WILD: Michigan Business Challenge – Seigle Impact Track Finalist

Who are the team members?

Maura McInerney-Rowley, MBA ’22

Tell us briefly about your business idea.

WILD (Whether in Life or Death) alleviates the burden (and reduces the friction) typically involved in handling a loved one’s affairs after they have passed. Our personalized funeral plans and easy-to-use platform empowers families to save time, money, and stress.

What was the origin of this venture?

Maura faced reality and the possibility of death at five years old when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. After that, Maura watched as her mother continued to battle and beat breast cancer throughout her childhood until her mother passed right before her 21st birthday.

Maura struggled to navigate friends, work, and school while managing her grief, but she found momentary solace in a student grief group on campus. As time passed, Maura’s friends started to experience losses of pets, colleagues, grandparents, etc. Having gone through the experience before, she was able to empathize and help them navigate through their grief.

Last summer, Maura attended a friend’s wedding, where the night before, a guest of the wedding died. The death was unexpected and traumatic, which made Maura think about how the family would navigate their grief, let alone the logistics of it all. The day after the wedding, Maura flew to Alaska and spent the next week hiking in the backcountry contemplating the recent loss and reflecting on the loss of her mother.

One day as she was climbing the face of a rock in 30mph winds, 40-degree weather, and torrential rain, she noticed a beautiful purple flower (later identified as a harebell) standing steady. She thought to herself how magnificent this tiny thing was, so resilient in these extreme conditions all by itself. As she stopped to look at the flower, the rain started to dissipate, and a clearing in the sky let through the most magnificent sun-drenched view of Denali. Maura paused briefly, sat down in awe of her surroundings, and thought about how peaceful it would be to have your final moments in a place like this.

Days later, she returned to business school at The University of Michigan and was prompted to develop a business idea in her New Venture Creation class. It was then that the initial concept for WILD was born.

What do you think will be the long-term impact of launching your venture?

In the long-term WILD aims to have three positive effects on society; (1) social, (2) environmental, and (3) financial.

First, studies show that talking about your mortality makes you happier. By changing the discourse on death and dying, WILD empowers individuals to talk and plan for end-of-life. Second, by offering unique and eco-friendly solutions, WILD will help combat climate change and reduce the harmful effects traditional burials and cremation have on the environment. Third, by focusing on radical transparency and easy-to-access information, tools, and resources, WILD will help reduce predatory practices in the funeral industry and save individuals money.

How did you form your team?

I am a solo founder with a fantastic group of mentors and interns supporting me. I am currently seeking a tech co-founder.

What has been your biggest takeaway from the MBC experience (so far)?

It takes a lot of work to start a company! You must be comfortable asking for help, receiving negative feedback, and tackling ambiguous challenges.

What are your plans following MBC? How would prize money help your venture?

Following MBC, I will continue to build WILD to help people during one of the most challenging times of their life. I plan to participate in phase three of the Eugene Applebaum Dare to Dream grant program and conduct an independent study on the topic of death and dying with Ross Professor Dr. Marcus Collins, an award-winning marketer, and cultural translator.

If I win MBC, I will use the prize money to build an MVP to test with users.

What advice do you have for other student entrepreneurs?

Join Twitter and DM me (@mauraball_) once you have.

Great Quality Developments: Michigan Business Challenge – Seigle Impact Track Finalist

Who are the team members?

Hattie McKinney, BA ’16, JD ’22

Tell us briefly about your business idea.

Great Quality Developments is a community focused, mixed-use development company that specializes in integrative developments that increase affordable housing, homeownership, and community resources in Detroit, MI. 

What was the origin of this venture?

It was founded out of a desire to respond to the affordable housing crisis and provide Detroit residents with a pathway to actively participate in the development of their neighborhoods. Housing is a highly determinative aspect in a person’s life; it influences a person’s financial, medical, and educational outcomes. To that end, we were inspired to increase opportunities for Detroit residents to engage in placemaking and neighborhood development.

What do you think will be the long-term impact of launching your venture?

We hope to promote greater engagement between developers and communities in Detroit without marginalizing those already present. Great Quality Developments aims to serve as a leading example of partnership placemaking. Additional long-term benefits of our company are increased affordable housing stock and economic development throughout the city of Detroit.

