Sponsored Content: The Innovation Institute: Teams forged in the Blast Furnace shine on Demo Day

By Andrew Tindall

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The culmination of nine weeks of student startup work is coming soon, and you won’t want to miss it. The Innovation Institute’s sixth Blast Furnace Cohort is drawing to an end, and the final event is a pitch competition that is open to the public. You’ll get to see 18 different student teams, each presenting its new and unique business idea. The event is called Demo Day, and it’s a celebration of all the work that’s gone into these ideas behind the scenes.

If you don’t know about Blast Furnace to begin with, you should. It’s a student startup accelerator, basically a two-month program that takes a team from “idea” to “company.” The Innovation Institute brings in venture capitalists, entrepreneurial successes and tons of other experts to work with the teams and share their expertise. Anyone can apply, whether or not you already have a team or a big entrepreneurial idea you’re itching to make real. All you need is entrepreneurial grit. Teams put in 30 hours of work every week, and the culmination is part competition, part celebration: Demo Day.

On Demo Day, the teams compete in two rounds. In the first round, a representative from each team gives a one-minute “elevator pitch” outlining its idea. From the 18 teams, five are selected, based on their pitches, to go onto the second round. One team is audience-choice – you’ll have a chance to decide who makes the cut.

The other four teams are decided by a panel of five judges, from Pittsburgh’s startup ecosystem. Sharon W. Alvarez is the Thomas Olofson Chair in Entrepreneurial Studies at Pitt’s School of Business, while Ilana Diamond is managing director of AlphaLab Gear, a Pittsburgh-area hardware development accelerator. Bobby Zappala is the founder of Ascender, like AlphaLab an accelerator and co-working space, where startups can put themselves together without having to worry about the overhead of a full office. Randy Eager is a four-time entrepreneur working with CMU’s own entrepreneurial foundations. The fifth judge, Max Pollock, is a Blast Furnace alumnus who went on to replicate the program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. It’s an all-star judging cast.

In the second round, the teams have a chance to give a longer pitch, and the winner is decided from these. A couple of the teams featured this year include a cafeteria-food delivery service called SuperSwipe, and a building navigation system called InsideOut. Other teams range from food product importers to investment managers, drink dissolution capsule disseminators to full-service DNA PCR protocol providers.

Besides the competition, there’s also a keynote speaker: Barry Rabkin, who is the chief marketing officer at Identified Technologies, a commercial drone company in the East Side of Pittsburgh. He’s also the president of Hackers and Founders in Pittsburgh.

If you aren’t convinced yet, you might want to know about some past Blast Furnace success stories. uTranslated, a global translation service that has major clients in both the USA and China, was a Blast Furnace startup that went on to the Alphalab accelerator. Hibersense, a smart-HVAC system, went on to Alphalab Gear; and Aeronics, a team of recent Blast Furnace alumni who have developed a radically efficient way to store and carry medical oxygen in small tanks, went on to accept $50,000 in a New York startup accelerator called Quake.

Thirty-six total companies have been formed from the 100-plus teams of 400-plus students who have been through the Blast Furnace accelerator. It’ll be worth it to go just for the possibility of saying you saw a few future successes when they were just a few months into developing their idea.

Whatever your best reason for going to Demo Day, you shouldn’t miss it. This cohort’s Demo Day falls on Thursday, Dec. 7, and it will take place at 5 p.m. in the William Pitt Union Lower Lounge.

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