DURHAM – NC IDEA has awarded $400,000 in seed grants to eight startup companies headquartered across the state in what president and CEO Thom Ruhe described as one of the most competitive grant cycles in the history of the organization.

Who are these eight companies?  WRAL TechWire spoke with each about their company, how and why they formed, and their plans for deploying capital.

A platform to save lives

Carthage-based Active Defender provides a campus emergency tool that the company says could save time and save lives. Founder and CEO Jim Boyte worked for the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, and during down time, would help local school systems enhance their safety protocols.

“While observing and reviewing safety drills, I noticed that most staff members were moving blindly during the midst of an emergency while waiting for responders to arrive,” said Boyte in an interview with WRAL TechWire. “When an unannounced alarm sounded, many teachers were not in secure locations. They were forced to move, but they had no way of knowing if they were moving toward the threat or away from the threat. This lack of details brought confusion and chaos.”

Boyte brought this up with staff and the school resource officers, all of whom acknowledged this was a genuine concern.  Boyte began the company to address this problem, noting that the features that are now a part of Active Defender came from the feedback of the great teachers, administrators, and school resource officers in North Carolina.

“The NC IDEA SEED grant provides a big opportunity to invest in our go-to-market strategy to increase our annual revenue and propel us to become investor-ready,” said Boyte, adding that the money will be invested in digital marketing and sales, as well as building out a conference strategy, and that the company plans to raise additional investment in the future.

Charged up, and ready to scale in the post-pandemic economy

Huntersville-based BatteryXchange is a charging platform that connects people, businesses and communities to things that matter, and was co-founded by Desmond Wiggan Jr. and Aubrey Yeboah after the two experienced regular inconvenience when it came to accessing a charging device while traveling abroad.

Now, the technology they’ve developed, allow device users access to a charging source when it’s most needed. The company provides kiosks to businesses, that in turn can offer their customers free access to a charging source, with an added benefit of advertising promotions or enabling generating third party advertising revenue from the kiosks’ digital screens.

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“We’re currently targeting heavily-trafficked businesses such as bars, restaurants, and breweries but in the future, we look to grow into larger spaces such as convention centers, stadiums and universities,” said Wiggan.

The NC IDEA SEED grant is a milestone moment for the company, he added, noting that the company plans to use the funds to deploy additional kiosks in core market segments, expand its initiatives, and follow its expansion plan.

The company previously raised $200,000 from angel investors, and Wiggan notes that it successfully weathered the pandemic and is poised to capitalize on opportunity as people and businesses emerge during the economic recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic.

For newborns and their mothers, an innovation in care

Durham-based Couplet Care offers tools for improving patient safety, as well as clinical efficiency, while promoting positive mother and infant health outcomes.

“There is a striking lack of innovation in the care for newborns and their families,” said Stacie McEntyre, CEO, and that includes the use of outdated bassinets in hospitals, following the time of birth.

Founded by Dr. Kristin Tully, the company used prevailing academic research and a novel design process that included both new mothers and clinicians, to develop its first product, an infant bassinet, which the company said is a 510(k) exempt Class II medical device with PCT International patents pending in seven countries.

“The Couplet Care Bassinet is durable medical equipment for use in hospital postnatal units to facilitate mothers’ ability to safely access  their infants, thereby reducing patient risks and alleviating non-medical nursing tasks such as picking babies up for diaper changes,” said McEntyre.

“We are honored to be among the NC IDEA SEED recipients,” she added. “The grants will expedite our path to sales, by strengthening our positioning for future venture capital and competitiveness for a planned SBIR Phase II submission by achieving key milestones.”

The company previously raised $461,000 in non-dilutive funding prior to being spun out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and is currently conducting conversations with potential investors and strategic partners.

The evolution of cheesemaking

Asheville-based Darë Vegan Cheese just landed a commitment from a well-known grocery brand in addition to the NC IDEA SEED grant, said CEO and founder Gwendolyn Hageman.

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Hageman was the vegan culinary director at Warren Wilson College, and noted that students and faculty often declared that they could never eat a vegan diet because they felt they couldn’t give up cheese.  Hageman herself thought that, due to the lack of viable cheese alternatives that were both nutritious and palatable.

“I decided to take a food science approach mixed with my chef experience to make a vegan cheese people literally cannot tell is vegan,” she told WRAL TechWire.  “It’s the evolution of cheesemaking.”

Darë Vegan Cheese is cultured, cashew cheese, and the company offers products that could stand alone on a cheeseboard, and also cheeses that melt down to add creaminess to any dish.

“Our culturing process creates gut healthy probiotics that both flavor our cheeses and give back to your body,” noted Hageman.

The company plans to acquire a delivery van to maintain its local direct distribution, then invest in additional equipment that will increase output and reduce labor costs.  The company also plans to change packaging to align with the requirements of large grocery chains, and will work with locally-based firms to do so.

Protecting athletes using 3D technology

Durham-based PROTECT3D leverages 3D technology to give medical professionals the ability to provide fully custom protective devices.

“As a Greensboro native and Duke graduate, I couldn’t be more proud to be awarded this grant to support our company’s growth here in North Carolina,” said Kevin Gehsmann, co-founder and CEO.  “The money will help us scale to grow our manufacturing capacity to support increasing demand in our athletics customer base and the general patient setting.”

