About three years after graduating from Cornell University, friends Delia Hughes ’14 grad, Meagan McKeever ’14 and Lindsay Simon ’14 walked through the aisles of Whole Foods in Manhattan with one goal in mind: find a food product that was ripe for innovation.
These three friends knew they wanted to become active in the food distribution agency and just needed the right product to start this process. They landed in the candy aisle. The three friends noticed that people loved eating sweets but also wanted to limit their sugar intake.
Two years later, they are currently working on a lollipop that allows for people to snack without feeling guilty over calorie counts, a business that was recently selected as part of Cornell’s 2019-2020 eLab cohort.
eLab, a collaboration of Student Agencies and Foundation of Entrepreneurship at Cornell, is an accelerator program for student startups — admitted startups enter a year-long program that provides mentors, a $5,000 investment and access to Cornell’s alumni network. This past weekend, about half of this year’s 24 chosen startups pitched at NYC Pitch Night, where Cornell entrepreneurs forged relationships with advisors and mentors in their field.
This year eLab has expanded its cohort into eLab One and eLab Two. eLab One participants are further along in the business process, with a more specific customer focus than the business in eLab One, according to Hughes.
Spark Pop: Guilt-Free Candy
Spark Pop, a product in eLab two, looks to balance people’s craving to snack with the desire to be healthy. Hughes, McKeever and Simon are currently finalizing the formula for their lollipop, made from a derivative of beet juice, apple juice concentrate, natural flavors, citric acid and vegetable juice.
“We want people to enjoy themselves and satisfy their sweet cravings without feeling guilty for snacking. Thus, we created a lollipop that has less than 2g of sugar per pop and only 30 calories,” Hughes said. “The product is long-lasting, so it takes away all cravings and someone is not eating a couple handfuls of candy just to feel satisfied and satiated.”
While they originally settled on a lollipop due to the complexities of balancing their formulas with the limited equipment available in the food science kitchens, Hughes and her co-founders are looking to expand into other types of candy.
Hughes, who was involved in Cornell Food Ventures, a CALS center that provides assistance to food entrepreneurs, saw applying to eLab as the logical progression in the growth of her business. As part of the cohort, Hughes said that she has enjoyed being a part of a support system of startups and being mentored by the teaching team, as well as having the ability to practice her pitch. Last month, she spoke in front of 200 Cornell trustees and will pitch her idea again this month at Rev, a business incubator in Ithaca.
Hughes, estimates that she spends about 25 hours per week working on her project. She and co-founders, who both have full-time jobs, usually take calls together at night, as well as work weekends.
While Spark Pop is not currently on the market, Hughes and her co-founders hope that it will launch in the next few months.
Normal: CBD Infused Sparkling Water
Mike Wagner grad and Moses Oh grad are the founders of Normal, a CBD-infused sparkling water. According to their website, Normal provides “ a sense of calm and focus after your mid-afternoon coffee crash.”
Using green tea-derived L-Theanine, an amino acid found in many teas that promote relaxation, and all natural flavors, Normal comes in lemonade and strawberry flavors and can be purchased at Collegetown Bagels, Ithaca Bakery and Green Star Co-op. Wagner and Oh met through Destination Johnson, a weekend event held by the SC Johnson College of Business filled with presentation and networking opportunities, and officially launched their product in August 2019.
“We began looking for opportunities within the cannabis base, and we saw beverages as a form of consumption that people are used to — not everyone wants to smoke weed, not everyone wants to take CBD oil droplets — so we decided to make a drink,” Wagner said.
As part of eLab, Wagner is most looking forward to the access to mentorship and personal support, as well as learning from other members of the cohort.
Right now, Wagner and Oh manufacture all the drinks themselves, working between 7 p.m. and 1 a.m., and joke about their “unbalanced” lives. Though this process is exhausting, Wagner says it’s worth it: “I’ve had some of the best feelings of exhilaration that I’ve ever had in my life these last few months,” he said.
