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Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Launch Chapel Hill startups ready to venture out

The downtown Chapel Hill accelerator launched its 20th cohort of companies – with nine new tech, food and health ventures primed for growth.

Oliver Pau, founder and owner of DoJo Fresh, speaking about his company on Launch Demo Day.
Oliver Pau, founder and owner of DoJo Fresh, speaking about his company on Launch Demo Day. (Brock Pierce/Innovate Carolina)

On any given day at Launch Chapel Hill, you’ll find local entrepreneurs immersed in the daily grind, intently plugging away at vital work. One team huddled in a corner developing its technology. Another in a conference room bouncing around ideas: brainstorming, business planning and reviewing customer feedback. And, of course, founders engaged in pitch-prep sessions.

But for those who came out to the Launch Demo Day event one early May evening to hear from one of the most diverse sets of companies you’ll find anywhere, the startup accelerator offered a different kind of focus. This event was less about what the companies were doing and more about where they’re going. If attendees arrived wondering, “What types of startups will we see,” they left pondering, “What types of startup haven’t we seen? And what will they do next?”

“I’ve been a part of every Launch Demo Day, and this one was particularly poignant: these COVID years have been brutal, and this year’s Demo Day was our first in-person since 2019,” said Tim Flood, acting executive director and entrepreneur-in-residence at Launch Chapel Hill. “The teams’ excellence, commitment and success were great to see—even more so because of the phenomenal turnout from members of the community. The networking, the buzz, the clear evidence that people were simply overjoyed to come together all contributed to this celebration of resilience and innovation.”

From culinary adventures like cold-brew coffees and flavor-packed, plant-based protein mixes and energy bars to tech platforms that deliver everything from higher-quality elder home care to business visualizations for executives, the startups put their pitch-prep work to good use.

This group of nine companies – the 20th such cohort to pass through Launch Chapel Hill since the downtown accelerator and co-working space took root in 2013 – explained the business models they’d shaped during the 14-week program and outlined their plans for future growth.

“We’re excited because every year, we have two-to-three cohorts of companies and get the opportunity to surround them with resources from the town, county and University to help them thrive,” said Sheryl Waddell, interim economic development director at Innovate Carolina. “The companies in our most recent cohort have been working extremely hard, and they’re focused on solutions to problems that will not only create an economic impact but also improve the quality of life for many people.”

Launch Chapel Hill was formed through a partnership between UNC-Chapel Hill, the Town of Chapel Hill and Orange County. It is managed by Innovate Carolina, the University’s central team for innovation and entrepreneurship, and has supported more than 150 companies over the past nine years. These companies have raised more than $38 million in total funding. Based on a 2020-21 snapshot analysis by Innovate Carolina, Launch companies earned more than $69 million in annual revenue and employed more than 800 people.

“We are thrilled to be a part of this program, and it’s such an incredible experience. It’s really been motivating to work with the cohort and mentors,” said David Hughes, founder of Kinetik, a company that is developing go-to-market visualization optimization software. “The whole program has resulted in my believing that we can actually do this—and my getting connected with a community that has given me confidence that we can turn this into an incredible company.”

Tech ventures focus on health, educational challenges

Neal Shah, the founder and CEO of CareYaya, shared how his company is solving a problem that he’s passionate about: creating high-quality, affordable elder care in North Carolina.

“This industry is completely broken, as I’ve experienced myself,” said Shah. “Basically, the options are, if you’re very wealthy, you can hire a local care agency and pay over $30 an hour, and even so, [the elderly] experience low-quality care and a lot of no-shows. And for everyone else, you’re out of luck. It’s find someone yourself, or ask a friend or neighbors.”

Through CareYaya, Shah provides an online platform that lets family members schedule caregivers – drawn from pre-health students at local universities like UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University – to provide assistance with activities like meals, housekeeping, mobility, exercise and transportation at almost half the cost of traditional in-home care options.

Neal Shah present a slideshow in front of a small crowd

Neal Shah (right) delivers his pitch for his startup, CareYaya. (Brock Pierce/Innovate Carolina)

Tasha Holland-Kornegay’s company WIRL (Wellness in Real Life) also provides an online solution focused on health – specifically helping health care workers themselves.

“Over 60% of the people who take care of you and me are burnt out,” said Holland-Kornegay, CEO of WIRL, who cites increased health provider turnover rate, alcohol and drug abuse, higher medical errors and provider suicides as the consequences of burnout. “Health care workers are too busy to search for resources and services when they start to feel burned out.”

WIRL provides a free online platform that helps health care workers quickly and easily identify, prevent and overcome burnout by connecting them to a variety of curated resources.

Exsto Bio, another Launch company that will provide specialized health-related consulting, seeks to “set the standard of patient care for the personalization of medical cannabis so that patients, doctors and nurses can stop guessing and start treating,” because current prescription and distribution models are very generalized. Exsto’s science-based processes offer novel toxicology testing, targeted therapeutics and first-in-class, highly customized care.

“Our therapeutics will target specific ailments, and we’re going to ensure that only the most pure, safest products get to market,” says Juan Carlos Pacheco, co-founder, who is an MBA student at Kenan-Flagler Business School. His co-founders David Lee (pharmacology) and Keith Rogers (toxicology) are also graduate students at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Health and wellness aren’t the only causes that Launch founders are using tech to take up. Leah Gallant’s and Karen Gee’s company Jay Bridge is developing an online platform to help families navigate post-high school life and career pathways. Gallant points to the 3.7 million students who graduate from high school in the United States each year, with 85% of them relying on guidance counselors who have too many students to properly assist. The result is a gap between those who have the information to make effective educational and professional decisions, and those who don’t.

