Sometimes, amid the blur of handshakes and business- card exchanges, you wonder whether anyone really ever does a deal at one of the many technology networking events around town, or if everyone there is just missing another dinner with the family.

Here's one indication that sometimes it's worth it to go: About six months ago, Richard Leavy and Shawn O'Connor sat next to each other at a technology industry dinner--they can't remember which one, now--and today they're launching a company together.

Leavy, who had been the chief executive of Neuristics Corp. in Baltimore, was a cashed-out entrepreneur looking for the Next Big Thing and O'Connor was the guy with the Idea.

Leavy, 46, remembers O'Connor, 25, proudly proclaiming he'd invented something to solve the dreaded spam problem, the scores of unwanted and often offensive messages that invade almost everyone's electronic-mail boxes. Leavy thought, "Yeah, right."

Today they launch, a Bethesda company that provides users with free e-mail and protection against spam. And oh, yes, it also targets them for the service's own commercial mail, but only if they want it. Users won't see it as spam, the founders explain without missing a beat--it will be like that one in 10 catalogues that you really do want to to get.

Rounding out the founding team is Ray Cromwell, 27, whose claim to fame is finding one of the first security flaws in Netscape 1.0.

"We've been on the Internet since 1987," says O'Connor of himself and Cromwell, who studied computer science together at the University of Maryland. Leavy calls himself the "adult supervision," using the line that often describes the resident gray-hair in a youthful and often inexperienced company.

Spam is still one of the great annoyances of cyberspace. Other companies have developed filters to screen out the stuff, which can range from get-rich-quick schemes to pornography. A June Gartner Group report found that--surprise--83 percent of those surveyed disliked spam, mainly because it takes time to delete it, it invades their privacy and it's simply offensive.

There are many spam filters around. Most use a list of domain names to be refused. Spammers are on to that game, and change their addresses to get through.'s service goes a step further: When you sign up for it, any e-mail from people you've put into your address book automatically gets through to your box. But the system will send back an e-mail from any unfamiliar source, saying that it's testing for spam.

It asks for a mouse click on a word in a randomly generated sentence, like "Mary had a little lamb." If it's a human who sent the message, the person makes the click and the message will get through. If, however, the sender was a machine, the kind that sends hundreds or thousands of bulk spam messages, it won't be able to click and the message never reaches you.

The MsgTo system separates what it thinks to be mailing-list e-mail as opposed to spam. And, if you want, it color-codes your mail in categories, like business, friends and family. "It's like a doorman," says O'Connor.

It's got that "viral" marketing thing going, too, because anyone who takes the "are you human test" and passes can instantly sign up for the service.

Cool idea. How do you make money from it, though?

While is marketing itself as an anti-spamming service, at the same time it's going to get involved in getting sales pitches to its users. When they sign up, it asks them to fill out the standard kind of personal information form that you find on the Internet--questions about their after-hours interests, etc., so it can target e-mail advertisements directly to them.

The customer chooses what kinds of ads to get, and the maximum number to drop into his e-mail box every week. "I don't want to hear about barely legal teens but I do want to hear about golf," says O'Connor.

Leavy says customers can get free e-mail even if they say they want zero ads per week. They don't have to fill out the survey at all.

The company is now funded mainly by Leavy's take from his last job, an amount he'll only describe as "enough," but will soon go on the hunt for angel or venture capital investment.

Ever wonder where all the little local Internet providers have gone?

A good many have been bought up by Web roll-up company Verio Inc. of Englewood, Colo., which has quietly been expanding its Internet presence in Washington.

Its purchase Tuesday of DigitalNation Inc. of Alexandria for $100 million in cash marks the fourth time Verio has snapped up a local Internet service provider in the past two years. Verio has also taken over Internet Interstate of Bethesda, ClarkNet of Columbia and Monumental Network Systems Inc. of Chantilly.

It already has its own street name, "AOL Way." The next addition to America Online Inc.'s massive Dulles campus may be . . . a heliport.

There's a big airport close by, so one can only assume AOL is looking to make life easier for its executives who own planes and for its highflying business associates.

The Federal Aviation Administration has given preliminary approval to AOL's June request. The decision now moves on to the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors.

Send tips and tales of the digital capital's local people, deals and events to Shannon Henry at


Got ideas or comments for TechThursday? Send e-mail to Or write to TechThursday, The Washington Post, 1150 15th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

CAPTION: The founders of Bethesda's, from left: Ray Cromwell, chief technology officer; Richard B. Leavy, president and chief executive; and Shawn O'Connor, senior vice president.