Undergraduates launch companies as part of their Cornell experience.
By Robert Emro
Entrepreneurialism is flourishing at Cornell Engineering like never before. More faculty innovations are finding their way to market, invigorating local economies in the process. Cornell Tech’s new graduate programs match students with organizations—and mentors—and then give them the option of starting their own company. And for entrepreneurial-minded undergraduates, Cornell now offers a host of resources—from the Engineering Management minor to startup incubators—to help them launch a company as part of their Cornell experience.
Alex Krakoski ’16 ChemE came to Cornell with a budding jerky business born in his dorm room at the Leysin American School in Switzerland, where he went for his final two years of high school. Demand was high in the ski resort town for healthy, portable snacks and Krakoski asked his mom to send him a big batch of her beef jerky.
“When I was little—I hated it at the time, but I understand now it was best for me—she didn’t want me to have a lot of the processed snacks,” he says. “My mom said, ‘No. I’m going to make snacks,’ and one of those is the jerky that I am selling now.”
The jerky was a hit, helping Krakoski finance his travel to and from his home in Florida. Once at Cornell, Krakoski gathered a team of seven food science, nutrition, and business majors (Ben Pham, Camille Kapaun, Brenda Margolies, Justin Siegel, A.J. Schonenberg, Laura Stargala and Daniel Yoon including Krakoski’s high school friend, David McDonald who helps with accounting from the University of Florida) and Worthy Jerky was born. They applied to the competitive eLab, an incubator dedicated to accelerating top student Cornell startups. Established in 2008 by the nonprofit Student Agencies Foundation, in collaboration with Entrepreneurship@Cornell, eLab has worked with hundreds of students in turning concepts into real businesses.
“The professors in the program have been very good with identifying product market fit and what the problems are that customers may or may not perceive,” says Krakoski. “The main challenge is communicating that it’s a healthy snack because there is this already preconceived notion that it’s junk food.”
Independent testing has shown Worthy Jerky rivals or exceeds other healthy snacks, according to Krakoski. “It’s a healthy durable snack people can take with them without feeling guilty about doing it,” he says.
Worthy Jerky is made entirely from scratch, using no artificial ingredients. “Most of the jerky that is out there is made with mystery meats and a lot of artificial ingredients,” says Krakoski. “We’re using top sirloin cuts from Omaha Steaks and we’re using fruit- and vegetable-based marinades and not the cocktail of a lot of very bad chemicals that other brands are using.”
The trade off is in shelf life. Even so, in testing, Krakoski says Worthy Jerky stored at room temperature is good for at least four or five months and can keep as long as a year. “If you start with a lean cut of meat, you can extend the shelf life,” he says. “Also because we’re using fruits and vegetables in the marinades, those tend to be a little more acidic than other marinades, so we get a little bit of curing effect similar to ceviche.”
Scaling recipes up for a contract manufacturer has been one unexpected challenge. “The recipes that work on the kitchen-size level do not use the same proportions when you scale up to larger batches on the order of 100 pounds,” says Krakoski. “The flavor profile doesn’t match what we would expect, the pepper is too weak and the raspberry flavor is too weak whereas some of the other flavors are stronger than we’d like.”
With help from Alexander Schonenberg ’16 ChemE, Worthy Jerky has been working with the manufacturer to tweak ingredient amounts and has just about finalized the recipes for its four flavors: Spicy Citrus Barbecue, Citrus Barbecue, Raspberry Chipotle—the company’s best seller, and Pineapple Teriyaki. The students rely on their taste buds to tell them when they have it right. “You can do all the chemical analysis you want,” says Krakoski, “but at the end it’s the people eating it that will really make the decision.”
At its annual Demo Days competition held on April 10, Entrepreneurship@Cornell selected Worthy Steak Jerky as the winner of the Student Business of the Year, awarding the company $5,000 with which Krakoski plans to make more jerky. So far Krakoski has financed everything from his personal savings. None of his student employees are drawing a salary, but lawyers provided by eLab are drawing up stock option plans for them.
Until recently, the only way to buy Worthy Jerky was directly from one of the other students involved—Krakoski keeps a supply in his backpack—but the company recently started online sales and is in talks with Cornell Dining and local grocer P&C Fresh to carry their product. The company is also exploring opportunities to sell Worthy Jerky at sporting events.
