Ungraded Produce Wins 18th Duke Startup Challenge

Courtney Bell pitches her idea for Ungraded Produce to the judges in the 2017 Duke Startup Challenge. Photo by Pilar Timpane/Duke I&E
Courtney Bell pitches her idea for Ungraded Produce to the judges in the 2017 Duke Startup Challenge. Photo by Pilar Timpane/Duke I&E

DURHAM, N.C. -- Courtney Bell T’17 took the stage and told her audience that a year ago, she and her business partner made their first produce deliveries to 15 people – all Duke affiliated.

Today, the startup has 270 customers throughout Durham County and $7,000 in monthly sales.

And by the end of the night Thursday, Bell and her startup, Ungraded Produce, achieved another milestone: they were declared winners of the 18th annual Duke Startup Challenge and awarded a giant $50,000 check.

Ungraded Produce was declared the winner by a panel of seven judges, many of them Duke alumni, and was chosen from seven startups that had advanced to the final round.

The produce delivery company also took home the Audience Choice Award, which was decided by the live audience and netted the startup an extra $1,000.

Bell and her co-founder, Anya Ranganathan, also a 2017 Trinity graduate, founded the company in September 2016 after discussing their concerns about food waste and food insecurity. Bell, an environmental science major, found that her perspective neatly aligned with economics major Ranganathan’s.

They decided to tackle these problems with a subscription-based produce delivery service, similar to services like Blue Apron and Home Chef that have recently become popular. But their startup would be different because of its unconventional sourcing model. Ungraded Produce partners with farms to collect only misshapen or surplus produce, which couldn’t be sold in traditional big-box stores.

The need is there because 40 percent of all produced food goes uneaten, Bell said during her five-minute pitch Thursday. So far, the company has received great feedback – people like that their vegetables have character, and they also enjoy that the prices are 30 percent cheaper when compared to similar-quality goods at grocery stores, she added.

Not only does the company alleviate food waste, but it also addresses food insecurity. Ungraded Produce customers have the option to pledge a recurring donation to provide free produce deliveries to food insecure families. In Durham County alone, Bell said, 52,000 people are food insecure.

When Bell and Ranganathan started they took advantage of many of Duke’s entrepreneurial offerings, including two year-long programs offered by the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative: Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs and the Duke Startup Challenge. The company also sought free legal advice from the Duke Law Start-up Ventures Clinic.

As part of the Duke Startup Challenge, Bell and Ranganathan were expected to consistently meet benchmarks in order to advance to the next stages of the competition. Fast-forward a year, and the company has expanded past Duke’s borders and into the community, gaining subscribers from neighborhoods and churches by relying on word-of-mouth marketing. It has also diverted 8,000 pounds of produce from being wasted and has donated more than $1,000 pounds of produce to local food banks.

“I'm incredibly proud that in a sea of tech and medical startups, the judges and audience alike were able to recognize our potential,” Bell said. “We're not exactly running the sexiest or even crazy lucrative startup, but we're providing a service that people already know they want, so I'm excited that others believe in us and our concept. Plus, it was really my first time ever pitching, or even speaking in public, so I'm just super relieved.”

With the $50,000 in winnings, Ungraded Produce plans to purchase e-commerce software to automate customer sign-up processes, as well as hire additional staff to help with picking up produce from farms, packaging produce and delivering it to customers’ doorsteps.

“I remember when Courtney was first getting started in August 2016,” said Howie Rhee, managing director of student and alumni affairs at Duke I&E and Duke Startup Challenge organizer. “We connected her with some people and suggested she start to sign up some customers, and within only a few weeks, she had farms on board and was making deliveries in Durham. 

“Her ability to make things happen is a great strength. It's no surprise that, only a year later, she has made so much progress. To win both the grand prize and audience choice prize is really impressive. She has poured herself into this company and it has struck a nerve with a lot of people.”

The deadline for the next round of applications for the 19th Duke Startup Challenge is October 30.