What has been your biggest takeaway from the MBC experience (so far)?

The biggest lesson that I have learned from the MBC experience is to trust the process. When I began this journey, I did not expect to walk away with lifelong friends but that is one of the unexpected — but extremely valuable — benefits of this opportunity. In addition to enriching my network with incredible people, the workshops have helped me develop smarter strategies to advance my venture.

What are your plans following MBC? How would prize money help your venture?

Following MBC and my graduation from law school, I will continue to develop my skills and become a better asset to my community. A portion of the prize money will be put towards purchasing the land necessary to establish this venture. While the remainder will be used to conduct market studies with block clubs to better understand the neighborhoods and how to create a successful foundation.

What advice do you have for other student entrepreneurs?

My advice to other student entrepreneurs is to follow your passion! There is a wealth of resources at your disposal as a student — use them. Do not be afraid to ask for help and pursue an idea that interests you.

Clear Computing: Michigan Business Challenge – Seigle Impact Track Finalist

Who are the team members?

 James Giordani, MSW ’22

Tell us briefly about your business idea.

Clear Computing helps older adults learn how to use technology to better their quality of life and extend their independence.

What was the origin of this venture?

While working at a local computer repair shop, I saw firsthand how challenging technology could be for many folks. Often, they felt shame or frustration for struggling with devices which were marketed as being “intuitive” or “easy to use.” When they sought help it was often met with a “Mom, just Google it” or a “it’s easy Dad, just figure it out yourself.” I often heard the words “I’m so stupid when it comes to technology.” In reality, they were bright people who just needed someone professional to answer their tech questions, or walk through their tech problems together.

What do you think will be the long-term impact of launching your venture?

It’s easy to see the pride and excitement in our clients when they learn to use an online health portal so they can message their doc, figure out Instacart so they can have their groceries delivered and avoid COVID-19 exposure, or master Zoom so they can have a robust interaction with their family. The benefits technology can have on a person’s quality of life and the independence are profound so we can’t wait to grow and touch the lives of a great number of older adults.

How did you form your team?

We are currently just a one-person-team featuring a guy doing something he loves. If you or someone you know might be interested in hopping on this little venture (which has quite a lot of room to grow) reach out to jgio@umich.edu.

What has been your biggest takeaway from the MBC experience (so far)?

That there’s a big community out there that’s eager to support you and your venture. Everyone has been so welcoming and happy to help.

What are your plans following MBC? How would prize money help your venture?

I’m excited to evolve Clear Computing from a fun side-gig to a full blown business. Prize money will be spent on recruiting employees, customer discovery, and (don’t tell the judges) a small amount will be dedicated to a backyard barbecue launch party.

What advice do you have for other student entrepreneurs?

1. Just YOLO it 2. Ask for help before things get iffy 3. It’s OK to say I don’t know.

Seconds Labs: Michigan Business Challenge – Seigle Impact Track Finalist

Matt Baker, WMBA '22 Claire Bissa, WMBA '22 Austin Clowes, WMBA '22
Matt Baker, WMBA '22 Claire Bissa, WMBA '22 Austin Clowes, WMBA '22

Who are the team members?

Matt Baker, WMBA ’22
Claire Bissa, WMBA ’22
Austin Clowes, WMBA ’22

Tell us briefly about your business idea.

Seconds Labs is a direct consumer business that sells beverage mixes to health-conscious individuals. Our products are “nootropics” which improve cognitive performance and promote holistic brain health, and they leverage underappreciated hero ingredient currently going to waste: the fruit surrounding coffee beans, known as “cascara” in the coffee industry. 

What was the origin of this venture?

Austin Clowes first encountered the problem while working as a food waste expert at a top environmental think-tank. He was researching food supply chains in Mexico and was appalled at both the massive amount of waste from coffee farming and the unfair compensation of farmers.

What do you think will be the long-term impact of launching your venture?

We hope to transform the coffee industry for the better. We hope to normalize higher pay for farming communities and reduce the environmental impacts of coffee production. We hope to help consumers achieve more balance in their lives and to reclaim their focus.

