Plant-based snack company, Rooted Living, wins 2020 Husky Startup Challenge

Rachel Domb won the 2020 Demo Day grand prize. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

When Rachel Domb was in high school, she said she was in and out of hospitals and continually feeling sick until she decided to adopt a plant-based diet. Nourishing her body with healthy food eventually became a passion, but she was put off by the plastic packaging that her snacks came in, knowing how bad the wrappers were for the environment.

This moved the Northeastern sophomore to start her own mission-driven, eco-friendly, plant-based snack company, Rooted Living. Her entrepreneurial inspiration won her the top prize of $2,500 in Wednesday evening’s Husky Startup Challenge, beating out 11 other young companies created by students for the fall 2020 competition.

Second place honors and a $1,500 cash prize went to Aniyah Smith’s Push Beauty, a maker of cosmetics aimed at people with disabilities. Klip Tech, which makes a clip-on warning device for women who feel threatened, won third place and $1,000 for creators Laura Bilal and Meghan Quon.

Speaking in live-streamed opening remarks, Rachna Lewis, who co-directs the Husky Startup Challenge with Nicole Danuwidjaja, said that, in all, 25 entries were submitted for the fall semester competition, eventually being whittled down to a dozen finalists. Demo Day, as it is commonly known, is usually held indoors and attracts large crowds to hear the entrepreneurs’ pitches. This year it went virtual for the first time on account of the pandemic.

The three-judge panel assessing the competition included Stephen Golden, an associate teaching professor for entrepreneurship and innovation in Northeastern’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business; Greg Skloot, a Northeastern graduate who co-founded an app that reveals an individual’s personality; and Kate Murdock, who graduated from Northeastern in 2018 with a focus on business. She formerly held leadership roles at IDEA, Northeastern’s student-run startup accelerator, and Scout, a student-run design studio. 

Aniyah Smith won second place in the 2020 Demo Day challenge for her beauty products venture. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Throughout the semester, students took their ventures through the Husky Startup Challenge curriculum, in which the budding businesses went from ideation to customer discovery, market research, prototyping, and crafting a business model. It all culminated with the evening’s final pitches in which the entrepreneurs explained how their products address  challenges such as how to make food brands more sustainable, the lack of inclusivity in the beauty industry, and how to keep women safe when they’re exercising alone.

“We’ve watched these finalists grow significantly from the start of the semester to today, and we are so, so, so proud of them,” said Lewis.

The intent behind Rooted Living, the top winner, is that it “allows you to snack without sacrificing your own health or the health of the planet, and there’s a demand for more sustainable products,” Domb said in her pitch.

The second year psychology major said 40 percent of the plastic produced in the world is for food packaging. Single-use plastic, she added, is a major contributor toward global warming, causing “detrimental, irreversible impacts to the planet.”

“It felt like this was a problem that nobody was talking about,” Domb told the judges. “Every single snack came wrapped in plastic packaging, so I decided to make some noise.”

Her company took a big step forward in October with the launch of Rooted Living Granola, selling out all 50 bags in two hours. “Ultimately, my mission is to be a leader in the fight against single use plastic by providing truly healthy food,” she said.

Push Beauty, which took second place honors, was born out of a desire to make the multi-billion-dollar beauty products industry more inclusive and accepting. Smith said her startup addresses the twin problems of a lack of products for the disabled and people of color.

“With beauty being so central to the consumer’s self-esteem, Push aims to make people feel included, and never as an afterthought,” she said in her pitch.

The idea behind the night’s third place winner, Klip Tech, was a statistic about the prevalence of violence against women.

“Eighty-four percent of women said they’ve experienced some kind of harassment while running that has left them feeling unsafe. There’s a lot of fear that goes into running alone as a woman,” said Bilal.

Klip Tech is a two-part solution involving an app and a rechargeable device fastened to clothing and activated in potentially unsafe situations in which the wearer might not have immediate access to a phone. With a single click, the device sends a message to a personalized contact list that discloses location and a warning of being in an unsafe situation. Two clicks sends a message to law enforcement.

Neil Bhammar, president of Northeastern’s Entrepreneurs Club, brought the three-hour virtual ceremony to a close by saying: “There is not a single venture here that we doubt is going to succeed. You guys are all incredible.”

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