“How may I help you?”
That’s how Atomo co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Ryan Kelley began a seven-minute pitch for his start-up at the Andrews Launch Accelerator pitch night held August 22 on the top floor of the HQ Capital Club in downtown Raleigh.
He was introducing the precise indoor positioning platform that he and his team members have been perfecting this summer as participants in the Andrews Launch Accelerator program, based in the NC State Entrepreneurship Clinic.
It was a fitting opening for the closing event of the 15-week program that pairs teams of student entrepreneurs with mentors who very likely had asked them: How may I help you?
The event included final presentations by four teams in the 2018 Andrews Launch Accelerator program and by several teams in the Dr. Thomas Kenan Miller III Fellows Program, which continues into the fall semester.
Both programs provide mentorship and other assistance to NC State student startup teams, including grants for the Andrews Accelerator teams and a stipend for the Miller Fellows. Additional resources include access to the entrepreneurial community based in HQ Raleigh, and access to the Entrepreneurship Garage on NC State’s Centennial Campus.
The Andrews Launch Accelerator was established in 2016 by a gift from Robert “Chip” and Lyn Andrews in 2016. The Dr. Thomas Kenan Miller III Fellows Program was established in 2017 by NC State alumni, including Bill Nussey and Chris Evans.
Three of the four Accelerator teams – Aeva, Atomo and BnaFit – are in both programs. The fourth Andrews Launch Accelerator team is Cup’t.
Two of the Miller Fellows teams also presented at the Andrews Launch Accelerator pitch event – FreshSpire and Sudsy.
Members of each team provided the following feedback about their experiences in an email interview with Poole College communications.
Mentorship: a Key Asset
Aidan Special, Atomo co-founder, said his team had applied to the Andrews Launch Accelerator (ALA) “because of the quality of mentorship we knew we would receive. Chip Andrews was willing to speak with us before we even had a product and to give advice and mentorship.”
Kelley added, “Entering into the ALA, we didn’t know exactly what we were going to gain other than access to and mentorship by the top entrepreneurs in the Raleigh area. That alone was worth a summer outside of any venture.”
Reflecting on the experience, Special said, “The program’s show runners Gabe Gonzalez and Lewis Sheats have not only been mentors to the team, but have brought a fantastic cast of speakers to help us as well. We expected to gain connections, insights, and entrepreneurial know-how from the program. We got exactly that.”
Gabriel (Gabe) Gonzalez Orta is the NC State Entrepreneurship Clinic’s program manager and Lewis Sheats is assistant vice provost for entrepreneurship and executive director of the NC State Entrepreneurship Clinic, based in HQ Raleigh. He also is professor of practice at the NC State Poole College of Management.
Kelley elaborated on his team’s experience. “Atomo launched and began selling a product by the end of the summer. To the unacquainted, that doesn’t mean much, but behind the curtain it was an arduous process of customer discovery, business model generation, testing assumptions, testing customer interaction, building a product, product management, and sales. We learned a lifetime of business skills in the summer,” he said.
“Chip Andrews influenced our perspective as entrepreneurs by showing us just how important it is to have a community of entrepreneurs who want to build up other entrepreneurs – and that Raleigh has a blossoming community,” Special said.
“He helped us learn how to be effective, and even to see moving parts that we would’ve never thought about. Without a doubt, he helped to position our startup to become a truly viable business. Without Andrews, we might’ve not come to the end of the summer with a company at all.”
The team also benefited from mentor Tom Collopy, who, Special said, “advises multiple startups and provided an experienced eye and invaluable unfiltered advice.” It was Collopy’s third summer as a Launch Accelerator mentor. Eugene Yamnitsky, director of product management at Citrix, also mentored the Atomo team.
“Eugene has been an educator on how to manage high growth products, and has connected us with a multitude of fantastic professionals who have been willing to give us advice,” Special added.
Aeva Lab Team’s Mentor: A Good Fit
Zachary Fearnside, co-founder of Aeva Labs, whose team is creating a process to speed up the aging of alcohol, said his team’s mentor, Jeff Williams, “was a great connection and a good mentor fit. Sometimes having someone to bounce ideas off of and get validation in a direction can be a powerful tool,” he said.
Fearnside also commended the NC State Entrepreneurship Clinic’s program manager, Gabriel (Gabe) Gonzalez Orta, saying, “I’m thankful for Gabe, as I found him a very helpful advisor. He was always an open ear and has constantly pushed us to succeed. I’d say he was my favorite part of the accelerator program.”
Cup’t: A Clarified Roadmap
Sarah Alenezi, co-founder of Cup’t, said she had applied to the Accelerator program because she “believed in the vision of the startup I am working on and wanted to accelerate its growth but also get different perspectives about the idea and process from the experts in entrepreneurship.”
The experience provided what she sought – a clarified roadmap that would help her achieve the next milestones and accelerate the next steps for building her startup.
“As an entrepreneur, this experience influenced my behavior and perspective by helping me become comfortable with facing obstacles and uncomfortable situations (and) also understanding the importance of validating assumptions and analyzing risks before taking any,” she said.
With her startup, Alenezi is making a bra sizing vest that uses sensors to take accurate measurements via an application that captures and transforms data collected by the sizing vest into a list of bra recommendations.
“I have gained a lot of valuable skills needed in entrepreneurship, in addition to great connections in our industry. Having the accelerator located at HQ Raleigh has also helped me gain a great experience interacting with other entrepreneurs and learning from their ventures,” she said.
Alenezi’s team mentor was Kelly Caldwell, whom she first met in February through the NC State Entrepreneurship Clinic’s Mentorship Program. “I was very lucky to have her as my mentor again,” she said.
“I am very grateful that I was part of the program,” Alenezi said. “I have learned a lot not only about entrepreneurship but also myself as an individual in a short amount of time, and I would not have done that without all the help and support I received from NC State, the Entrepreneurship Clinic and the great community in Raleigh. I would like to take this opportunity to thank every single person that helped me throughout this journey.”
Building Skills and a Network
“It is hard to explain in a few points what we gained as a team from the Andrews Launch Accelerator Program,” said Karly Pavlinac, who founded BnaFit with Daniel Beale. Both graduated with their bachelor’s degrees last year – Pavlinac in December 2017 and Beale, in May 2018 – before participating in the Launch Accelerator this summer.
“Throughout the summer we grew as entrepreneurs because of this program,” Pavlinac said. “Not only did we learn skills we will continue to use throughout our lives, but we were able to build a network of relationships to help us grow as well. I can say with full confidence our company wouldn’t be where it is today without the help of Lewis, Gabe, and the Accelerator program. For that, we are very thankful.”
Also presenting at the Andrews Launch pitch night were two Miller Fellows: startups FreshSpire and Sudsy. FreshSpire’s founder and CEO Shraddha Rathod aims to use technology to optimize food distribution, providing an online marketplace where food distributors/suppliers can post deals of their low-cost excess produce for restaurants in the area to take advantage of in a time-sensitive manner.
Sudsy’s founder Khushbu Madhiwala is developing single-use, dehydrated soap tablets that turn into a liquid soap at the touch of water. Her goal: to make traveling and outdoor recreation more convenient by saving space, weight, and avoiding any potential leakage of cleaning products.
Photos by Erin Muir, university program associate, NCSU Entrepreneurship Program