As a freshman, Claire McLeod ’20 was working at Cornell’s Annual Fund at the Student Phoning Program and noticed the extreme inefficiencies of the software that Cornell uses for its phone-a-thons. After hearing McLeod’s complaints, Iliana Paleva grad decided to apply for the job to take a better look at those inefficiencies — and, once hired, Paleva realized that the two of them could build more functional software.
Starting by making sketches in their kitchen, McLeod and Paleva are now developing a phone-a-thon software that enables higher education institutions to manage their alumni databases by automatically calling alumni and processing the payment in a more intuitive and less time-consuming way, as opposed to using outdated software or hand-written pledge cards.
Paleva says takk will save time re-entering information into the databases and decrease mistakes and training time, in hopes to ultimately modernize this technology.
As part of eLab, Paleva is looking forward to her access to mentorship and the ability to create a wider network.
“Every mentor in the program has such rich and different backgrounds and experiences, so it’s really nice to be able to share all of your ideas and thoughts will someone who has experience working in that industry,” Pelava said. “Being able to put your thoughts out there in a safe space and getting very honest feedback I think is very valuable.”
As a part of eLab One, Paleva pitched takk Thursday in front of Cornell alumni. Paleva said that experience was great, allowing her to pitch her product, hear other cohort members’ pitches, and network at the reception.
“I feel that whenever you’re driven and motivated to do something there’s no need to balance anything because that’s your balance,” Paleva said. “I would actually say that eLab and takk are balancing me because they keep me excited, and honestly I think I’ve found a lot of purpose in all of my work, which I didn’t have before that.”
In fifth grade, Moussa Paye ’20 sold candy out of his backpack — what he considers to be his first entrepreneurial endeavor. Almost a decade later, at his freshman year at SUNY Albany, Paye started to pursue this entrepreneurial spirit again. He found it difficult, especially while living in a semi-rural area, to find affordable and accessible food and other recurring personal items.
Paye, who is currently in eLab One, is working with his team to develop a product to solve this. With ideas ranging from an app to a subscription box, Paye’s goals are for UniPantry to help college students access both recurring and spontaneous items despite transportation restrictions. Paye recognized that on-campus convenience stores mark up prices, and wants all students to be able to conveniently access healthy food options despite the difficulty of travelling to lower-cost stores.
“This idea is not only about me, it’s about solving a problem, and I’m a problem solver. That’s the biggest thing for me: I’ve found pain points that I was dealing with but to be able to find other students who were dealing with it and to help them solve that or provide a solution for them, that’s what it’s all about,” Paye said.
As a member of eLab One, Paye pitched his product at NYC Pitch Night on Thursday, after staying up to 5 a.m. the morning before practicing. He said he appreciated the opportunity of being able to talk and network with Cornell alumni and potential investors.
“eLab does a great job of providing you a roomful of people where you can now leverage and be able to mitigate risk because of their experience,” Paye said.
Though Paye is graduating in the winter, he plans to stay in Ithaca next semester to work on his business full-time. Next semester, he plans on looking for ways to engage more students and professors, as well as expand the business model, possibly looking into ways to help mitigate food insecurity.
Sway the Vote
Since her freshman year, Juliana Bain ’20 had a note in her phone detailing the concepts of what now is Sway the Vote. This past summer, Bain and her friend and now co-founder Lauren Goldstein ’20 starting building this business.
“College students have abysmally low voter participation, and when they do vote they do not always know where their choice will count the most. Our service automatically calculates and compares the likely statistical values of votes at two different US addresses and informs the user where their vote will count the most,” Bain said.
As a part of this new cohort, Bain is most excited to be able to bounce ideas off of like-minded people. Bain and Golstein dedicate most of their time to their business and will work over winter break to ultimately launch in early 2020.
These startups are only five of this year’s 24 chosen projects, all of which will receive the full benefits of eLab membership. Since the eLab’s inception, the program has had several businesses transform the $5,000 cash infusion into over $1 million in revenue.