FreshSpire Team

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Building a business while in college—especially four different colleges—has been tricky for the five young women who dreamt up FreshSpire three years ago as 11th graders at the North Carolina School of Science and Math.

Though they've made progress in the years since—winning mentorship from the Clinton Global Initiative and a 2015 Prize for Innovation from the local Institute for Emerging Issues—they've struggled to find a developer to turn their project into a real technology and local mentors to build a business around it.

The Big Idea Project plans to change that, providing $100,000 worth of business help, co-working space at HQ Raleigh and a team of developers to finally bring to market an app that keeps food from landfills by notifying students and impoverished populations of deals on soon-to-expire or imperfect items on grocery store shelves.

"This is really going to motivate us to make it a reality," says Shraddha Rathod, a FreshSpire co-founder and computer and electrical engineering major at NC State University (pictured middle above). "This feels like the mentorship and experience that we need to make FreshSpire something that is valuable to the community and of great quality."

Rathod and her co-founders came up with the idea in an introduction to entrepreneurship class at the elite Durham public high school that prepares 11th and 12th grade students for STEM careers. The women lived together while in school and spent time building a business plan, developing a pitch and having early conversations with grocers before heading off the college in 2014. Gabrielle Beaudry (pictured left) and Hannah Sloan (pictured right) are now students at the University of North Carolina, where Sloan is undecided on a major and Beaudry studies sustainable agriculture. Mona Amin attends East Carolina University and majors in biology, and Jennifer Wu is a business and biology major at the University of Pennsylvania.

FreshSpire made a commitment to discourage food waste and encourage healthier produce purchasing at a lower cost through a mobile app at the 2015 Clinton Global Initiative University in Miami. Credit: CGI U
The first semester of freshman year was all about settling into college. But the second semester provided renewed focus on FreshSpire when the women won a $10,000 fan favorite award at the Emerging Issues Forum in February and were selected to attend the Clinton Global Initiative University in March. There, they made one of eight global commitments: "to discourage food waste and encourage healthier produce purchasing at a lower cost through a mobile app." 

Next up was a Verizon Student Innovator Challenge win worth nearly $5,000 at NC State's Lulu eGames in April.

Big Idea Project judges
Judges listen to pitches at The Big Idea Project final pitch event. FreshSpire was chosen as winner of the inaugural competition. Credit: Big Idea Project
That early momentum attracted The Big Idea Project judges, says organizer David Baxter of Big Pixel Studio in Raleigh.

The idea was also "instantly relatable," he says. "I don't have to explain their business. It just makes sense. It's a problem that is huge and no one is really trying to tackle yet."

The solution isn't too difficult to build either, Baxter says. His hope was to find a team so early into their business that Big Pixel could build an app from the ground up. He got his wish with FreshSpire. The women have wire frames, but haven't begun work on the app. 

Next week, they'll begin meeting with former IKEA executive and global branding expert Steen Kanter and Uncompany founder Maari Casey to fine tune their business strategy, branding and marketing. In several weeks, they'll start meeting with the Big Pixel team to begin the development process.

That work will be complete in April, when the women will pitch a working MVP at a Big Idea Demo Day and begin raising capital on the Malartu Funds crowdfunding platform.

FreshSpire was one of five finalists selected from a pool of 27 applicants to the inaugural Big Idea Project. In a pitch contest last week, the women went up against Toddly, an app for buying and sell high-end baby furniture and supplies, Papilia, an app that helps users plan for travel, RunBucks, a rewards app for runners and Fund My Story, a button for news media sites that lets readers donate directly to a cause.

Baxter was pleased with the quality of applicants and expects a second round to happen next fall. But before he makes any major announcements, he's got to deliver for FreshSpire.

"I believe we have a good foundation to build upon," he says. "The next six months are obviously very telling, but we have as good a team as we could possibly hope for."