How did you form your team?

Our team converged over common interests in Professor Jim Price’s “Entrepreneurship: New Venture Creation” course in the Weekend MBA Program. The team all had a strong desire to build a purpose-driven business focused around a triple bottom line.

What has been your biggest takeaway from the MBC experience (so far)?

The MBC experience has drilled home the importance of a refined story with a strong and specific value proposition. Know your exact message and say it directly.

What are your plans following MBC? How would prize money help your venture?

We plan to continue our product development and target a Q4 product launch. The prize money would help us develop key branding and marketing assets for our go-to-market.

What advice do you have for other student entrepreneurs?

Get your feet wet! Use the resources provided through your organization, and work with people you enjoy!

Social Enterprise Spotlight: ePesos

Last year Business+Impact introduced a new series on U-M alumni who have created social enterprises and continue the work of entrepreneurship after graduation. Previous Social Enterprise Spotlights included Thawra and FoodFinder; now we focus our spotlight on ePesos, a tech platform expanding economic inclusion to the population least affiliated with the banking system in Mexico.
Ariel Olaiz, BBA ’07, has come full circle — from studying business at the base of the pyramid at the Ross School of Business to fostering economic inclusion in Mexico. Olaiz says his U-M education comes into play every day in his role as co-founder and chief financial officer at ePesos. We caught up with Ariel to learn more about his experience running a company in the FinTech space.
  • Describe your business.

ePesos is a FinTech that gives workers in Mexico early access to their wages. We’ve found that there are three huge problems we are solving for:

    • Wages are extremely low. 80% of workers make less than $1,000 USD a month. Families living paycheck-to-paycheck don’t have the savings required to face financial emergencies.
    • Wages can be very volatile, especially for workers in Hospitality and Manufacturing. There is unpredictability in the amount a worker will receive because of tips, productivity pay, bonuses, etc. If you don’t know how much you’ll make next month, how can you plan your finances?!
    • Timing of pay is beneficial for the company but not for the employee. Why do workers need to wait to get paid? Employers have funds tied up for no good reason. We let the employee access his/her entire wage whenever it’s convenient for the employee.

When an employee decides to access his/her payroll before payday, they pay a small commission ($1.5 USD) and their employer will automatically deduct the appropriate amount in their next paycheck.

  • What is your biggest recent discovery about founding a fintech company?

One of the great things about entrepreneurship is that you have to build everything from scratch. It’s sometimes painful, but the reality is that in large companies, someone, at some point, had to go through the effort of building a lot of the things (e.g. processes, products, structures, customer portfolios, etc.) that existing employees take for granted. And so, there are several insights that I have picked up along the way. Here are a few:

    • In entrepreneurship being a generalist is critical to scaling a company. When I started my career in asset management, I remember the concept of a “T” — start broad and then pick an area where you want to focus, which makes a ton of sense for some careers. However, building a company requires a different approach. As a startup, you must first get to Product-Market-Fit. To get to that stage you must learn to draw from a diverse collection of knowledge (e.g. finance, ops, marketing, etc.) in order to see connections and correlations that others might miss.
    • There is no substitute for hard work. Entrepreneurship is a world in which the highs are very high, but the lows can feel extremely profound. What I have found over the years is that one of the few things that will get you over a tough period is simply focusing on the task at hand — whatever the most important thing is at that moment — and powering through. Focusing on the process and on little details will help you deliver small wins consistently over time, and in order to do this you need to rely on good ol’ fashion hard work!
    • Customers have no idea what they want! The conventional wisdom is that you need to listen to your customers in order to deliver great products and services. It turns out that customers have absolutely no idea what they want! If you just ask a user what they would like to see in new features/functionality you are likely to get a standard answer. The true magic in product development and innovation comes from deriving insights from your users without them knowing. This is super hard to do! It requires a special skill set to tease out these nuggets of insight. Check out “The Mom Test” by Rob Fitzpatrick if you want to learn more about this.
  • How has the landscape of fintech changed since you started your business?

