Note: Berkeley Haas News followed two of this year’s 25 teams participating in LAUNCH, an accelerator for UC startup founders that has helped create more than 200 companies since 2015. At last Friday’s Demo Day finals, 10 UC teams remotely pitched VCs and angel investors, competing for $70,000 in funding. Startup SuperPetFoods made the finals; BumpR did not.
María (Mar) del Mar Londoño, MBA 21 and CEO of SuperPetFoods, headed into last week’s LAUNCH Demo Day finals determined. After failing to place in the top three at last month’s Hult Prize Global Regional Competition in Bogotá and the 2020 Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize finals, she’d buffed up the startup’s presentation, polished answers to potential questions, and emerged ready to win.
Her team’s efforts paid off, as SuperPetFoods took second place (and was voted audience choice) at LAUNCH Demo Day May 1, netting $20,000 to move into the summer phase of developing her eco-friendly dehydrated pet food, made from black soldier fly larvae. Digiventures, a Berkeley Haas MBA led team that built a platform enabling Latin American customers to be evaluated for credit, took the top prize.
Missing from Demo Day, however, was BumpR, an undergraduate team aiming to produce an inexpensive Internet of Things (IoT) device that drivers mount on their cars to easily collect data over geographic areas. The startup, founded by Armaan Goel, Aishwarya (Ash) Mahesh, Shreya Shekhar, all M.E.T. 23 students, and Justin Quan, BS 23 (Electrical Engineering & Computer Science), didn’t make it to the finals, mainly because the team pivoted right before the semifinals and ran out of time to do the necessary customer interviews to vet their new idea.
BumpR will continue to work on the idea at UC Berkeley’s SkyDeck this fall, as a SkyDeck Hot Desk team. Rhonda Shrader, the executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program (BHEP), which sponsors LAUNCH, also helped the team apply for a $25,000 VentureWell grant to prototype and test their product. “The lessons we learned along the way under the guidance of all the LAUNCH faculty will stick with us whether it’s with this product idea or another,” Ash said.
“The lessons we learned along the way under the guidance of all the LAUNCH faculty will stick with us whether it’s with this product idea or another.”
We spoke to Mar, who founded the company with Thais Esteves, MBA 21, and Gina Myers, MS 20 (bioengineering), about LAUNCH and what’s next for SuperPetFoods.
What was the biggest challenge participating in LAUNCH during the coronavirus crisis?
There were many challenges. The first was managing the emotional stress that coronavirus brought to this— worrying about your family and evaluating your priorities. As a team leader my biggest challenge was being able to give my team the space they needed while seeing this project as something that could make them feel excited about the future. That’s a difficult balance. You want to give them their space but you also want people to be engaged.
Another challenge was the operational part. Literally, we had to start cooking the food in Washington state, where Gina is staying in her family’s cabin. All the people we contacted to do pet food trials are in Berkeley or the Bay Area.
So Gina is cooking the food you plan to send out for trials this summer?
Yes. Dogs are lucky to have a trained chef from the Culinary Institute of America cooking for them. At this point, Gina has everything she needs to start cooking: a recipe that offers complete nutrition that was formulated with a board-certified pet nutritionist, and the required machinery: a dehydrator and a bag sealer. Our target for the summer is to give 100 free samples to friends, family, and people who have shown interest through Facebook ads.
Depending on feedback we get from people, we’ll be able to go on to a bigger scale and go to local pet food stores. We are at a stage where we are literally testing how people feel about a pet food that is highly disruptive. It’s not only that it’s made of insects. It’s also dehydrated, so people need to add water, stir and serve. This format is more nutritious and tasty for dogs, so we have the hypothesis that pet parents will like it and prefer it to kibble. But that’s for us to test.
You plan is to eventually produce the food in your native Colombia. What’s the timeline this summer?
Producing in Colombia will give us a cost advantage and that is a crucial element of our operational model. However, we are focusing our efforts on two fronts this summer: testing product market fit and building the brand identity. First, we need to collect feedback on our product. All of our work so far was gathering consumer insights and understanding their sentiment around feeding their pets insects. Now we will get their feedback with an actual product. Second, we need to develop the brand identity and translate that into a website, package, and logo. We already conducted an A/B test that proved that the sustainability angle has more appeal than the nutritional one. Next step is to define which tone to convey around sustainability. We need to identify which is more effective: the loving, caring, tree-hugger kind of tone, or the more vigorous approach targeting changemakers who are empowered to make a change in the world.
What was most valuable about the LAUNCH experience?
Belonging to a cohort of collaborative teams. The collective brainstorming when you present progress and roadblocks, and having the other teams there. They help you think and you can identify elements from listening to them that might be useful for you—like what platform you’re using to set up your website. It’s a good place to get help. The second thing is you see how the teams are progressing and that allows you to have accountability for what you are doing.