“We have a lot of opportunities to move into specialty markets where there is almost zero competition from other jerky brands,” says Krakoski, “because what they’re selling is almost equivalent to junk food whereas the people we’re selling to are looking for a healthier, portable snack.”
eLAB also encourages students to earn class credit for developing and growing a startup. Students can receive 5.5 credits over the school year, a real help for students already juggling the hectic engineering curriculum. Andrew Vaslas ’15 CS was concerned about the time commitment when he took over as CTO for Sunn, an LED lighting company founded by Jeremy Blum ’12 ECE, M.Eng. ’13.
“The school year was starting, it was my junior year—the so-called busiest year. But to me it was almost a no brainer because I was so passionate and so excited about this project,” says Vaslas. “One of the most important things is to not underestimate your ability to incorporate your outside work into your coursework.”
Sunn, another eLab startup, grew out of a Cornell University Sustainable Design project that used fiber optics to bring natural sunlight into a room, supplemented by energy-efficient LEDs that mimicked natural light. The system worked, but was impractical due to the high cost of fiber optic cable, according Vaslas. But Blum saw potential in an LED that could shine like the sun. “We did a lot of research into the lighting industry and thought, ‘We could really build something that people would want,’ says Vaslas. “All of us just said, ‘Whatever you’re doing over the summer, put it aside, we’re working on this.’”
The students secured a provisional patent for an LED light with help from the Cornell Center for Technology Enterprise and Commercialization, but with the advent of several commercially available wireless LEDs, have temporarily pivoted away from hardware to the software.
“Smart lighting is just the future, that’s almost guaranteed,” says Vaslas. You can save money, get more pleasant light, and control your light with your phone or any device. It’s an amazing time to get into the market early and establish ourselves as the major player in lighting controls.”
Sunn is about to release its first app for the Phillips Hue LED light. “It’s going to mimic what the lighting conditions would be if it was an ideal sunny day at your current location and time,” says Vaslas, describing the app’s default mode. “We claim this is the healthiest and most natural light possible on the basis that we, as humans, evolved under this type of light for 99 percent of our existence.”
Sunn’s health claims are based on research showing that a photoreceptor in the eye tied to melatonin production is tuned to particular wavelengths. When the receptor senses blue wavelengths like those found in sunlight, production of melatonin, a hormone that causes sleepiness, is curtailed. While some conventional bulbs can reproduce this wavelength, the light is not dynamic, changing intensity over the course of the day as the sun does.
“When you’re getting sunlight your body is naturally being told stay awake, stay alert,” explains Vaslas. “When you’re experiencing light bulbs that have Sunn software running on them you will essentially be experiencing sunlight in terms of the color and quality and it’s pretty widely accepted that natural sunlight has these benefits.”
At night, Sunn controlled bulbs will replicate the wavelengths in candlelight to allow melatonin production, at least in default mode. “This is where our app is awesome; it allows you to customize everything,” says Vaslas. “If you are a shift worker and you’re working late at night, you can change the time of day. Not everybody lives on the same schedule.”
Vaslas says Sunn has raised about $100,000 in angel investment, which has financed travel for the team which is currently spread out between Ithaca, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Denmark. “One of the most important things is to every once in a while get together and see each other’s faces,” he says. “We also have a lot of anticipated costs in terms of hosting software.”
Sunn makes use of the PopShop in Collegetown. Opened in 2012, it’s a new space for Cornell students and Ithaca residents to engage in scheduled programs and chance encounters, to discuss their entrepreneurial ideas, organize meetings for their startups, and receive guidance and support from experienced entrepreneurs on campus. “Whenever I have a team meeting, or whatever, that’s generally the go-to place,” says Vaslas. “There are so many people there who are similarly entrepreneurial minded. It’s such a great environment to work in.”
Vaslas also credits Cornell Engineering’s Kessler Fellows Program with allowing him to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams while earning his degree. The five-year-old program offers select junior engineering students a unique year-long experience that combines learning and exposure to the startup culture through a summer placement in a company or other entrepreneurial environment. While most fellows are placed with someone else’s startup, Vaslas got to work for a company he helped launch.
“Its been a fantastic experience being a Kessler fellow,” says Vaslas. “I think the program is really great.”