Catholic ‘Shark Tank’: Startup founders pitch products with a purpose at SENT competition

Catholic Shark Tank Francisco Cornejo of Storybook is awarded the grand prize at “Catholic Shark Tank.” | Credit: Courtesy photo/SENT

In a “Shark Tank”-style competition with a twist, Catholic founders recently pitched their startups and faced questions from a panel of judges while highlighting the importance of the Catholic faith in their businesses. 

The event was the culmination of the SENT Ventures Summit at The Catholic University of America last month, a gathering of Catholic CEOs and founders looking to foster connections and grow in their faith. 

Zak Slayback, a partner with the 1517 Fund, a venture capital fund supporting startups at early stages, is on the management team at the new Catholic investor group Catholic Angels, which hosted the event. 

Slayback told the National Catholic Register that the competition “provided a chance for faith-driven entrepreneurs to present their startups to an audience of aligned partners and investors.” The winner took home $5,000 cash for their business as well as “credits for various startup resources, swag, and direct opportunities with SENT’s Catholic Angels investor network.” 

The four early-stage startups selected as finalists were chosen out of more than 60 teams that applied to present at the competition. These four finalists told their stories to the judges, emphasizing their faith alignment, qualified team, user growth, the market for their product, and why the product works in today’s market.

Caring for the elderly

Nigel Mould, CEO at StackCare, talked about how his business was born out of the growing need to care for the elderly while preserving both their dignity and the peace of mind of caregivers. 

“StackCare delivers alerts directly to family members and/or caregivers, and we do it all without being intrusive, while being HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) compliant, and making sure that we deliver on our core promise of dignity and independence for seniors and peace of mind for families,” Mould explained.

Nigel Mould, CEO of StackCare. Credit: Courtesy photo
Nigel Mould, CEO of StackCare. Credit: Courtesy photo

While their system is not a medical device, it does provide “insight to developing and/or potential problems: poor sleep, frequency or length of bathroom visits, skipping meals, activity levels, and much more.”

Mould said StackCare already has paid contracts in several states from Connecticut to California and is also establishing partnerships with paid installations at national home-care providers.

“The plea of the elderly in Psalm 71, ‘Do not cast me away when I am old,’ and the lack of caregivers today and in the future, for us is almost an invitation to use technology to allow seniors to age in place as they want to,” he said, “but at the same time letting families and caregivers know when they might need help.”

Reaching the Indian Catholic community

Tania Kottoor, founder and CEO of West by East, began her presentation by telling the story of a first-generation Indian-American woman who grew up in a Catholic community and also enjoyed watching Bollywood films, envisioning herself as a traditional bride in a sari. 

When her wedding planning actually came around, she discovered a shortage of traditional options both online and in the few stores that were hours away. This scenario is how her company, West by East, was born, Kottoor recounted. 

“Our customers can go to our website, they can select a silhouette, color, fabric; and then they can use their phone to take their measurements virtually in 60 seconds,” she said. “This allows us to capture their avatar, to create a 3-D rendering of the complete outfit on their actual body.”

Tania Kottoor, founder and CEO of West by East. Credit: Courtesy photo
Tania Kottoor, founder and CEO of West by East. Credit: Courtesy photo

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“My co-founder and I have 20 years of experience in luxury fashion and manufacturing,” she said. “We both grew up in an Indian-Catholic community, as well as an immigrant household, and we realized that you need faith to succeed.”

“The values that we learned in church we brought into our business,” she continued. “Now, we have a crazy waitlist of over 2,000 folks, which equates to over half a million dollars in potential revenue. We have demand, but we’re at capacity. Now, we’re raising $1.2 million to be the market leader and to unlock that waitlist.”

She told the judges that their business has sold more than 1,500 units and 500 of those were to people of Catholic backgrounds. “We really lean into our own community to grow the business,” she said.

She hopes their business can one day expand to other diasporas like East Asian, African, and Middle Eastern communities. “I’ve seen so many brands come and go in the past few years,” she said. “No one’s doing it for other Catholics as well in all these diasporas.”

Making food safer

Paddy McNamara, the founder of Allera Tech, asked audience members to raise their hands if they knew someone with a food allergy. 

“Almost all of us do,” he pointed out, then he shared a near-death experience he had due to his tree-nut allergy. 

