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Entrepreneurial Panthers come on strong at campus “pitch day” attended by Florida officials
Undergraduates Gabriel Habech and Michael Romano pitched their company BeyondSight, which offers a “sensory system” to help those with visual impairment navigate their environment.

Entrepreneurial Panthers come on strong at campus “pitch day” attended by Florida officials

They led a pack of enterprising company founders - each with earnings or investments of $1 million+ – who presented to movers and shakers eager to understand the future of tech and innovation in the state.

June 17, 2024 at 4:08pm

As the fastest growing state in the nation, Florida ranks number one in new business formation and tech job growth. At the heart of this boom is the state’s dynamic support of innovation and entrepreneurship, offering those with new ideas the opportunity to bring their inventions to market for the benefit of all.

In an effort to better connect a variety of Florida’s high-growth technology companies with elected officials and decision-makers, the Florida Department of Commerce recently hosted “Florida Pitch Day at FIU.”

“FIU prides itself on being at the forefront of education, research and community engagement,” said FIU President Kenneth A. Jessell. “Inviting the brightest minds and most innovative companies in the state to pitch at FIU showcases our university’s critical role in successfully preparing students, faculty and researchers to tackle the challenges of the 21st century. Additionally, FIU’s support of local innovators and small businesses is a testament to our unwavering commitment to the continued growth of Florida’s tech economy.”

The day-long event was attended by the secretaries of the departments of commerce, elder affairs, management services and healthcare administration.

“We at the Florida Department of Commerce understand the importance of working with innovative companies just beginning to scale, as they represent not only the present but the future of our great state,” said TJ Villamil, president of Business Development at Florida Commerce and president of SelectFlorida, the state’s official international commerce organization.

Offering Florida-based companies the opportunity to showcase their innovative businesses in a “Shark Tank” format, Florida Pitch Day at FIU featured a number of FIU-affiliated startups in the fields of aerospace, supply chain, healthcare and health tech, life sciences, AI, FinTech, clean tech and more. Many of the companies have worked closely with StartUP FIU, the university’s dedicated innovation hub, to secure grants and other sources of funding, understand how to translate their research for market commercialization and gain valuable advice on how to succeed in their entrepreneurial journey.

Diana Azzam, assistant professor of environmental health sciences and scientific director of FIU's Center for Advancing Personalized Cancer Treatments, was on had as her colleagues presented how their company, First Ascent Biomedical, is tackling hard-to-treat cancers.

“I learned early in my research that very few lab-made discoveries actually get to patients” said Azzam, who focuses on providing individualized treatments for cancer patients who have exhausted traditional care options. “That is why events like this are critical, allowing researchers like myself to interact with government officials and business experts who understand how to successfully bring innovations to market.” Azzam also credits her time spent at StartUP FIU with helping her understand what it takes to commercialize her research, saying all FIU researchers should take advantage of this invaluable on-campus resource.

Similarly, JunZhu “Jenny” Pei, an FIU Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering, was able to showcase a groundbreaking invention that will help diagnose the risk of preterm birth. 

Developed as part of the medical photonics laboratory led by Jessica Ramella Roman, the wand-sized portable imaging system enables doctors to visualize assess stability of the cervix, the organ responsible for keeping the fetus in the womb. A weakened cervix can lead to preterm birth, which can result in serious health complications and even mortality for both the infant and the mother.

“I am thrilled to have been a part of an event that brings together impressive founders, companies and governmental officials, who can shine a brighter light on our medical innovations and help us get more funding,” said Pei, whose team earlier received an NSF I-Corp grants, which providing intial funding toward commercialization.

Another trailblazing company in the newborn and maternal healthcare space is Veba Baby, founded by computer science doctoral student Veon Brewster. A smart baby bottle monitor that tracks the expiration of breast milk and formula, Veba Baby appeared on Shark Tank this past April and will line the shelves of Target stores nationally in the next few months.

“It was such a pleasure to pitch in front of Florida’s state leaders and business owners,” said Brewster, who is currently working with StartUP FIU to secure funding from federal agencies and other organizations. “I look forward to networking with top decision-makers interested in learning more about innovative products in healthcare tech, infrastructure and supply chain.”

BeyondSight was yet another inspiring team of StartUP FIU innovators who pitched during the day-long competition. Founded by engineering undergrads Michael Romano and Gabriel Habech, BeyondSight uses a set of AI glasses and sensory belt to provide assistive technology for the visually impaired.

Among the many FIU alums who pitched at the event, were Charles Masters Rodriguez, founder and CEO of AutoKet, an online B2B marketplace for auto parts, as well as Diego Yanez, founder and CEO of alfred, a payments infrastructure company that partners with both financial technology and traditional, regulated financial institutions in Latin America.

“This pitch competition offered great exposure for our business,” said Yanez, who graduated from FIU in 2017. “It provided us with the opportunity to highlight how our business is harnessing the future of finance.”