Faces of the Future

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Alaihna Hacker

In April, two Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) teams competed in the Schulze Entrepreneurship Challenge against 23 other groups from schools across the country—including top names like Princeton University, Rutgers University and Virginia Tech—for a portion of $250,000 in total prize money to help fund their business ideas.

Alainah Hacker, 22, pitched for Accugentix, a company that produces a precise way to measure and dispense medical cannabis oil. John Ciocca, 19, presented on youBelong, a social media network for people with special needs and their families.

Hacker and Ciocca led their respective teams through the three-day-long e-Fest, which culminates in the Schulze Entrepreneurship Challenge. FGCU was the only school to have two groups of participants make it to the finals, out of more than 100 school groups who applied.

“This is an impressive accomplishment,” says Laura Dunham, associate dean of the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, who helped organize the third-annual event at the campus. “It really speaks to the quality of the education the students are getting there, as well as the commitment of their advisors who are really seeking to support them and develop their abilities.”

Sandra Kauanui, director of the Institute of Entrepreneurship at FGCU, advised both teams of students in the competition. Her ultimate goal is to keep budding entrepreneurs in school while they develop their ideas for maximum success.

“What a better way to learn than actually applying yourself to something you are interested in right this minute?” Kauanui asks. “We have allowed that to occur, and it’s making a huge difference.”

It’s true: Students in FGCU’s new entrepreneurship program—one of only a few in the U.S., Kauanui says—reportedly made $2.5 million in gross revenue for spring 2019.

With FGCU’s support and the e-Fest experience under their belt, Hacker and Ciocca ready to grow their businesses even further. Here are more details about their ventures and overall contest experience.

 

Alainah Hacker

Accugentix

THE IDEA:

In 2017, Alainah Hacker watched on as her aunt lost about 100 pounds after chemotherapy killed her appetite. Florida had just legalized medical cannabis, so her aunt started taking it to help with her chemo symptoms. “ It really worked for her. She started eating again and gaining back her weight,” Hacker says. “ In conjunction with chemotherapy, she was able to get rid of her cancer and has been doing great since.”

With piqued interest, Hacker, a biology major at FGCU at the time, began researching the benefits of medical cannabis and found that patients were having trouble dosing cannabis oils. “ There is no regulation or support for patients who are dosing,” Hacker says. Cannabidiol, or CBD oil, companies are not legally allowed to include a dose chart on their bottles, like over-the-counter medicine does, so they use serving sizes instead. Hacker decided to create a device that measures doses in milligrams for the most effective intake.

 

HOW IT WORKS:

Hacker is developing a patent-pending Cannabis Doser system under her startup company Accugentix. The device measures cartridges filled with CBD or THC oil in milligrams using navigation buttons. The cartridges are all the same size, but the exact contents depend on which dispensary the user buys from. “The companies we are partnering with are going to be filling their oils into [the cartridges], so we don’t actually touch the oils,” Hacker says. “The cartridges are going to be recurring purchases, similar to razor heads when you buy the handle.” In this case, the Cannabis Doser is the one-time purchase handle. Since the Cannabis Doser is not considered a medical device by the FDA, it does not need FDA approval.

An app will also be available to figure out a user’s perfect dose and track their intake. “This is especially good for the older generation and people with children who need [medical cannabis oil], so parents can safely give it to their kids and the elderly generation can also take it safely,” Hacker says.

Rather than targeting the end user, Hacker plans to sell the products wholesale to medical cannabis companies.

 

Computer images of Alainah Hacker’s invention.

COMPETITION EXPERIENCE:

Hacker won about $1,200 from the Innovation Challenge—one of three competitions that took place over the 2019 e-Fest. She did not receive funding from the Schulze Entrepreneurship Challenge, named after Best Buy founder and part-time Naples resident Richard M. Schulze, whose foundation, the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation, is active in Southwest Florida.

For the Innovation Challenge, competitors were assigned to new teams and had to come up with a solution to solve a problem in K-12 education.

