Perseverance, passion propel winners



1st Place: EyeTalker

For the EyeTalker team of former FIU students, the past year has been a crash course in entrepreneurship.

When their social entrepreneurial plan — for a pair of glasses that helps the severely visually impaired to hear written text — won the Business Plan Challenge and was named Challenge Champion last year, the four were flooded with positive response from the blind community and organizations supporting the blind.

So with only a pair of glasses built as a very early proof-of-concept created so far, the EyeTalker got to work.

Since winning, Jesus Amundarain, Pia Celestino, Viurniel Sanchez and Esam Mashni have continued to develop the device, improving the reading speed by 50 percent as well as the reading function: The glasses are now able to read business cards and other small print. Furthermore, the modifications they made improve the user experience, Celestino says, because the glasses will tell the user if the object it is trying to read needs to be higher or closer, for example.

Along the way, the team — three engineers and a marketing specialist — has also been working on the partnership structure and securing patents. “I am an engineer at heart; I was always concerned with making the best product, but what we’ve learned is, you also have to know the market and understand the pricing structure, the way we are making it, durability,” Amundarain said. “This changes the way we design product.”

The EyeTalker team is in talks with a leading low-vision distribution company and a well-known luxury eyewear company, Celestino said. The team is also exploring partnership opportunities with the National Federation for the Blind, Lighthouse Foundation of the Blind and other organizations that have also expressed interest in being part of the beta testing. In the fall, Celestino and Amundarain told their story at TedX FIU.

There continues to be considerable challenges — the main one is the partners now all have full-time jobs. Legal costs and funding have been hurdles, too. “It’s the chicken and egg: When we talk to companies about helping us with development, they want money. When we talk to investors, they say we are too early. Luckily I am a developer, development is not stopping,” said Amundarain.

At TedX FIU, Michael Arbitman, who is visually impaired and has been helping EyeTalker, told the crowd that the glasses enabled him to read a book to his child for the very first time.

The calls, letters and stories like Arbitman’s motivate the EyeTalker team to push on, said Amundarain. “It’s our baby, and now we want to make it big. We know we can make it, we have to make it.”

2nd Place: USRadiology

Michael Cabrera has been laying the foundation of USRadiology.

The second-place winning plan, for a diagnostic imaging center network focusing initially on Florida’s worker’s compensation market, is based on a model Cabrera knows works — because he was one of the pioneers of the industry in the ’90s. Cabrera founded and grew AnciCare into a network of 1,200 imaging centers in 40 states generating $20 million in revenue when he sold it to a public company in 2002.

In the past few months, Cabrera has completed the initial website for USRadiology (USRad.com) and began developing a state-of-the-art database web application that will enable an unlimited number of users, including USRadiology employees, adjusters, case managers, providers, physicians and patients, to access data from anywhere/anytime. The database is now roughly 70 percent complete, he said.

The company tweaked its business model slightly: “Initially the thought was that we would provide services by having our clients phone call directly to our client service team and place orders for their diagnostic needs. We realized that it would be more beneficial to provide our clients with a free web-based application with certain tools for them to place their own orders anytime/anywhere and allow them to run reports and analytics. Meanwhile, USRadiology handles the backend in contacting patients and coordinating diagnostic appointments with providers,” Cabrera said.

After the back end and application are ready, in about 45 to 60 days, he will build the network. He has identified the 75 centers he needs in Florida. Then he will start communicating with insurance companies, case management companies and self-insured employers. He plans to attend a major trade conference for worker’s comp this summer. His venture is self-funded.

“I’m happy where I am. I am not as far as I thought I would be — there were some setbacks. But this is a long-term commitment, and I feel like I can provide something even better by learning even more about my clients’ needs,” Cabrera said.

3rd Place: 5K PARK FEST

Building a company isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon, but you don’t have to tell 5K PARK Fest that.

The social entrepreneurial company, which won third place, aims to be a community event and fundraising platform that promotes kindness, civic engagement and a healthy, active lifestyle. 5K PARK Fest offers nonprofits a professionally produced large-scale 5K event that many nonprofits are not equipped to run on their own. It also provides all the tools nonprofits need to promote the event and raise funds for their causes.

For Marlene Quincoces, her biggest challenge was communicating to cities her long-term vision for 5K PARK Fest. “It’s not just a nonprofit asking for a handout, its economic development for the city,” said Quincoces, who is also an event planner. “We have a great plan, with numbers showing how your investment will help other nonprofits.”

Quincoces and Humberto Casanova, her partner in business and life, hoped to stage a 5K event on or around Sept. 11 of last year, but Quincoces said the city of Doral backed out of the project and it was too late to regroup with another city. This year, Quincoces hopes to partner with Miami Beach and hold the run around the same time: “We’ll soon be in full swing of promoting this.”

She was disappointed at the setback, but “we are going to go full on with our business plan. Everything happens for a reason; 2013 was a step-back year to build a team and reorganize.” So she and the team focused on building infrastructure, operations, staffing and marketing. She continued to work on her affiliated nonprofit, PARK (Perform Acts of Random Kindness) Project. She also attended a conference about obtaining grant money. “It’s going to be an awesome year,” she said.

People’s Pick: The Approach

Joshua Kaufman’s plan for a bowling and family entertainment center was the crowd favorite in the Business Plan Challenge. But to make it reality, his team is scouting locations and pitching investors.

As envisioned, the center, called The Approach, would have 32 to 40 lanes, a restaurant and bar, billiards, arcades and other amenities. Kaufman said bowling is the most popular indoor sport in the country and as an industry it has grown in revenues every year. Miami-Dade, it turns tout, has few facilities that attract competitive bowlers.

The team, which also includes Andre Pamplona, crossed one giant milestone: “We have been pre-approved from our lending institution for 75 percent of the total project costs and have also started raising funds in the private market to help bridge the gap of the other 25 percent. Our group is still working on a suitable property,” said Kaufman, who has experience or education in business, real estate and bowling center management. The pre-approval is for up to $14 million, although Kaufman is projecting the project will cost $4 million-$5 million: “That gives us the freedom to look at a variety of properties in South Dade, but we’ve also been looking in Aventura, Kendall and Doral.”

Kaufman also said he has added board members and key advisors to the team to help guide the company, called KA-FL Group, to the finish line: “Still, our greatest challenge is securing the remaining funding for the project. While we are still looking for a suitable property, it will fall into place with proper investor backing behind our project.”

Read more Business Plan Challenge stories from the Miami Herald

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