The Miami Herald’s signature entrepreneurship outreach has morphed into the Startup Pitch Competition, with new submission rules and benefits money can’t buy. But the goal is the same as in years past: To encourage South Florida’s intrinsic startup spirit. Here, we look back at the winners of the 2018 contest.
LUXE FETE SOCIAL
Picture this: An international celebrity throws a dinner party for lifelong friends and associates. Guests from around the globe — a makeup artist, a TV host, a lawyer and a butler among them — surround the table, swapping easily between English and Spanish as they share stories over filet mignon and, later, flambeau banana with raspberry drizzle.
“What was remarkable was to hear a guest say how they felt the table was an equalizer. Everyone was friends at the end of that night. It’s an amazing feeling to know that something I am so passionate about facilitated this connection,” said CEO Nathalie Cadet-James. “Makes me dream even bigger.”
Indeed, it has been a feast of a year since this Miami startup won for its concept of a dinner party-in-a-box. Party planner Cadet-James, born of Haitian and Canadian parents, is passionate about the power of bringing people together to break bread and have real human experiences, even in the 24/7 social media world of today.
When we left Luxe Fête Social last spring, the company had thrown about 10 dinner parties with its all-inclusive concept to make dinner — for 8 to 100 — relatively painless for the hosts. Its dinner-party-in-a-box concept includes a private chef, innovative menus, butler service, designer table settings, fresh flowers, centerpiece décor, personalized name cards and menus, a music playlist and conversation starters.
Since winning the 2018 Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge, Luxe Fête Social launched its new website, which also highlights products that Cadet-James designed herself. “We’ve gotten such positive feedback about it that we opened a ‘Marketplace’ where people can purchase our custom tableware and decor. I truly had not imagined that before.”
The startup has also moved into a warehouse and added a warehouse manager, communications director and floral director to its team. Cadet-James was named one of the top event planners in the country by Brides magazine and recognized as a “Young Innovator” by FedEx.
Luxe Fête Social’s business model hasn’t changed too much, though it is not doing the a la carte version of its service anymore (no chef) for $599. “Almost all of our clients wanted to experience the entire private dinner offering and not just table settings. It’s turned us into a true one-click solution for dinner parties.”
Prices now start at $1,600 for a dinner party of eight for a themed dinner, though dinners are typically as large as 24 guests. Cadet-James, who now has four employees and partners with four vendor companies, would not disclose sales.
Now Luxe Fête Social is eyeing the corporate market. “Our biggest goal this year for business is to also share our services with corporate clients, like law firms, universities and companies headquartered here in Miami, and truly help them turn their boardrooms into a dinner table and make real connections.”
VillaKey is a vacation home rental startup that specializes in renting homes-away-from-home to families living with autism. In the months since winning the challenge it has begun offering more than 200 properties designed especially for these families; most are located near Central Florida attractions.
That’s just one of the company’s accomplishments since taking second place in the Miami Herald’s contest last year.
In October, VillaKey was announced as the first Certified Autism Center for the vacation rental industry through certification partner IBCCES — success that generated media exposure including articles in Travel Weekly, Forbes and the Orlando Sentinel, CEO Alice Horn said. The startup also launched its VillaKey Cares program supporting under-resourced families living with autism. And the company surpassed $1 million in annual revenue, proving the model is working.
“We learned the power of focusing on inventory that is exclusive to VillaKey and secured a critical mass of exclusive listings. As a result, bookings have nearly tripled over the past few months. This approach also gives us more control over the guest experience for all families, especially autism families,” said Horn.
VillaKey’s goal is to triple revenue this year. It also plans its first Orlando group tour for autism families in partnership with Magical Storybook Travels, a special needs travel agency. Ten families will stay in VillaKey homes and will have the opportunity to visit Disney, Aquatica and other autism-friendly Orlando attractions with the assistance of an Orlando expert who is also an autism parent, Horn said.
Samantha Pratt’s app, KlickEngage, is aimed at helping students clear their minds and helping teachers understand how to work with them more effectively. Students check in on the app each morning, rating their level of well-being; when stress levels are up, students are directed to mindfulness and coping strategies. Teachers are alerted to students reporting high stress and the app lets teachers track students’ progress over time.
At the time of winning third place in the Challenge last year, Pratt, a Teach for America alumnus, had participated in accelerators and partnered with nonprofits to help the business grow. Then she was off to Harvard for graduate school, where she continued working on KlickEngage.