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“It taught me that allergens are not just a problem for individuals with food allergies but [for] food manufacturers as well,” he said. “The average recall costs $10 million, and allergens are the No. 1 reason for recalls — so allergens are expensive. They’re also life-threatening.” 

He said that for some of these food-manufacturing companies, “their quality-assurance data is entirely pen and paper. So right now, someone on the floor writes it down, pen and paper, hands it to a manager, who manually types it into Excel, and then it’s put into a filing cabinet for five to seven years for FDA audit.”

Paddy McNamara, founder of Allera Tech. Credit: Courtesy photo
Paddy McNamara, founder of Allera Tech. Credit: Courtesy photo

Allera Tech is addressing this circumstance with a software platform to input, store, and analyze data. The system, he said, would replace “pen and paper, which is prone to error.” 

He explained that sanitizing and testing equipment for allergens currently takes a company about 15 minutes. 

“For a food manufacturer, an hour of down time equates to about $40,000,” he said. “Some of these companies do hundreds of tests per week.”

In the longer term, his company is attempting to shorten the time involved in testing. 

The company has several contracts with companies utilizing their software as well as a partnership with a top-10 food producer to build an allergen testing solution.

McNamara was raised Catholic but drifted from the Church. He had a turning point during volunteer experiences serving the poor in AmeriCorps for a year in Missouri and a few months in El Salvador. 

“It was the mystics like Thomas Merton and Teresa de Ávila that taught me how God sustains us through intense service experiences,” he said. “I found myself just always returning to the Catholic expression that I left.”

Family bonding over stories

Francisco Cornejo, co-founder and CEO of the “Storybook” app, and his wife and co-founder, Daniela Vega, came up with the business idea after their experience moving from Ecuador to Australia with their two young children, then ages 1 and 3, as Cornejo was completing his master’s degree. Due to their busy schedule, there was stress and anxiety at home. 

“Daniela realized that she needed to connect with the kids,” he said. “Through faith and prayer, she found out about infant massage and how this was such an important tool to connect through the importance of physical affection; and while she was practicing this with the kids, she used to tell them stories. She had an iPad and candles, and she’d create this fantastic bedtime routine.”

“The kids started to fight each other about who’s going to go first,” he said, “but, more meaningfully, that was the moment we started to really bond with them.”

Francisco Cornejo of Storybook. Credit: Courtesy photo
Francisco Cornejo of Storybook. Credit: Courtesy photo

Their award-winning Storybook app combines relaxation techniques like guided reading and infant massage with bedtime stories and music to improve families’ emotional well-being and physical health. The app is free to download with yearly subscription plans and also has partnerships with schools and health providers.

Their database of more than 100 original audio stories in Spanish, English, and Portuguese, including Bible stories, continues to grow and is for children ages infant through 12. 

“Seventy-nine percent of the parents using Storybook told us that their kids are sleeping better [and] are sleeping up to four times faster,” Cornejo said. “Eighty-nine percent of them told us that they feel more connected with their kids. We have been the No. 1 app in 90 countries. We have been called the ‘best for bedtime’ by Apple. We have surpassed 2.5 million downloads, more than 10,000 five-star reviews.”

And the winner is…

While the judges showed interest and appreciation for all the pitches, the Storybook app won the evening. “The Storybook team impressed our panel of judges with their ability to identify a real problem and bring Christ in a solution to their audience,” Slayback said.

Francisco Cornejo of Storybook is awarded the grand prize at “Catholic Shark Tank.”. Credit: Courtesy photo/SENT
Francisco Cornejo of Storybook is awarded the grand prize at “Catholic Shark Tank.”. Credit: Courtesy photo/SENT

Cornejo told the Register via email that “being among faith-driven founders was inspiring, and winning was a true blessing. It has already opened doors, leading to promising conversations with potential advisers and investors.” He also praised the SENT Summit, calling it “a unique blend of faith and business, a testament to the transformative work God is leading us all to undertake.”

Vega saw the win as “a deeply touching affirmation of our mission.”

“We know that God does not inspire the impossible; we are sure that our company is the work of God and that he uses our small forces to put us to work to rescue the family that today is so attacked,” she said. “This is more than a job for us — it’s a calling.” 

This article was first published May 18, 2023, at the National Catholic Register and is reprinted here on CNA with permission.

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