Trinity alumni Courtney Bell and Anya Ranganathan won the 18th annual Duke Startup Challenge with their year-old startup, Ungraded Produce.

The competition, which is hosted by the Fuqua School of Business and the Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative, spanned over a course of 11 months. Bell and Ranganathan—both Trinity '17—seized victory over seven other startups competing in the final round, the results of which was decided by a panel of seven judges. Not only were they able to take home the $50,000 grand prize, but they also bagged another $1,000 for winning the Audience Choice Award. 

Ungraded Produce’s core mission is to push for greater food security in neighborhoods and fight against food waste by sourcing 'ugly produce,'—fruits and vegetables that, due to being atypically sized, shaped or colored, are usually rejected by supermarkets and diverted to landfills.

They currently make sales close to $7,000 a month, serving about 270 customers in the Raleigh region—a rapid increase from their customer base of 15 before the two graduated.

“It was a huge shock,” Bell said, describing their victory. “It was my first time really ever pitching or speaking in public, so my goal was just to not embarrass myself. You don’t hear about a produce company winning these types of competitions very much, so it was really cool that the judges were able to recognize that we had potential despite not being a high-tech or medical company.”

Ranganathan wrote in an email that she shared Bell’s sentiments, adding that she appreciated how the judges recognized their focus on social impact. 

“It was one of those moments that was so deeply gratifying and humbling all at once," Ranganathan wrote. "When the premise of your company pushes back on societal norms—what 'good produce' should look like—it’s an amazing feeling to know that people understand the importance of the cause.”

The journey to the top was by no means an easy one, Bell said, noting the barriers to entry she and her partner faced in getting started. 

“When we originally came up with this idea to create a storefront in one of Durham’s food insecure neighborhoods that sold ugly produce, people told us it was a horrible idea for a lot of reasons,” Bell said. “We’ve had our own doubts. Produce is a very illiquid market. It’s seasonal, it’s perishable so it’s just naturally harder to work with, but we’ve managed to stick to the idea.”

Ungraded Produce’s founding story, which Ranganathan dubbed "A Tale of Two Cities—Durham and Detroit," was one of chance. Their sophomore summer, the unlikely duo were interning in Durham and Detroit when they noticed how food insecurity impacted their local communities. 

Through her work with the Durham Office of the Mayor, Ranganathan encountered survey data that suggested a demand for more affordable and high-quality produce options at Durham groceries. 

“After studying supply chains, I learned that massive amounts of produce go to waste due to cosmetic imperfections, and thought that rescuing high quality, non-commercially salable produce could be a way to lower prices," she wrote. "I reached out to Courtney with the idea and we developed the business model for Ungraded—a produce delivery service with an unconventional sourcing model.”

Howie Rhee, managing director for student and alumni relations at Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship, praised the team for their win. 

“I remember when Courtney was first getting started in August 2016. We connected her with some people and suggested she start to sign up some customers," he wrote in an email. "And within only a few weeks, she had farms on board and was making deliveries in Durham. Her ability to 'make things happen' is a great strength. It's no surprise that, only a year later, she has made so much progress.”

Rhee also commented on the competitiveness of this year’s Duke Startup Challenge. 

“Courtney's pitch was very good, though all of the pitches were good. The judges had a difficult time selecting a winner, but they thought Courtney's mission, along with her progress and commitment, stood out," Rhee wrote.

Now that they have won the Duke Startup Challenge, the co-founders plan to use their hard-earned check to enhance their workflow and grow their team.

“Winning the competition allows people to take us seriously. We’ve been around for a year now and have grown a lot since we’ve started," Bell said. "As for the money, we’d like to use it on eCommerce software to help with streamlining our logistics, hiring additional employees to help with packaging and deliveries and eventually some capital such as refrigerated produce trucks.”

In the meantime, as Ungraded Produce continues to expand throughout the Triangle Area, Ranganathan noted that she hopes that their startup will help people make better choices toward food consumption “to reduce a significant amount of waste.”

“The next time you’re at the grocery store, I encourage you to not pass over the lopsided apple in the pile!” she wrote.