Business Plan Challenge

These teens are Moonshot Makers, Geeks-with-a-Cause and emerging entrepreneurs

Marco Fernandez, right, works on a 3D-printing project for his Digifeet, with Daisy Nodal, co-founder of Moonlighter makerspace in Wynwood. Fernandez attends School of Advanced Studies.
Marco Fernandez, right, works on a 3D-printing project for his Digifeet, with Daisy Nodal, co-founder of Moonlighter makerspace in Wynwood. Fernandez attends School of Advanced Studies. rkoltun@elnuevoherald.com

The teen entrepreneurs behind 2016’s winning plans Digifeet, Smart-BagPack and RentAll have been developing prototypes, filing for patents and launching ventures — and yes, there’s school, too.

DIGIFEET

Marco Fernandez set out to devise a winning plan to help people with foot problems. The process awakened a keen interest in entrepreneurship, and now he has also made giant strides in business knowledge and technical expertise.

Marco, now a senior at School for Advanced Studies at Miami Dade College Wolfson campus has been juggling school work with researching and submitting college applications. He plans to pursue engineering as an undergraduate and an MBA in business and entrepreneurship. He’s been applying to engineering schools in California and the Northeast.

As he has time, Marco has continued to work on Digifeet, a custom insole product line he is creating using 3D scanning and printing techniques. With each hour spent he gathers more technical experience in 3D fabrication as well as business planning. He has fabricated and tested multiple prototypes with the help of mentor Dr. Richard Santo Mallia, a podiatrist. “I believe we are making good progress on that front,” Marco said.

After winning first place in May in the Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge High School Track, Marco received a full scholarship at Make1, a Miami Dade College design and prototyping course. The Idea Center holds the course at Moonlighter, a maker space in Wynwood where Marco began forming his original prototype. He also is an intern at Moonlighter: “I have been aiding the staff with many camps, courses and fairs for children. On weekends, for example, I may be at the venue helping children with the software and equipment during camps. Other weekends, there may be fairs held at Macy’s or Best Buy, and I would participate there as well.”

Marco also formed a school club called Moonshot Makers, which exposes students to digital fabrication technologies. “Having been able to bridge the maker space and the students at SAS is a nice parting gift to a school that has offered me so much and I’m sure it will be a great outlet for many future innovators.”

Try to look at your proposed idea from all the different angles. Talk to as many people as you can to see their reaction to your idea, and to identify problems with it or ways to perfect it.

Marco Fernandez, School of Advanced Studies

What he’s learned about entrepreneurship: “It is a lot of work. I just think a lot of people take for granted or completely underestimate how difficult it is to come up with something unique and then come up with an execution plan that makes sense on different levels. ... I have an incredible amount of respect for those entrepreneurs out there that fought for their ideas and have defied the odds.”

Marco plans to continue to explore entrepreneurship after pursuing engineering and business in college. “I have to be patient and work on that education foundation first and foremost. Then I can better organize and develop this Digifeet plan as well as any other venture I decide to pursue.”

Marco’s advice to Business Plan Challenge contestants: “Make sure you have some sort of connection with the proposed idea, that it has some personal meaning or importance to you. This makes the work ahead more bearable and interesting, but perhaps more importantly, more worthwhile. Then try to look at your proposed idea from all the different angles. Talk to as many people as you can to see their reaction to your idea, and to identify problems with it or ways to perfect it. Regardless how technical or complex the actual business is, it has to make sense on a very basic level — if they don’t get it after explaining it to them in a few minutes, then there is a chance no one will get it.”

READ MORE: Student’s 3-D printing idea could help people with foot problems

SMART-BAGPACK

For the student who forgets to bring in homework or accidentally leaves a book at school, Alex Pissinou Makki, a computer science whiz who is now a senior at Ransom Everglades in Coconut Grove, has a solution for that: A “smart” backpack that tracks the items in the bag and sends alerts to the owner. Its accompanying app would also include tutoring services and other resources.

“I have further worked on implementing the prototype and I am working with Dr. S.S. Iyengar and [retired Air Force] Col. Jerry Miller at the FIU Discovery Lab to file a patent on the BagPack and commercialize the product,” said Alex, who won second place in the Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge in May 2016 for his plan called Smart-BagPack.

