As Ventureprise begins to conclude our summer programming, we are following up with some of our program alumni. After graduating this summer’s cohort, 275 teams have participated in our customer discovery program, Ventureprise Launch. We will begin our coverage with six teams that focused these last 18 months on reaching some major milestones; utilizing resources to test, pivot and launch in the market and collectively raising over $2.6 million through varying paths.
“This is a surreal moment,” comments Desmond Wiggan, co-founder of BatteryXchange, as he begins to present to the current Ventureprise Summer Accelerator cohort, “we were in these same seats just a few years back.” Abi Olukeye, founder of Smart Girls HQ adds, “customer discovery never stops. Listen to what your customers and the industry is saying.” As Desmond and Abi continue to speak to these up and coming founders, it is very apparent why they are here, detailing their journey and giving some inspiration and insight to these accelerator participants.
Funds Raised: $340K Employees: 4
Abi Olukeye first came to Ventureprise in the fall of 2018, as a participant in the six week National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps program, Ventureprise Launch. Abi had launched Smart Girls HQ, a STEM education solutions provider, and wanted to look into the parents’ perspective, along with some school educators. She continued her customer discovery journey, along the way meeting a Ph.D. student who introduced her to Dr. Mary Lou Maher, who is focused on AI research at UNC Charlotte. This introduction would be the beginning of a long standing collaboration, and highlighting a specific path to funding and commercialization for Smart Girls HQ. Through this collaboration, Abi has completed the NSF National I-Corps program, validating her idea and how Dr. Maher’s innovative research can be commercialized, and been awarded an NSF SBIR Phase 1 grant. Abi has also able to secure funding and mentoring through Ventureprise Summer Accelerator (2020), NC IDEA Micro Grant (2020) and NC IDEA SEED Grant (2021). Through these milestones Abi has been able to set a path, “I am very conscious of my milestones. Traction is important.” Olukeye has found a way to balance her business and describes it as a “balance of my corporate experience and the agility of a startup- embracing the best of both worlds. I have a set process and method but I also allow myself to fail fast, but my mistakes have to be good mistakes.” She has also found a way to master the funding, having specific paths for each of her sources.
Using NC IDEA’s Micro and SEED Grant funding, she has been able to develop, build and market her platform that offers insights, editorial content and STEM activity kits, primarily focused on girls, ages 6-12. They set out to sell 100 kits in December of 2020. It was the height of the pandemic and people were shopping online. They sold over 700. Next up, was the NC IDEA SEED Grant(Spring 2021). This $50,000 award will go towards kit development (they want to have six kits by December), marketing and operations.
In February 2021, Abi, along with UNC Charlotte’s Mary Lou Maher, was awarded NSF SBIR Phase 1 Award, which is being used to build, test and launch the Dear Smart Girl App. By fall 2021, each kit will include the app, which will serve create personalized informal learning pathways for users, extending their website into a web-based application. As one aspiring entrepreneur asks about her path and why she focused so much on customer discovery, Abi states, “we are building a set of products that will be here for a long time.”
Desmond Wiggan Aubrey Yeboah
Funds Raised: $195K Employees: 7
Desmond, and his co-founder Aubrey Yeboah, have taken a very similar path through customer discovery, participating in Ventureprise Launch in spring of 2019 and were accepted into the inaugural Ventureprise Summer Accelerator in summer of 2019. When they launched BatteryXchange, a rental platform that provides portable batteries to cell phone users, they could not have predicted any part of the road that they have they traveled, and have taken each step as a learning opportunity to advance their business. Having raised over $300k in pre-seed rounds, they recently opened their seed round funding and have already taken in investors. They’ve also raised $95k in non-dilutive funding. This money includes the $50K from the NC IDEA SEED Grant, which they were awarded on their third attempt in spring 2021. “This was such a milestone, because the earlier submissions we thought we were ready but we needed to get out into the market and have people using the app, so we could better articulate what we are, what problem we are solving and our needs,” states Yeboah. And if not for the downtime during the pandemic, they might not have had the opportunity to collect the information they needed for this funding round. They installed their Apollo kiosk at Seventh Street Market and have been collecting valuable data while supporting other local businesses in the area. "One of the biggest milestones for us was switching our focus from the user to the partnering businesses. It was through COVID that we saw the need for a B2B model as we could provide a major value proposition to bars and restaurants in keeping customers at their location longer on average an extra hour. Through our subscription model businesses are also able to access our digital screens for various and creative marketing efforts.,” explains Wiggan. With seven employees, contractors and a rejuvenated sense of purpose, this funding will get them through the summer into early fall, with a goal to add more app features, deploy 10 more kiosks and hire a sales manager.
