Venture for America invested $45K in this alum’s caffeinated tea business

Zest Tea is focused on nabbing tech companies as clients. This was the first year that Venture for America invested in its alumni companies. The organization plans to keep doing so.

How a recalled car seat led a former DoJ attorney to create Whystle. The Arlington-based startup is the work of CEO Lauren Bell.

Less than two months ago, Whystle launched as a way for parents to track recalls and safety information on their purchases. The application alerts users when products are recalled or flagged as dangerous, protecting them from potentially harmful food, toys and consumer products. CEO Lauren Bell said Whystle emerged from her experience in consumer protection law and her desire to create an application that would help simplify parenting. Whystle has even helped Bell herself: While she was doing research and development for the application, the mother of four discovered her car seat had been recalled. “I probably wouldn’t have gotten that information if I hadn’t been following it that closely,” she said. “It gave me the fortitude to keep going with this, to see how important it is that people have this information.” Bell said she saw a need to gather safety and recall information into an application that gives users “a sense of peace of mind that someone is out there looking out for you, letting you know the information that you need.” The purpose of Whystle from the beginning was ensuring safety and recall information was always accessible and useful. “There are government websites where you can get recall information, but there’s no app that pulls all of this recall information and all the safety information into one place that makes it easy for users,” she said. Prior to developing the application, Bell worked for the Consumer Protection Branch of the Department of Justice, where she prosecuted pharmaceutical, food and consumer product companies. However, it was only after working at a law firm that Bell realized there wasn’t an efficient way for people to access safety information. “That’s when it clicked for me,” she said. “It was a culmination of working on both sides of the issue and seeing that someone needed to do it better than how it was being done.” Whystle collects its information from various government agencies and consumer safety groups, as well as medical journals that are reviewed by a nurse practitioner. Bell describes the application as a to-do list, where users can scroll through relevant alerts that tell users what steps they can take next. Although the application was initially targeted toward parents, Whystle is also popular among pet owners worried about food-borne pathogens or people with specific food allergies, Bell said. Whystle released an alert for an Italian salad dressing that was recalled for undeclared milk and egg allergens. Bell received an email from a mother who had used Whystle and was relieved to find out that she should avoid the dressing for her egg-allergic daughter. “When you have a food allergy, it’s very scary,” Bell said. “To think you could be giving your child food you think is safe and then there’s something undeclared in it [makes] you really want to stay on top of that.” Oftentimes when recalls are issued, Bell said, press releases use industry jargon or language that minimizes the company’s involvement. She makes sure Whystle’s alerts are straightforward for users. “I’ll try and simplify it and really let people know what the important issue is and make it easy to read and understand,” she said. Long-term plans include allowing users to log into stores such as Amazon and Target to check if certain past purchases have been recalled. In the future, Whystle will become more personalized once the infrastructure is built and the government datasets are more technologically advanced. As for now, the next update will allow users to share alerts via social media. “It’s sort of a leap of faith that this information resonates with people,” Bell said. “But we’re finding that people are really appreciative to have one place where they can access not just recalls, but other safety information in a way that’s easy for them.” [caption id="attachment_35803" align="aligncenter" width="506"]Lauren Bell founded Whystle after seeing how her background in consumer protection could help consumers navigate recall and safety information. (Courtesy photo) Lauren Bell founded Whystle after seeing how her background in consumer protection could help consumers navigate recall and safety information. (Courtesy photo)[/caption]

Updated 7/2/14, at 1:44 p.m., to clarify language around Venture for America expecting a return on its investment.

James Fayal came to Philadelphia as part of a Venture for America fellowship. Now Fayal, 24, of Pennsport, is running his own ecommerce company from an office on Old City’s N3rd Street, with the help of a $45,000 investment from the organization that brought him to the city.

This year was the first time that Venture for America — which pairs college graduates with tech companies in U.S. cities in hopes of encouraging graduates to work in technology entrepreneurship — invested in alumni companies, and it plans to keep doing so, said Mike Tarullo, Venture for America’s VP of Corporate Development.

Wealth management firm UBS Americas donated $150,000 to Venture for America to help start a seed fund for companies founded by its fellows. UBS will support the fund again next year, Tarullo said.

This time, Venture for America invested in four companies, including Fayal’s caffeinated tea company Zest Tea and three companies in Detroit.

While Venture for America does hope for a return on its investment, Tarullo said that, given how rare exits are, it would be “naive to expect one with a portfolio of four seed investments.”

“A seed investor typically makes dozens of investments before truly ‘expecting’ a return,” he wrote in an email, adding that Venture for America hopes to make the seed fund sustainable.

Fayal, who was NextFab’s controller for the second year of his fellowship, said the $45,000 investment will help set the stage for a larger raise that he’s eyeing. Fayal also raised $10,000 through a crowdfunding campaign last year. For now, he’s focused on nabbing tech companies as clients. He’s already sold the coffee alternative to venture-backed startups like 2U, Swipely and Teespring, he said.


The company is exclusively ecommerce right now, but Fayal hopes to get on retail shelves by the end of the year.

Read more about Zest Tea in the Philadelphia Daily News -30-
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