Everything has changed after COVID-19. I’ve been on the entrepreneurial journey for 5 years and it is crazy to see how fast the industry has changed in such a short timespan. I’ve basically seen changes in the following areas:

    • Investment. Global venture funds are much more comfortable making investments around the world. LatAm is a great example of this — before 2020, investments from funds such as Softbank, Tiger Global, and a16z were extremely rare. Today, I see deals like this being done every month!
    • Geographic expansion. One area that I am super excited for is that country borders are also becoming less relevant from an operational standpoint. I’ve seen so many tech companies expand beyond their home market at a super early stage — that was something only large companies did prior to COVID.
    • Talent Acquisition. With work-from-home becoming the standard, the traditional way of thinking about hiring has totally changed. Where you are based has become less relevant than what you are working on and what your skills are. Hiring people in other cities or other countries is now easier than ever before.
  • What from your Base of the Pyramid studies or instructors has been the most valuable to you?

There is a misconception in the business world that businesses can not be profitable when they serve low-income customers. In fact, most traditional financial institutions will avoid this segment altogether because it’s higher risk and because margins are lower. To be frank, this sounds logical — why would you serve a riskier segment that hurts your bottom line when there are plenty of other customers out there that need your products?

What we have found is that those institutions are asking the wrong questions. Instead of asking, who is most likely to pay me back? Or, how can we extract the most economic value from a particular user segment today? What we ask ourselves at ePesos is, what happens when you introduce new technology that can lower your cost structure — would that allow us to serve a wider group of people? Can we adjust our business model in order to reduce consumer credit risk? How can we serve “unattractive” customers today but grow with them over time so that our lifetime value is optimized? This requires a mindset shift that is not easily made by companies that have built their success on mitigating risk.

My academic journey of Business at the Base of the Pyramid has taught me to challenge assumptions and to ask better questions.

  • Ariel Olaiz with ePesos co-founder Oscar Robles

    What advice would you have for current or future Ross students?

Learning to slow down is a skill. We live in a world where everyone wants something right away. People want their products delivered the same day. People have access to information on a live basis. People want to see ridiculous results YR1 (think about VC valuations and growth expectations). The reality is that there is tremendous power in slowing down. Slowing things down allows you to make better decisions…unsure about a certain decision? Sleep on it and let time give you more clarity of thought. Slowing things down allows you to nurture relationships in a better way. Slowing things down allows you to put your head above the water and think 2, 3, 4, 5 years from now. Slow and steady wins the race.

Think Big, Start Small, Act Now. Students and professionals in general, need to have a bias for action. Whatever it is – launching a new product, starting a new company, learning a new skill. We need to have the confidence to think big and the courage to start with a simple action, whatever it is. I’ve seen this a bunch, what starts out as an idea, can morph over time into something amazing with small and consistent effort, but you have to start! 


Read another Social Enterprise Spotlight:

Michigan Business Challenge – Seigle Impact Track Round Two Winners

Ann Arbor, December 7, 2021 – The Michigan Business Challenge (MBC), a campus-wide, multi-round business plan competition has announced the eight teams advancing in its Seigle Impact Track.

For Dearborn founder presents to an audience and judges in 2019 Michigan Business Challenge.
For Dearborn presents in Round Two in 2019.

Many student teams submitted proposals for MBC, with over 30 teams submitting for the Seigle Impact Track. After passing a qualifying round, teams advanced to Round One, which was held at the Ross School of Business on Friday, November 8-12, via video link. In the Seigle Impact Track, eight teams will now advance to Round Three, taking place on Friday, January 21, 2022. From there, four teams will advance to the Finals on Friday, February 11, 2022.

Eight impact teams will advance from this round to the next:

  • Clear Computing – helps older adults learn their devices to better their quality of life and extend their independence. James Giordani, MSW ’22

  • finding joi – supports Black women in centering their well-being in their professional and academic success through access to physical and digital mental-health resources. Joi James, MBA ’23

  • Founder – provides an end-to-end investment and fundraising platform that seeks to educate investors and provide founders with initial capital through crowdfunding. Ariel Cruz, MBA 22

  • Great Quality Development –  is a social-impact driven mixed-use development company that specializes in integrative models that increase affordable housing, homeownership, and community resources in Detroit, MI. Hattie McKinney, JD ’22

