Business plans written for two FIU technologies took top honors recently at Startup Quest, an innovative competition pairing unemployed or underemployed workers with mentors who see promise in the cutting-edge technologies of Florida’s public universities.
Healical, a company based on College of Engineering & Computing researchers’ communications virtual machine technology, and InfinitD, a company based on Sakhrat Khizroev’s 3-D magnetic memory technology, won first and second place, respectively, in the competition’s technology track. The College of Engineering & Computing researchers who invented the technology that Healical is based on are Yi Deng, Peter Clarke, Steve Luis, Raju Rangaswami, Chi Zhang, Masoud Sadjadi and Vagelis Hristidis.
Startup Quest is a three-month entrepreneurship program created and piloted by the University of Florida and funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. This year the program is expanding throughout the state. Broward’s Startup Quest, which included the FIU technologies, is run by Workforce One, the county’s job-training agency.
The program solicits volunteer mentors who are experienced in founding or growing biotech or technology companies. In turn, the mentors select a technology from a Florida public university or NASA that they believe is viable commercially. They pitch their idea to highly educated Workforce One participants (78 percent of the participants have a master’s degree and 6 percent a doctorate), create a team and guide its members through the harrowing process of researching and creating a business plan to take the innovation to market.
“By going through this three-month process, the participants gain an enormous number of skill sets. And the universities that contribute these technologies get a very good, in-depth commercial assessment of their intellectual property,” said Cris Johnsrud, a member of the grant management team and one of the architects of the program. “It’s about creating synergies and instilling a culture of entrepreneurship in our communities.”
Team InfinitiD member Dana Gelman has a master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon in human-computer interaction. She gave the final presentation the day of the competition.
“I have taken from this process a lot of self confidence,” she said. “As an unemployed person you lose it a little bit, and we were able to regain it a bit, so that’s a big thing.”
The judges were investors, consultants and entrepreneurs. They asked tough questions of the teams. Is a patent even needed to pursue this opportunity? Why are you not showing a profit until year three? One judge told a technology team, “It seems like you guys found a cool technology so you decided to create a company, but I get the sense you don’t know what to do with it.”
“To have a successful spin-out company, to commercialize new technologies, it takes capital, of course, and raw technologies from our universities. But the critical element is management,” said Rhys Williams, president of Tequesta BioVentures and president and co-founder of New World Angels and one of the judges in the biotech track. “This was a really neat opportunity and platform for universities to access management to bring a new technology to market and attempt commercialization or to repurpose something that might have been sitting around on their shelves for awhile.”
This year, 150 participants were chosen from among nearly 500 applicants to form 17 teams for the Broward competition. Four of the technologies chosen by mentors were from FIU: In the technology track, the College of Engineering & Computing’s faculty (listed in the second paragraph of this article) and Khizroev’s technologies were selected; in the biotechnology track, Miro Gantar’s algae library and Madhavan Nair’s nanosilicone particles for breast implants and other devices were chosen.
“This really shows the breadth of our reach in the community,” said FIU’s Technology Management Director Peter Hernandez.
A number of teams, including Healical, said they intend to move forward with their plans.