was born. Warner, a proponent of technology development in South Carolina and across the Southeast, is a venture capitalist who, through Swamp Fox, has helped bring international attention to tech entrepreneurs in the Palmetto State. He’s the former chairman of Earth Fare Inc., the Asheville-based chain of organic grocery stores.

Jute Networks, says McDonald, is a networking tool that “builds communities to help people do their projects. The idea is, go get work done.” Jute aside, McDonald is also a staunch believer in conference networking. It’s all about building an “ecosystem of entrepreneurial support,” he says, hinting that an Asheville version of the InnoVenture conference may be in the works for 2010.

The March 24 event at the Carolina First Center in Greenville drew hundreds of tech-savvy angel investors, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs looking for the next big thing. Throughout the day, a succession of entrepreneurs gave eight-minute pitches, seeking to lure investors. One company was touting software aimed at green builders. Another pitched a secure locking-and-tracking system for shipping containers. Yet another promoted the potential uses of “superhydrophobic” materials that repel water.

Some speakers represented already-established companies. Andrew Roskill, chief financial officer of Bibliolife, said the Charleston, S.C.-based company—which digitizes books and has an inventory of 250,000 titles online—is looking to expand. For the most part, he noted, the nation’s economy is still low-tech, and business and government leaders need to focus on creating more high-tech jobs rather than “not losing the jobs we have.”

But the conference also featured newly minted businesspeople. Four Appalachian State University students—Spencer Price, Andrew Drake, Ryan Klinger and Justin Henry—recently won an entrepreneurial competition sponsored by AdvantageWest in which teams had to develop a marketable idea for reusing plastic bottles. The competition went national and the ASU team came out on top with their “re-cycle,” a bicycle with a frame made out of recycled plastic bottles.

Going booth to booth, the students collected business cards and explained their idea to anyone who would listen. So far, they said, their ride has been an eye-opening experience, if not always smooth.

“We think we’ve got a good idea and we’re pushing it, but you run into a lot of brick walls,” noted Price. “There are a lot of ups and downs.”

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