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Have an idea? So do I: Cornell's popular events for alumni entrepreneurs are business matchmakers

Mark Marchionni

Mark Marchionni 74 See larger image

At the end of Cornell Entrepreneur Network events, guests are invited to stand and present 30-second business pitches to the room.

When it was his turn to speak at a recent CEN event in Cambridge, Mass., Mark Marchionni '74 told the crowd of more than 100 fellow Cornellians that he welcomed advice on just about every aspect of starting a biotech business: "Legal, business development, finance."

"I was taking off from the ground, flying by the seat of my pants last spring," says Marchionni, a biologist who had just launched Alzcor Pharmaceuticals Inc., ("Alz" for Alzheimer's and "cor" for Cornell), a company that aims to develop drugs that diminish the production of toxic beta-amyloid in the brain, one of the primary chemical causes of Alzheimer's disease. "I didn't even have a draft business plan," he remembers.

But he did have a clear goal. "As an entrepreneur, you've got to be focused," he says. "With this company, I wanted to think of how to have an impact on Alzheimer's disease based on my knowledge of biology and ability to develop new treatments, rather than on some platform technology."Marchionni, who worked for 15 years at Cambridge Neuroscience, holds several medical patents and worked as a researcher in the Harvard lab of Walter Gilbert, winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1980.

What happened next was something CEN director Magdalena Kalinka has witnessed many times.

"You see them turn to the next person at the table, and you see them exchanging business cards. We try to measure that in our surveys," she explains, "just how many connections we're fostering." Her best guess, she says, is "thousands."

Many people did come up to Marchionni at the end of the evening to hand him business cards, give him encouragement or mention the name of someone he should talk to.

"It was very easy. And it did create a lot of follow-up, which to me is the essence of what networking is supposed to be about," says Marchionni.

CEN hosts around 100 events a year featuring what Kalinka calls "superstar" speakers on topics ranging from the general, such as mentoring or job hunting tips, to niche subjects like green design or small-business opportunities for surgeons. Almost all speakers and the 5,000 guests who participate in a given year are Cornellians. Speakers have included "60 Minutes" producer Ira Rosen '76, Wrigley President and CEO Bill Perez '69 and director of communications for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Robert Rosen, J.D. '96.

CEN -- which along with Cornell Wall Street, Cornell Silicon Valley and Cornell on the Road make up Cornell Business Communities -- also puts on around 20 webinars annually to give alumni outside the 14 cities CEN operates in a chance to hear and interact with presenters.

Since his first nervous performance at the 30-second open mic, Marchionni has attended six more CEN events and made connections with scores of Cornellians, including Howard Fillit '70, the executive director of the well-funded Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation, the only public charity devoted to "accelerating the discovery and development of drugs" to fight Alzheimer's, through grants to pharmaceutical companies just like Marchionni's.

With his comprehensive business plan, ample practice pitching his business and a solid start at assembling an advisory group, Marchionni still has one big hope from his CEN involvement: that it will help him find a business partner, someone with a comparable level of passion, expertise and time to devote to making Alzcor Pharmaceuticals into an innovative and self-sustaining venture.

Shannon Murray '94, senior director of Cornell Business Communities, is optimistic about Marchionni's chances. "In my time overseeing these CEN events and attending hundreds of them myself, I've come to appreciate the awesome power of networking, but especially networking among fellow Cornellians," he says.

"As a group, Cornell alumni are an amazing resource: smart, diverse, accomplished and connected. I am very proud of our work to put Cornellians in touch with each other and with truly valuable insight and information from leaders at the vanguard of business, finance and entrepreneurship."

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