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Tuesday March 21st

These three UNC juniors are using their startup to reduce food waste in India

<p>Students build cold storage units designed by the startup, Veera. Photo courtesy of Varun Jain.&nbsp;</p>
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Students build cold storage units designed by the startup, Veera. Photo courtesy of Varun Jain. 

When walking into a grocery store, most people don’t think twice about expecting fresh, refrigerated vegetables to be in the produce section. 

UNC junior Varun Jain, however, knows that it’s not like this everywhere. 

After visiting his family in India, Jain witnessed produce sections with stacks of vegetables spilling out onto streets without refrigeration, making them unsuitable for sale the next day. This observation inspired Jain to want to help farmers in India reduce this waste, which eventually morphed into his startup called Veera. 

Jain works with two other UNC juniors, Nicholas Ashcraft and Grant Everist. 

“Veera is a solution for farmers in rural countries and rural areas specifically,” Jain said. “In India, currently 40 percent of all produce goes to waste due to lack of cold storage... We provide farmers the goods and services they need to be able to solve these issues they face in their community.”

To help combat this waste, the Veera team is currently focusing on providing farmers with cold storage units that run off of renewable energy. 

A recent trip to India for Jain and Everist helped the Veera team find out how much their product would help farmers. 

“A few months ago, I was in India doing forums with farmers and on farms with them and just experiencing their life and that’s what sparked the interest even more into how we can solve not just this problem but all problems,” Jain said. 

While the Veera team is focused on helping to bring more services to farmers and their communities, they’re still full-time students as well. 

“You’d think it be harder, but really, we’re all just super passionate about Veera and so it doesn’t really feel like extra work,” Ashcraft said. 

Veera is a member of the Campus Y’s CUBE cohort, which includes access to expertise through mentors and up to $5,000 funding for student ventures. 

“All the people there really facilitate to make sure you’re going through the process of understanding what it takes to build a social business versus a normal business and really making sure that we have the social mission at our core,” Jain said. 

Melissa Carrier serves as the director of the Office of Social Innovation at UNC and is a professor in the Department of Public Policy.

“It brings a lot of examples of how social problems have been solved through entrepreneurship in the past and today,” Carrier said. “We apply that by testing all of the assumptions about our ventures in a real-life setting. Students are doing interviews and they’re conducting research and they’re building prototypes all throughout the course to help move their venture forward.”

While resources like CUBE have helped the company, UNC’s faculty and alumni have also helped to mentor Jain, Ashcraft and Everist. 

“Me, (Jain) and Grant, we all took a class at the B-school called Startup UNC,” Ashcraft said. “That class was actually super beneficial for us because it helped us nail down our idea a bit more and from there, we were able to get connected to a lot of B-school professors who are all super keen to help out on entrepreneurial ventures.”

The team members were also able to gain real-world experience this past summer through internships.

Ashcraft worked at an investment bank in Singapore as a trading analyst. While there, he was able to conduct further research on markets in India, especially the cold storage industry. 

“I signed up for this internship because I do have an interest in finance and that is partially where I see my career going, but (Veera) is our top priority,” Ashcraft said. “We rearrange all of our schedules to align with learning things so we can get the major we want but also so we can benefit the company.”

Ashcraft said the skills he gained from his internship will be beneficial as he works with his team to evolve Veera as a venture. 

"Basically, we have sourced our first unit and we have our manufacturing set up," Jain said. "Now, we are at the point where we are going with our partners both on the manufacturing side and on the distribution side doing pre-sale orders in India to be able to make sure that we can get our initial foot in the market.”

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