Venture capitalists check out StartUP FIU companies

FIU’s push to ramp up new businesses in support of the South Florida economy culminated in the campus visit of nine venture capitalists eager to hear about the Next Big Thing.

The high-powered funders on Tuesday heard pitches by 14 founders of early-stage companies who participated in StartUP FIU, the university’s new business incubator. Also present: some 250 members of the FIU and South Florida communities keen to learn about the latest innovations.

“This gives you a little opportunity to see where the markets are moving, where interest is, where emerging trends are coming from,” said Rahul Kothari with the investment firm Ironview Capital Management. “All the teams did a really amazing job. I look forward to spending more time with some of them.”

Kothari and others from Athenian Venture Partners, MIT Enterprise Forum of South Florida, Florida Angel Nexus Fund, Urban Us and Keiretsu Forum listened to five-minute presentations in the Graham Center Ballroom at the Modesto A. Maidique Campus. Then they peppered the presenters with questions about competition, revenue and scalability.

“It’s obvious all of these entrepreneurs have been mentored, have been given an immense amount of resources,” Kothari noted. “I’ve been very impressed with FIU’s commitment.”


On stage: Helene Wilson, founder of Helene’s Ice Cream, addresses potential investors at an event organized by StartUP FIU. The business incubator helps entrepreneurs develop early-stage companies into scalable enterprises. Wilson has plans to establish a national brand.


Just three months ago, StartUP FIU welcomed its first cohort of entrepreneurs from among 160 applications. These ambitious individuals—FIU students, alumni and local residents with no FIU affiliation—each brought with them a solid idea for a scalable venture and in return received coaching, skills training, advising, access to speakers and additional resources, all at no charge.

The state-funded incubator uses a process-oriented approach that requires the entrepreneurs to conduct market analysis and other critical research. That information was an important part of the pitch-day presentations, but making a strong case to investors often came down to storytelling.

“It was glorious,” Andru Fratarcangeli said after nailing his presentation. He is the founder of an online marketplace that connects videogaming professionals with contracts, funding, endorsements and rankings within the rapidly growing e-sports industry. In the past he had a hard time talking about his company without slipping into technical jargon, but no longer.

“I’m more analytical in nature, so it took a little while for me to understand the storytelling aspect,” he explained. “The staff here has been phenomenal. They said, ‘You’ve got the numbers, you understand the business, but you need to learn to tell the stories, explain it to the people who aren’t gamers.’”

Fratarcangeli accomplished that task by comparing the huge following associated with e-sports—which includes hundreds of millions of active participants and viewers around the world—to those of the NFL and other major league sports. In one slide he showed projected company revenues of $118 million by 2020. In making his pitch for $228,000, he threw out a provocative question that led to strong engagement with the funders: “’If you could go back in time and invest in the NFL, the NBA, the MLB or any of these other major sports, would you?’”

Jason Dettbarn introduced a business that he developed in collaboration with a senior design course at FIU’s School of Computing and Information Sciences. His team includes several former students, now alumni, who worked with him on the project and are currently employed at the company. Started in 2014, Addigy provides a cloud-based IT management platform for Mac computers and is already profitable. Dettbarn’s request for $950,000 was met with a promising response from Howard Lubert of Keiretsu Forum: “If the numbers are right, we’ll fund you.”

All deals will be negotiated behind closed doors, and StartUP FIU will offer any advice and other assistance as requested. Pitch day represented an opportunity for founders to perfect their stories, introduce their companies to the community and make connections with members of the audience as they look for future opportunities. In attendance were a number of local businesspeople eager to lend a hand to individual entrepreneurs as well as get involved with the incubator.

Alumnus Daryl Arias earned a master’s degree in international business from FIU in 2006 and regrets that StartUP was not around for him when he launched his recycling business. He attended the gathering both out of interest and to show support.

“I think every person [in South Florida] should come here and try to help these young people to achieve what they want to do,” he said. “There is some really cool stuff coming up here.”

Among the innovations the new companies showcased during the event: a virtual reality physical therapy system; a cloud-based eye-disease screening system; an e-commerce marketplace for aircraft and engine parts; a device that produces ingestible flavor “pearls” for use in the food industry; a user-based platform for reserving athletic fields in support of amateur pickup games; a social medium dedicated to effectively sharing sound; an app for efficiently organizing course assignments to help students excel; and an app that surveys voters and candidates and then connects the two based on shared valued.

StartUP’s second cohort will be announced later this month, and accelerators dedicated specifically to the areas of technology and food will be coming online soon. To stay informed about upcoming application deadlines, interested entrepreneurs can sign up for a newsletter at Watch the full Pitch Day video here.