One thing that has always been apparent with Desmond and Aubrey, they have always had a dual message during their journey, launching BatteryXchange while helping to carve a path for other minority founders. Desmond states that it has always been important to “show the quality of people that come from my community, so we are able to push through and, in essence, bust open the doors for others to walk through.” They promote the #LiveLifeCharged Initiative, which states their mission, ‘believing in not only empowering their users, but their communities as well.’ Their goal is to ‘supply our customers with the power they need to go after their dreams while educating the youth along the way.’ Desmond was selected to serve on NC IDEA’s North Carolina Black Entrepreneurship Council, solidifying his leadership role in the community as he continually helps other founders. “Sharing challenges, successes and being able to help one another, that’s what matters,” Desmond concludes to the Ventureprise Summer Accelerator participants.
Funds Raised: $1M Employees: 9
Katie Hotze, founder of Grocery Shopii, which leverages advanced analytics to bring intelligent retail to grocery, joined Ventureprise Launch in spring 2019 and was also selected for the 2019 Ventureprise Summer Accelerator with Desmond and Aubrey. In the beginning, Katie took a deep dive into the market, identifying a completely different problem in the grocery sector, which has proved to be a successful path. “[Customer discovery] is one of the greatest gifts. Truly understanding how to properly execute unbiased interviews is invaluable. Our team continues to get information from interviews we conducted and continue to conduct.” Katie has also taken the time to pay it forward, working with other founders on foundational aspects of entrepreneurship, sharing her path and how she found what would work for her.
One important component Katie has learned through her journey is to be very strategic with her relationships. These last 18 months have proven to be very productive for Grocery Shopii, maximizing the potential of each meeting. They have recently partnered with a large Midwestern grocer, added industry specific board members, Joe Davis, VP of eCommerce with Coca-Cola and Ed Kuehnle, former President of Catalina Marketing and utilized a variety of data sources to advance their technology. By listening to customers and working with industry leaders, they have built a productive script for fundraising and sales. “We began raising funds right before COVID. We also completed an API for the fastest growing eCommerce Platform in North America and are rapidly onboarding new clients.” In June, Grocery Shopii not only closed out a $1M seed round, but was also invited to join Microsoft for Startups, where they will partner directly with Microsoft’s Global Head of Retail, giving them access to unlimited resources, connections to key accounts, marketing and branding opportunities and a six figure sum of cloud services.
The seed round is giving them runway to fund their next gen capabilities, power retail experiences and grow the team. Katie and co-founder Mike Johnson, Chief Technology Officer, have recently relocated to a larger office in the Davidson Cotton Mill to accommodate new additions. They have hired a data scientist to focus on how to use AI platforms and they are preparing for a big sales cycle. “We have built our sales and marketing team up to support an aggressive sale of or tech across the first API we’ve written,” Hotze states.
Funds Raised: $10K Employees: 2
Chris Dix, founder of ChatStyle, a messaging solution for MSPs that combine the best in chat-ops with omnichannel customer chat, was also just accepted into Microsoft for Startups and was a Spring 2021 NC IDEA Micro Grant recipient. Coming through Ventureprise Launch in spring 2018 with an idea for a social media analytics and management tool, he recognized that something was just not clicking as he dove into customer discovery. Chris has just completed a sizable pivot, needing to rebrand and focus more on defining the problem he is solving. He has done the work. He believes there is a lot of opportunity, but has learned the importance of being focused on a target market and proving out the technology, using MSPs as his early adopters. With these initial customers he has been able to collect valuable feedback from the users and also identify gaps he will need to fill in order to bring on more customers. This strategy isn’t always intuitive, with many founders wanting to launch big. “Being a part of Ventureprise and NC IDEA Labs programs gave me structure, which I appreciate. Otherwise I would fall into playing with code all day. I tend to be very skeptical, and these programs helped reduce my risk,” Chris states. He continues to bootstrap, onboarding a few paying customers, and will use the NC IDEA funding for marketing and accelerate the understanding of the demand.
Having identified a need in the market, Chris believes that his partnership with Microsoft for Startups will allow him to manage the costs of running the systems at the start and improving their capabilities on an accelerated scale. “Basically, I have built the MVP on the Microsoft Azure platform, but with the sponsorship that comes with the program, we have a chance to see what the system will look like with thousands of customers while we are still bootstrapping with our first customers,” explains Chris.
