Nearly 50 Pitt students of all levels, who spent the past eight weeks putting their business ideas through a rigorous development process overseen by an experienced mentor, pitched their ideas to a panel of judges from the Pittsburgh startup community at the William Pitt Union.

The best presentation as selected by the judges was Utranslated, comprised of three students from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, which aims to be the Uber of language translation services, matching freelance translators with clients.

uTranslated team members (left to right) Nicole Xu, Lujing Gao and John Frazier, celebrate winning the Blast Furnace Cup with program director Greg Coticchia.

The Utranslated team came together in October during a Startup PittBlitz event, at which students from across the university with entrepreneurial aspirations converge at the Blast Furnace space at the Pitt Innovation Institute on a Friday evening, and work over the next 24 hours to form teams, flesh out a business idea, culminating with an investor pitch the following afternoon.

“The Blast Furnace program gave us fantastic connections and insight from mentors who have helped us tremendously in bringing uTranslated to life,” said CEO John Frazer. “We plan to move forward with this business, incorporating next month and applying to local accelerator programs. We want to keep this momentum going and build a successful business right here in Pittsburgh. The startup community in this city is vibrant and brotherly.”

Runner-ups were BuzzBand, which has developed an alcohol monitoring wrist-band targeted to school districts and FoodChain, which has developed an app to compete with Yelp by providing an improved platform for searching, sharing and critiquing restaurants.

Student program participation rising rapidly

The second Blast Furnace cohort of 16 teams and 50 students represented a doubling in participation from the first cohort last spring.

“There in an entrepreneurial hunger growing on this campus,” Coticchia said. “We’re doing our best at the Innovation Institute to feed it.”

Coticchia pointed out that the students who participated in Blast Furnace did so in addition to their academic coursework.

“They put as much or more time into the Blast Furnace, which offers no credits, as they did into any one of their regular courses. That speaks volumes about their passion for their ideas,” he said.

Coticchia said the key to Blast Furnace’s success is the volunteer contributions of nearly 50 people who donate their time to coach the student teams and offer advice from their own startup experience. This includes an experienced group of mentors from the Pittsburgh startup community.

The judges for the Demo Day included the leaders of the business accelerators Alphalab Gear, Idea Foundry, and ThrillMill, and Innovation Works, as well as Revv Oakland, which provides co-working startup space in Oakland.

Bobby Zappala, co-founder and CEO of Thrill Mill, said that the enhanced Innovation Institute support for student entrepreneurship over the past three years is staring to pay dividends in the number and quality of student startups.

“I saw several of these companies at the Startup PittBlitz event in October when their ideas were just beginning to take shape. I was pleased to see the evolution and maturation of their ideas as they have gone through Blast Furnace program,” he said. “It’s clear they have a better idea of who their customers are and what value their product or service provides, as well as a firmer grasp of what it will take to make their vision a reality. I ‘ve got my eye on a few of these companies that I hope will be applying to Thrill Mill.”

The next Blast Furnace cohort will take place in April 2016 with applications accepted. starting March 1, 2016.

For more information, contact Greg Coticchia at

Many of the teams will enter the Randall Family Big Idea Competition (RFBIC) in the next semester. The RFBIC awards $100,000 in prizes to student teams that have members from at least two Pitt schools/colleges to assist them in further developing their business ideas.

Frazer said uTranslated will be among those applying.

“Even though we have graduated from Blast Furnace, the Pitt Innovation Institute has not seen the last of us yet,” he said.