A new group of startup businesses in Richmond is tackling everything from local shopping to economic development to advance medical planning.
The companies were part of one of the largest and most diverse groups of startups to go through the Lighthouse Labs program, a Richmond-based business accelerator that provides free mentoring, business advice and equity-free funding for new businesses.
In all, 10 startups participated in the spring cohort of Lighthouse Labs, which was the organization’s milestone 10th cohort.
The culmination of the program was the Demo Day event on June 3 when the startups’ founders pitched their businesses to about 300 audience members who listened online.
Five of those companies are based in the Richmond area, and the other five are from outside the region.
The startups “made incredible progress during the three-month program,” said Erin Powell, executive director of Lighthouse Labs.
These are the five startups either based in Richmond or with Richmond operations:
Polly Cannella and Ryan Krienitz founded their startup business Lokii as a way to give local, independent, mom-and-pop stores a new avenue to compete with big-box retailers and online shopping giants like Amazon.com.
Lokii is an online shopping marketplace where people can get same-day delivery of products sold by businesses in their own communities.
“You can think about it like an Amazon or an Etsy, but all of the products on the platform are from local businesses and makers in your own community,” said Cannella, a Richmond native and the startup’s CEO.
Cannella, who has a professional background in retail marketing, said one of the frustrating things about trying to support local businesses is being unable to find a single online location that serves a local market.
The Lokii app “allows you to find the things that are right outside your door without having to go to multiple websites,” she said.
Cannella and Krienitz are married. Krienitz is a software engineer who previously worked for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, and he designed the Lokii app.
Cannella said their research showed that most online sales for local businesses are within a 15-mile radius of the businesses’ physical location, but local companies are often forced to use inefficient shipping methods.
Lokii’s goal is to provide same-day delivery of local products ordered from the platform.
“It is providing the tools that Target or Amazon and all these other retailers have to some of these smaller retailers to help them compete,” Krienitz said.
About 15 local retailers in the Richmond market are using the Lokii platform, such as Little Nomad, Mamie’s Apothecary, and Ladles & Linens Kitchen Shoppe. The shops have sold about $35,000 worth of goods so far to local customers.
The company’s goal is to add more retailers in Richmond, then expand into other markets.
The genesis of the startup company EDai goes back about three years, when Sean Brazier was working as vice president for economic competitiveness for the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.
In that role, Brazier helped write Virginia’s 900-page proposal to get online retail giant Amazon.com’s second U.S. headquarters office.
Hundreds of other cities and counties around the nation competed to get the second Amazon headquarters, with Northern Virginia ultimately winning the coveted investment.
“It not only captured national attention, but it absorbed untold amounts of nearly 240 communities’ time and resources,” Brazier said.
With his startup company EDai, Brazier wants to make the process of site selection much faster and more efficient by offering advanced data analytics to both the companies looking to open new locations and the communities that compete for those investments.
About 25,000 businesses make decisions every year about new office and operational locations around the country. Decisions are made based on a complex web of factors from real estate costs to the local workforce pipeline and quality of life. About 20,000 economic development organizations around the country seek those investments.
“Most companies and communities simply do not have the data, the capabilities and certainly the capacity to compile, analyze and then process the breadth of data that Amazon was able to, resulting in riskier decisions for all involved,” Brazier said.
EDai plans to introduce a subscription software platform this month that companies looking for new sites can use to get detailed data and analysis on real estate, workforce, incentives and other factors in about 400 metro areas and 3,000 counties in the U.S.
“Our goal is to automate the nearly $10 billion a year that businesses and economic developers spend each year on location searches.” Brazier said.
“Our philosophy is clear,” he said. “We believe communities thrive when their businesses grow. We want to serve both groups and in the process create prosperous economic opportunities for all stakeholders.”
Philip Deng, the founder of Grantable, has spent much of his 13-year career in the nonprofit sector.
That’s put him in the position to see just how inefficient and inequitable the grant-making process can be, and his startup company’s goal is to use technology to help solve those issues.
