Building Companies VirtuallyBy Wendy Wang
The Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge (“NVC”), launched in 1996, is recognized as one of the top-ranked accelerator programs in the nation. NVC startups have raised over $1 billion in funding and achieved more than $7.5 billion in mergers and exits. The final competition occurs at the end of the Spring Quarter, when teams present to a panel of distinguished judges to compete for startup capital. Recently, I interviewed a diverse group of founders who participated in NVC to learn how their businesses have changed since the accelerator and adapting for the new normal.
Fertility Care for All
Albert Mikkelsen (Booth ’21) was no stranger to entrepreneurship coming into Booth – he formerly founded and ran a boutique consultancy firm headquartered in Spain with clients all over Europe – and he knew he wanted to start a new venture at Booth. The idea for Ollipsis Fertility originated from Mikkelsen’s work with a past client in this space over a year and a half ago. Mikkelsen realized the importance of fertility care and spent his free time brainstorming ways to expand access to care. This soon grew to Ollipsis Fertility’s mission today: to expand fertility choices through education, options, and access. Ollipsis Fertility provides free fertility preservation services for eligible candidates who donate half of their retrieved eggs to other patients in need. Ollipsis Fertility partners with reputable clinics to conduct the retrieval procedures. Following ASRM and FDA guidelines and regulations, all candidates will be required to take psychological, physical, clinical, and genetic tests prior to retrieval.
For the Ollipsis team, the cancellations and closures from COVID-19 provided them with undistracted, weeks-long sprint time to accelerate the build progress as they moved through NVC. Despite the need to quickly adjust to a remote working environment, the team of six was able to recruit respected advisors, establish a partnership with the Institute for Human Reproduction, and receive 14 signed Letters of Intent, all done before raising any money. During the last week of the Spring Quarter, the team presented their vision of a world with affordable fertility options. It was no easy task communicating such a sensitive topic to a virtual audience, but the NVC judges were clearly persuaded by the mission and the team, awarding Ollipsis Fertility the fourth-place prize of $50,000. This prize money, plus an additional $30,000 raised outside of NVC, will allow Mikkelsen and his co-founders to dedicate their summers to working on Ollipsis Fertility full-time. The company is currently raising a full pre-seed round in preparation to do the first egg retrieval this September.
When Tom Zhang (uChicago, ‘16) was a consultant at Stax, he quickly made a name for himself for the delicious and nutritious smoothies he would make the office every Friday, starting the office tradition of Smoothie Friday’s. The positive feedback and strong demand for healthy and convenient food options led Zhang to explore methods to automate and scale his business, and the idea for Zenblen was born. Zenblen is a tech-enabled smoothie kiosk that instantly blends fresh smoothies to-go.
From initial beta testing during NVC last year, Zenblen quickly found product-market fit in boutique gyms; gym goers appreciate the fresh post-workout option and fitness studios love extending this perk to its clients without requiring additional resources. Investors agree, as Zenblen has been able to raise over $350,000 to date.
Knowing that this initial go-to-market strategy depended on foot traffic at gyms, Zhang and his team started monitoring the potential impact of COVID-19 since February, weeks before Illinois issued its shelter-in-place order. The team strategized and created new launch plans for various severities of shutdown scenarios, which allowed for Zenblen to quickly acclimate to whatever becomes the new normal.
Thanks to the space-saving kiosk design and backend connectivity, Zenblen machines can easily be integrated in many different environments. Currently, Zenblen has refocused its sales to residential real estate, with already over 20 residential buildings in its pipeline. Zhang credits his team’s careful pre-planning and Zenblen’s adaptability for the quick progress. Despite the pivot, he views COVID as an accelerant for Zenblen, as the pandemic has increased demand for healthier foods, applied robotics in food service, and contactless ordering. The team is currently working to finalize the manufacturing process and service its first building early 2021.
The Perfect Fit
Amanda Blank (Booth ‘20) has overcome numerous challenges in her life, but one challenge she continued to struggle with was finding a great fitting bra. Each brand has different measurements, fits, and styles, so bra purchasing is often a stressful process in-stores and a near impossible process online. Knowing that this is likely a problem for many women, Blank applied to NVC last year with Bratadah and a mission to revolutionize the online bra shopping experience.
In the past year, Blank worked on this idea full time, collecting data, developing the algorithm, and meeting bra manufacturers. Because of the immense amount of data required to build a comprehensive and accurate algorithm, product development took over nine months, with several of those months happening during Illinois’ shelter in place. On one hand, COVID forced Blank to adapt her data collection methods from hosting in-person bra fitting parties to a virtual environment, but on the other hand, COVID also garnered greater demand for her product with shoppers’ reliance on e-commerce.
Bratadah officially launched in May 2020 and plans to be a one-stop marketplace for women to buy bras that fit. The company works with manufacturing partners to allow the platform to profit from the margin on bra sales without having to hold inventory or complete fulfillment. Armed with an ample supply of bras, Blank is now dedicating her time now to grow the demand side of the platform through various paid and organic marketing strategies. And with an algorithm that boasts a 91% success rate and a site that can recommend over 500 bra options, Bratadah is definitely in a great position to attract users.