This past year, KlickEngage won the Teach for America Social Innovation Award Pre-Pilot track. “We used the grant funding to build our first prototype and we also launched our first pilot that we are using to test and modify our stage-1 prototype. Most recently, we were named semi-finalists for both the Camelback Ventures and the Echoing Green Fellowship,” Pratt said.
The journey hasn’t gone as smoothly as hoped. KickEngage has struggled to find freelance tech developers that were responsive, reliable and mission driven, Pratt said.
“In 2019, our goal is to make our first three school sales and acquire enough funding through various competitions to hire a tech team full-time. We are seeking out partnerships with nonprofits and other community agencies to expand our reach.”
Who doesn’t want to know what is really in the products they use on their skin or feed to their babies? That’s why the team of Florida International University public health scientists behind Redify wants to build a platform that readily gives consumers these details so consumers can make safer choices for their families.
Redify is an app and platform that allows consumers to see what is in the products, and whether any of the ingredients are health concerns. It’s still in development, but the concept not only won the Business Plan Challenge FIU track last year but also attracted the most votes in the People’s Pick.
The team, led by Victor Okoh and Karina Villalba, has been beta testing the app to improve the algorithm, said Okoh, Redify’s CEO. The team is working to improve the functionality of the product database before fully launching. “We do intend to launch later this year,” Okoh said.
At the heart of Redify’s platform is a proprietary list of what it calls Chemicals of Health Concern, or CHCs — some of them already banned in some countries. Currently about 2,000 chemicals are on Redify’s list; all landed there based on scientific evidence they could pose health risks, said Okoh, who earned a Ph.D. from FIU in public health.
The team has been developing a free mobile app that would allow a consumer to scan a product at a drug store, for instance, to see if any CHCs are in it and get links to the underlying research studies about the substances. Then advertisers can offer similar products without CHCs at that store, nearby locations and online.
Early versions of the iOS app brought the team important feedback from a few thousand users as it continues to develop its platform and readies for launch. Okoh said at the time of launch that the app will be available in both iOS and Android.
Since winning last year, the team has formed strategic partnerships with advertisers including Thrive Market to present their “clean products” on its platform. The team also has inked a few memorandums of understanding from “green” advertisers interested in showing their products to Redify’s users and has seen more downloads and usage of its app. Redify also has been working on enhancing the app’s capabilities. The startup was approached by a network of investors to purchase Redify technology even at this early stage, but the negotiations fell through, Okoh said.
In the next year, the self-funded Redify, with a team of five, hopes to launch, generate app revenues, increase downloads and raise seed funding.
Athletes need specialized, daily training but not everyone can afford a workout coach. Enter VDrill, which stands for Virtual-Drill. The app that connects athletes with personalized video training, essentially turning their smartphones into their own analytic training tools. VDrill’s team —Tyrone Walker, Jocelyn Wert and Jaleel Jolly — took second place in the 2018 Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge FIU Track
But VDrill has yet to make it to market. VDrill has received a small amount of funding to begin development and found some skilled developers to help it get going, Walker said. The team hopes to launch the platform in fall 2019.
“We learned to focus on delivery for our few but loyal early adopters. These are the people who helped us alter and learn more about our product from multiple perspectives,” Walker said.
Not that it has been easy.
“Not all customers in our target market adapted to our mindset or believed in our product/service, which was ok. We didn’t waste time chasing those people. Instead we learned about why they felt that way and how we could provide value to them and others who may feel the same,” Walker said.
Social entrepreneur Leyanis Diaz founded Major Marketplace to help minority-owned small businesses grow. For the Miami startup, it has been a year of learning and pivoting.
Major Marketplace, which took third in the FIU Track, is an online marketplace that connects minority-owned businesses with socially responsible corporations and government agencies that want to support those businesses; it also connects them with diversity-conscious consumers. Diaz, who is a former Miss Black Florida, said a portion of earnings will go back to supporting minority businesses.
Last year, Major Marketplace reached $10,000 in sales, using pop-up shops to determine whether consumers would seek out and support minority-owned businesses. “We completed Babson’s Women Innovating Now (WIN) Lab. We also started working with University College London and the local government in London to bring Major Marketplace to the UK,” said Diaz.
“We shifted our focus from B2C to B2B. As for the business model, we now charge minority businesses (MBEs) $20 per month (or $199 a year) to be listed on the marketplace and charge buyers a 20 percent service fee for every transaction.”
