Leigh Kathryn Bonner with Bees at ATC

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North Carolina State University has been called every name under the sun, my favorite being “the red-headed step child” of the Triangle. 

Yes, we may be the agricultural school made entirely out of brick, and true, we may not have as many national championships as our neighbors down the street, but we have something much more important, something our “friends” will never have…a Pack. 

Every student, from the minute they enroll at NC State until the day they die, knows the importance of their pack. My favorite saying at NC State is, “For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack,” because, while students and faculty each have their own unique story about NC State, there is always one thing that remains consistent to each tale: our strength is found within our Pack. 
 
Before I continue to brag about my Pack, I want to take a step back and tell you a bit about my company, Bee Downtown. 

I started Bee Downtown my junior year at NC State. I was studying abroad in Barcelona when I read a magazine article about rooftop beekeeping. As a third generation beekeeper from North Carolina, I already knew about the troubles honey bees face worldwide and was frustrated no one had found a long-term solution for keeping the bee population alive and thriving. I became fixated on the idea of rooftop beekeeping, because, while it has become widely popular in larger northern U.S cities, it has not yet caught on in the South. What was even more interesting to me was recent research that shows honey bees are actually healthier in urban areas because there are more year-round food sources, less pesticides, and larger varieties of plants for the bees to forage from. 
 
I came back from Europe and pitched the initial idea of Bee Downtown to Michael Goodmon, the vice president of real estate for Capitol Broadcasting who oversees the American Tobacco campus in Durham. I had interned for his company for a year, and knew the campus was the perfect place to start the pilot program. I was terrified to ask if it would be possible to place 180,000 stinging insects on his campus, but before I could finish my pitch, Michael stopped me and asked how fast we could get bees on the rooftops and Bee Downtown in business. 

Leigh Kathryn Bonner at Burt's Bees
Bee Downtown's first observation hive was installed at Burt's Bees in Durham. Credit: Bee Downtown
Five months later, we had a rooftop apiary in the middle of the campus and North Carolina’s largest, clear (glass) observational hive at Burt’s Bees world headquarters at ATC. Since installing the rooftop apiary and observation hive, Bee Downtown has received continuous support from the community, including local news sources and countless companies requesting rooftop apiaries and observation hives at their businesses. 

But even though Bee Downtown was gaining traction and attention, something was missing. Like many startup entrepreneurs, I had not figured out how to scale the company and turn it into a profitable, sustainable business. 
 

Back to my pack. 

NC State University has a competition called ‘The Lulu eGames’—its purpose is to provide student entrepreneurs a platform to showcase and validate their startup companies, inventions and product designs at the end of each year. I had entered two competitions earlier this year and had not won either of them. Feeling a bit defeated because it seemed like the tech startups were the ones constantly winning, I almost didn’t compete in the eGames, but the amazing team at the NC State Entrepreneurship Initiative convinced me to try once more. 

LK at eGames Booth
Investors and entrepreneurs visited booths set up by the competing teams at the 2015 Lulu eGames. Credit: NCSU Entrepreneurship Initiative
After giving an introductory 5 minute pitch, I made it past the first round of judging. And that gave me the opportunity to receive a mentor for the remainder of the competition. Since I hadn’t had success in the other competitions, I knew something about my business model wasn’t quite right and I knew I wouldn’t be able to identify it on my own. So I requested a mentor, hoping whoever it was could help me bring my business to the next level. 

That person was Tyler Maloney. Tyler, a recent alumnus whose company Undercover Colors is creating a nail polish that changes color when it comes in contact with ‘date rape’ drugs, won first place in the eGames last year. Even as he mentored three teams and worked 80+ hour weeks at his own startup, he went above and beyond what we all expected to help us prepare top tier business plans and pitches for the following two rounds of the competition. 
 
Tyler helped me determine that our observation beehives are of most interest to companies, and are also the most easily scalable to multiple locations. Each observation hive serves as a one-of-a-kind, progressive marketing tool for companies to show their commitment to the environment while also driving thousands of customers to their storefronts. It was the key piece I was missing, so midway through the competition, Bee Downtown pivoted. 

That meant writing an entirely new business plan which was due, along with a video, for the second round of the New Venture competition. This was undoubtedly the most difficult part of the entire competition because trying to write a well written business plan on top of being a full-time student and working 25 hours a week, meant three hours of rest was the new norm. 