Alex also has been busy applying to universities, and last summer he worked with researchers at the Air Force Research Lab and with Miller at Discovery Lab to conduct cybersecurity research. “We have several promising research results, which we are publishing in the near future, and I hope to ultimately have our results advance cybersecurity software products.”

Inventing stoked my curiosity. Curiosity turned into passion and became a pathway to learning. But short circuits, software glitches, and other failures ... reminded me that mistakes are part of the process.

Alex Pissinou Makki, Ransom Everglades

Alex established a nonprofit organization, Geek-with-a-Cause (geekwithacause.org) that is devoted to inspiring tech-savvy high school students to mobilize their passion and knowledge of technology for social change. “The organization is founded on the premise that with the right tools, high school students can empower under-served nonprofit and social enterprises seeking digital technology tools, education or training that don’t have the resources to hire technical experts,” he said.

What did he learn along the way developing Smart-BagPack?: “When I originally conceived this idea, I had no idea of the challenges I would face in getting it off the ground. ... With my mentors’ support, I began developing algorithms, experimenting with new technologies and incorporating a variety of devices into the product. It took some time. Inventing stoked my curiosity. Curiosity turned into passion and became a pathway to learning. But short circuits, software glitches, and other failures — like forgetting that a child could lose the bag itself — reminded me that mistakes are part of the process.”

After months of experimentation and failure, perseverance has paid off, Alex said. “The challenges continue as I work to work on the patent and looking for seed money and investors.”

Alex’s advice to Business Plan Challenge contestants: “Never let anybody stop you from bringing your vision to light.”

READ MORE: Student’s Smart-BagPack concept could improve grades, save parents money

RentAll

The three teens developing RentAll were inspired by successful companies in the “sharing economy,” such as Uber and Airbnb. Yash Daftary, Alexander Baikovitz and Brandon Dinner have set out to develop RentAll, a geo-localized peer-to-peer mobile app and website that enables customers to rent items they typically would not purchase, such as tents, kayaks or extra chairs for a party.

“It goes even further. It’s not just people renting stuff of their own, it’s people creating micro-businesses. RentAll (www.rentall.rent) creates an outlet for these businesses to form,” said Alex last year, when the team took third place in the Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge.

Yash and Brandon are finishing their senior year at American Heritage School in Plantation, while Alex is in his first year at Carnegie Mellon, studying mechanical engineering and robotics.

The team continued to work on RentAll, despite Alex being in college and Yash and Brandon busy with AP courses and college applications (Yash will be going to Emory University). “In the near future, we plan to finalize the design and flow of our interface as we are still in the process of development and determining the viability of our product in the market,” Yash said.

Stay committed in times of discouragement. If you stay headstrong, and make connections with the correct resources, launching a successful startup is feasible.

RentAll team, American Heritage and Carnegie Mellon

Yash merged American Heritage’s Entrepreneurship Program, which he founded, into the MIT Launch Club, which is an entrepreneurial program linked with other schools across the globe and centered on competitions and resources given by MIT. By giving club members knowledge and resources to create their own startups, Yash and Brandon continue to teach the values of entrepreneurship, leadership and success.

“One of our highlights was attending Startup Weekend Education Miami where we were able to create a business plan for RentAll Education, a platform for students,” Yash said. Yash also founded Hercules Protein Gum and said he is obtaining a patent and is talking with a large chewing gum organization for a licensing deal. “Currently, I am working on many different projects that will hopefully contribute to building South Florida’s tech scene after graduation,” Yash said.

Brandon is working with his uncle to develop a device that allows runners to understand their gait and posture. “Hopefully, using the data retrieved from the device and an accompanying application, athletes can correct their technique and form. We are still in the early phases of developing the company,” said Brandon, who is evaluating universities, including a scholarship offer from the University of Miami.

Alex is working in the Field Robotics Center of the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute and he will also be working for GE Aviation this summer. Alex is working on using new types of sensors for vehicles to improve autonomous driving and navigating in dark environments. He is also developing a robot for mine search and rescue operations. Alex intends to develop robotics startups that improve the way people live and how corporations function.

The RentAll team’s advice to Business Plan Challenge contestants: “Stay committed in times of discouragement. If you stay headstrong, and make connections with the correct resources, launching a successful startup is feasible.”

READ MORE: Teen entrepreneurs eager to take RentAll to market

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