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Entrepreneurial Dukies Make Forbes' 30 Under 30 List

Published: 3 years ago | 0 comments

By Katie Jansen, Duke I&E

Tatiana Birgisson ’12, MATI Energy – Food & Drink


Tatiana Birgisson started her own company, MATI Energy, while living in Duke’s entrepreneurial community, The Cube, during her senior year.

What she first brewed as a healthy drink to help her through her own exhaustion and depression has become a rapidly growing business that put up 130 percent year-over-year growth in 2016 and earned Birgisson a place on Forbes’ 2017 30 Under 30 list in the Food and Drink category.
“I wanted to create an energy drink that was healthy from the ground up,” she said. “And to me, that meant no compromise. Nothing fake, nothing that I wouldn’t want to consume every day and multiple times a day.”

MATI is made with just tea and juices and has no added sugar.

The past year was a big one for MATI – the Durham-based company grew from five to 20 employees, built and moved into a 30,000-square foot production facility in Clayton, North Carolina, and became available at five chains in addition to its first chain, Whole Foods.

In 2017, Birgisson plans to grow the brand from 500 locations nationwide to more than 1,600 – which will include expansion into Florida, Texas and Virginia.

Andrew First ’10, Leanplum – Consumer Tech


Andrew First, an electric and computer engineering and computer science double major, got the idea for Leanplum while working at Google. Five years after starting his company, and he’s now on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list for Consumer Tech.

He and a coworker realized that there was no way to run A/B testing on mobile apps because apps were updated so infrequently.

“We scoured the web and couldn’t find any mobile A/B testing tools available,” First said. “Considering the growth in mobile and the nascency of the market, we saw this as a business opportunity to enable companies to make data-driven decisions on mobile
in order to improve user engagement.”

So they left Google and joined the Techstars startup accelerator to start Leanplum.

Leanplum started in San Francisco but now employs more than 100 people in offices in San Francisco, New York, London and Bulgaria.

Since the company started, Leanplum has expanded its focus from mobile A/B testing to building a comprehensive mobile marketing platform. The company has gained well-known customers like Lyft, Expedia and Tinder.

“We want to maintain our exponential growth and be known as the platform that every marketer needs to do their job on mobile and beyond,” First said. “Mobile has become the hub of every marketing channel – apps, web, email, push notifications, SMS and more. Having a mobile-centric marketing strategy has become critical as we continue into the mobile era.”

David Freed ’10 and Mike McGroddy ’09, NET Power – Energy


David Freed and Mike McGroddy, both biomedical engineers, are principals at 8 Rivers, a Durham-based company that looks to change the course of humanity with technology.

One of the company’s most successful technologies to date inspired the launch of a new company called NET Power. Because of their work on NET Power, Freed and McGroddy were recently named on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list in the Energy category.

Freed and McGroddy joined at the time when the technology, called the Allam Cycle, was little more than an idea. But they’ve helped take that idea – a new way to use carbon capture for fossil fuels in a way that’s clean and cost-efficient – to a reality – the company’s $140 million demo power plant in Texas will fire up this year.

“We’ve been working on this for six years now, so to get some recognition is pretty awesome,” Freed said, adding that he hopes the honor will help raise awareness about the importance of clean energy.

NET Power is working with Exelon, Chicago Bridge & Iron and Toshiba to open the plant. The company’s goal, Freed said, is to bring the cost of carbon capture to near zero, making the decision to use it an economic choice rather than an environmental one.

“It’s attractive to be able to help develop a technology that disrupts the industry,” McGroddy said.

Hareesh Ganesan, Rahul Jain and Nick Valilis ’12, TowerView Health – Healthcare


Hareesh Ganesan, Rahul Jain and Nick Valilis were roommates at Duke, and they later became three of four co-founders of a company focused on helping users take their medications correctly and promptly.

The Philadelphia-based company, TowerView Health, which recently earned all three a spot on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list for Healthcare, was inspired by Valilis’ battle with cancer.

Valilis was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia just after he started medical school. He realized how difficult and time-consuming it was to sort all of his medications into a pillbox.

Research shows that half of patients don’t take their medications as described, which costs insurance companies about $100 billion per year. TowerView Health aims to fix this by offering a three-pronged approach.

First, TowerView Health partners with pharmacies to organize pill trays, separating the different medications into dose and time.

The organized pill trays are then shipped to the patients in two- or four-week increments. The tray is inserted into the company’s smart pillbox, complete with sensors that can tell if a pill hasn’t been taken on time. If this is the case, an app will send the user notifications on his or her smartphone, and the pillbox will remind the user with lights and sound alarms. Notifications can also be sent to loved ones and case managers.

