3 Student Teams Recipients of First Orange Innovation Fund Awards

3 Student Teams Recipients of First Orange Innovation Fund Awards
group of individuals standing in Bird Library holding up oversized checks

From left: Thomas Montfort, Natasha Brao, Raj-Ann Rekhi Gill, Senior Associate Dean for Research Excellence Scott Warren, Alex Levy and Sam Schreiber

Three student teams are the winners of inaugural Orange Innovation Fund awards, a grant program administered through Syracuse University Libraries designed to help students commercialize their research ideas.

Natasha Brao ’22, G’23, G’24

Brao, who received an undergraduate degree from the College of Visual and Performing Arts, a graduate degree from the Whitman School of Management and is currently pursuing an MBA from Whitman, is the recipient of the Syracuse University Orange Distinction Award and an Invest in Success Scholar.

She is founder of a creative agency that creates brand strategy and design for clients ranging from products to services to environments. She also serves as the lead designer, marketing team lead and innovation mentor at the Blackstone LaunchPad.

A culinary entrepreneur who is fascinated by food creativity, she is also founder of Root and Seed Brands, a company that is bringing real, whole and culturally diverse food products to market. This Orange Innovation Fund award will help her produce her official batch of product, Shooka Sauce, a Mediterranean spiced sauce that celebrates the mixing and melding of cultural flavors.

Working with the LaunchPad and Whitman faculty, as well as industry advisors, she recently produced her first test batch of professionally bottled sauce, which won accolades and funding in Whitman’s fall 2023 Orange Tank. She incorporated her venture with the assistance of a LaunchPad Innovation Award (funded by Syracuse University Libraries’ Advisory Board member Jeff Rich ’67) and is now working with a co-packer in Rochester to bring the product to market.

This grant will help her with final third-party independent nutritional analysis, labeling and other regulatory requirements, and to start larger scale production of her sauce for market placement.

Alex Levy ’25 and Sam Schreiber ’25

Levy, a Newhouse School of Public Communications student, and Schreiber, a student in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, were recent first-place winners of the spring 2023 Intelligence ++ inclusive design and entrepreneurship competition, funded by Gianfranco Zaccai ’70, H’09.

Levy and Schreiber are founders of Optimal Assessment, LLC, an ed-tech venture incorporated with the assistance of a LaunchPad Innovation Award (funded by Jeff Rich ’67), and are developing an original software platform to help faculty design courses for students with diverse and varied learning styles, including those who are neurodivergent.

Their Orange Innovation Fund award will assist them in working with industry advisors and software development experts to build out a prototype to pilot in spring 2024. Levy is a designer for Innovate Orange, an organization that plans and runs CuseHacks, and recently completed a designer internship with IBM where he earned eight IBM licenses and certifications, including Accessibility Foundations and Enterprise Design Thinking Team Essentials for Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Schreiber is a Venture Fellow for the ORCA Network, a ChatGPT-powered platform for connecting founders and investors and serves as an innovation mentor for the LaunchPad.

Thomas Montfort ’24

College of Engineering and Computer Science student Montfort recently completed a software engineering internship at Amazon Web Services in Austin, Texas, following a software engineering internship at JPMorgan Chase. Montfort is one of the original co-founding team members and former vice president of Cuse Blockchain, a student organization based in the LaunchPad focused on research and education around blockchain technology.

He founded Agora Labs this summer with two other students he met in Austin. Agora is focused on democratizing access to AI computing resources via affordable peer-to-peer GPU networks. He and his team will use the Orange Innovation Fund award to build tools that engineers need for integrating Large Language Models into their tech stack. The funding will enable Agora to develop their product over the coming months and get user feedback.

Funding for the Orange Innovation Award program comes from a gift from Raj-Ann Rekhi Gill ’98, a member of the Syracuse University Board of Trustees who is operating partner of Silicon Valley Quad, an angel investing syndicate. Gill presented the three awards to the student teams and announced that applications are now open for the spring 2024 grant round.

The Orange Innovation Fund supports student research initiatives emerging from campus innovation programs. It is intended to help move graduate and undergraduate student research or scholarly projects from ideation to proof of concept and commercialization, supporting the University’s goals of excellence in research, scholarship, student experiential learning and innovation.

Applications for the spring semester will be due Friday, March 29, 2024, by 5 p.m. ET. . For a link to register for the required proposal writing workshop, as well as application materials, please email [email protected].