MU student wins $25,000 in pitch event, plans international launch for delivery tech startup

When Drew Patel travels to India to visit relatives, he often brings goods such as electronics, clothing and perfumes. It can be a hassle for Patel to pack and deliver those items, but he says it’s better than the alternative: relatives having to use often unreliable international delivery services.

Packages shipped internationally are vulnerable to being stolen or lost, Patel said, and they can cost a large sum. But Patel, a University of Missouri sophomore from Springfield, plans to fix this with his startup, Pollinate.

Pollinate makes software designed to improve package delivery in emerging economies. Patel said it creates a unified tracking system to allow anyone in the supply chain to know where a package is at any time.

“We provide one platform for all these little scattered fragmented delivery companies that are contracted to operate on,” Patel said

His pitch for Pollinate helped him win first place in the EQ Student Accelerator competition held last month. The EQ program provides student entrepreneurs from the four University of Missouri System campuses — Columbia, Kansas City, Rolla and St. Louis — with training, mentorship and a chance to win money in competitive pitch contests.

In separate competitions held by all four campuses, first place received $15,000, second $10,000 and third $5,000. The top three finishers from each campus advanced to a statewide competition with an additional $30,000 on the line. This year, all competitions were held via videoconference.

Patel won $25,000 for finishing second in the MU competition and first in the statewide event.

He plans to launch Pollinate starting in Nairobi, Kenya. Given the size and competitive landscape of the market in Kenya, Patel believes it is the perfect place to begin. The majority of Kenyans are online, he said, but far fewer use ecommerce.

Pollinate plans to use street stalls to solve the “last-mile” problem of getting packages from distribution hubs to individual customers. Kenya has street stalls called dukas that sell goods such as shampoo, milk and food. The majority of Kenyans visit the duka daily, Patel said, allowing the owner to become familiar with the entire neighborhood and know their names, schedules and addresses. With Pollinate, when a package is delivered to a duka, the owner will be able to text the customer or hand-deliver the package to the customer, Patel said.

Patel has won $75,000, including $25,000 from the EQ competition and $50,000 from another hackathon, to help fund his company.

“What we’re planning to do is use quite a bit of that money to do the pilot in Kenya and see how it goes,” Patel said. “So we’re going to pilot in downtown Nairobi … get some drivers onto the platform, and start doing some deliveries for (African ecommerce platform) Jamia.”

Patel was not the only student to win funding for his startup in the statewide competition. Vanessa Mahan, a senior from Kansas City studying biological sciences at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, placed second and won $10,000 with her idea for Bionic Bowel, a bioactive pill designed to treat Crohn’s disease. Fahad Qureshi, a medical student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, placed third and received $5,000 with his pitch for Vest Heroes, an operating room that allows health care professionals to avoid wearing heavy protective gear.

Greg Bier, who oversaw the second-year EQ competition at MU, is hopeful that there will be a third year of the program to give students the opportunity to pursue their entrepreneurial goals.

However, funding for the program is a question, with the UM System planning budget cuts of up to 15% due to the financial toll of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bier said MU has been lucky to have alumni support, and that Veterans United was a sponsor this year.

“Mizzou is kind of in a unique position this year that we … found a sponsor that was willing to work with us. The other universities are trying to do the same thing,” Bier said. “They are reaching out to alums and corporate stakeholders to find that funding for next year.”

All four universities are working together to find seed money for the competition to continue, Bier said. The hope is to have a large corporate sponsor fund the program.

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