Funds Raised: $1.1M Employees: 2
As we look at different paths to market, we also want to highlight those that come out of research on UNC Charlotte’s campus. Margaret Kocherga graduated with her Ph.D. in Nanoscale Science in May 2021 but began her journey as a graduate student (spring 2019) in the Ventureprise Launch NSF I-Corps program. With full support of her mentor and advisor, Thomas Schmedake, Margaret took full advantage of campus resources to continue customer discovery with the National NSF I-Corps program, interviewing over 100 potential customers and partners to identify an industry problem and validate the need for their solution. Light and Charge Solutions was soon formed, with a goal to provide a new generation of organic materials to enable sustainable consumer electronics and enable manufacturers to increase revenue margins by simplifying the manufacturing process. Having a technical background, Margaret set out to learn all she could about the path to commercialization and launch the company, participating in Ventureprise Launch Summer Acclerator (2020), the elite Chain Reactions Innovations Program in Chicago, Innovate Charlotte and immersing herself into the Charlotte startup scene. Margaret was also awarded a NC IDEA Micro grant in spring 2019 to fund a pilot study.
Through all of these programs and testing her materials, Margaret has made some important pivots. “Our initial thought was that we will go after the consumer electronics market. What we learned is that our go-to-market path would take us 7 years for consumer electronics and a lot of time proving our track record. We redirected our attention to luxury electronics and niche applications in wearable devices and lighting, which enables us to enter the market in the next two years, supply lower volumes and ensure that we can deliver what we promise,” Kocherga explains.
Like many of her Ventureprise alumni, she found a way to spend the downtime during the pandemic to her benefit. Instead of spending money on prototyping, she focused on continued customer discovery and fundraising. They had customers use what product they already had and collected feedback. “We are beyond thankful for the tech startup community for their willingness to try and test our newest products. We are are currently working with Sinovia Techonolgies (US) and Lusoco (Netherlands),” adds Margaret. By focusing on her commercializing path and having a deep technical solution, she has been able to raise $1.1M in grant funding, the most recent being a NSF STTR Phase 1 Award. This award will assist her in the path of working with more future looking customers. She has identified a dual use for the company; commercial, which will have pilots with vendors and contract, which will focus on government work. This summer has been focused on testing their realignment and validating their initial target customer. She will continue collecting more performance data to work toward a commercial grade MVP and setting up more pilot projects, with an overall goal to land a small scale supplier agreement by 2023.
Margaret has a busy next few months, starting with a rebrand. Margik will focus on broader library of organic materials for consumer electronics, lighting, fluorescent markers, and pigments. collecting more performance data to work toward a commercial grade MVP and setting up more pilot projects with an overall goal to land a small scale supplier agreement by 2023.
Funds Raised: $17K Employees: 2
Coming full circle with our featured teams, one of those Summer Accelerator participants that is taking in Desmond and Abi’s advice is Adonis Abdullah, Hot Route Analytics founder and UNC Charlotte student. Adonis received the NC IDEA Micro Grant, $10K, in the Spring of 2021 and is currently a part of the Ventureprise Summer Accelerator. After graduating in May 2021 with his undergraduate degree in Economics (Crown and Belk Scholar), he is continuing his education and earning his Master of Science in Data Science and Business Analytics and will graduate in May 2022. Adonis is learning to the balance school, internships and launching a company, but is motivated by challenges. Hot Route Analytics, a sports analytics company, recently launched the Next Level Pitch mobile app, and they working with five university programs, two being paid pilots. The biggest lesson he has learned from the launch? Adonis answers quickly,“simple user interface. It is easy to get lost in the features of the app while forgetting the functionality and customer behavior.”
Since coming through the Ventureprise doors at UNC Charlotte in fall 2019, Adonis has competed, and won, several pitch competitions, participated in community events such as PitchBreakfast and Venture135 and featured in Charlotte Inno’s Inno Under 25. As he takes in these past few month and settles into the marathon of launching a company, he has also volunteered to work with other aspiring student entrepreneurs, giving them insight into his entrepreneurial journey. “I have realized that this is a process. When you begin this journey you think this is going to be a lot easier,” Adonis tells them, as he encourages them to not be discouraged and work on making an impact in some way. In his short time with Ventureprise, he has learned a great bit and had some strong milestones. “The biggest evolutions with our customer is how we connect with them. Early on we just blindly cold called potential customers and hoped for a response. Now we have learned that there is a more systematic approach to reach customers, with the primary method being to connect through our existing network. Our customers double as our marketing source,” Adonis explains. Adonis’ journey is just beginning and he has successfully raised $17,000. With the Next Pitch app completed for this pilot phase, the NC IDEA Micro funds will be used to continue his customer discovery (attending conferences, which has been identified as a main source for coaching contacts) and marketing.