Power networking

Nate Justiss, a co-founder of Distil Union, observed several cutting-edge 3-D printers with business partner Lindsay Windham during their first trip to the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

For many of the Holy City businesses that traveled to Sin City for the International Consumer Electronics Show this week, the experience really wasn't about the coolest new gadgets.

The annual showcase of the latest technologies in consumer goods is considered the proving ground for innovators around the globe. To run a booth at the Las Vegas show, like some Charleston companies did this year, is an achievement in itself. But for smaller businesses, just being near the excitement is a once-a-year opportunity to plug into - and maybe capitalize on - a vast network of resources, all in a single venue.

ISI Technology, a Charleston-based business that developed a digital, tankless water heater, was given a high-profile spot on the show floor by partnering with the much larger Qualcomm, a leading supplier of smartphone chips and wireless platforms.

Jerry Callahan, chief executive officer of ISI, said he went to Qualcomm in July for help creating a technology that could connect the heater to the Internet.

"During one of our meetings, they brought in some very senior people who just loved our technology for heating water ... so they said, 'We don't do this very often but would you like to be in our booth at the Consumer Electronics Show?' "

The water heater, called the Heatworks Model 1, was featured in the sink of a display kitchen showcasing Qualcomm's home-automation systems.

A small booth could have cost ISI $100,000, Callahan said, and it wouldn't have given the company quite as much exposure.

Since water heaters aren't a common sight at CES, he said, he's made significant connections with appliance company representatives that have passed through the Qualcomm display over the past few days.

"They're asking if we can have a call next week or come meet them wherever they are, so my calendar is already pretty full for the next two weeks," Callahan said.

Zubie, a Sullivan's Island company that specializes in car-monitoring software and plug-in devices, has returned to CES for the third year for the networking opportunities.

"Really, for a company like ours, virtually everyone you need to talk to is right in the same room for three or four days, so it really turbocharges your partnership and business development discussions," CEO Tim Kelly said.

The company has been mostly featured at CES with PEQ, a home-automation system that Zubie recently partnered with.

With the two technologies, consumers can program their home-automation system to detect when they're on the way home, so the lights can be turned on and the alarm turned off by the time they pull into the driveway.

Those are the sorts of changes that eLifespaces, a local home-automation business, has monitored at CES for more than a decade.

"We go there to watch trends, and I will see something there that you won't see for two years, but we have to get ready for it," eLifespaces founder Fred Fabian said.

His Meeting Street Road company, a member of the Consumer Electronics Association, was recognized at the event this year with a "Mark of Excellence" award for the installation of a lighting-control system and integrated security system.

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"It's a very prestigious award, so I wear it proudly," Fabian said Thursday.

Nate Justiss and Lindsay Windham of Distil Union, a local startup that makes tech-oriented products such as phone cases, were newcomers to the show this year. The two co-founders are developing their company's first-ever electronic product this year, so they wanted to visit the showcase to see if anybody else had the same idea.

"There's some cool design elements that are cool to look at, but overall it confirmed our current road map as creative and different," Justiss said.

Plus, the entrepreneurs have been to many meetings with potential partners, investors and former colleagues, which is part of the reason they plan to return next year.

"We don't have a booth, so really we're walking the floor and making personal connections with companies that inspire us," Windham said.

"Everybody is here, so it's a great way to get your year's worth of networking," Justiss added.

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail