Decades ago, no one bought milk at the store. Instead, milkmen delivered dairy in reusable glass bottles. This zero-waste model inspired Alex Torrey WG21 and Byungwoo Ko WG20 to create The Rounds, a subscription service that keeps subscribers stocked with necessities like toiletries, dry goods, and, yes, milk, at least of the non-dairy variety. Just like milkmen — the startup was originally named Mlkmn — subscribers avoid single-use plastic. Last year, the firm raised nearly $40 million; it has expanded from Philadelphia to Atlanta, Miami, and Washington, DC. “We’re building what we believe is the future of last-mile logistics,” says Torrey.
Scoring that coveted coffee table just got easier. Reham Fagiri WG12 co-founded AptDeco in 2014 to make online furniture resale in the New York City region affordable, accessible, and environmentally friendly. Now, AptDeco is expanding with its launch of national shipping and is the only end-to-end marketplace that accepts all kinds of furniture resale items, from futons to rugs to floor lamps. “As we look to the future of the furniture industry, we recognize the importance of the role we play in changing consumer mind-sets around used furniture. With this expansion, anyone can easily participate in a circular economy,” says Fagiri, who serves as AptDeco’s CEO.
Growing up with ADHD, Bryan Dinner L22 WG22 had a reliable repertoire of study hacks: work with a buddy, chunk projects into small tasks, put away distracting devices. Then the pandemic hit. Suddenly, everything was on the computer, and his productivity plummeted. Dinner’s solution became Clarifi, a software platform that helps students stay focused by locking down their desktops, breaking work into 25-minute chunks, and gamifying homework, with rewards and power-ups for accomplishing tasks. Working with the head of ADHD research at Children’s National Hospital, Dinner has tested Clarifi in schools for students with learning differences. “I’ve used technology to fight back against technology,” he says.
Lucinda Duncalfe C85 WG91 is on a mission to disrupt the traditional executive search process, which usually relies on word of mouth within established networks and expensive headhunting. Duncalfe’s AboveBoard, launched in 2020, is an executive platform and community that provides access to senior leadership opportunities, particularly for under-represented job-seekers. Employers can post job listings on AboveBoard and immediately reach a diverse group of candidates. As of May 2022, AboveBoard had raised $6 million in seed funding and reported 30,000 approved members and 1,300 companies using the website.
Everyone has a right to clean drinking water. That’s the ethos behind Detoxyfi, a startup founded by Dhananjay Goel WG22. Field-tested in India, Uganda, Madagascar, and Kenya, Detoxyfi’s wood-based water filtration devices offer an affordable and accessible alternative to name brands such as Brita and Soma. The environmentally sustainable devices exceed WHO requirements for safe drinking water, eliminating harmful micro-plastics, pesticides, viruses, and bacteria. Detoxyfi was a runner-up in Venture Lab’s 2022 Startup Challenge and winner of the 2022 Jacobson Social Impact Prize.
Former Penn football star Solo Ceesay W17 and Brooklyn Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie are bridging influencers and audiences by launching the first fully integrated creator network. Calaxy is an “open social marketplace” where athletes, celebrities, fans, and content creators can connect virtually. The app uses blockchain technology for secure direct messages and live video calls. Fans can also purchase Creator Tokens that score them access to exclusive features such as jam sessions, personal training, and Cameo-style shout-outs. Ceesay and Dinwiddie have raised more than $33 million and garnered support from NFL running back Ezekiel Elliott and NBA coach Luke Walton.
After the loss of a loved one, assessing the value of a home is a common part of the healing process. But what about the memories inside that home? Sarah Powers WG23 created Nemu to divide personal belongings among family members in a way that brings everyone into the process, managing those transfers “efficiently, fairly, and transparently.” Powers developed a unique algorithm for asset allocation with former Wharton professor Clayton Featherstone, allowing users to take videos of their property before the Nemu team catalogs and organizes everything on the app. Family members can then log on and add descriptions. Nemu won the Ashton Family Award for Female Founders in the 2022 Venture Lab Startup Challenge.
