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Finalists Set To Compete At 2017 Innovation Awards

Sandra Averhart

Twelve companies will compete for more than $250,000 in cash and prizes this week at the 2017 Innovation Awards.

The event will be held Wednesday and Thursday, April 12 and 13, at the Hilton Pensacola Beach, 12 Via De Luna Dr.

Innovation Coast is putting the competition for the second time since their inaugural event in 2014.

“This year we had 61 applicants for the Innovation Awards, many from right here in NW FL, but as far away as Colorado, New York and New Jersey,” said Jim McClellan, marketing and communications director for AppRiver who also serves as chairman of the board of directors of Innovation Coast.

As the most lucrative business plan competition in Florida, the Innovation Awards is designed to reward startups that demonstrate clear paths to profitability and local jobs creation.

During the past month, a panel of evaluators reviewed all the applications and cut the list of entries to the final 20. The top five in each of the four categories will be exhibiting. And, after working closely with a business coach from the Florida Small Business Development Center Network, the top three will be presenting to a live panel of judges.

The lion’s share of the prize money, which was increased to $250,000 for this year, will be awarded in the Post-Revenue category. That’s $100,000 for first-place and $50,000 for second.

In the Pre-Revenue category, first place is $25,000 and second-place is $15,000.

The Veterans category has a prize of $10,000 for first place and $5,000 for second.

The Student participants will be competing for a top prize of $5,000, with $2,500 for second.

“But, beyond the money, there is the discipline of preparing yourself for a shark-tank-like process,” said McClellan. “So, even among the 61 applicants, those who were not selected to be presenters or exhibitors; just going through that process is helpful, to think through the business model and to think ‘what could I have done better?’”

For participants and other entrepreneurs, McClellan says this is an opportunity to see best practices. And, he encourages those who don’t win to take it all in and come back next time as better competitors.

“In fact, at least a couple of our finalists this year are people who have participated before,” he said.

One of those returning entrepreneurs is Lloyd Reshard, CEO of the local technology start up Cognitive Big Data Systems, which is a finalist in the pre-revenue category.

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Lloyd Reshard with his partner Pat Brown and daughter Nathalie Reshard, who are officers in the Fast Informatics, which is a finalist in the 2017 Innovation Awards.

“When you’re trying to create a company from scratch, it’s really challenging and there’s no way you can actually know all the information of what is necessary,” said Reshard, who co-founded Cognitive Big Data Systems with Chief Scientist, Dr. Stephen Thaler.

Reshard is an engineer who spent much of his career managing a $40 million per year technology development portfolio at the Air Force Research Lab. Thaler is a leading expert in “Al Automation” with dozens of patents and over 30 years’ experience. 

The team entered their fledgling company in the first Innovation Awards competition two-and-a-half years ago. It gave the startup great exposure with potential investors and helped to connect them with mentoring opportunities, including another business competition in Mississippi and a 12-week program with Venture Hive in Fort Walton Beach.

“In that 12 weeks you build a business model for your idea, validate the idea before you spend any money on it,” Reshard said. “(You) validate the market, build a prototype, and now you have something the market is really interested in.”

For this year’s Innovation Awards, Reshard has reworked the business plan for Cognitive Big Data Systems, which is a computer vision software that he and his partners believe will revolutionize the surveillance industry by helping human surveillance center operators monitor vast numbers of video feeds.

“So, our software actually monitors the video feed for them and alerts them of threatening and unusual behaviors. It really solves the problem of operator fatigue and having to sit there the whole time and look.”

Reshard is projecting that within five years, his company Cognitive Big Data Systems could grow to $67 million in revenues and employ more than 300 people.

He has similar hopes for Fast Informatics, another startup for which he serves as CEO and his daughter Nathalie Reshard is Chief Marketing Officer. Like Cognitive Big Data Systems, the startup is a finalist in the pre-revenue category, along with NeuBev.  

Reshard's partner, Chief Technical Officer Pat Brown, will make the presentation for Fast Informatics , which is marketing machine-learning software that automatically builds and trains artificial neural networks on a regular PC. The software reads a data table containing the input and output data then automatically builds an algorithm that contains the relationships between the input data and output data. For example, it could be used to develop an app to recognize different types of skin cancer, which could be helpful in screenings.

At the end of the day, Reshard could come away with a combined $40,000 for his two companies; he’s guaranteed to win the second place prize of $15,000.

The money will be used to assist with their continued development of integration software, to pay for travel to trade shows, and to hire qualified graduates from the University of West Florida.

“I’ll never forget driving home from the competition,” said Jason Crawford, CEO of Intelligent Retinal Imaging Systems or IRIS, which finished in first place at the inaugural Innovation Awards event in November 2014. “They give you this huge check and I could hardly fit in my pickup truck.”

IRIS has developed software to detect eye disease early for patients with diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma, the leading causes of blindness.

Credit Innovation Coast
Innovation Coast
Jason Crawford, CEO of Intelligent Retinal Imaging Systems or IRIS, which won the top prize at the inaugural Innovation Awards in 2014.

Crawford recalls the joy of winning the big prize of $100,000 during the inaugural Innovation Awards event in November of 2014.

He says he was able to post two jobs for hire that very afternoon.

“At the time I think we had less than 10 employees,” said Crawford of their company, which in 2014 had been in operation less than two years.

“Now we have 20 employees. And, we went from, probably at the time we had five or six customers and now we have over 85 customers in 29 states.”

Crawford says preparing for and competing in the Innovation Awards gave them market validation and the confidence to go for it with potential investors.

And, ‘leaving it all out there’ is his advice to this year’s competitors including Robotics Unlimited, Inc., NumNum, and Pensacola Bay Oyster Company, which are all vying for a share of the $150,000 available in the post-revenue category.

Again, NeuBev, Cognitive Big Date Systems and Fast Informatics are competing in the pre-revenue category. Veterans finalists are Mine Survival, Inc., Invictus Technology Institute, and Naggy.  Student finalists are Halo Technology, CrowdProof and Home Theatre.

Innovation Coast Board Chairman Jim McClellan no matter who the winners are, their goal is to bring attention to this region as a hub of innovation.

McClellan pointed out that the area already has a lot of great companies and talent. “We want the best and brightest students to realize that our education system is the place where they need to come. We want venture and angel capitalists to recognize that there’re a number of opportunities here.”  McClellan also hopes that tech companies pondering a move, will consider Northwest Florida.

The Innovation Awards is being held this Wednesday and Thursday at the Hilton Pensacola Beach, and it’s open to the public. More information about the event and finalists is available at awards.innovationcoast.com. 

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.