Veera is a word meaning “brave” in Hindi. It’s a word that UNC juniors Varun Jain, Nicholas Ashcraft and Grant Everist used to name their startup, encapsulating the idea that their cold storage unit boxes, running from renewable energy, can brave any environmental conditions.
The product is something much needed in India, where some of Jain’s extended family lives. There, produce sections in grocery markets can look very different from the way they do in the United States. Many lack refrigeration, causing goods to spoil quickly. And that’s presuming they even reach the market before going bad. In fact, Jain says, up to 40 percent of produce in India goes to waste due to lack of refrigeration.
That’s where Veera comes in.
“We’re trying to source a ton of different types of goods and services that would allow rural farmers or rural populations to succeed and to break out of poverty,” said Jain. “Right now that mainly consists of cold storage. This is basically just a box that’s not bigger than an average-sized cart that you might use if you were moving, for example, and getting that to the farmers in India.”
The Veera team hopes to set up distribution and logistics channels in India, so providers of their cold storage units would pay a fee to Veera to use their distribution channels and networks. Veera will also take a percentage of commission on final sales.
[Above: Watch CEO Varun Jain pitch Veera is 60 seconds after winning the Carolina Challenge Pitch Party on Nov. 7 at UNC.]
Jain, Ashcraft and Everist juggle managing their startup alongside classes, but they also have help as members of UNC’s Campus Y’s CUBE cohort, enabling them to meet mentors and gain up to $5,000 in funding. The three are not new to startup life either. After Jain and Ashcraft met in high school in Singapore, they both came to UNC and worked on a ride-sharing service with Everist their first year. But inspiration for Veera hit in 2018 as sophomores when applying for an entrepreneurship competition.
“We knew that the problem of produce going to waste in India existed,” Jain said. “So I sat up until three in the morning one night just thinking about how everything in history has ever been cooled.”
It was then that Jain stumbled upon a National Geographic video talking about the clay pots that women often use to carry things on their heads in some poverty-stricken areas.
“I just dove further into the science and had not-that-big of an epiphany,” Jain said, humbly. “It was just, what if the box ‘sweats’ and it reacts the same way that basically the human body does to environmental conditions? Because the human body has homeostasis, which basically allows us to regulate everything inside of our bodies, including temperature. Maybe in the same way, we can we do that for produce. That’s kind of how we developed the initial idea.”
Jain said in order for rural populations to develop sustainably, there has to be a push for creating systems that allow them to break out of poverty on their own. Veera is one part of this.
“In terms of the impact we want to have, it’s being able to make those rural populations—especially agrarian rural populations—thrive and be able to succeed on their own,” Jain said. “We hope to basically help propel them into the 21st century of farming practices, as well as sustainable development.”
Pitching at the Carolina Challenge Pitch Party the past two years earned the startup $1,100, which has helped to solidify strong government relationships and ship the first few units to India. Along with the money they’ve received from CUBE, they’ve pocketed $10,000 from Jain’s scholarship foundation and $3,000 from UNC’s entrepreneurship minor program.
While the Veera team knows there’s a need in areas in Africa as well, they are focusing on India first because of the partnerships they’ve established there. They hope to sell 150 units in the next few months, having already lined up one major client in Mumbai who is purchasing 60.
“We realized with a lot of validation how real the problem was and how serious,” Jain said. “Now we’ve become about creating something of value for them more than anything, and having that ‘service’ mindset and kind of institutionalizing internally what that means for us.”