DURHAM – They’re young, ambitious and ready to change the world with cutting-edge science. Meet young entrepreneurs and innovators who aren’t yet even out of school but are already making a mark on the local life science scene here in the Triangle.

As part of LaunchBio’s recent Better Than Life Science series, they appeared on a panel recently to discuss their projects. They included Davis Upchurch of North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, Meera Davis and Elizabeth Schwabe of UNC Chapel Hill, and Chris Fesmire of UNC and NC State University.

WRAL TechWire recently got to chat with them to find out more. Check them out here:

Davis Upchurch, founder of Carolina Truffières.

Name: Davis Upchurch

Age: 18

School: North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics

Organization/Startup: Carolina Truffières, LLC


Year founded: 2015

Founder: Myself

Number of employees: 3

Funding sources: Grant allocations

What’s your mission? To provide farmers with alternative income sources over traditional row-crops and tree crops as well as improving revenue by offering co-cropping options.

How did you get started? I got started by realizing that the barriers to entry for young entrepreneurs are lower than ever. There was nothing holding me back. I grabbed my laptop at 14, wrote a business plan, talked with my parents, and am now dealing with customers in several states and countries.

What have been some of your biggest surprises/achievements? The ability of a teen to get help from professionals. I couldn’t have done any of what I’m doing without my parents’ support, but even beyond that, I have been pleasantly surprised by the motivation and interest from industry professionals in aiding me in research and troubleshooting. These mentors across the biotech, mycology, and horticulture industries have been the make-it or break-it for my business.

Where do you hope to go from here? I hope to apply what I’ve learned to continue creating successful business’ and teach other young adults that entrepreneurship is a career option, and a very fun one at that. I’m particularly interested in using the money I have generated to create another biotech business, and maybe eventually venture into pharmaceuticals.

Elizabeth Schwabe of Feelin’ DNA.

Name: Elizabeth Schwabe

Age: 21

School: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Organization/Startup: Feelin’ DNA

Website: www.feelindna.org

Year founded: 2016

Founder: Rachael Hamm

Number of employees: 6 officers

Funding sources: grants and donations.

What’s your mission? We are bridging the gap between STEM topics and the visually impaired community by building 3D models especially designed to fit the needs of our students with multi-sensory and interactive features.

How did you get started? We are a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization. We got started as an in-class genetics project to use the newly built Maker Space to create a resource for learning. Our founder was researching chlamydia at the time and visual impairment is often caused by the disease. She decided to create a 3D printed interpretation of some genetics concepts being taught in the class.

What have been some of your biggest surprises/achievements? One thing that surprised all of us came when we researched similar resources as the one we provide and found very little. It was shocking because 40% of the general population pursues a STEM related career, but less than 8% of the visually impaired community does. If you connect the dots, it makes sense. Some of the most basic scientific concepts seem impossible to comprehend when only text is available. I wouldn’t be able to picture the central dogma of genetics in my head with no visual/tactile aids.

Everyone involved in Feelin’ DNA is constantly learning, whether it be about 3D design, running a non-profit, or learning about the community we want to help. After working with the Morehead School of the Blind, we found that many students with visual impairments also had difficulties with hearing. Our team designed a cochlear implant and brought it on another visits. Students were so excited to feel a representation of the technology that is in their ears. That was a big achievement because we really began to expand our vision for Feelin’ DNA from that experience.

Where do you hope to go from here? We just want to be an everyday classroom resource. When I picture classroom resources from my memories I think of those foam multiplication blocks and those old overhead projectors. We want students to be able to recall our models and curricula in the same way. Our team hopes resources like ours become normalized in the classroom because impairments to learning do not have to deter students when we can work to aid their educational experience.

Chris Fesmire, founder of Vital Guide.

Name: Chris Fesmire

Age: 26

School: North Carolina State University

Organization/Startup: Vital Guide

Website: Not ready for prime time yet. It’s a work in progress.

Year founded: 2017

Founders: Chris Fesmire and Pratik Bendale

Number of employees: 2

Funding sources: NC State Entrepreneurship Awards, various other pitch and business competition awards.

What’s your mission? Our mission is to improve patient health and hospital staffs ability to manage patients in the Emergency Waiting Room.

How did you get started? We started as a interdisciplinary class project team in a course at NC State called Product Innovation Lab. The initial goal of the project was to design a medical sensor device for a specific medical application. After discovering an unmet medical need inside of emergency waiting rooms, we decided to work as a team and continue our venture after the class concluded. We have done extensive customer research and have created a product vision and detailed requirement specifications around our specific medical use case. We are moving towards our first product design and the subsequent first hardware build.

What have been some of your biggest surprises/achievements? Having business and medical professions we’ve pitched the idea to get really excited about the concept and it’s potential has been a huge victory in my mind and helps to validate the practicality of our startup. Also refining and developing our venture in the first cohort of the RIoT Accelerator Program(RAP) this past summer was a huge learning momentum boost. Being a very early and young startup company, the guidance and knowledge on business strategy, engineering requirements and hurdles and connections to local companies and industry we received through the RAP program gave our venture a solid foundation to move forward on.

Where do you hope to go from here? Moving forward, we hope to refine the product pitch and design requirements and move towards making the first prototype. I believe designing and iterating on our product concept will be the fastest way moving forward to refine the product and progress towards the first clinical trial.

Meera Deva of The Helping Hand Project.

Name: Meera Deva

Age: 20

School: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Organization/Startup: The Helping Hand Project

Website: www.helpinghandproject.org

Year founded: 2015

Founder: Jeff Powell

Number of employees: ~40 at UNC Chapter

Funding sources: Non-profit grants.

What’s your mission?  To use forward thinking and innovative technologies to provide useful prosthetic devices to children that are financially and medically in need at no cost to the patient or their family.

How did you get started? Our founder started this organization after delivering his first 3d printed prosthetic to a child named Holden. It grew to other universities (UNC Charlotte, Durham Tech, NC State),  and we all collectively work to customize prosthetics and offer our services to families of low income. Currently, we are still developing by always seeking new design and support members.

What have been some of your biggest surprises/achievements? Sending numerous prosthetic devices to children around the nation. We also host annual family gatherings where the families of children we have served come together to talk about their experiences.

Where do you hope to go from here? We hope to continue growing our mission, and want to seek lots of more clients in the coming future. We hope the HHP also can expand to other universities!

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