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2017 - Joe Lam

Each year since 2014, an undergraduate team that makes it to the final round of the Startup Challenge is chosen to receive the Borchardt Prize.

In 2013, David Cummings (T’02) endowed a $500,000 gift to be awarded to undergraduate entrepreneurs over the coming years. Cummings himself became an entrepreneur as an undergraduate, with the help of a $20,000 prize from his professor, Frank Borchardt. To honor him, Cummings chose to name his gift the Borchardt Prize.

This year, for the 18th Duke Startup Challenge, the Borchardt Prize recipient was Brainbuild, a startup founded by Joe Lam (T’17) that focuses on automating nutrition via an app that tells its user what to eat and when.

“We were honored to be selected, as all the startups this year were so impressive and all equally deserving,” Lam said. “We are beyond grateful for mentors like David who are willing to take a leap of faith to support a small dorm room startup with big dreams.”

Lam founded Brainbuild after a slew of personal experiences – training as a fencer, watching his mom struggle with acute diabetes – made him realize that it’s difficult to plan the optimal diet.

Brainbuild expects to receive $18,000 from the prize, which Lam said will be helpful as the startup focuses on growth.

As the most recent Borchardt Prize winner, Brainbuild joins some impressive ranks – the 2016 winner, Fathom AI, has raised a $1.2 million round and is in the midst of fundraising a $3 million second round, and the 2015 winner, Smart Metals Recycling, has grown to a company that employs 110 people and is planning to open its third location.

Smart Metals Recycling, founded in 2014 by then-Duke students Shelly Li and Arun Karottu, is a startup that focuses on recycling electronics to reduce environmental damage caused by electronics that aren’t disposed of properly.

Li, co-founder and CEO of Smart Metals, said the Borchardt Prize money helped to fundamentally change the company and its revenue sources.

“We were so excited to have this money to go explore wild ideas,” Li said. “At that time we were still just trying to sustain cash flow, so we pretended we didn’t have this extra money and put the $10,000 toward researching different ways to upcycle.”

What started in a tiny refurbishing room is now responsible for about $3.6 million in revenue at Smart Metals’ second location on the West Coast. And Smart Metals has transformed from a startup focused strictly on turning electronics into raw materials to a company that can use parts and components of old electronics to create new ones.

“This prize money really allowed us to climb the value chain and embrace what it means to be a startup,” Li said.

Ivonna Dumanyan (E’16), the CEO and co-founder of Fathom AI, also said the prize money was crucial to her team.

“At the time we won the prize, we had about $1,000 left in the bank and were trying to figure out how we were going to make payroll for the next month,” she said. “The Borchardt Prize was the seed injection we needed to better prepare ourselves for our first round of fundraising.”

Dumanyan founded Fathom AI, formerly known as BioMetrix, in 2014 with fellow Duke student Gabrielle Levac (T’14). The two student-athletes wanted to create a wearable device that would help athletes train better and reduce risk of injury.

Their product, which was only a prototype when the company received the Borchardt Prize, is now a commercial product launching across 16 Division I teams, with 22 more teams on deck.

“When I created this prize in 2013, I wanted to help undergraduate entrepreneurs as Frank Borchardt had helped me,” said David Cummings. “Each year, it has been a joy to review the high-caliber undergraduate teams and choose a recipient that I feel will honor Frank’s legacy. The growth and success of past Borchardt Prize winners makes it clear that this prize has a significant impact on its recipients, just as Frank’s investment and mentorship had a profound impact on me as an entrepreneur.”

Cummings is a serial entrepreneur. In early 2007, he co-founded Pardot, which was recognized by Inc. magazine as the 172nd fastest growing company in 2012. Shortly thereafter Pardot was acquired by ExactTarget and then David was subsequently named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year winner in the deal category. Most recently, Cummings founded the Atlanta Tech Village, which at 103,000 square feet is the largest technology entrepreneur center in the Southeast. Cummings has been recognized by The Atlanta Business Chronicle as one of the 100 most influential Atlantans and by Atlanta Magazine as one of the 55 Most Powerful Atlantans.

By Katie Jansen

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