A dozen years ago, investor and entrepreneur Marc Andreessen described software as “eating the world.” Today, the same might be said of mobile apps. Whether for dating, shopping, or networking, most of us spend hours on our phones. Enter Alta, co-founded by Son Ca Vu WG16, which makes it possible for anyone to build a mobile app. An inaugural member of the Amazon Web Services Impact Accelerator for Women Founders, Alta requires no prior coding experience. “I strongly believe that anyone who knows PowerPoint and Excel can build an app,” says Vu.
Twrl Milk Tea
Infusing a shared love of quality food and healthy lifestyles, Olivia Chen G05 WG05 and Pauline Ang are displaying their Asian-American heritage to the world as co-founders of Twrl Milk Tea. Chen and Ang created a plant-based beverage inspired by Asian milk tea — the iconic drink they’ve loved since childhood — by ethically sourcing tea from fair-trade, single-origin family-owned farms and focusing on sustainability and flavor. Twrl Milk Tea can be enjoyed hot or cold and offers milk tea’s caffeine boost along with enriching benefits such as antioxidants and fewer calories and sugars.
Many women suffer silently through reproductive challenges — an issue that stems from a long history of a lack of resources and conversational acceptance. After living through personal reproductive challenges, Lina Chan WG09 turned her experience into empathy and founded Parla, an online community platform that aims to empower women with the knowledge to access care and better understand their bodies. By partnering with industry health experts, Parla provides webinars, programs, and articles focusing on topics including pregnancy loss and grief, period wellness, and menopausal health, as well as a space where women can connect, heal, and learn.
According to a 2022 NPR study, 62 percent of Americans use voice assistants regularly. So Sanju Pancholi WG12 used his technical background in conversational AI to create Vurbalize, a voice shopping assistant that’s like a personal shopper in your pocket. Powered by proprietary technology integrated into ChatGPT, Vurbalize helps users browse products — from electronics to health supplements to wine and more — and get real-time answers to questions about pricing, comparisons, shipping, and returns. Part of Venture Lab’s VIP-X Fall 2022 cohort, Vurbalize is built to function with “any device, any language, any channel.”
One of the biggest issues in health care is often overlooked: physician burnout. Punit Soni WG07 created Suki — a “Siri for health care” — to lighten the administrative load so doctors can be more present for their patients. Suki uses AI-powered voice technology to complete documentation 76 percent faster on average, saving physicians hours of time. Says Soni: “The mission is to make health-care tech assistive and invisible, so that clinicians can do what they really love doing and are trained to do, which is clinical care.” Bloomberg recently reported that the startup is valued at $400 million.
A trip to India after an autoimmune diagnosis prompted Priyanka Khole to re-examine what was on her plate, literally. “Back in California, I realized these traditional healing foods were hard to find,” says Khole, who, with co-founder Mihir Korke WG12, launched Sanchi, a crispy plant-based snack sourced from three “powerhouse ancient beans” originating from regenerative farms. The snack packs (available in Sea Salt, Tikka Masala, and Chili Garlic) are gluten- and soy-free, reflecting the company’s goal to “get the right nutrition while helping the planet.” Sanchi was part of Venture Lab’s VIP-X Fall 2022 cohort.
With a roster of podcast guests ranging from a baseball team’s CIO to a Broadway actress, Meesh Pierce W93 WG98 shows that great leadership advice can be found in any industry. On MENTOR dna, Pierce interviews her C-suite friends on topics such as when to take calculated risks and the patience needed to build a company. Wharton guests have included Dan Beldy WG98, a partner at Canapi Ventures and former Navy fighter pilot, as well as marketing professor Peter Fader, who turned the tables and interviewed Pierce.
Published as “Mentorship Podcasts, Women’s Health Resources, and a Mobile App Builder” in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Wharton Magazine.
Read about other alumni-powered ventures in the full Watchlist.