I was also encouraged to build a small, temporary portable clear hive for the ‘Design and Prototype ‘portion of the eGames. To make that happen, I found two amazing fellow Entrepreneurship Initiative students to help me design a prototype for a new beehive…and the three hours of sleep each night very quickly turned into about 1.5. While the lack of sleep was a central point of complaining for us all, looking back at it now, the final few weeks leading up to the eGames were probably the best memories I have of my time at NC State. 

After sending in my New Venture business plan (or “beesness” plan, as it fondly came to be known) and our hive design for the Design and Prototype portion of the eGames, Bee Downtown moved on to the finals for both categories. The last two weeks before the competition were spent prototyping/building our hive while also working with Tyler to prepare a pitch deck and 20-minute presentation. The night before the competition, I was so nervous about the pitch that I stayed up until 5:45 a.m. practicing and memorizing. I remember finally thinking, “OK, I’ve got this. I can go to bed now,” then looking at the clock and realizing I had about 15 minutes before my alarm was going to go off to get up and start getting ready. 

The big day

The day of the eGames was all such a blur; a blur of excitement, adrenaline, hand shaking and unfathomable student innovation. I decided to go with the “easier to ask for forgiveness than permission” tactic, and brought our prototype into Talley with 2,000 of my closest honey bee friends inside it. I just remember praying the entire day that our first “working prototype” was truly as secure and well built as we believed it to be. 

Thankfully, there weren’t screams or hoards of people fleeing from the Talley ballroom that day, proving correct in our assumption that it was a “working prototype”. 

Bee Downtown was the very first company to give a 20-minute pitch to the New Venture judges panel. The excitement and adrenaline of the event masked my 15 minutes of sleep and I gave my best pitch yet. The judges were extremely impressed that Bee Downtown was not simply an idea, but that I had already turned it into a profitable company in one year. I was nervous to see how the judges—top investors and startup founders in the Triangle—would feel about the new direction of Bee Downtown. But that quickly faded when they began asking questions. I left the room feeling so encouraged and excited about all the future possibilities of Bee Downtown. 

The Design and Prototype seven-minute pitch happened next. The two students who helped me design and build the portable hive, Brian Dawson and Sunny Su, participated with me in the second pitch. Thankfully, when we walked into the ballroom, all the honey bees were still in their hive waiting patiently to show off their new home to the judges. 

Leigh Kathryn Bonner Bee Downtown
Leigh-Kathryn Bonner is founder of Bee Downtown, a 2015 Lulu eGames winner.
Our booth was eye catching and in a competition with so many awesome student innovations, we knew that we had to give the judges and the community a vision of the excitement and creativity that forms the whole package of Bee Downtown. 

Bee Downtown placed second in New Venture behind an amazing company called WarpSpec Diagnostics that will revolutionize the food industry by creating a proprietary infrared system that detects foodborne pathogens like Salmonella in a matter of seconds. The founder, Jordan Moering, and I, were both mentored by Tyler and we joked back and forth about who would win, chicken or bees. While the chickens took home first for New Venture, the bees followed suit by winning first place in Design and Prototype. 

LK Wins eGames
Leigh-Kathryn Bonner won first place in the 2015 Lulu eGames Design and Prototype Challenge and second place in the New Venture Challenge. Credit: NCSU Entrepreneurship Initiative

The Wolfpack mentality alive and well at NCSU

The 2015 Lulu eGames was a culmination of the hard work and dedication NC State students have put into creating businesses and products that will have a lasting impact on the world. Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal, said, “A person should not aspire to become an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs are the people who identify a problem that no one else is willing to solve and it bothers them to the point that they decide to solve the problem themselves.” In other words, you “Think and Do.” 

NC State takes this to the next level because almost every company that competes in the eGames each year has been created to address a social or environmental issue. From Undercover Colors working to prevent sexual assault to Bee Downtown aspiring to rebuild healthy sustainable honey bee populations around the world, we know our strength comes from our Pack. 

Our Pack is full of faculty, advisors, alumni and fellow students who go above and beyond to help turn our dreams of success into reality. In return, students across all departments at NC State are embodying our university’s motto of “Think and Do” and are showing not just the state, but the world, that the Wolves at North Carolina State University and their Pack are going to be the next generation of world changers.