“Students who have the financial resources are able to work with counselors in private practice, but these fees are out of reach for most people,” said Gallant. “The people who are most affected by these fees are people from marginalized backgrounds, people who are first-generation Americans, and those who are the first in their family to attend college. This also affects students’ abilities to access broader information about professional and career programs that might be available but that they might not know about because they don’t have access to counseling.”

Jay Bridge is building a platform to increase access to information. “We broaden our scope to go beyond university and colleges to provide insight on what it’s like to attend professional and career training programs. And by providing our clients with this access, we’ve been able to allow them to confidently transition from high school to life beyond,” said Gallant.

Food-forward ventures

Beyond forwarding-thinking tech ventures, a group of food-based startups pitched inventive concepts of their own. DoJo Fresh founder and owner Oliver Pau is tapping into the $1.4 billion plant-based meat market, which he notes is the fastest growing segment in grocery stores. DojoFresh produces a plant-based food mix – made with simple, natural ingredients and no preservatives – that lets people make protein-rich meat alternative suited to their own taste.

“Our customers are telling us that they are having problems with existing meatless products. A lot of those products are focused on fast food, and they don’t consider them healthy. They don’t want products that are highly processed and designed to imitate meat. And they have a wide range of preferences, and they’re finding limited options in the store.”

Pau describes DoJo Fresh’s product as “Bisquick for seitan” – a shelf-stable mix that is used to make the wheat-based protein. “All you need is water and your favorite sauce, and in four easy steps, you can make your own meatless crumbles, patties, nuggets and more.”

The company Atmabala infuses its Btein protein bar with ashwagandha, which aids mental health and wellness as well as physical health and diet. “Our mission is to provide physical and mental nourishment every day through essential nutrients,” said Hema Saran, co-founder of Atmabala. The company plans a whole line of products empowered by eastern approaches to health and wellness. Its flagship product, the Btein protein bar, is already available online, and—thanks to the Atmabala’s time in the accelerator—it is planning product-line expansions soon.

Gee Rege, co-founder of Tempo, is focused on another growing market: cold brew coffee. “Cold-brewed coffee has turned into one of the hottest new trends in the coffee market over the last decade, and that has resulted in an explosion of packaged cold-brewed coffees,” explained Rege. When compared to hot-brewed coffee, cold brews are lower in acidity, lower in bitterness and higher in sweetness, she said. But, Rege notes, there’s a hitch: most packaged cold brews are pasteurized, which compromises flavor.

“This is where we saw an opportunity to offer a product that prioritizes flavor,” said Rege. “My partner Kevin Murphy and I soft-launched Tempo to offer unpasteurized cold-brew coffee concentrate. By keeping these coffees unpasteurized, it allows us to retain the full flavor profile of the coffee and its velvety sweetness.”

Gee Rege (right), co-founder of Tempo

Gee Rege (right), co-founder of Tempo at the Launch Demo Day. (Brock Pierce/Innovate Carolina)

Sample Vu targets the other end of the spectrum: food and beverage companies and the millions of dollars wasted each year due to the obstacles and inefficiencies these companies face while bringing new products to market, particularly at the focus-group stage. Sample Vu, whose co-founders include 2022 UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School MBA graduates Rhett Ferrin and Mark Whitmire, streamlines the process of gathering focus groups together, collecting and analyzing the data, and moving products to market. Says Whitmire, “There are about 30,000 more SKU’s in a grocery store today than in 1990, but the process to develop these products is terribly inefficient.”

“Business school professor Ted Zoller recently told me that Launch Chapel Hill is the longest-standing accelerator program in North Carolina,” Tim Flood noted after all the pitches had finished. “This ‘crazy idea’ that the Town of Chapel Hill, Orange County and the UNC campus community came up with almost 10 years ago was, clearly, an innovation all its own, one that I’m very glad to say continues to support our coworkers, companies and communities.”

Future home: innovation hub

Like its cohort of new companies, Launch Chapel Hill has designs on big future plans, too. The accelerator will soon move into a new innovation hub space.

“We’re excited to announce that Launch Chapel Hill will take up a new home next spring when the University opens an innovation hub downtown,” said Waddell. “The hub will give us even more opportunities to connect startups to innovation talent, develop industry- and research-driven partnerships, and build a community of successful startups. We’re excited to have the relationship between the Town, County and University continue through Launch Chapel Hill in this new space.”

The innovation hub will be located at 136 East Rosemary St. in a building that is being renovated by Grubb Properties downtown. The University’s innovation hub will be home to Innovate Carolina, which will co-locate the University’s programming that supports innovation, entrepreneurship and its research-to-market pipeline. This programming will include the Launch Chapel Hill startup accelerator, co-working space and a collaborative business environment for industry and community partners. The hub is part of the Carolina Economic Development Strategy, which is an effort between the University, town and other local leaders designed to create a downtown innovation district that will retain, attract and grow more innovation-oriented companies and talent in Chapel Hill.

For more information about the innovation hub, contact Innovate Carolina via this online interest form.

Learn more about Innovate Carolina