  • Nathan Allston presents his venture for the Michigan Business Challenge Seigle Impact Track.
    Nathan Allston of Plucky Comics presents in 2021.
    Plucky Comics – is an educational tool that tells the stories of Black Queer historical figures through the medium of sequential art. Nathan Alston, MBA ’22 & Daniella Gennaro MBA/MA in Educational Studies ’22

  • PPD Project –  is a pipeline for professionals with disabilities to grow personally and professionally through empowered and autonomous visioning, action, and skill growth. Kayla Rothstein, BBA ’24

  • Seconds Labs – transforms a byproduct of coffee farming into a novel, performance-boosting beverage for the health-conscious consumer. Austin Clowes, MBA ’22; Matthew Baker MBA ’22; Claire Bissa MBA ’22

  • Wild – is an all-in-one online destination for end-of-life and after-loss planning. Maura McInerney-Rowley, MBA ’22

Additionally, 8 teams are advancing in the the Product/Service Track, and 8 teams are advancing in the IP Track.

The Michigan Business Challenge (MBC) is a campus-wide, multi-round business plan competition where student businesses have the opportunity to win cash prizes totaling over $100,000, gain feedback from leaders in the business community, and expand their business network. Ross’ Seigle Impact Track is sponsored by the Mark and Robin Seigle Entrepreneurial Innovation Fund and co-managed by Business+Impact at Michigan Ross, the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, and the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies

Toast, Clover, Square – How University of Michigan Students are Using FinTech to Support Detroit Small Businesses

by Simone Turner (UMSI ’22)

The Congregation Detroit is a perfect melding of a coffee shop, bar, restaurant, and community space located in a historic church on the west side of Detroit. When renovating the long-abandoned space, co-owner Betsy Murdoch and partners focused on preserving the integrity, historical detail, and finishes of the place to keep its structure the same as it was in 1924. Pews were repurposed into a bar. The old pipe organ is still in the back. Comfortable antique furniture abounds. The Congregation opened in March of 2020, just before the pandemic. The timing was unfortunate, but they survived the first year of working through glitches. Their point of sale system was one of the initial steps in opening their doors — and that’s where I enter the business’ story.

For the last nine weeks, I have been interning with a team of students from across the University of Michigan to support Detroit small businesses through the Detroit Neighborhood Entrepreneurs Project’s (DNEP’s) +Impact Studio for Local Business. I’m on the point of sale team, which is focused on using financial technology, or “fintech,” to analyze and optimize small business owners’ payment systems and inventory management systems. Most small business owners don’t have the time, knowledge, resources, or staffing to take on the tasks of performing a cost analysis, researching the various payment system platforms, and then making the switch to a new platform. If they do have extra time, most would rather spend it on marketing.

Fortunately for our DNEP clients, my colleagues and I find it fascinating. Fintech sits at the intersection of the skills and knowledge I have gained through my classes at the School of Information. This internship has given me a chance to use my skills to meet an unmet need. 

Point of sale systems are now essential for businesses of every size. While the most-established companies (Square, Toast, Clover, Lightspeed, and Shopify) all offer similar products and services, they each serve different business volumes, have varying billing structures, and offer differing features that best fit assorted sale models. DNEP faculty and staff observed that many business owners were paying high fees for features they were not using, imposing unnecessary costs on small business owners. 

The Congregation Detroit was one such example. It has been using a Clover point of sale system, but was paying for features they were not using. Clover offers an add-on inventory management system, but it was time consuming to set up and master, so like many other small business owners we have worked with this summer, the company was paying for the electronic inventory management subscription–and then managing their inventory manually in an excel spreadsheet. This meant that small business owners were spending lots of time manually tracking and managing their stock, missing the opportunity for advanced inventory data and freed up time that is better spent elsewhere. After analyzing the sales data, our team recommended that the business move its inventory management to the Clover system, and subscribe to a built-in Stock app to fully digitize its inventory management system. The business owners will spend less time on inventory, and should save money through streamlining and standardization of vendor orders. What’s more, The Congregation Detroit will only be paying for features they use.

