By Amy Huffman | Sep 6, 2017
These North Carolina teenagers are building ventures that range from healthier nut butter to STEM education to IoT for garage doors.
Kirsten Barber contributed.
The young men and women profiled below give a new definition to extracurricular activity.
Instead of—or in some cases, addition to—the typical clubs and sports, these North Carolina high school students (and 2017 grads) spend their off-hours writing code, conducting research, developing business plans, raising funds and testing hypotheses, all with the mission of bringing problem-solving products into the world.
Three of the companies below already have products in the market—two with quite a bit of traction so far. One is a growing nonprofit with a global-in-scope vision. Another remains a research project, but with backing from NASA. And two are still in early stages, but with some funding behind them.
Though research is showing a downward trend in entrepreneurial ambition among high school students, these young people are bucking the trend, in some cases putting college on hold to pursue their ideas.
Read on for the full scoop on the businesses they’re working to build in North Carolina.
A host of job connector organizations, sites and apps have popped up over the years. But many miss a target demographic—16-22 year olds.
That’s why Max Alway-Townsend founded Jobalo, a new startup that aggregates work opportunities for high school and college students. As a 17-year-old high school student at East Chapel Hill High School, he felt there weren’t good options for high school students to find meaningful work. So he built a platform to solve the issue, providing a one-stop shop where students can find part-time and contract jobs, internships and volunteer opportunities.
He targeted these four categories because students are likely to participate in all or some combination of these types of positions over the course of high school and/or college. He says, “a student could get a restaurant job, an investment firm internship, a yardwork job or find their next charity to volunteer at,” all from one app.
Investors, mentors and about 80 businesses who post opportunities on his platform are already betting on Jobalo Jobs. Alway-Townsend participated in Launch Chapel Hill’s summer cohort, where he finalized development and launched his web app and focused on user acquisition.
He also raised $70,000 in pre-seed funding, with plans to raise a seed round in January so he can expand to other cities. He’ll do all of that while finishing his senior year and applying to colleges.
Alway-Townsend says he can fit 30-35 hours of work on Jobalo into his schedule, so balancing school and scaling his startup is “not a huge concern.” But should he raise money this winter, he plans to take a gap year.
His hope is to focus full-time on Jobalo for a year so he can reach his ultimate vision of bringing the platform to high school and college students nationwide.
Abby’s Better Nut Butter
In 2015, when she was 15 years old, Abby Kircher went on a quest to find a healthier alternative to her favorite snack, peanut butter. Almost two years later, she’s selling a line of six all-natural nut butters under the brand name Abby’s Better Nut Butter in major grocery chains and retailers.
“At first, I just wanted to create these nut butters for myself,” says Kircher, “but then people I shared them with raved so much about them, I knew they could be so much more.”
During her short time as a business owner, now 17-year-old Kircher has taken her business from Charlotte-based farmer’s markets to over 180 retail stores in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, New York and Tennessee (including Wegmans and Earth Fare) and very soon to the shelves of Whole Foods stores in the Southeast. The nut butters can also be purchased for about $14 each from the brand’s website.
Though neither Kircher or her business partner, otherwise known as mom, have any culinary or business experience, Kircher says research and business savvy friends have helped move her business forward.
“I’ve always been told I have a creative side, and I have always wanted to be my own boss,” says Kircher. “One of my mom’s dreams has always been to have a family-owned business. It was such a blessing when she agreed to help right away when I approached her with the idea.”
Kircher says that Robert Maynard, owner of the Famous Toastery chains, has also played a role in growing Abby’s Better Nut Butter, and has taken an advisory board role.
Kircher combines nuts and natural sweeteners like fruit and honey to create what she calls simple, yet savory, nut butters. Her top seller, date pecan—which Kircher says tastes like pecan pie in a jar—only has three ingredients, pecans, dates and himalayan sea salt.
Kircher sources her nuts from South Carolina, Georgia and California farms. Because nut prices vary drastically throughout the growing seasons, Kircher is constantly searching for new farms to source her ingredients from in order to keep prices down for customers.
In order to keep up with demand, Kircher has moved production and packaging from her commercial kitchen to a warehouse in Mooresville. But even though nut butters are no longer mixed in her kitchen, Kircher won’t stop experimenting with ingredients. Moving forward, she wants to expand Abby’s Better Nut Butter into a clean snack brand that includes products like granola and snack bars.
Now that her high school career has ended, Kircher is taking a gap year to build her brand before enrolling at a university to study entrepreneurship.
Vibration Isolation Box
Each year, NASA contracts groups of high school students from across the U.S. to create innovative solutions for challenges that plague astronauts while aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
North Carolina is well-represented in the program called HUNCH (High School Students United with NASA to Create Hardware), with three groups of North Carolina School of Science and Math (NCSSM) students participating during the 2016-2017 school year and work continuing this year.
HUNCH was launched to connect students across the nation to NASA and inspire students to gain STEM skills by exposing them to the utility and impact innovations can have on the lives of Space Station crew members as they travel through and live in space. NASA presents problems to the students who then choose which problem to address through a product.
The program begins anew each September and tracks with the student’s school year with the option to renew their contract and continue development of their products the following school year if both parties agree.
NCSSM Professor Dr. Myra Halpin, a passionate advocate for studying space and astronomy, introduced the opportunity to the students and advises and sponsors them on behalf of NCSSM. Her main goals for students are to learn about NASA and the ISS, as well as how to be a subcontractor, meet external deadlines and practice research methods like conducting a literature review and patent search.
