Student entrepreneurial pitch competitions go virtual

Just as USFSP students were preparing for Ex Labs Boot Camp, a highly competitive weeklong technology accelerator, coronavirus stay-at-home regulations were upending their lives.  

First came the news that Tech Data was closing its building to visitors, leaving the students without a classroom. Then came the news that the downtown St. Pete campus of the University of South Florida was closing its campus.

“It was really a deer in the headlights moment,” says Pat Gehant, managing partner of Gehant & Associates.

“We literally had 48 hours to transition from all-day sessions where faculty can walk around and observe students working in small teams, to figuring out how to do all of this virtually on Zoom,” says Gehant.

Ex Labs Boot Camp program is a collaboration between Gehant & Associates, USFSP, and Tech Data Corporation.

The 120-hour program gives students a fast-track knowledge of tech industry skills like data analytics, design thinking applications, and Agile development. Then, students come up with a unique IoT product, business plan, and strategy to take it to market.  

Transitioning to virtual face-to-face meetings

One of the strengths of the program, says Gehant, is the chance for mentors to work directly with students in face-to-face coaching sessions and teambuilding exercises. That wasn’t possible during social distancing requirements. And while Zoom and similar virtual platforms have now become commonplace educational and business tools, that wasn’t the situation a few months ago.

With little advanced warning, the faculty had to figure out how to teach online. Students had to confront other issues, says Gehant. Some weren’t sure where they were going to live when college dorms closed. Others had to figure out how to pay the rent when they lost part-time jobs due to business closings.  

“I told the student, this is real life,” says Gehant.  “It was also historic. I said you are now part of the world’s biggest remote workforce. Don’t let this pass by without recognizing the significance of this transition.”

Despite everything, Gehant says this year’s boot camp was one of the most successful with some of the best ideas presented since the program launched in 2015. “We rocked the students’ world and they figured out how to roll with it,” says Gehant. 

This year’s winning pitch went to USFSP students Elizabeth Powers, Chris Evans, Avion Stevenson, Jonathan Ray, Diane Nguyen, and Ronelia Bailey for Poolio, a high-tech device that helps pool owners maintain appropriate chemical levels to keep the pool water safe and clean.  

The device works with the pool’s existing pump and a smart reader. Gehant reports that a few of the judges have expressed interest in the potential viability of the product and are planning a follow-up call with the team this summer.

High school students in the Pinellas Education Foundation Next Generation Tech Program also adapted quickly when it looked like COVID-19 restrictions might prevent them from completing an intensive seven-months tech program.

Learning building block concepts for careers in the tech industry

Next Generation Tech is a collaboration between Robyn Mussler of Connect-IT 360 and the Pinellas Education Foundation. The program, now in its fifth successful year, teaches students the “building block” concepts they need for future careers in the tech industry, says Mussler, a 30-year IT veteran and both Founder and Program Director of Next Generation Tech.

“The kids take a real-world problem they want to solve and we teach them the skills they need to take a “raw” idea and turn it into a viable marketable prototype that has customer value,” says Mussler.

Prototype ideas range from mobile or Web-based apps to video games, Virtual Augmented Reality, Internet of Things (IoT) to artificial intelligence.

Students work in small teams, guided by mentors from industry partners like Tech Data, Raymond James, Nielsen, Achieva, Malwarebytes, Wells Fargo, Catalina, and GTE Financial.

But now, in the final weeks of the program, just as the students were preparing for the product pitch competition and awards ceremony, it looked like social distancing requirements might disrupt everything.

Mussler was determined not to let that happen. “The students had worked too hard not to receive the same type of recognition as in previous years,” she says.  

Mussler contacted Lunchpool, a new Tampa-based technology company that simulates virtual event meeting space. The product pitch competition went online. So did the final awards ceremony announcing the top three winning teams. Guest speakers, including Dr. Michael Grego, superintendent of Pinellas County Schools, recognized the students for their perseverance in completing the program despite the disruption caused by COVID-19.

One of the highlights of the program is the chance for the first-place team to present their idea to Shark Tank’s Kevin Harrington. Mussler made that happen, too. This year’s winning team, ClimaTrek, participated in a Zoom call with Harrington, who gave the students three thumbs up for what he called an “amazing concept with potential.” The students —-Kayleigh Beron, Kiran Ganga, and Mateusz Plaza from Palm Harbor University -- developed a Bluetooth atmosphere-monitoring device.

Additional finalists include: 
  • 2nd place for PerfectFetch, a mobile app for pet adoption developed by students  Casey Miltner, Malachi Valle, Martin Martinez, and Rya Uttasing  from Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg and Jacobson Technical High School in Seminole;
  • 3rd place for BARCC, a mobile pet ownership app developed by students Aanya Bhandari, Nia Balieva, Roxanne Postell from Palm Harbor University.

Next Generation Tech is open to all high student students in Pinellas County. Students have to apply for the program, but it’s free of charge.

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Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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