The co-founders were walk-on football players at Duke University, as well as engineering students, and made a custom protective device for teammate and quarterback Daniel Jones, who now plays for the NFL’s New York Giants.

The company won an NC IDEA MICRO grant in 2019, and also won a grant from the NFL in 2020 as a company advancing innovations that could enhance athlete health and safety. The company plans to raise a seed round of funding later this year to continue growth of the company and its technology, said Gehsmann. “We hope to see our products helping athletes on the field at elite athletic programs across the country, and also impacting the everyday individual as we work to introduce our technology to the orthopedic setting.”

Closing the STEM gender gap through parent education and delivering STEM kits

Charlotte-based Smart Girls HQ creates engaging content and facilitates exciting experiences that enable elementary-aged girls to achieve STEM career literacy by age 12.

The company, founded by Abi Olukeye, provides core offerings to assist parents in delivering informal STEM lessons during the course of every day life through its website, and plans to create and deliver what it calls “Smart Girl Kits,” or subscription-based STEM-activity boxes direct to homes or to school STEM educators or community partners.

“[I] experienced the STEM gender gap personally as a student and professional,” said Olukeye, who is also a parent of two girls.  “I just didn’t see the type of learning tools my girls could get excited about and genuinely be engaged with on the market. I also didn’t see support for me as a parent and when it comes to plugging the leaks in the STEM talent pipeline, I knew how important it was for parents to support and extended learning beyond the classroom in informal ways.”

The company plans to raise a seed round or a Series A round in the next 12 months, and the grant award from NC IDEA comes at an excellent time for the company to put the funds to use, said Olukeye, as an additional restricted grant was just received from the National Science Foundation, and deployed together, the funds will enable the company to take the next steps to commercializing its product line.

“Following the pandemic, parents and educators are hyper sensitive to the need for high quality educational products that provides multiple modes of learning especially when it comes to STEM subject areas,” said Olukeye. “Over the long term, we have a real opportunity to be a top of mind brand when it comes to high quality STEM education that is gender-inclusive, and that offers sustained engagement for female learners.”

A logistics and technology company disrupting the wholesale flower industry

Winston-Salem-based Stemz offers a simple value proposition: the company connects local flower farms to floral designers.  Co-founder and CEO Amy Dunlap owned and operated a floral design company for 13 years, and regularly sought access to local and regionally-grown flowers.

But sourcing those flowers was difficult, as big flower wholesalers, many of whom import only flowers that package and ship well, capture about 80 percent of the market in the United States.

Dunlap tried to address this need, first by opening her own farm, then later deciding to improve the supply chain itself.

That’s when she met Claire Parrish, an active flower farmer with a background in marketing, branding, and product development, and the two later recruited a third co-founder, Brooke Farmer, to assist in implementing and creating new systems to tackle the issue.

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“We dove deeper into how we could create a solution that would serve as a bridge between floral creatives and US-based flower farmers,” and thus, the company was born. “We are a logistics and technology company building an effective wholesale distribution system for US-grown cut flowers.”

“The value of this grant cannot be overstated,” said Dunlap.  “It will enable us to scale our regional hub model quickly and effectively to meet exploding market demand, and also help us align with mentors and other entrepreneurs in North Carolina who have amazing insights to support and guide our journey.”

The flower market, like many industries, experienced a wild 2020 due to the structure of the industry’s suppliers and its supply chain.  The industry experienced what Dunlap called “monumental market disruption” due to these issues, and as a result, the price of flowers, particularly those that are imported, rose wildly.

Dunlap sees Stemz as perfectly suited to scale quickly to harness the prevailing market dynamics, noting that the company is prepared for exponential growth, and will soon seek to raise its first round of investment.

The Carfax of vehicle service and repairs

Winterville-based Your Minute Mechanic provides convenient, low cost self-service auto diagnostics that help people navigate costly car repairs.

Company founder and CEO Martin Maurer spent more than 20 years in the auto industry, working in nearly every possible position from car washer to finance manager.  One day, he witnessed an exchange between a customer, who a service advisor had just told would be responsible for paying an additional $80 diagnostic charge, the second day in a row, for the same previously known issue.

Maurer realized there was opportunity to shift the model of how consumers could access, and afford, car diagnostic services, as they navigated maintenance and repair issues with their vehicles.

According to Maurer, he quit that day, then cashed out all of his savings vehicles, including his 401(k), and began to work to launch his company.

“Your Minute Mechanic is a new revolutionary way to do auto diagnostics,” said Maurer, noting that he’s heard people refer to his company as the “Carfax” of vehicle service and repairs.

The company designed kiosk stations, similar to the kiosks you might see at a gas station or car wash for vaccuuming your vehicle or filling your tires with air, that provides automotive diagnostics 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Here’s how it works: should your check engine light turn on, you could drive the car to a kiosk, use the ODB plug to connect the vehicle to the kiosk, and in less than a minute, the kiosk provides an email or text assessment of the result in simple and easy-to-understand language.  According to Maurer, the diagnostic fee is $10, which is a fraction of what a person might pay taking to a mechanic or dealership.

The grant funding from NC IDEA will enable the company to “move faster and create more kiosks and jobs,” said Maurer. That means improving the kiosk product, building and installing additional units in key expansion areas in Pitt County and Greenville, and allowing the company to scale.

The award is also validating, said Maurer, as the company is backed by angel investors and is currently in the process of raising an equity round.