Friday, November 24, 2017
Business

Local entrepreneurs win tech version of 'Survivor'

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ST. PETERSBURG

Three local men have won Gig Tank, the geek version of Survivor.

Instead of triumphing by mastering mind games and eating coconuts on a tropical island, they won by developing a platform for medical researchers to share, update and store data.

Instead of $1 million, they won $100,000.

And instead of walking away with the hope of being called back for an all-star reality show, these entrepreneurs left Gig Tank with the foundation for a new business and potential investors.

"We are currently in the process of raising more money so we can hire new people and build this thing as fast as possible and ship it to market," said T. J. Weigel, a co-founder of Banyan, named after St. Petersburg's iconic tree partly as a nod to the fact that all three went to the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. It's also because the sharing platform allows for many branches within one project.

"Researchers can branch off and test a theory and it won't screw up the master research," Weigel said.

He and Toni Gemayel, another co-founder, graduated from University of South Florida St. Petersburg on May 6 and headed for Chattanooga, Tenn., for the three-month-long Gig Tank. Travis Stanton, a senior at USF St. Petersburg, also was part of the team and is a Banyan co-founder.

Gig Tank was marketed by the city of Chattanooga and a business incubator as a contest for the brightest college students answering the question: "What could you do with the world's fastest Internet?"

Chattanooga's fiber optic network can deliver up to 1 gigabit-per-second speed to more than 150,000 homes and businesses in a 600-square-mile area that encompasses eight neighborhoods. The slogan for the competition among 10 teams was: 10 Geeks. 8 Neighborhoods. 1 Gig. Competitors were recruited with the tag line: "Calling all geeks."

Weigel said he doesn't mind the joking reference to geeks. "I watch enough sports so I don't feel like a geek," he laughed.

Banyan's main goal is to sell the platform to universities or big hospitals that would pay $5,000 to install it behind their firewall. For that cost, 20 people can enter data into one account.

Individuals who want to store research documents on a private platform can pay $10 a month. Individuals who want to store it but leave it open for others to see and collaborate on can do so for free.

"We are doing that because we feel sharing is important," Weigel said.

There are currently about 100 researchers using the Banyan platform from USF to Australia to India. Few are being charged because the group just wanted to get users trying it out.

The new platform has great potential because research documents are so big they take a long time to email. One of the most common ways of sharing information is to physically mail a jump drive.

One researcher putting the Banyan platform to the test is Larry Dishaw, an assistant professor in research in the USF pediatrics program. He is studying the bacteria that forms in the gut of sea squirts to learn more about its relationship with the immune system and different genes.

"It's like a dream. You can actually collaborate in real time," he said. There are privacy issues to be addressed, however, for scientists working with human samples or clinical trials, because the sensitivity of the research can be prohibitive to sharing. But for so-called basic scientists such as physicists, statisticians and ecologists, the sharing component Banyan allows is unlike what's available now, Dishaw said.

"What we're used to is I perform an analysis on my end, then I email colleagues with an Excel file, then they execute their data and ship it back to me. With Banyan, two people can log in and push data back and forth to each other in real time and you can see it together. It's almost like Google Docs for research."

Austin Davis-Richardson, a Ph.D. student at the University of Florida, is using Banyan as he studies Type 1 diabetes.

"Scientific collaboration, sharing and publication has a lot of catching up to do with the software development world in terms of what has been enabled by the Internet," he said. "Banyan is a breakthrough because it will bring these tools to scientists, changing how scientific collaboration is conducted in a way that will make it vastly more efficient."

Gig Tank judges from such companies as IBM, Mozilla and Alcatel-Lucent decided Banyan had the most feasible business model at the final "pitch day."

Other contenders for the grand prize included a team working on a fantasy football application and one developing a way to search Twitter and analyze the spread of certain illnesses. With some of the prize money, Banyan has hired one of the members of the illness search project.

The group is looking for office space in downtown St. Petersburg and plans to soon close a deal with a Chattanooga investment group that will infuse $300,000 into the business.

Gemayel and Weigel, who have been friends since first grade in Hollywood, Fla., started another business while at USF St. Petersburg. It's a website and web app design firm called Two Giraffes. It has designed or enhanced sites for various clients including Wake Forest University.

"We're both pretty tall," Weigel said, "that's how we came up with the name."

Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or [email protected]

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