Hacker and her team created a way to incentivize and monetize parents and caregivers spending time with their K-12 students via an app that logs and tracks time spent and topics covered. By recording these, the parents/caregivers would receive coupons on school supplies or food, or school donations.

Hacker’s favorite part of the three-day-long e-Fest competition was the chance to see how other young entrepreneurs across the nation pitched their ideas.

“It was really nice to see how services were pitched or how presentations were set up differently for nonmedical products,” she says. “ We learned a lot and met a lot of new people, too.”

Hacker had pitched for Accugentix funding before seeking more funding from e-Fest. The company placed second in the 2018 Statewide Collegiate Business Plan Competition, co-hosted by The Florida Venture Forum and the Venture Education Foundation.

She also won about $25,000 in seed money after pitching to a set of judges at the end of her semester-long involvement in FGCU’s Runway Program.

 

FUTURE PLANS:

The first batch of Accugentix prototypes should be ready in August, with Florida availability planned for the end of 2019.
“We are going to start adding more states as we move forward,” Hacker says.

After leaving her job as a special-education teacher in May, Hacker is now pursuing Accugentix full-time and plans to add more products in the future under the company.

“We also have patents pending on another product that is going to be similar but for vaping,” Hacker says.

 

John Ciocca

youBelong

THE IDEA:

When John Ciocca and his family moved from New Jersey to Southwest Florida, he realized his brother, Christian, who has Down syndrome, didn’t have a safe way to meet people and connect with new friends. Armed with seven years of coding and prior app-developing experience, the FGCU freshman decided to create a social network so his brother and other people with differing abilities could communicate safely and free from cyber-bullying. Ciocca, 19, signed up for FGCU’s Runway Program in his second semester of school to develop the app.

 

HOW IT WORKS:

youBelong users pay $1 per month so the app can operate without ads that could end up being inappropriate. “[The subscription cost] acts as a barrier to cyber bullies and internet trolls who can sign up for other apps for free instead,” Ciocca says.

Anyone is welcome to join the ad-free app, which uses an algorithm and blacklist for words to block hateful speech.

Similar to Facebook or Instagram, youBelong users see a main feed of their friend’s posts upon signing in. They can find friends and search for names they know, and share their photos with captions after adding built-in filters and stickers. The app is available for purchase on Google Play and the App Store.

 

youBelong connects people of differing abilities in a safe environment.

COMPETITION EXPERIENCE:

Ciocca’s feel-good app was in the final running for both the e-Fest’s Global Impact Award and Social Impact Award.

The app did not end up with a $10,000 win for either, nor did it win during the Schulze Entrepreneurship Challenge, but his overall presentation video did leave a lasting impression on judges.

“One of his judges started crying. I was crying too,” Kauanui says. “He had his brother in the video, and he approached it so professionally. It was a great experience for us to watch.”

Like Hacker, Ciocca had already presented before potential investors in the past. He earned $1,000 and third-place status at the Round Table of Entrepreneurship Educators of Florida’s (REEF) Governors Cup this year. His separate app, MyVoice, which provides text- to-talk technology for people with speech-impeding disabilities, won silver in the national 2018 Edison Awards, over big brands such as BOSE.

 

FUTURE PLANS:

youBelong currently has more than 1,800 users from 26 different countries, and Ciocca intends to expand that reach even further.

“My focus will be on school and continuing to grow youBelong, reach as many people and keep making a difference,” he says.

The app has a new update set to debut in summer, and Ciocca, a two-time recipient of the WWDC Scholarship by Apple, plans to continue developing youBelong while at FGCU, which recently funded the business with $15,000 in seed money. He recently switched his major from engineering to entrepreneurship, so he’ll be able to work on his company for many class projects to come. Plus, he just raised will also pitch for seed funding from FGCU.

“Right now, youBelong is a main priority, but we are always looking to build new fun things to solve problems that we find. I’m sure there are more to find,” Ciocca says.

RELATED: How FGCU’s Institute of Entrepreneurship is helping students succeed.

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