Just 1% of nonprofits capture half of all grant funding, Deng said. Many small nonprofits lack the resources or connections to apply for grants, leading to inequities. About 90% of grant funding goes to white-led organizations, he said.
“If you had a garden with 100 plants, you wouldn’t give half the water and sunlight to just one plant, if you want the whole garden to thrive,” Deng said.
Deng has seen this first-hand. In 2014, he started a nonprofit to help immigrants with low incomes start food businesses. The nonprofit’s pilot project was a Kenyan-Filipino food stand that had success in the community but was unable to attract grant funding, he said.
“For four years, we applied for dozens of grants, spending hundreds of hours with almost no success,” Deng said.
“Grants are really hard to find, which makes them inaccessible,” he said. “They take a long time to apply for, which creates a capacity problem.”
Grantable offers software tools that can enable nonprofits to streamline grant-writing proposals and apply for more opportunities without spending hundreds of hours. At the same time, the site offers a curated list of nonprofit organizations for grant makers.
Deng said he started using a prototype of his software last year, applying for 24 grants for his clients, which got them about $1 million in grants.
“The most remarkable thing is that most of the drafts took me less than an hour to complete, which is about seven times faster than average,” he said.
Grantable is targeting the more than 2,000 nonprofits in central Virginia as its first customer base, with plans to expand its services to other major grant seekers such as health care providers and universities.
Among the 10 companies in the Lighthouse Labs cohort, Grantable won a $5,000 award voted on by dozens of mentors in the program.
Founded by the Richmond-area serial entrepreneur Johnathan Mayo, the startup Team Excel is trying to become a force to motivate talented students to achieve their highest potential.
“Working around youth for over a decade, I have seen too many young people that were bright but failed to reach their full potential,” Mayo said.
“Most students are not failing due to a lack of ability, they are failing due to a lack of motivation,” he added.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, one survey showed that about 40% of students were chronically disengaged with school, Mayo said. That only has become worse as students were forced out of school during the pandemic.
Mayo, who is part owner of Mama J’s restaurant in Richmond’s Jackson Ward, established Team Excel as a way to motivate students to do better in school and in public service.
Mayo said his goal is to create a company that does well financially by doing good socially.
The program works as a type of fantasy sports league that schools can adopt in which students work in teams to score points by excelling in academics and community service.
“Think of it as a fantasy sports model, but instead of pro athletes earning points based on things like touchdowns and tackles, student teams earn points and compete based on metrics such as grades, attendance and community service hours,” Mayo said.
The company has built an online platform that enables schools and nonprofits to implement the Team Excel program. The company has customers in five U.S. markets that are now using the program.
The three founders of Koda Health all have professional backgrounds in health care and have seen how important it is for people to have advance medical care planning.
The startup company’s mission is to make it easier for people to do that kind of planning.
For instance, if someone has a sudden medical condition that leaves them unable to care for themselves or make decisions, then who should make decisions for them? What kind of values should guide the decisions?
“Most patients, unfortunately, have never had these kinds of conversations or planned for their care,” said Desh Mohan, a medical doctor and one of the co-founders of Koda Health. “I have seen how difficult it is for patients or their family members to decide what to do at that time when they have a critical illness.”
Koda Health has designed an online tool that health care companies can provide to patients that will guide them through the advance care planning process, asking questions about their preferences in emergency or end-of-life care and generating the legal documents required for an advance directive.
“I have seen patients who have gone through these planning conversations and have the opportunity to think about what is important to them and what quality of life means for them,” said Mohan, who serves as the company’s chief medical officer. “The trajectory of their care is much easier.”
The other founders of Koda Health are Tatiana Fofanova, who has a doctorate in molecular medicine and serves as the company’s CEO; and Katelin Cherry, a biomedical engineer who serves as the chief technology officer.
The company was founded in Texas, but Mohan has moved to Richmond to establish and build the company’s business in Virginia.
“We are focused on working with some health systems in Virginia,” he said. “We fundamentally believe everyone should have the opportunity to have that kind of care that is in line with their wishes and beliefs.”