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Popularity Contest

Hot high-tech entrepreneurs

Between them, Gary Culliss, 29, and Mike Cassidy, 36, have qualifications sure to make most reassess their own "achievements." Cassidy has won a 2,000-mile car race across Australia, competed in marathons and studied jazz piano at the esteemed Berklee School of Music. Oh, and the Harvard Business School grad co-founded and sold a company before starting Direct Hit Technologies Inc. with Harvard Law School alum Culliss. (Who, by the way, wrote code at age 12, was a registered patent agent with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and invented the technology that would drastically reduce the pain of Internet searching.)

The innovative technology of which we speak is the Direct Hit Popularity Engine, available at partner search engines like HotBot and Lycos, or at http://www.directhit.com. During his patent-agent stint, Culliss realized the most efficient way to perform patent searches was to ask colleagues where they'd found needed information. The co-founder (who saved Direct Hit $50,000 in legal fees with his patent expertise) thought, Why not create an Internet search engine that would list only the most popular and relevant sites, as chosen by other users?

Culliss developed and entered the Direct Hit business plan in MIT's 1998 $50K Entrepreneurship Competition, the hotbed of networking and collaboration that brought Cassidy (who'd won the 1991 competition) and Culliss together. The newly formed team didn't just take the grand prize--within a month, they also secured their first round of $1.4 million in venture capital from Silicon Valley investment giant Draper Fisher Jurvetson and gave their $30,000 prize money to fellow finalists. Cassidy recounts the funding miracle: "We walked in, pitched them at 8:15 a.m., and at 4:30 p.m., they said `OK, here's your deal.' "

It's not always that easy. If you're new to business, building an advisory board of experienced entrepreneurs beforehand helps. "When we made our pitch, we had everything to start the company except the money," explains Culliss. "They jumped at the opportunity to fund a company ready to go."

Now the Wellesley, Massachusetts, company, whose other partners include Apple, LinkExchange, LookSmart and ZDNet, looks to go public and unveil its shopping engine this fall (its full search engine launched this summer); expansion to Europe and Asia is also in progress. In this crazy world of Internet company mergers, Cassidy adds, Direct Hit's destiny changes daily: "You're just about to make a deal, and then oops, the company gets bought by someone else." Well, at least life never gets boring.

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