It's 10am on a cool Sunday morning in San Francisco, and the terrible American coffee has done little to lift the mood inside the conference room of the JW Marriott hotel, not far from Union Square.

Outside, the streets are teeming with large men in small tutus (and other assorted folks in fancy dress), as the annual Bay to Breakers fun run winds its merry way from the Embarcadero to Ocean Beach.

But for a handful of jetlagged Kiwi entrepreneurs, today is all about perseverance of a different kind: they are getting down to the serious business of how to make US businesses take them seriously, and step one is to perfect a 10-second media soundbite.

"This is not the time to be modest," urges Peggy Bendel, a local PR consultant whose claim to fame is that she helped create the "I Love New York" campaign.

Peter Vanderbeke, a British-born Aucklander whose own claim to fame is that he is a genuine rocket scientist, proves to be a natural interviewee. He spouts something about his company's unique software preventing people from becoming guinea pigs, and earns full marks for "cut-through".

Expat Kiwi Rob Wishnowsky is also on hand to advise the group how to pitch to potential American investors. Wishnowsky knows what he's talking about - a graduate of Otago University, he has 20 years' experience in sales and marketing for companies such as Roche and Johnson & Johnson.

Afterwards, some of the entrepreneurs are more confused than ever about what it is they are supposed to be saying. But the lessons appear to pay off. Next day, when they present their business plans, the eminent American judges are highly complimentary.

"Some were much better than the average business plan that I see every day," remarks Veronica Descotte, an Argentinian with a PhD in molecular genetics who works for Burrill & Company, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm specialising in healthcare.

In fact, the training may have worked a little too well. "If anything, there was a little bit of grandiosity," suggests Guy Scalzi, whose firm Aspen Advisors consults to healthcare companies about their IT.

All the judges agree it is a good time to be selling innovative healthcare products in the US, although several mention that Kiwi companies might be better off aiming to partner with some of the bigger US players.

Jay Srini, a healthcare technology consultant based in Pittsburgh, mentions a small French firm, Capsule, which invented a way to connect bedside devices in hospitals, as an example of a firm which has followed the Intel model of expansion. "My advice would be to focus on niche areas and figure out how to partner with the larger players."

Other standard start-up advice is also dished out.

"There were too many companies where there was just one person," suggests David Clarke, a Kiwi director at Cranleigh Merchant Bankers. "It's a hard row to hoe to enter an international market anywhere, and they could have well done with getting some advisers from the market they were targeting."

Descotte agrees: "Investors will invest in a team, as much as technology. So if there's no team, there's no money."

The ultimate winner of this "innovation challenge", organised by NZ Trade & Enterprise, will be announced this month at a function in Auckland. There is prize money at stake, but for most of those involved, the roadshow's real value is the practical help given, and the access to key people who might otherwise take months or years to reach.

The US judges say it is the best example they have seen anywhere of a government-funded trade initiative - and they have seen a few.

"There is certainly nothing like this done at a government level in the States - although it's done in the private sector," says Scalzi.

"For goodness sakes, don't tell the Aussies," one Kiwi official jokes.

The next day is Tuesday, and after spending the day pitching to more potential investors, tonight everyone is on the red-eye to Washington DC where they will attend a full-day workshop on Food and Drug Administration regulations. In the evening they'll be off to another networking event, this time with bigwigs from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - where more bad coffee will be required to keep their eyelids open.

The day after that they will travel to New York, where they will give presentations to Pfizer's innovation committee. And so on and so on.

Many, such as haematologist Paul Harper, are trying to juggle their day jobs with this tour, which they admit is only possible thanks to the saintly efforts of families and colleagues back home.

Contrary to the stereotype, most of these entrepreneurs are in their 50s, or even 60s, and their stamina isn't what it was. Most admit the ultimate outcome would be a successful business they could exit via a trade sale.

It's a sensitive issue, given the widespread view that one of New Zealand's main problems is our fondness for selling fledgling companies to overseas owners.

But, notes one participant: "We'd love for local investors to give us money, but so far we haven't had much luck. So if an American investor can see the value, can you blame us for saying 'yes please'?"

Take aim

Thinking of entering the US market? There are some fundamental lessons you need to learn, say US healthcare experts - many of which apply to other industries as well.

* Don't aim at an entire sector. Find a niche and focus on that specific segment.

* You should, however, aim to eventually move into other segments, or even sectors.

* You need people in the US who will support you and endorse you. Get them onto your board, or your advisory board.

* There are plenty of competitions in the US for very early-stage companies. Use them as training.

* You need proof that your concept will work, and the more evidence the better.

* Make sure your team has a broad range of skills.

* Investors need to be convinced you know how to make a profit.

* Don't underestimate how hard it will be trying to change traditional behaviour and systems in the US.

* In healthcare, don't just target payers and providers. There is a big consumer market as well.

* For software, a solution for handheld devices such as iPhones is vital.

* Some venture capital firms, such as Burrill & Company, allow you to download your business plan onto their website for them to look at.

* It goes without saying that your IP must be protected before you can consider selling internationally.