Detroit Sip is another local business that needed a point of sale system overhaul. This Six Mile coffee shop temporarily closed during the pandemic, and sales revenue has not yet regained pre-COVID rates. What’s worse, however, is that the business was still under contract with Shopkeep, paying high monthly and transaction fee rates for unneeded features that didn’t add value to the business. As a busy entrepreneur and attorney, owner Jevona Watson did not have the resources or time to do research, make phone calls, and then go through a new system set-up on her own. So we did the research for her. My team provided Jevona with a personalized cost analysis spreadsheet for her business so she could compare subscription costs between top companies based on her business’ monthly transactions and average revenue per transaction. While the decision to take a leap and try something new is difficult, especially as a small business owner, Jevona made the decision to switch with the resources we provided. With IOS hardware in place, my team was able to help Detroit Sip make the switch to Square, which should save the business $1000 per year. We also moved over her menu, inventory, and customer data to ease the process. 

Throughout this summer internship with DNEP’s +Impact Studio for Local Business, I have learned project management skills, developed some expertise in the top point of sale systems and related hardware and software, and learned a lot about point of sale integrations. It feels great to be helping businesses use fintech to improve their operations and profitability, and has opened up new career possibilities for me. Overall, this experience has been invaluable and I feel honored to have worked with these inspiring Detroit small business owners. 

Simone Turner is a rising senior at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, majoring in information analytics. She thanks the businesses profiled for allowing her to share information about their operations to benefit others for this story.


Social Enterprise Spotlight: FoodFinder

Earlier this year Business+Impact introduced a new series on U-M alumni who have created social enterprises and continue the work of entrepreneurship after graduation. Our inaugural spotlight was about Thawra; now we focus our spotlight on FoodFinder,  a tech platform making it easier for families in need to find nearby food assistance programs.
In early 2018, Jack Griffin (BBA ’19) was a finalist in the Michigan Business Challenge – Seigle Impact Track, with his phone app, FoodFinder, and won first place in the Elevator Pitch competition. At that time he said, “The heart of FoodFinder’s value comes from our platform’s ability to combine the speed and privacy of an online tool with the care, compassion, and reliability of a human.” At the time, he hoped that eventually, FoodfFinder would become an institution within the food assistance space.
That has come to fruition, as recently Google’s Find Food Support engaged FoodFinder as a key partner in their work.  We caught up with Jack as he increases staff and scope with his “venture-on-the-run.”
Jack Griffin (BBA ’19) presents FoodFinder in the finals of the 2018 Michigan Business Challenge – Seigle Impact Track.
  • Describe your business: FoodFinder is a nonprofit organization and tech platform whose mission is to make it as easy as it should be to find emergency food assistance nearby. Our website (us) and mobile app (FoodFinder – Fighting Hunger) show food insecure families across America exactly when, where, and how to get help from more than 50,000 different food pantries, soup kitchens, and school meal sites nearby in their communities.
  • What is your biggest recent discovery about running a tech nonprofit? Does anything from Ross or MBC come to bear in your work recently? The best thing about running an all-virtual nonprofit is that the efficiency of our operations allows us to have an extraordinary impact with far less investment needed than brick-and-mortar nonprofits. FoodFinder wouldn’t be here without the free food programs on the ground serving those in need, but thankfully we don’t have to worry about shelf space or any physical capacity constraints. Our food pantry map is available 24/7/365 – in every corner of the country – for anyone who may need it. I’d also say that my biggest lesson from my time at Ross and my experience with the Michigan Business Challenge was the emphasis on FoodFinder’s financial sustainability. Even as a nonprofit, the only way for us to help as many people in the long run as possible is to take care of ourselves first and ensure that we live to fight another day. And even with the challenges the pandemic brought, FoodFinder hasn’t just survived but thrived.
  • FoodFinder in action.