What’s next? Diaz said she has been searching for a Chief Technology Officer to join the team. “I am currently developing the beta version of the platform, and plan to reach 500 MBEs by the end of the year and work with 100 buyers (businesses and local governments). We also are working on creating partnerships with American Express and Fedex.”
A cool closet to go, a child-saving sensor for the car, soccer shoes with interchangeable cleats — are these just ideas or could they be businesses?
For three Gulliver Preparatory student teams, developing these winning ideas taught them more about entrepreneurship in a real-world way. Although the students all went back to their studies and college applications after winning the Miami Herald’s Teen Track and did not pursue developing their concepts, they all said entrepreneurship will likely play a role in their future endeavors.
Consider the first place winners, Väska. Seniors John DeLappe and Tadeo Acosta-Rubio and junior Leo Gorgatti envisioned Väska, a hip travel brand with luggage at the core.
With the help of the school’s engineering department, the team dreamed up a “closet on the go” – no unpacking needed. Their idea: a suitcase designed with a hard shell; strong, adjustable nylon shelving; a battery pack to charge devices; a bottom compartment for dirty clothes and a pop-up section for toiletries that could easily be checked by TSA.
Team members didn’t get a prototype built in time to take on their summer travels, but they did carry back some wisdom on making their company more of a brand, should they ever choose to continue with it.
“As we traveled we all decided it would be great to expand Väska to a travel brand, with clothing” perfect for travel, Acosta-Rubio said. They talked about ways the brand could also encompass making life easier for more people — perhaps with a well-designed tote bag for those in wheelchairs.
“Throughout the process we weighed pros and cons of each design. We looked more closely at the competition and how we can further differentiate ourselves,” said DeLappe. Now the team wants to design the suitcase to expand vertically so it is easier to access, like a set of drawers or closet.
For these students, the entrepreneurial journeys have just begun.
DeLappe and Acosta-Rubio will be off to universities in the fall. DeLappe is eagerly awaiting college acceptances and wants to study technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. Acosta-Rubio has already been accepted at Boston University and plans to major in business and minor in music. Gorgatti, the junior, plans to go into the sciences, perhaps physics, chemistry or genetics.
“I would like to gain more knowledge about what it is like to be an entrepreneur and the challenges we would face. We all learned a lot about public speaking, business planning and research,” said DeLappe.
Added Gorgatti: “We’d like to set an example for our school and community about how to get started when you see a problem that needs to be solved.”
At least 700 children have died because they were left alone in closed-up cars, this Gulliver team learned in their research. And even one child’s death is one too many. So Santiago Vergara, Carolina Freund and Alexandre Roth, now seniors, came up with SOL (Signs of Life), which took second place in the Teen Track. They envisioned technology that alerts parents and emergency authorities when a child is left in a hot car.
Their business plan outlined a system of three sensors — thermal, pressure and low-powered radio — that would detect movement as subtle as breathing inside the car. If the sensors detected a child, parents would be alerted first, followed closely by emergency contacts and then the authorities.
However, school and college applications came first. Roth, who spent last summer in Brazil interning for an ed-tech company, said he has not yet decided on a university but plans to study business or engineering, with a focus on entrepreneurship. Vergara, also exploring schools, wants to double major, most likely in mechanical engineering and entrepreneurship/finance.
Freund, who attended the Stanford Pre Collegiate Summer Institute, is awaiting college acceptances but is leaning toward business or international politics. She also said the SOL team hopes to get back together to further work on their project. “Our main objective is to save lives, so it is imperative that everything is thought out to the smallest detail.”
Team Aptad set out to solve a problem their members experienced during soccer season: the hassle of lugging around three pairs of soccer cleats for the three types of surfaces: turf, grass and indoor. That’s expensive for parents and burdensome for the athletes, the team said last year when it won third place in the Teen Track.
Their solution was Aptad, an adaptive soccer cleat. According to the plan, “Aptad solves this problem with a cleat with interchangeable soles for the three different surfaces. The soccer cleat would have a patented clip on the bottom of the shoe, which would allow other soles for the other surfaces to simply clip in.”
Team members Johnny Ehrling, Ben Abrahams and Karim Rahman, all juniors, said the group hasn’t done much on the project since winning because the three teens have had to focus on their studies. Over the summer, Ehrling hopes to get an internship locally and also plans to volunteer in the Dominican Republic. Rahman plans to travel for his tennis tournaments and take a class at a university. Abrahams said he hopes to work in a finance job in Jamaica this summer, where he will also do some community service work.
This story was updated to include the correct spelling of Johnny Ehrling’s name.