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Startup Quest: A crash course in creating a company

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Startup Quest judges, below, watch a presentation by Dr. John Montalvo Jr. about Advanced EL Lighting Solutions, which aims to develop a new plant grow light for agricultural use. Photos by Patrick Farrell.

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By Nancy Dahlberg, ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

Put 130 smart, experienced professionals together. Give them training, mentorship and access to cutting edge technologies. Then tell them to go build a company.

This was not your typical government workforce training program.

Startup Quest, a new three-month entrepreneurial training program run by Broward’s job-training agency, Workforce One, that wrapped up Thursday, matched teams of unemployed or underemployed college-educated professionals with mentors experienced in founding or growing technology or biotech companies. Each mentor chose a technology from one of Florida’s universities or agencies such as NASA. The goal: Come up with a product or service around the technology and build a business plan — Startup Quest calls it a commercialization plan — to take the innovation to market. Funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, Startup Quest was created by the University of Florida and this year is being replicated around the state, including in South Florida.

On Thursday at the finale at Signature Grand in Davie, the participants all had the same challenge: Boil down three months of hard work into a 10-minute pitch in front of a ballroom full of people in a Shark Tank-style competition. “This program is about making your own job,” said Mason Jackson, CEO of Workforce One. “This isn’t about training for another job. This is about training for another future.”

As the competition got underway, 16 teams presented solutions for products like Gluco-Ease a glucose monitoring system done with saliva on a test strip, based on UCF technology; FallCheck, an app that uses a patented algorithm from Nova Southeastern to capture data to analyze a patient’s risk of falling; and GatorShine, a transparent solar cell technology developed at UF to replace the glass now used in car windows and sunroofs in order to power hybrid and electric car batteries.

Each presentation was peppered with words like “disruptive technology” and “ground-breaking innovation” and backlit with slidesshows including market-size graphics, team bios, financial charts and investment needs (one presentation incorporated a little Beatles music). Then the judges — a mix of investors, consultants and serial entrepreneurs — asked the presenters questions about their competition, target market, revenue sources and financial projections — much like the real world for startups seeking funding.

Then it is was time for judging. At stake were prizes of cash and services worth more than $25,000.

The first-place winners were Healical, a cloud-based platform to help developers build next-generation apps for healthcare, based on FIU technology, and NuPhoresis, a transdermal drug delivery system for chronic diseases, based on UF technology. Second- and third-place winners were Osteogenesis Rx, targeting osteoporosis; InfinitD, a data storage solution; 4C Health, a diagnostic tool for osteoarthritis; and Advanced EL Lighting Solutions, a agricultural grow light for “unsurpassed plant growth.”

“The experience was like a pressure cooker — intense, focused and directed. I learned as much in 10 weeks as in a master’s program,” said Angie Bors of NuPhoresis, who has a master’s degree. “I’m going to miss those 1 a.m. emails,” mentor Steve Glover quipped.

Jorge Rodriguez, Healical’s mentor, said the team used Google Hangout and Google Docs to meet virtually and work together outside of the class time. “You’ll be hearing about us,” said team member Reuben Fernandez.

Healical, NuPhoresis and about half of the other teams said they planned to carry on with their companies. And whether the teams won or not, organizations such as the Broward Small Business Development Center, the Enterprise Development Corporation and others stand ready to help them. “It takes an ecosystem to raise a startup, and we have dozens of organizations to thank for that,” said Michael O’Donnell, program director of Startup Quest, noting that the community has donated coaching instruction, incubator space, video resumes and more.

As the program kicked off in September, teams were formed taking in consideration the experience of each participant so that each team would have a mix of people with specialties like finance, communications, marketing, etc. Most of the participants did not have technology experience. What they did have: lots of education. All had at least a bachelor’s degree – 78 percent had a master’s degree and 6 percent had a doctorate. Ages spanned from the 20s to the 70s, but the average age of the group was 51.

Each Thursday afternoon for four hours, the group convened at the Signature Grand to learn about a different aspect of starting a company, such as writing a business plan, intellectual property, marketing, distribution, funding and more. There were local speakers that complemented the course material. The teams also met with their mentors during the weekly meetings, as well as outside the workspace. Not everything went perfectly, of course. Some groups never quite got the team dynamics right, some participants quit, one mentor dropped out due to illness, one whole team was a no-show for presentation day. But that’s the real world.

O’Donnell said the ultimate goal of the program was to prepare the participants for starting their own company, participating in another startup or working for a technology company. There is a second Startup Quest starting in Broward Feb. 26. It's open to all South Floridians and applications are being accepted at http://workforceone.startupquest.org.

Sonia Douglas, director of special projects for FloridaWorks, the Gainesville program where Startup Quest was born, said that by 2025, half the workforce will be self employed. “Through programs like this, we are getting ahead of the trend."

Follow me on Twitter @ndahlberg

Read my first story about how Startup Quest got its start. 

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