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Venturing forth

A better beverage and new best friend for fashion stores win support.
Venturing forth

Sweat, toil, perseverance. These are the ingredients that take businesses from startup to success. But first comes the spark—the big idea. The winners of the UPstart Venture Challenge at Smith can attest to that.

Josh Barr, BCom’10, set out to make a tastier protein drink as co-founder of Brüst Beverage Company in Toronto. Lindsay Fisher, BCom’12, saw how artificial intelligence can help fashion retailers earn higher profits. Her company, Sparkbox, is based in England.

Both earned a share of $55,000 in funding at the UPstart Venture Challenge in December. They were among eight teams that pitched their businesses. Alumni judges could split the prize money among as many teams as they wished. The annual competition is hosted by Smith’s Centre for Business Venturing and Queen’s Venture Network.

Brüst, which took home $30,000, was started in 2018 by Barr and Amar Gupta. Barr, a triathlete who worked in beverage marketing at Nestlé, and Gupta, a competitive squash player, both regularly drank protein shakes after a workout. Sometimes they’d have a shake in one hand and coffee in the other. Why not combine the two into a tasty beverage?

The result is Brüst, a protein-packed cold-brew coffee to help people fuel up on the go. “Instead of a coffee and a donut or muffin, grab a Brüst for a healthier mid-day snack,” he explains.

Brüst is sold online and in Canadian grocery stores. Expansion to the U.S. is next. The ready-to-drink protein category is expected to see annual compound growth of eight per cent from 2020 to 2027. So, “we see a lot of potential to grow,” Barr says.

Price is right

Fisher worked at Target before moving to England where she launched Sparkbox over two years ago. The company (which won $25,000 at UPstart) uses machine learning and natural language processing to help fashion retailers and seasonal businesses optimize pricing.

Fashion shops traditionally rely on previous year’s sales to set prices. But with artificial intelligence, “we can help them understand the trends in real time and use data to drive their decisions,” says Fisher. Sparkbox increased a retailer’s profit per unit sold by 85 per cent in a recent pilot, she says.

Sparkbox works with both online and bricks-and-mortar retailers in Europe. Typical customers do around £700 million (CDN$1.2 billion) in annual sales.

Both Barr and Fisher say they appreciate UPStart’s support and judges’ advice. While the competition is usually held in Toronto, this year’s event was virtual due to COVID. The online format extended the competition’s reach with participants and attendees from four continents.

Also new this year: a $5,000 People’s Choice award. It went to co-founders of the online teacher development program 1 Million Teachers: Hakeem Subair, MMIE’17; Rizma Butt, MMIE’17; and Eric Zhang, MMIE’18. For more on that venture, read “The rise of the social enterprise”.