What do a plant-based egg and dairy alternative food company, an artificial intelligence healthcare platform and a modern bidet attachment manufacturer have in common? All three are start-ups founded by female Cornell alumnae and, according to Forbes Magazine, are also three of the top 50 most innovative women-led startups in tech.
Phaedra Anestassia ’14 first began developing Spero Foods’ plant-based versions of cheese and eggs as a way to relieve symptoms from her “chronic illness,” according to the company’s website. After making the switch to plant-based foods, Anestassia “started to forget what sick even felt like.”
“I spent years working in software engineering and data analysis for both corporate and start-up entities, but was never satisfied,” Anestassia said on the Spero website. “I knew there was something more that truly mattered to me and the world at large — something I just had to do.”
Armed with her background in biosciences and optimization, Anestassia turned her efforts towards creating sustainable, nutritious plant-based alternatives for dairy and egg products. Soon after, Spero — meaning “I hope” in Italian — was born.
Since the company’s start in 2016, the full line of products has since expanded to include dairy-free chevre cheeses, liquid egg alternatives and even whipped cinnamon cheesecake. Six ounces of Spero goat-cheese product costs around nine dollars.
After graduating from Cornell, Agrawal started an organic pizza restaurant which later become a chain of restaurants called WILD, then in 2014 began working on THINX and anti-incontinence underwear company ICON. She founded TUSHY in 2015, which makes bidets that attach to typical toilets, and is now the company’s Chief Creative Officer.
The company has gained traction, even garnering a shout-out on SNL late last year.
Once known as the taboo-busting, feminism-driven CEO of menstrual underwear maker and millennial phenomenon THINX, Agrawal was ousted in 2017 after employees alleged sexual harassment and misconduct including fat-shaming and penalizing workers who took maternity leave. The complaint was later withdrawn after a settlement was reached.
Cornell alumna Dr. Iya Khalil Ph.D. ’01 is the co-founder and chief commercial officer of her start-up, GNS Healthcare, a data analytics company that uses AI to help healthcare providers optimize patient treatments.
The company, which Khalil founded in 2000 with fellow Cornell alumnus Colin Hill M.A. ’00, has since acquired $54.3 million in funding from venture capitalists and other investors, moving its headquarters from Ithaca to biotech hub Cambridge, M.A.
In the past, GNA Healthcare has worked on projects varying from analyzing standards for federal healthcare reform to teaming up with pharmaceutical companies to predict patients’ responses to experimental drugs.
“Given that we now have the capability to unravel our biology, and predict how to intervene to get to the best possible outcomes, our challenge then becomes how do we apply this to every disease and every aspect of our health, including how we age,” Khalil said in a recent interview with the Precision Medicine World Conference.
“I look forward to a time where we can predict serious illness or life-threatening events well before they happen and actually prevent them,” she continued.
According to Forbes, the 12.3 million women-led start-ups in the nation have not received the same access to capital that men have received — women-led startups received only 2.2 percent of investor funding last year.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Miki Agrawal is no longer actively involved at TUSHY. In fact, she is TUSHY’s Chief Creative Officer. Furthermore, the 2017 accusations against Agrawal alleged sexual harassment, not sexual assault, and were later settled and withdrawn. The current version of the article reflects these changes.