Startups compete for $25,000 prize

From left to right, Sepehr Zomorodi, Zachery Davis, Payam Pourtaheri, Ameer Shakeel, Joseph Frank and Dr. Mark Kester are current members of the AgroSpheres team. Courtesy of Payam Pourtaheri From left to right, Sepehr Zomorodi, Zachery Davis, Payam Pourtaheri, Ameer Shakeel, Joseph Frank and Dr. Mark Kester are current members of the AgroSpheres team. Courtesy of Payam Pourtaheri

This month, 30 startup companies across the state will pitch their business ideas to a panel of judges in an attempt to snag one of five grants. Though it might sound like an episode of “Shark Tank,” the competition is part of the Virginia Velocity Tour, and five companies pitching their food-and-agriculture-themed products September 23, on the tour’s last stop in Charlottesville, hope to take home the $25,000 prize.

At other stops on the tour—Roanoke, Richmond, Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia—the pitches will highlight regional strengths, including biotech, health, energy and security.

The team behind AgroSpheres—a startup founded by UVA students and faculty that is one of this month’s competitors—also won the Entrepreneurship Cup and $22,500 at the 2016 Tom Tom Founders Festival. Payam Pourtaheri, a founder, describes his team’s idea: “Pesticides are a necessary evil for farmers,” he says. “They would like to not use these chemicals, but they need to use them to protect their crops. What we want to do is work with farmers and develop a spray that would degrade pesticides.”

The spray will contain genetically engineered bioparticles, which will harness the benefit of genetic engineering without the risk of environmental contamination, he says.

“The battle between the farmer and nature has been going on for a long, long time,” Pourtaheri says. “This way, they can be a little less stressed about the chemicals they’re putting on their crops.”

Ameer Shakeel, a fourth-year pursuing a degree in biomedical engineering at UVA and another founder of AgroSpheres, says his team’s vision is in line with the future of agriculture—farmers around the world are looking for eco-friendly ways to mass produce their crops.

Though the initial outreach of AgroSpheres has been in America (the team’s current product can degrade organophosphate pesticides, which account for 36 percent of pesticides), Shakeel says their goal is to expand their form of bioremediation globally, especially in countries where DDT—a harmful insecticide banned in the U.S.—is used to control malaria.

Essentially, AgroSpheres would exist to “go in and clean everything up,” he says.

While the startup has already received about $41,000 in grants since its founding in March, its members hope to raise another $50,000 or $60,000 by the end of the year.

The tour is a partnership between D.C.-based investment firm Village Capital and the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Despite the fact that Entrepreneur Magazine recently named Charlottesville the fourth-best place for entrepreneurs in the country, Village Capital CEO Ross Baird, a UVA alumni who now teaches entrepreneurship and impact investment at the university, says 78 percent of investment in startup companies happens in New York, Massachusetts and California.

“Entrepreneurs have the ability to solve the most important problems in the world and we know that there are great entrepreneurs everywhere,” says Baird. “But when you look at who gets the chance to scale their businesses, most are left out.”

The teams pitching in Charlottesville:

AgroSpheres—a biotech company dedicated to environmental remediation and precision agriculture.

Seasonal Roots—an online farmers market delivering weekly to homes and offices.

Hungry Marketplace—a chef-driven food service that seeks to deliver fresh-made meals to your door, like Uber for eating.

Bonumuse Biochem LLC—a company developing and scaling up a novel enzymatic process for producing tagatose, a natural, rare, healthy sugar, at 20 percent of the cost of the standard industrial process.

Edible Edu—a comprehensive, mobile cooking cart that school systems, hospitals and wellness coaches use to get people excited about whole food and educate them about nutrition through food and cooking.

Tellus Agronomics—helps farmers improve their overall profitability by focusing on reducing the cost of production through nutrient management and cost-sharing conservation grants, and increasing the revenue stream through sales of nutrient credits.

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