This pairs with a human piece, meaning that health coaches are available to answer questions or to reach out to users who have fallen off the map.

Now, TowerView Health is contracted with eight insurance companies, covering Medicare, Medicaid and employer-paid insurance.

Valilis said that he always knew he wanted to do something entrepreneurial, but he always assumed it would be much later in his career.

However, once he found out he had untreatable cancer, he went all in with TowerView Health.

“I wanted to make my impact faster that I’d be able to in medical school,” he said.

Yunha Kim ’11, Simple Habit – Consumer Tech


Yunha Kim ’11 got the idea for her second startup while she was running the first startup she co-founded.

Kim began meditating to deal with stress she experienced at her first company, Locket, an app that curates information to appear on users’ phone lock screens. Soon, she was meditating five to eight times a day.

“After a few months, I started wanting to find different teachers, meditation techniques, meditation themes, but I quickly realized that there wasn’t one central platform or resource for the world’s best meditation teachers,” Kim said. That’s where the economics and Chinese major saw a business opportunity.

Kim launched the Simple Habit iOS app in June 2016. Since then, more than 200,000 users have joined on iOS, Android and the web, and Kim was recently recognized on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list in the Consumer Tech category.

San Francisco-based Simple Habit makes meditation accessible to busy people by gathering five-minute lessons guided by a wide range of meditation teachers, mindfulness teachers at Google, former monks, authors and veterans. 

Kim’s goal is to help people made meditation a part of their daily routine.

“We’re excited about building a world where people meditate on a daily basis, just like running or brushing their teeth,” she said. “Fifty years ago, people didn’t run or brush their teeth on daily basis — it was toothpaste companies and lifestyle companies like Nike who made that happen. We want to do the same for mindfulness.”

Ann Mathews ’10, Goldmach Sachs – Finance


Ann Mathews first visited Goldman Sachs when she was a freshman at Duke, through a summer program for freshmen.

She knew nothing about finance. But once she arrived, the international comparative studies major was hooked.

“I liked the intensity and the speed of being on the trading floor,” she said. “Working in an environment like that was really appealing to me.”

Mathews went back to Goldman to intern during her sophomore summer, and again during her junior summer. By her senior summer, she’d accepted a job with the firm.

Now, she’s worked her way up to vice president, is one of the top-performing salesperson on the equities derivatives desk and has been named to Forbes 30 Under 30 list for Finance.

Not only does Mathews advise macro hedge funds, but she also oversees internal processes and programs.

One of the most important things, Mathews said, is differentiating herself from her peers at other banks. She also has contributed to things outside her job description, like helping to build new technologies for the firm.

Once Mathews was promoted, she noticed that junior people on the desk were getting tasked with manual work that could be automated.

The world of finance is changing, Mathews said, and entrepreneurial skills are expected. Even large firms expect their employees to find inefficiencies and solve them.

Mathews advises students to diversify their workloads while in school.

“The world is evolving in a way that we’re constantly looking for people who are well-rounded and open to a lot of things,” she said.

Tiffany Yam ’09, Salt Partners – Food & Drink


Tiffany Yam ’09 had a lot of interests while at Duke, from her computer science major to her marketing and management minor to art classes.

For the past couple of years, she’s been pursuing her passion in food and beverage at San Francisco-based Salt Partners, a venture capital firm dedicated to investing in foodtech. Her work there recently earned her a spot on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list for Food & Drink.

While at Duke, Yam wasn’t sure what she wanted to do for a career, but she knew she wanted to challenge herself and keep her options open.

She worked as an analyst and in private equity, but on Saturdays, she found herself working in a kitchen for fun.

Through her kitchen work, Yam met people doing creative things with food, but she realized it could be difficult for them to focus on the business side, as well – the areas where she feels most comfortable.

Yam found an opportunity to merge her passions when she met Hanson Li, founder of Salt Partners.

Salt Partners works with chefs and beverage professionals, becoming equal owners in their restaurants or other spaces.

Yam joined Salt Partners in 2014, about six months after it started. The firm helped to build four or five restaurants last year and has the same amount in the pipeline this year.

“I love what I do,” she said. “Every waking minute is work, but every day is fulfilling.” She added that she is now able to relate to her family more because her family also owns restaurants.

Other Duke alumni who made this year’s 30 Under 30 list include Colter Van Domelen of Tiger Global Management (Finance), Arun Sharma, postdoc at Harvard Medical School (Science) and Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers (Sports).

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