When Thomas Edison arrived in Fort Myers, Florida, more than 130 years ago, he imbued the city with the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. His love for the area continues to attract many people, including those who share the gene of invention, to Southwest Florida to tour his winter estate. This year, the awards ceremony that bears his name arrived, too. With it comes an award for a Florida Gulf Coast University entrepreneurship student’s creation and a second for the Daveler & Kauanui School of Entrepreneurship itself.
The Edison Awards “have recognized and honored some of the most innovative new products, services, and business leaders in the world since 1987,” according to a release from Edison Universe, the 501(c)(3) organization that oversees the competition.
“It’s an award that has honored innovation from these massive companies,” said John Ciocca, an FGCU entrepreneurship major who won a 2021 Gold Edison Award for his product, youBelong Voice. “GoPro won last night. Google won one. There are big names here, and to be considered alongside them with what we built is, for me, super exciting. It shows this is a mobile app that has been recognized by industry leaders.”
Ciocca’s app, youBelong Voice, took the top prize for Social Innovation – Social Tools for Disabilities & Illnesses. The app provides alternative augmentative communication to those with speech-impeding disabilities. He discussed it with FGCU360.com in December.
“It’s an advanced text-to-speech synthesis engine that gives users the ability to express their feelings, thoughts, actions and needs by simply tapping or typing to form a sentence and have it spoken aloud,” said Ciocca, who develops apps with his brother, Christian.
But recognition from the Edison Awards isn’t exactly new territory for this enterprising student.
“He is a junior in college, and this is his second Edison Award,” said Sandra Kauanui, Ph.D., director of the Daveler & Kauanui School of Entrepreneurship. “John’s goal is to make a social impact, to make a difference to so many people. He is motivated and determined to create products, become financially successful and make the world a better place all in one. Creating innovative products that will make lives better while also becoming a financially successful entrepreneur is not always easy. John is doing it. We are very proud of him and continue to see him grow as a student and as an entrepreneur.”
The 2021 Edison Awards were doubly exciting for Kauanui as she accepted a Bronze Edison Award for Education – Dynamic Learning Platforms on behalf of the Daveler & Kauanui School of Entrepreneurship.
“Winning an Edison Award says that our program is unique and supporting the economic growth in Southwest Florida. It will truly help create jobs, keep more of our young entrepreneurs in Southwest Florida and help the area become known as a special place to come if you want to be an innovator and entrepreneur,” she said.
In just a few years since it started, entrepreneurship is one of the most sought-after majors at FGCU. After being encouraged to start their own businesses and grow them through their daily classes, undergraduates leave with a comprehensive set of skills to manage a successful company. Beyond the degree, the Daveler & Kauanui School of Entrepreneurship is home to the Runway Program, Mentor Program and Faculty Fellows Program. Additionally, in partnership with Veterans Florida, the school helps U.S. military veterans develop their business plans and obtain seed funding.
The school is no stranger to awards and recognition. For the last two years, it was recognized as one of the top 30 undergraduate entrepreneurship programs by The Princeton Review and Entrepreneur magazine. It’s also attracted the attention of innovators across the region. In the last year, the school secured the funding to build a new home – Lucas Hall – for the program on campus. The building will open this fall.
“What we have created in the Daveler & Kauanui School of Entrepreneurship is extremely innovative compared to other entrepreneurship programs,” Kauanui said. “Now we have the Edison Award to prove it. We are very proud of what we have built and will continue to move forward to support our students and veterans.”