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Ungraded Produce Wins 18th Duke Startup Challenge

Published: 1 year ago | 0 comments

Courtney Bell T’17 took the stage and told her audience that a year ago, she and her business partner made their first produce deliveries to 15 people – all Duke affiliated.

Today, the startup has 270 customers throughout Durham County and $7,000 in monthly sales.

And by the end of the night Thursday, Bell and her startup, Ungraded Produce, achieved another milestone: they were declared winners of the 18th annual Duke Startup Challenge and awarded a giant $50,000 check.

Ungraded Produce was declared the winner by a panel of seven judges, many of them Duke alumni, and was chosen from seven startups that had advanced to the final round.

The produce delivery company also took home the Audience Choice Award, which was decided by the live audience and netted the startup an extra $1,000.

Bell and her co-founder, Anya Ranganathan, also a 2017 Trinity graduate, founded the company in September 2016 after discussing their concerns about food waste and food insecurity. Bell, an environmental science major, found that her perspective neatly aligned with economics major Ranganathan’s.

They decided to tackle these problems with a subscription-based produce delivery service, similar to services like Blue Apron and Home Chef that have recently become popular. But their startup would be different because of its unconventional sourcing model. Ungraded Produce partners with farms to collect only misshapen or surplus produce, which couldn’t be sold in traditional big-box stores.

The need is there because 40 percent of all produced food goes uneaten, Bell said during her five-minute pitch Thursday. So far, the company has received great feedback – people like that their vegetables have character, and they also enjoy that the prices are 30 percent cheaper when compared to similar-quality goods at grocery stores, she added.

Not only does the company alleviate food waste, but it also addresses food insecurity. Ungraded Produce customers have the option to pledge a recurring donation to provide free produce deliveries to food insecure families. In Durham County alone, Bell said, 52,000 people are food insecure.

When Bell and Ranganathan started they took advantage of many of Duke’s entrepreneurial offerings, including two year-long programs offered by the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative: Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs and the Duke Startup Challenge. The company also sought free legal advice from the Duke Law Start-up Ventures Clinic.

As part of the Duke Startup Challenge, Bell and Ranganathan were expected to consistently meet benchmarks in order to advance to the next stages of the competition. Fast-forward a year, and the company has expanded past Duke’s borders and into the community, gaining subscribers from neighborhoods and churches by relying on word-of-mouth marketing. It has also diverted 8,000 pounds of produce from being wasted and has donated more than $1,000 pounds of produce to local food banks.

“I’m incredibly proud that in a sea of tech and medical startups, the judges and audience alike were able to recognize our potential,” Bell said. “We’re not exactly running the sexiest or even crazy lucrative startup, but we’re providing a service that people already know they want, so I’m excited that others believe in us and our concept. Plus, it was really my first time ever pitching, or even speaking in public, so I’m just super relieved.”

With the $50,000 in winnings, Ungraded Produce plans to purchase e-commerce software to automate customer sign-up processes, as well as hire additional staff to help with picking up produce from farms, packaging produce and delivering it to customers’ doorsteps.

“I remember when Courtney was first getting started in August 2016,” said Howie Rhee, managing director of student and alumni affairs at Duke I&E and Duke Startup Challenge organizer. “We connected her with some people and suggested she start to sign up some customers, and within only a few weeks, she had farms on board and was making deliveries in Durham.

“Her ability to make things happen is a great strength. It’s no surprise that, only a year later, she has made so much progress. To win both the grand prize and audience choice prize is really impressive. She has poured herself into this company and it has struck a nerve with a lot of people.”

The deadline for the next round of applications for the 19th Duke Startup Challenge is October 30.

Other awards were also announced at Thursday night’s Duke Startup Challenge Grand Finale, including:

  • The Clean Energy Prize, a $10,000 prize sponsored by the Duke Energy Initiative, was awarded to Perle Converter, a Duke researcher and graduate student team that developed a technology that can be used with solar panel systems, for battery storage and in the growing electric vehicle market.
  • The BME Prize, a $10,000 prize sponsored by Duke’s department of biomedical engineering, went to BME senior Sam Fox, who is developing a technology to transfer patients from beds to wheelchairs.
  • The Alumni Prize went to Inirv Labs, a technology developed by a Trinity graduate and a Duke School of Medicine graduate that can automatically turn off stoves that are accidentally left on.
  • The Rasheed A. Wiggins Prize, a new $1,500 prize given in memory of Wiggins, who was also a Duke entrepreneur, went to Flower Child Remedies, a company co-founded by Trinity graduate Tiana Horn that focuses on all-natural haircare products.
  • The Borchardt Prize, which was endowed by David Cummings (T’02) in honor of Professor Frank Borchardt, was awarded to Brainbuild, a Trinity and Pratt School of Engineering team focused on automating nutrition schedules. Each year, the Borchardt Prize is awarded to an undergraduate team. Brainbuild will receive $18,000.

Other Duke Startup Challenge finalists, which were selected from around 100 teams that applied to the challenge at the beginning of the competition, included:

  • Flower Child Remedies;
  • Brainbuild;
  • GO Leafe, a Fuqua team that has developed a way to cost-effectively produce Graphene, a material that can be used in applications from water desalination to clean energy;
  • kelaHealth, a software-as-a-service company founded by a Duke School of Medicine and Duke Department of Statistics team that uses machine learning to predict and reduce surgery complications;
  • LivingLAB, an app developed by Fuqua students that matches people with potential roommates and rental properties;
    and
  • MedServe, a nonprofit founded by Fuqua and Trinity grads that employs a Teach for America fellowship model for healthcare.

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