December 12, 2016

With the Pitt Dance Team warming up a packed house in the O’Hara Student Center ballroom, 14 startup teams from the Pitt Blast Furnace student accelerator prepared for a lightning round of 90-second pitches hoping to make the cut to the final round of five.

The Demo Day event marked the culmination of eight weeks of extracurricular commitment on behalf of more than 30 students of all levels from across the university with a burning entrepreneurial desire. The program took them through an intense “Lean Launchpad” curriculum whereby they interviewed prospective customers to help them develop a value proposition for converting their idea into a marketable product or service. The students also work one-on-one with a mentor who helps guide them through the process.

Click here to see a description of all the teams.

The Aeronics team of Swanson School of Engineering PhD candidate Alec Kaija and undergraduate friends Blake Dube (Swanson) and Mark Spitz (School of Education) used Blast Furnace as a capstone to their entrepreneurial journey through Pitt Innovation Institute programming.

Previous to entering Blast Furnace, the trio had taken advantage of the education and mentoring offered through the Innovation Institute’s Pitt Ventures Gear Program and had won the top prize in the Randall Family Big Idea Competition and both the Michael G. Wells Student Healthcare Competition and the Kuzneski Innovation Cup.


Aeronics, the first place winners of Demo Day, proudly display their check for $2,500. (Left to right, Mark Spitz, Alec Kaija, and Blake W. Dube)

They had also been a runner-up in the Pitt Innovation Challenge (PInCh) competition.

At Demo Day, they once again impressed judges from Pittsburgh’s entrepreneurship ecosystem to take the top prize.

Dube said the Blast Furnace experience helped them build on the momentum they had established with their idea as they prepare to launch their company, Aeronics, as a full-fledged startup that he and Spitz will dedicate themselves to full-time upon their graduation in the spring.

“The Blast Furnace connected us with mentors that we saw week-in and week-out, which was very helpful in terms of fine-tuning our pitch, value proposition, and the general value that we want to bring to our customers,” he said. “Being immersed in the program for 8 weeks brought us closer to our idea and to other student entrepreneurs.”

Spitz added, “My favorite part about Blast Furnace was the guest speakers that came in during Wednesday sessions. The speakers taught us about the good and the bad in entrepreneurship. It gave our team the chance to address business questions we had never thought of.”

The Aeronics team is building its prototype of its portable oxygen device targeted to chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder patients, and Dube and Spitz are exploring entering a local business accelerator upon their graduation this spring.

The judging panel included Audrey Murrell, Associate Dean of the College of Business Administration, for which Blast Furnace can now be taken for credit for CBA students. It also included Ilana Diamond, managing director of the AlphaLab Gear accelerator; Bobby Zappala, co-founder and CEO of Ascender (formerly Thrill Mill) accelerator and Larry Miller, Executive in Residence at Innovation Works, the state-funded seed stage investment company.

The judges selected four teams to advance to the final round for three-minute pitches and Q&A. A fifth team selected by the audience also advanced.

Finishing in second place in the judging was the team Papr Plane, comprised of Cole Bradley, Steven Barash and Max Polec. They are proposing a new social media platform with a new method for sharing content.

Taking third place was Cerebral Grant Connections, comprised of Lindsey Snyder and Marissa Kuzirian. They have developed a platform for streamlining the grant writing process for biomedical researchers and startups.

Blast Furnace Director Greg Coticchia noted that the first three cohorts of the program have seen a third of the participants go on to incorporate and launch a startup company, and he expects the teams of Cohort 4 to keep up that momentum.

“In less than two years the Blast Furnace has become the go-to place for Pitt students who want to launch their entrepreneurial aspirations. I want to congratulate all of the teams in Cohort 4 on their determination and passion.”

On hand for Demo Day were team members from the first three Blast Furnace cohorts, including Hibersense, which was invited to the inaugural University Startups Demo Day at Congress in Washington D.C. earlier this fall; uTranslated, which just completed the super-selective AlphaLab accelerator in East Liberty; and AquaCloud, which demonstrated its aquaponics technology in Downtown Pittsburgh in October.

For Pitt students interested in entrepreneurship, the next opportunity to get involved through the Innovation Institute is the Startup Blitz on Jan. 20 & 21. Here you can bring your idea, pitch it, and build a team. If you don’t have a team, you can join one. The Innovation Institute provides food and prizes.

flickr_faenza_svg Check out more photos from Demo Day!