Showcase Is Launch Pad for Budding Businesses : Investment: Newport Beach conference puts focus on 32 high-potential growth firms seeking venture capital.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Her company was not scheduled to make its pitch for another day, but Mar-Jeanne Tendler was busy Thursday trying to stir interest among potential investors in her company's $5 computer software.

But standing by patiently is not Tendler's style: After less than a year in business, she has already taken the $5 Computer Software Store concept public with a stock offering. "I don't like to wait around," she explained.

Tendler's San Clemente business is one of the young enterprises at the seventh annual Southern California Conference for Emerging Growth Companies. The top executives of small companies hawking everything from nonalcoholic wines to laser dental tools are presenting overviews of their companies and products during two days of deal-making with venture capitalists. This year's session continues today at Le Meridien Hotel in Newport Beach.

The 32 companies giving presentations this year were selected from 200 applicants reviewed by the conference's sponsors, which included the investment bank Cruttenden & Co. and the law firm Stradling, Yocca, Carlson & Rauth, both of Newport Beach; and the accounting and consulting firm Ernst & Young in Costa Mesa.

The entrepreneurial pageant has generally been worthwhile for participating companies. Thirteen of the three dozen that appeared last year found investors, said Walter Cruttenden III, chairman of Cruttenden & Co.

Investors say they are looking for small companies that have the potential to become big. Good prospects will have either a successful track record or a potential breakthrough that puts them on the verge of a boom. Orange County is fertile ground for such companies because of its large number of health-care and computer-related companies.

"We think that health care is one area that's going to be hot during the '90s," said James R. Bergman, a general partner in the venture-capital company DSV Partners in Newport Beach.

Despite the recession, there is still a significant pool of venture capital available, although investors are being more choosy than in the past, said Ralph Sabin, director of entrepreneurial services for Ernst & Young.

$5 Computer Software's Tendler is one of many entrepreneurs hoping to see some of that capital.

Tendler's business is based on "shareware"--computer software made available free by its authors in hopes of receiving donations from consumers who buy it at mass-merchandise stores. Her company needs $1 million, Tendler said, to build enough display stands to put its computer programs in a chain such as Walmart or K mart. The $5 programs are already being sold in Air Force post exchanges, K mart stores in Canada, even the gift shops at John Wayne Airport.

"There's a lot of interest," she said.

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