Pitt Student Entrepreneurs Get Tough Love and Encouragement at Demo Day
July 2, 2019
More than a month after most Pitt students cleared campus for the summer, Brooke Walker continued to return at least once a week to participate in the Big Idea Center’s Blast Furnace student idea accelerator program.
Walker, a rising junior at the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, where she is a theater arts and Spanish major, has developed an entrepreneurial passion to bring healthy, fresh food to urban communities that she says are living in “food deserts” where access to healthy, affordable food is nearly nonexistent.
She had entered her idea for a food truck to help tackle this problem in underserved communities in the Randall Family Big Idea Competition earlier this year. Although she didn’t win a prize in the competition, she was invited to participate in the Blast Furnace as her mentor, Big Idea Center entrepreneur in residence Jeanine McCreary, saw tremendous potential, both in Walker and her idea.
Walker was one of a select group of teams from the Randall competition selected to participate in the eight week Blast Furnace program that recently capped off with a demonstration day, where the students pitched their ideas in front of a seasoned group of innovation and start-up experts who gave them valuable feedback on how to improve their go-to-market approach, refine their target market, and better present their ideas to potential partners and investors.
The demonstration was held at the AlphaLab Gear accelerator in East Liberty, where the students could draw inspiration from three Pitt student-led start-ups that previously went through the Randall competition, who were accepted in AlphaLab Gear’s most recent cohort. AlphaLab companies receive a $50,000 investment, together with work space and mentoring and networking opportunities.
“We’re hopeful that several of you will be participants in our program in the near future,” said Illana Diamond, Innovation Work’s director of hardware, to the Pitt student teams presenting.
Babs Carryer, director of the Big Idea Center at the Innovation Institute, urged the experts on hand to take off the kid gloves during the question and answer period after each 10-minute presentation.
“They have families that will tell them how good they are doing. We need you to give some tough love,” she said.
The panel obliged by poking and prodding each team — pointing out where their competitive analysis was weak, where their differentiation needed to be more clear and where they might need to pivot their idea to make it successful.
Panelists included Julie Guilick, President of Bally Design, Lou Camerlengo and Alex Gindin, President and VP of Operations respectively of FiveStar Development Inc., Barrie Athol, CEO of Ascender, another Pittsburgh accelerator, Rich Lunak, CEO of Innovation Works, the parent organization for AlphaLab and AlphaLab Gear, Zak Slayback, Principal of 1517 Fund, a Silicon Valley-based early stage investment fund, and international business executive Enrique Kaufer.
In addition to Walker’s prospective company, Healthy Soul, other teams that presented include:
This is a platform that provides risk scores for different treatment regimens that allows doctors and patients to have meaningful real-time discussion of the pros and cons of different treatment approaches. The scores draw from laboratory data, imaging, doctors’ notes and, through a natural language processing algorithm, it calculates risk scores for different treatments. The team is led by Garrett Coyan, a cardiothoracic surgery resident who is not new to innovation and entrepreneurship. He also co-leads the OneValve team that is developing a biopolymer processing technique for fabricating micro-fiber heart valves.
The team includes Edgar Aranda-Michel, Nick Koroly, Philip Harding and Rema Padma. Its faculty sponsor is Robert Kormos, professor of Cardiothoracic Surgery and Bioengineering.
This team is developing caffeinated eye drops that provide a quicker jolt of energy than coffee or energy drinks, and which lasts longer with no “crashes”. They are targeting young professionals, gamers, professional drivers and athletes. The team consists of MBA student, Nick Koroly, and business student, Kyle Guinness.
This team is developing a digital platform for college campuses to share content, advance sustainability. The team includes PhD student, Ron Idoko and business alumni, Saketa Rajprohat.
Led by senior mechanical engineering major, Evan Kaserman, and Kyle Wyche, a 2019 graduate of the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, the team is developing a device that can help CPR trainers and practitioners ensure that they are performing the procedure correctly and thus save lives when it matters the most.
This team is developing a wearable device to improve posture and balance for the elderly and people with movement disorders. The team includes Jake Meadows, product development engineer at the Pitt Human Engineering Research Laboratories and engineering undergrad, and Tyler Bray, patient interface engineer at Philips Respironics and also engineering undergrad.
Trek was the winner of the 2019 Randall Family Big Idea Competition top prize of $25,000. The team, led by engineering students Emily Siegel and Samantha Bunke, developing a chewing gum that removes plaque both mechanically and chemically made from biodegradable materials targeted to millennial generation people who often go two or more days without brushing their teeth.