17-year old Adithi Rao, who worked on a solution to protect sensitive materials and tools from the vibrations that occur often in space, says her team chose this challenge because, “we thought would have the biggest impact and would be the most challenging for us to solve.”
She and teammates Michelle Bao, Deven Janke and Angela Chen developed a box called a VIBE (Vibration Isolation Box/Enclosure) to keep tools and items that are sensitive to vibrations still and stable during the many times the ISS vibrates from travel or movement.
Their product is more cost-effective to produce than other solutions and fits into the astronauts’ lockers in the space station. It uses a combination of different mechanisms to address the issue, whereas most solutions use just one. To “dampen” the vibration, they use a wire rope, specialized rubber called neoprene rubber, and a gadget that dampers movement called elastomeric dampers—none of which require electricity.
They presented the prototype at NASA Langley last spring and are waiting to hear if their project will be renewed for more development this year. Although Rao admits it will be challenging to balance the work with an already heavy course-load and extracurricular activities, she says her team is diligent and dedicated to seeing the project through, and may eventually bring it to market or license the technology.
SECURED (Support and Educate to Cure Diseases)
Dengue, the mosquito-borne virus that causes high fevers, severe headaches, a host of other flu-like symptoms and sometimes even death, is the focus of a new nonprofit called SECURED founded by a group of North Carolina School of Science and Math (NCSSM) students.
At least 390 million cases of dengue occur each year, and it’s the fastest-growing disease transmitted to humans and animals through living organisms like mosquitoes. The number of those affected by dengue increased 30 times over in the last 50 years. It now threatens nearly half the world’s population.
Those scary stats combined with a lack of global attention on combating the disease inspired then NCSSM juniors Shiv Patel and Vibhu Ambil to found SECURED last year.
The disease is personal for the founders too. Ambil contracted the most severe form of dengue—dengue fever—as a child in India. Though he recovered, the experience instilled a desire to prevent others from experiencing the same painful symptoms.
SECURED’s mission is to use collaborative research and education to improve awareness of the disease and provide access to preventative and diagnostic healthcare, in addition to fundraising. Patel says so far they’ve “acted on all parts” of their mission in just under a year of working together.
To execute their mission, they’ve recruited a large hands-on board of directors made up of NCSSM students who meet weekly and each contribute their time to accomplishing the planning and associated tasks to achieve SECURED’s goals.
To educate on dengue, they’re taking a multi-pronged approach. In areas abroad with high risk of dengue incidents, like rural areas of India and Thailand, they will soon send educational pamphlets and brochures.
In the U.S. where dengue is not common, they’re using the study of dengue as a carrot to interest youth in STEM fields. Over the summer, they hosted a day-long, cost-free workshop for youth in grades 1-7 at the NCSSM campus in Durham. Over 40 kids attended, and the SECURED team used dengue as a lens through which to educate about public health and disease biology. They plan to expand the program next year to more days and locations.
Patel says the purpose of this type of programming is to, “lay the seedwork for the next generation of global health leaders who will dedicate their time and resources to advancing research in the fight against dengue.”
With research and innovation efforts still underway, the SECURED team has established partnerships with researchers from UNC-Chapel Hill, NC State and Duke and has begun to develop a mosquito trap. They’ve also raised funds through partnerships with companies like Jamba Juice to donate to EliminateDengue and other organizations who are addressing the issue.
With a large and involved board, Ambil believes the co-founders can easily balance running the non-profit and completing their senior year coursework. And their impending graduation will actually aid in scaling the organization rather than hampering its growth—they plan to grow by establishing chapters around the world.
Any high school or university anywhere can form a SECURED chapter and will receive support and information from the nonprofit on how to run the same events and programming as in Durham.
So far, chapters are forming in a handful of schools across NC and one in Thailand.
Air Access/Puppy Bucket
Before he graduated from Chapel Hill High School this past spring, 18-year-old John Dews-Flick, was already a serial entrepreneur. Now a freshman at the University of Florida majoring in aerospace engineering, he will continue working on his startup Air Access, and Puppy Bucket, the startup he recently joined as co-founder and CEO.
He founded Air Access in 2016 when he grew tired of his mother’s reminders to shut the garage door. Instead of purchasing a solution, he built his own. Soon he decided to commercialize the product and create a “garage door platform,” from which a person can control the garage from a phone, computer or tablet by syncing with a small internet-connected device located on the garage.
Unique to his platform is the ability to control the garage door from anywhere (across the world even), pre-program it to close and open and share the garage “opener” with an unlimited amount of friends/family/neighbors. Geolocation software also senses when a car is close and opens the door in anticipation.
It works with any garage door—all that’s needed is an electrical outlet nearby. And at just $25 per unit, his price point undercuts competitors, Dews-Flick says. He’s bootstrapped the business so far, but is looking for funding to begin production and bring the devices to market.
Dews-Flick joined Puppy Bucket, also a Chapel-Hill based startup, as part-owner earlier this year when David Cayton, a friend from a previous job, asked him to join. A subscription-delivery service, Puppy Bucket delivers dog food, toys and dog treats to customers’ weekly, bi-weekly or monthly. By combining the items, Dews-Flick says the subscriptions will ring up cheaper than buying each product separately in a store.
No other company packages and delivers all the products they plan to distribute, Dews-Flick claims, and his team has already raised $150,000 to get the company off the ground.