Contrary Pitch Night at Penn
Contrary, a venture fund investing in university-founded start-ups across North America, held its first University of Pennsylvania-wide Pitch Night of the year on Oct 22nd. The event provided six start-ups, pre-vetted by Contrary through an application process, the opportunity to pitch in front of a panel of seasoned investors and founders, namely Nimi Katragadda, Partner at BoxGroup, Stephen Kuhl, Co-Founder and CEO of Burrow, and Eric Tarczynski, Founder and General Partner of Contrary.
I had the chance to attend the pitch night and was impressed by the sheer breadth of start-ups presenting. Industries represented included artist freelancing, real estate visualization and search, footwear insoles, healthcare lighting, meal subscription services, and even novel agave spirits!
Xoma, the first distilled pulque agave brand to enter the US marketplace, took home the judge’s pick award for its branding and unique position in the quickly-growing US premium spirit market. The audience popular vote went to Lumify Care, which aims to improve patients’ sleep quality (and in turn, health outcomes) via LED lights that were developed specifically for frontline healthcare workers.
Here’s a brief summary of the start-ups who participated.
1) ARTSWRK (https://www.artswrk.com/): Founded by Nick Silverio (Wharton UG’18) and Ramita Ravi (Penn UG’17), ARTSWRK provides a web-based professional network allowing freelance artists to track, find, refer work, and access artist support services (e.g. health benefits, branding, part-time jobs). The company has prototyped their MVP, conducted user testing with ~200 users, and hopes to tap into the 56,000-artist labor market in New York City with their recent friends-and-family round, before expanding into the US market at large (~5M freelance artists).
While creatives have been adversely impacted during the Covid-19 pandemic (Brookings estimates a loss of ~2.7m jobs and ~$150B in sales of goods and services of creative industries), the founders have faith in their ability to succeed post pandemic, given their own backgrounds as freelance artists.
2) Ascend (https://ascendbuild.co/): Co-Founded by Montgomery Ngan (Wharton UG ’20), Ascend is a Canada-based AI platform aiming to help real estate developers, brokers, and city governments discover undervalued development opportunities. Ascend scrapes and analyzes a variety of traditional and non-traditional data sources (e.g. demographics, sentiment analysis, zoning and rezoning applications) using predictive algorithms to determine and visualize areas likely to rezone or appreciate. Ascend has spoken to 57 development and brokerage firms to validate their product and will focus their first version of the product on multi-family/townhome units. Ascend will sell via an annual SaaS subscription and already has two paid contracts. Additionally, they’ve recently been selected to be part of Next’s 36 2020 cohort, which bodes well for their future success.
3) Atlas (https://walkatlas.com/): Co-Founders Libie Motchan and Daniel Nelson (Both Wharton MBA’21) both experienced regular back pain – through chiropractor visits, they learned that “good alignment starts from the ground up,” or that most shoes we wear have poor arch support.
Most conventional solutions to foot pain are expensive (custom insoles can run up to $500) or branded as predominantly geriatric solutions. In response to the market, Atlas has designed a cork insole with arch support, which molds to the user’s foot as they wear the insoles. The insole boasts a high degree of sustainable manufacturing, given its use of carbon-negative cork from Porto, rubber latex foam from trees in Indonesia, and cactus leather from Mexico.
Atlas recently completed a pay-as-you-wish pilot selling 250 pairs, with an average order price of $35/pair. The product now sells for $48/pair, and with loaded costs of only $13/pair, Atlas’ healthy margins give it a strong runway for growth.
4) Lumify Care (https://www.lumifycare.com/): Founded by Anthony Scarpone-Lambert (Penn UG ’21 and PhD ’24) and Jennifferre Mancillas, Lumify Care aims to address patients’ number one complaint during hospitalization – getting quality sleep. Hospital patients have been found to sleep less and wake up earlier than they would at home, with more nocturnal awakenings – in part due to hospital staff checks. These sleep disturbances potentially impair the ability of patients to recover from the acute illnesses that caused them to be hospitalized in the first place. Enter Lumify – Lumify has developed a clip-on LED light which allows for nurses to check on patients without turning on the lights in the patient’s room, reducing the number of times lights are switched on from 9x per nurse shift, to 2x per nurse shift.
Lumify is targeting night shift nurses for their launch through partnering with nurse influencers. They price their LED light for $16 with direct manufacturing costs of only $1.62. While the value proposition is strong and margins are healthy, the company’s competitive advantage likely needs to be assessed further given LED technology is already widely commoditized.
5) Nouri (https://nourimama.co/): Co-founded by Irene Liu (Wharton MBA ’22), Nouri is a personalized meal subscription program for expecting, pregnant, and post-partum mothers. Drawing on both Western nutrition and Eastern tradition to “mother the mother,” Nouri crafts recipes and selects ingredients with a focus on baby health and the symptoms of pregnancy (e.g. nausea, heartburn, swelling).
Nouri’s team includes Dr. Marta Perez, a board-certified Ob-Gyn and Assistant Professor at WashU School of Medicine, and Jennifer Jolorte Doro, a Clinical Nutritionist and Postpartum Private Chef, to ensure they check off both the taste and health boxes. The company currently configures meal plans on a modular basis by phase of pregnancy, with 3, 5, and 7-day plans. They are currently conducting their first pilot in New York City, out of a commissary kitchen in the Hudson Valley, and they intend to scale in NY via marketing in ob-gyn offices coupled with a referral discount program.
Long-term, Irene envisions monetizing further through enabling baby company targeted advertisement via the platform and recommending high-quality baby/mother-centered products to mothers.
With a unique spin on the meal subscription service by targeting a specific customer segment, Nouri just might solve the high attrition commonly experienced by meal kit delivery services (though, we’d still expect some churn once the mothers phase out of post-partum/newborn care!).
6) Xoma (https://www.drinkxoma.com/): Founded by Anthony Morano and Iacopo Santini (Wharton MBA ’20 and ’21), Xoma is the first pulcatta agave spirit in the US. It’s made from fermented and distilled aguamiel (literally “waterhoney” in Spanish), the sap of the Mexican maguey or agave plant. Xoma works with 200 farmers in Mexico using the traditional milpa farming method, which creates large yields of crops without the use of artificial pesticides or fertilizers.
Xoma boasts a smoother taste than mezcal and tequila and hopes to tap into the large, growing premium agave market in the US. Iacopo recommends consuming it neat, on the rocks, or in lightly sweetened citrus mixed drinks.
The company recently received their federal import license and is about to launch their first batch of 1,400 bottles for sale virtually across 30 states. They envision partnering with bars to get the word out in a post-pandemic world.