Mokhtarzada Hatchery Startups Showcase Their ‘Immense Progress’
What if drones could deliver produce to people in food-insecure areas or an app could help farmers in developing countries secure loans?
These are just a couple of the ideas that University of Maryland students and alums turned into full-fledged businesses with help from the Mokhtarzada Hatchery, a startup incubator in the Department of Computer Science. To celebrate their success over the last academic year, the four 2022-23 teams showcased their startups at the second annual Demo Day event on May 8, 2023.
Haroon Mokhtarzada, who founded the hatchery with his brothers Idris and Zeki in 2021, applauded the four teams for creating companies from scratch. Some teams increased their revenue or customer base, while others honed their technology or secured a lucrative partnership.
“Most of the companies [presenting] today were barely anything—or had just gotten started—when they applied,” Haroon Mokhtarzada told Demo Day attendees. “Today you’ll get to see the immense progress that they've made, and we’re really excited to show you how far they’ve come.”
The Mokhtarzada Hatchery provides each team with physical space in the Brendan Iribe Center for Computer Science and Engineering to hash out their ideas and up to $10,000 of funding per year. The Hatchery teams also receive personalized feedback and advice from the Mokhtarzada brothers, who are UMD alums and entrepreneurs. The Mokhtarzada brothers sold their first startup, Webs.com, to VistaPrint for $117.5 million in 2011. More recently, Rocket Companies acquired the subscription management app they created, Truebill (now Rocket Money), for nearly $1.3 billion in 2021.
Arthur AI founder and CEO Adam Wenchel (B.S. ’99, computer science), who attended Demo Day as the guest speaker, noted that the Mokhtarzada brothers’ mentorship is invaluable to young startup founders.
“One of the benefits of the Hatchery is that you get to talk to these guys every two weeks,” Wenchel said, gesturing to Haroon, Idris and Zeki in the audience. “There's no substitute for having been in the trenches and founding a company. There’s nothing that prepares you for it other than getting in and doing it.”
This year’s teams— Blimp Logistics, Fancy & Spicy, JuJu and Kestrel—shared just how much they grew and evolved since joining the Hatchery last fall.
Founded by mechanical engineering major Stacey Yaculak and Camilo Melnyk (B.S. ’21, aerospace engineering), Blimp Logistics tackles food insecurity. The company aims to create a fleet of autonomous drones that can deliver groceries to rural and suburban areas where delivery services are expensive or non-existent.
“Members of low-income, low-access communities and food deserts are struggling to get fresh produce and groceries regularly,” Yaculak said. “They often cannot travel far out to grocery stores reliably and routinely, and it’s affecting their health, too.”
Yaculak explained that Blimp Logistics’ drones are faster and less expensive than cars, and the cost of operations is low, allowing them to pass savings on to the customer.
The Hatchery mentors helped the team determine the best markets for their business model, enabling them to connect farmers with local residents. This summer, the Blimp Logistics team will run a delivery pilot with customers and small farms in Frederick, Maryland. Customers can order directly from farmers on the company’s app, and a drone will deliver food directly to their homes.
As they move into the next phase of their business, Yaculak described their experience with the Hatchery as “transformative.”
“It helped us stick to our current market, which we think is going to lead us on a good path to sustaining our business,” Yaculak said. “We love collaborating with the other team members—bouncing ideas off of each other, motivating each other and now celebrating our success.”
Fancy & Spicy
“Fancy & Spicy is a platform that teaches authentic cooking skills and culinary culture,” explained Brin Xu (M.A. ‘19, sociology), who founded the startup. “Our goal is to connect the world through cooking.”
The platform employs 18 chefs around the world who livestream their cooking classes. Xu explained that Fancy & Spicy fills a gap in the market because in-person culinary classes can be cost-prohibitive, but free cooking videos on social media often lack depth and cultural context. Afghan roasted chicken, French flan and Indian Ayurvedic teas are a few of the recipes offered—and the stories behind these dishes make the finished product all the more satisfying.
“Most importantly, we teach cultures, histories and the stories behind the dishes, as we know recipes are not only methodologies but a lot of love and traditions that have accumulated,” Xu said.
Since joining the Hatchery, Fancy & Spicy’s customer base has grown from 450 to 750, with their monthly revenue increasing from $10,000 to $15,000. Xu credited the Hatchery with helping the startup team refine their goals and improve their business model.
“Our team benefited tremendously, and we enjoyed interacting with the peer entrepreneurs,” Xu said. “I’m very grateful for this experience and very happy about this community we will continue relying on moving forward.”
Startups sometimes change course due to obstacles or opportunities. That was the case for team JuJu, which is on its third idea for a company. The team initially created a food delivery service that enabled users to place bulk orders from multiple businesses while receiving suggestions from a machine learning algorithm.
Although they attracted 500 users in two months, they realized it was difficult to remain competitive, so they pivoted to an online shopping platform called Prolinks.ai. Powered by artificial intelligence, the shop specialized in affiliated products promoted by social media influencers. While there was no shortage of products, the team struggled to make its mark on another saturated market.
Ultimately, the team found another opening
“I think the core problem is that if we want to make something really differentiated, we have to have some deep knowledge or extensive experience in some specific industry,” explained Kent Wang (B.S. ’22, computer science), who formed team JuJu with Ziqi Zhang (B.S. ’22, computer science), Zongxia Li (B.S. ’22, computer science; B.S. ’22, mathematics) and Zeyang Liu (B.A. ’22, economics).
While exploring their options, the team connected with Qian Wang, who founded the real estate management platform Collab and has 20 years of experience in real estate. Together, team JuJu co-founded a joint venture with Wang called Collab Living, and Wang committed $2.1 million toward developing a community-based property management product.
Each time JuJu proposed a new startup idea, the Mokhtarzada brothers helped the team quickly adapt their business model, giving them a competitive edge.
“They gave us very useful advice for each decision,” Wang explained. “That’s why we can achieve our goals and pivot each time very efficiently.”
Small farms yield roughly one-third of the world’s food, but many are limited in their spending power. Without financial histories, credit scores or proof of assets, many small-scale farmers—those who typically tend only a few hectares of land—are left unfinanced and uninsured.
Kestrel aims to change that. Run by computer science majors Bobby George and Kamal Narra, Kestrel is a banking platform designed for the world’s 500 million small-scale farmers. Farmers can access loans through Kestrel’s app, called Sprout, and begin building financial profiles through their transactions.
Kestrel also uses satellite data and machine learning to predict a farm’s earning potential based on the quality of the soil, environmental risk and other metrics, allowing lenders to make more informed decisions.
“Financing farmers is key to global food security,” Narra said. “We need to double food supply by 2050 if we want to feed our growing population, and the best way to do this is to invest in smallholder farms.”
Kestrel now serves hundreds of farmers, mostly in Uganda. Narra said the Mokhtarzada brothers’ guidance helped them attract users to their platform in just a couple of months.
“We came to the Hatchery with basically just an idea and nothing else,” Narra said. “Thanks to resources like the brothers and Startup Shell, we’ve managed to get over 500 farms on our platform and are now managing over a thousand acres of land.”
The team hopes to continue building partnerships and expand to even more countries in the future.
Applications for the 2023-24 cohort of the Mokhtarzada Hatchery will open in August 2023. To learn more, visit www.hatchery.umd.edu/apply.
-Story by Emily Nunez
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