    How did the pandemic affect the success of your app, and why? COVID-19 presented an unparalleled hunger crisis, and we rose to meet that challenge. While we could never have anticipated something like this, FoodFinder’s digital tool was perfectly suited to overcome the challenges of a disease-based crisis. Precisely on March 13th, 2020 (the day that the United States declared COVID-19 a national emergency), our platform’s usage immediately quadrupled from 700 people per day to 3,000 people per day. We broke our record single-day user totals constantly throughout March and April of 2020, and our daily traffic remained double our pre-pandemic levels throughout the remainder of 2020. In total, FoodFinder has connected 475,000 users of our platform to free food programs during the pandemic, more than double our cumulative lifetime impact of nearly 6 years pre-COVID. Financially, FoodFinder’s receipts actually grew 20% in 2020 compared to 2019, and we’ve more than tripled the size of our team in the last year. The pandemic has been a massive challenge for absolutely everyone, but we’re grateful to do our small part to guide families in their time of need.

  • Tell us about your new partnership with Google and their nationwide hunger relief program? Glad you asked! FoodFinder’s biggest partnership ever just launched at the end June as we joined forces with Google to help power their new Find Food Support hunger resource site. The website itself is a one-stop-shop for all things hunger relief, including information on SNAP benefits, stories from the community, and the headliner that FoodFinder helps populate: an interactive nationwide map for folks looking for nearby food pantries, food banks, or summer meal sites. Their team shared with us how Google wanted to lend their support to the fight against hunger in the wake of the pandemic, and Find Food Support with Google is the end result of that. Their team has been a joy to work with, and we can’t wait to see how many more people we can serve in the coming years!
  • What new ideas are you looking toward, or what connections are you looking to make? I’m always looking forward to hearing new ways that technology can make even bigger strides in hunger relief – Feeding America’s MealConnect and MEANS Database for instance do a great job with exactly that. But at least for how I currently look at FoodFinder’s future, I can’t stop thinking more and more about the ultimate goals we’re striving for. First and foremost, I’m most excited to see how FoodFinder can not just be the best emergency resource for food insecure people but also be a force for eliminating the root causes of hunger (i.e. a transition from only treatment to both treatment and prevention). When food is a prerequisite for a healthy life, people should never have to choose between paying for food, medicine, or utilities. Going forward, FoodFinder’s intent is to help Americans through our help locator while also using the data and policymaking levers at our disposal to address the deeply systemic root causes of food insecurity.
  • In May 2019, Jack went to Washington D.C. to speak at a hunger alleviation roundtable with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

    Do you still volunteer these days? As you might imagine, the safety constraints of COVID and the intense workload of leading FoodFinder have prevented me from (physically at least) volunteering at a food pantry for a while. However, I loved volunteering for several years at Maize and Blue Cupboard, the by-students for-students food pantry on campus. Back in my day, we just had our once a month grocery distributions on some tables in the basement of the Trotter Multicultural Center. I can’t wait to check out the fantastic new permanent location of Maize and Blue Cupboard on State St. the next chance I get!

  • What do you wish more people knew about hunger in America? Food insecurity in America skyrocketed last year as a result of the pandemic. News coverage (and rightfully so) highlighted how dire the need was, but it’s worth remembering that 35 million Americans were still struggling with hunger before the virus ever hit our shores. And if you’ll also recall, that’s when the economy was doing great, the stock market was surging, and we were at near full employment in the U.S.. Is that really the best we can do with all the resources at our disposal? FoodFinder’s number one goal right now is to help move the needle on hunger back to pre-pandemic levels, but as I just described, we weren’t doing that great beforehand either. We’ve come such a long way in the fight against hunger, but we’re not satisfied. Over the next decade, I hope that FoodFinder will help lift millions of Americans back into lasting, sustainable food security.

Read another Social Enterprise Spotlight:

Michigan Business Challenge Seigle Impact Track Winner Announced

Ann Arbor, February 26, 2021 – The winner of the 2021 Michigan Business Challenge – Seigle Impact Track is Parcel Health (click to learn more) – (Melinda Su En Lee (PharmD ’21) and Victor Le (PhD ’21)) a company that aims to disrupt the current plastic prescription bottle industry by innovating a 100% curbside-recyclable solution. The Seigle Impact Track competition, co-sponsored by the Zell Lurie InstituteBusiness+Impact, and the Erb Institute, began in November with over 50 teams. Eight semi-finalists competed on February 8 for the four finalist spots in the Seigle finals competition.

