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Nancy Smith

Startup Quest Lighting a Fire Under Budding Entrepreneurs

July 9, 2014 - 6:00pm

Mary Ohlfs didn't ask to be the poster child for Startup Quest, but her early success in the CareerSource Florida network program has thrust her and her new company into the limelight.

A year after Startup Quest trained her and taught her to develop a business plan, Ohlfs was sitting at a table at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston signing a licensing agreement to commercialize the product her new, Florida-based company, LifeNet Systems, will produce.

And what a product. Ohlfs, who lives in Wellborn near Lake City, believes she can bring the nation -- and the world -- safer highways, thanks toNASA-developed technology and a startup company.

What Ohlfs likes most is, she won't be flogging some kind of meaningless widget, her product is a safer, softer, taller highway barrier -- a vast improvement from concrete and steel barriers in place on roadways now. "They should all be replaced," she said, "and this is the product that can save countless lives."

The agreement Ohlfs signed with Melanie Saunders, NASA Johnson Space Center associate director,was the first of its kind to merge NASA technology with emerging commercial companies using a new partnership agreement process. LifeNet Systems was formed while Ohlfs attended training courses at Startup Quest, a CareerSource Florida Network-based entrepreneurial training program, funded by a U.S. Department of Labor Workforce Innovation Grant.

"It's been a tough but rewarding year," Ohlfs told Sunshine State News. "I had just finished college, had my bachelor's degree from an online university when I discovered this program through CareerSource North Central Florida."

In August 2013 Ohlfs attended a Startup Quest introductory workshop in Gainesville, liked what they had to say, was selected for the 10-week program and never looked back.

"We broke up into teams," she said. "Each team of seven or eight had an established entrepreneurial project mentor. Ours was Mark Davidson. He was fantastic, pitched the technology from a University of Florida catalog and a NASA catalog, presented the product and the potential applications to my group. The road barrier technology just felt right."

From there, Ohlfs and the rest of the team were taught to do their homework -- all of it. They did their research, formed a business plan and at the end of 10 weeks pitched it to investors. "It all happened incrementally," she said. "The whole process is a simulation to teach us how to be entrepreneurs and pitch our plan. Our team won second place in an investor pitch competition."

That's when a few members of the team -- Ohlfs at the helm -- decided to commercialize the product. "Right now we're putting all the money into it ourselves. In the U.S. the Department of Transportation is highly regulated," she explained. "To sell it here, we have to get it approved for testing at the Texas Transportation Institute. It's a process that takes 18 months."

But they found a way to get started immediately. The new company's vice president of marketing, Yolanda Castillo-Baron, is Colombian. In Colombia, says Ohlfs, there are no regulations and Colombian authorities are interested in moving quickly to acquire and install the LifeNet Systems barriers.

"It will take $50,000 to do a prototype," she told SSN. "With $100,000 we can prototype it, test it and begin manufacturing. But I'm trying to raise $1 million capital, because while business with Colombia is going on, I want to simultaneously get the product into the Texas Transportation Institute so testing can begin. We want to market to departments of transportation all over America as soon as possible."

Ohlfs said she's never been happier in her life. "I found something here that will help make me part of the solution. I get to create something to make American families safer. I get to create jobs. What could be better?

"I can't say enough about Startup Quest. It's not an easy program, you have to do your due diligence and build up your skill sets. But if you do it well, these people are so supportive. And the support goes on. They don't drop you like a hot rock when it's over. They answer questions and help you make connections."

Startup Quest began as a pilot program in 2011 with 83 participants. It was formed with partners including CareerSource North Central Florida, the University of Florida Office of Technology Licensing, the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, and dozens of successful entrepreneur mentors and investor judges. The pilot program, funded by the state workforce board, CareerSource Florida, resulted in these numbers:

  • 20 participants becoming self-employed
  • 14 startup companies formed
  • 26 additional jobs created from those that became self-employed
  • 73 participants becoming employed by 35 businesses.

The pilot program's success led to a U.S. Department of Labor expansion grant of almost $12 million over five years, allowing Startup Quest to open up across seven additional workforce regions in Florida. Plain and simple, it has opened the door to more new business formations and job creation.

Startup Quest is a program that will impact the economic prosperity of Florida and the nation for years to come, said Ohlfs' mentor Mark Davidson, Ph.D., president and co-founder of The Tech Toybox Inc. Combining qualified professionals who have the drive to run their own business with successful entrepreneurs and innovative technology just waiting to be turned into a job-creating business is a recipe for economic advancement."

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423.

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