$20k in Funding Funneled into UT Austin Startup Ecosystem Through Forty Acres Founders Pitch Competition


Written by Ali Arnold

From left: Elliot Zak, Carol Frank, Vedant Nair, Anjali Bathra Ravikumar, Jackson Glunk, Paulina Ganem Chee, Chinmay Pingale, Alyssa Le, Xan Myburgh, and Billy Freed

On Thursday, April 20th, 2023, four students of The University of Texas at Austin took the stage to pitch their startups to an elite panel of judges to compete for funding from the collective $20,000 prize pool. Each of the students is a participating member of the 4th annual Forty Acres Founders Program cohort, an application-based program of up to 20 students provided by the Herb Kelleher Entrepreneurship Center, within the McCombs School of Business.

The program is supported by the Herb Kelleher Entrepreneurship Center and six Forty Acres Founders Endowed Excellence Funds; endowed by Brian Cruver, Gwen and Frank Gordon, Stephen Maeker, Thomas and Libby Mathai, Jay Steinfeld, and Michael Tucci and family.

This semester-long program educates student founders on the skills needed to vet an idea, understand market demand, and
develop a product that addresses validated market needs. Students participating in the program have the opportunity to study potential customers, improve their product, establish product-market fit, and position their product for success within the marketplace. Each student is paired with a graduate assistant as well as a business mentor, and is provided with $1,000 in funding.

One of the program’s many goals is for students to leave with a deep understanding of entrepreneurial frameworks and how to apply those skills in real-world endeavors. Throughout the semester, students learn to articulate the story behind their startups and demonstrate for potential investors and customers the need for a proposed service or product and its ability to add value to customers. By establishing a resilient product-market fit, students leave the program with vetted protection against one of the most common reasons startups fail.

This year’s pitch competition, the first of its kind to be open to the public for attendance, was deliberated by a prominent judge’s panel consisting of Carol Frank, Managing Director of BirdsEye Advisory Group; Billy Freed, Principal of Nueces Marketing Partners and serial entrepreneur; and Xan Myburgh, Co-Founder and CEO of Backd Business Fund.

On the judges panel was Billy Freed, McCombs BBA ’81, who recently gifted $1M to the Herb Kelleher Entrepreneurship Center. The gift establishes the Freed Family Entrepreneurship Excellence Fund and endows the Freed Family Pitch Competition, previously known as DisrupTexas. Billy’s wife Cheryl, BA ’82, JD ’84; sons Tyler, BS ’17, and Russell, BBA ’21; and daughter-in-law Leslie (Lugrin) Freed, BS ’17, took part in this gift.

First to pitch their concept was Vedant Nair with Clips AI, which uses machine learning to automatically create social media clips from podcasts. This helps marketing teams save time and ensures that they’re selecting their best content.

Next, Paulina Ganem Chee and Alyssa Le represented Locket, a menstrual and sexual health education platform for young adults by young adults. With easy-to-understand, medically-approved content and 1-on-1 support services, Locket is the modern health encyclopedia where menstruators can get their questions answered quickly.

Next up to pitch their startup was Elliot Zak with MealBuddy, an application that helps families and individuals improve their nutrition by ordering healthy groceries for delivery to cook USDA-approved recipes while tracking their dietary goals.

Lastly, Chinmay Pingale and Jackson Glunk pitched their startup, Sprout Food Solutions, which helps restaurant owners optimize and automate the ingredient purchasing process using time series forecasting enabled by PoS data.

Following the four finalists’ pitches, the hard work of the rest of the cohort was shown off during an honorable mention segment where two minute pitch videos were shown for each of the remaining startups. During this time, audience members got the chance to vote for their favorite concept to receive a $1,000 People’s Choice Award. This title and money was earned by Anjali Bathra Ravikumar with her concept, SPOT, a platform created to promote menstrual equity by helping women and non-binary individuals find free period supplies in public restrooms.

After the deliberation period, Dr. Luis Martins, Director of HKEC, spoke briefly about the Forty Acres Founders program before revealing the judges decisions. Dr. Martins extended a heartfelt thank you to all donors, mentors, judges, and graduate assistants who helped make the program such a valuable asset for student founders navigating the startup landscape.

It was then announced that after careful consideration, Chinmay Pingale and Jackson Glunk with Sprout Food Solutions would take home the 1st place title with $10,000, Vendant Nair with Clips AI coming in 2nd place with $5,000, Alyssa Le and Paulina Ganem Chee with Locket placed 3rd with $3,000 and Elliot Zak with with MealBuddy ranked 4th place, earning $2,000.

When each of the finalists were asked what stood out to them about their experience in the Forty Acres Founders Program, the founders’ answers ranged from the relationships they were able to form with their mentors, to advice from Dr. Martins, who led the program this semester, to the impactful guest speakers.

If you are a student at The University of Texas at Austin and are interested in participating in the Forty Acres Founders Program, subscribe to the Herb Kelleher Entrepreneurship Center newsletter to stay up to date on future cohort applications.



Herb Kelleher Entrepreneurship Center

At HKEC, we’re all about igniting world changing ideas and preparing UT Austin student founders with the tools for startup success. herbkellehercenter.com