Other finalists included:

CLOVO Brand (click to learn more) – CLOVO Brand is a sustainable fashion company that produces the most comfortable and natural sheer tights using Tencel and a functional design to eliminate sagging, discomfort, and wardrobe malfunctions. Megan Martis (MS ’21)

EQuity (click to learn more) – EQuity is a learning and development venture that provides digital training and coaching to help clients advance racial justice by developing emotional intelligence. Justin Woods (MBA/MSW ’21)

Sustainium (click to learn more) –  Sustainium’s technology collects heat generated by spent nuclear fuel, a form of nuclear waste, and uses this heat to dry wastewater sludge. Jacob Ladd (JD’23), Luyao Li (MS’21), Anya Shapiro (MS/MBA’22), Aniket Yadav (MS’21)

Parcel Health received $15,000 for first place in the Seigle Impact Track, $2,000 for the Michigan Investment Challenge Prize, and $5,000 for the One Magnify Best in Business Award at MBC awards ceremony.  CLOVO Brand was the second place winner of the Seigle Impact Track, and received $7,500. EQuity won the $100 third prize in the Elevator Pitch competition. All participants in the Seigle Impact Track finals received at least $1750 for pitching in the finals. LeaseMagnets wont the Innovation Track, while EpiSLS won the Invention Track.

In Parcel Health’s presentation, they drew attention to the fact that prescription bottles currently cause 100,000 tons of plastic waste a year. Their Phill Box is a water resistant, recyclable, child resistant prescription container that has met all the requirements of prescription medication packaging. PH is looking for entree into urban pharmacies before moving into independent and large chain pharmacies. The team is made up of Melinda Su En Lee (PharmD ’21) and Victor Le (PhD ’21), as well as Mallory Barrett, Alex Barrette, and Tyler Wright.  Corporate advisors include Melinda Lin Lee, James Stevenson of Omnicell, and Jared Crooks of Schmidt Futures.

An expert judging panel of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial specialists were brought on by Zell Lurie Institute for the Michigan Business Challenge. The Challenge is a campus-wide, multi-round business plan competition, of which the Seigle Impact Track is a subset focused on entrepreneurial student ventures focused on social  and/or environmental impact.  The competition is open to all students of the University of Michigan, and multidisciplinary teams are encouraged. 

Sustainium is a Finalist in the 2021 Michigan Business Challenge – Seigle Impact Track

One of the finalists for The Seigle Impact Track finals that will take place on February 26, 2021 is Sustainium. Sustainium harnesses heat from spent nuclear fuel to dry wastewater sludge and turn it into a sustainable biomass like fertilizer or fuel. In the process, we turn two negatives into a positive through an innovative circular solution. Jacob Ladd (MS’20, JD’23), Luyao Li (MS’21), Anya Shapiro (MBA/MS ’22), Aniket Yadav (MS’21)

Contact Information:

What was the origin of your venture?
We won the Nuclear Waste Grand Challenge to re-imagine the future of nuclear waste. The origin was that we wanted to design a circular solution that harnesses two waste sources (nuclear waste and sewage sludge) to turn them into a profitable and sustainable biomass like fertilizer or fuel. We also wanted to de-risk nuclear energy and the waste it produces in order to meet a decarbonized future. Finally, we wanted to find a way to prevent dried wastewater sludge from ending up in a landfill and releasing methane.

What do you think will be the long-term impact of launching your venture?
Improving public perception of the nuclear energy industry (a critical part of the clean energy transition) and providing a reliable, low-cost, and clean energy source to dry wastewater sludge and divert it from ending up in a landfill.

How did you form your team?
We formed through a competition!

How has participation in MBC helped move your venture forward?
MBC has helped us solidify our business model and double down on how we will provide a positive impact beyond sustainability and profitability- considering critical factors like environmental justice and community welfare.

What has been your biggest takeaway from the MBC experience (so far)?
Impact and profitability can be synonymous.

What are your plans following MBC? How would prize money help your venture?
We will use the funds to build our first prototype of the technology and use it to pitch a pilot with several large utility companies in the Midwest. 

What advice do you have for other student entrepreneurs?
Form an interdisciplinary team, don’t be afraid of solving problems traditionally deemed “unsolvable”, and ask yourself the questions, “if not me, who?” “if not now, when?”