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Three Longhorns’ Social Impact Startups Are on the Rise

One UT Austin student and two recent graduates were accepted into the global Blackstone LaunchPad & Techstars fall fellowship program


UT Austin student startup founders Kenna Funk-Tanaka, Tom Smith and Ariel Lee were selected to participate in the Blackstone LaunchPad & Techstars fall fellowship program. They were chosen from a prestigious cohort of more than 125 applicants from across the 24 LaunchPad campuses in the U.S. and Ireland, including New York University, UCLA and The University of Texas at Austin.

LaunchPad at UT Austin, housed in the School of Undergraduate Studies, helps students of all backgrounds navigate and explore entrepreneurship. Through the program, student founders on the Forty Acres get access to exclusive funding and program opportunities. The 2020 LaunchPad fall fellowship program focuses on social impact startups seeking to create positive societal change in health care, mental health, sustainability, education, employment and more. The three UT Austin participants will receive programming and mentorship support for their ventures from the Blackstone Charitable Foundation, Techstars and Future Founders as well as $5,000 each in nondilutive funding.

“At the LaunchPad, we’re constantly impressed by the student entrepreneurs that we have the privilege of supporting. These student founders are compassionate and brilliant young people committed to addressing social issues in creative ways,” said Nina Ho, the director of the LaunchPad at UT Austin. “We believe that student entrepreneurs, and young people in general, have the perspective and talent needed to become the change agents of tomorrow. We’re just here to help them identify and cultivate the skills needed to do so.”

Meet the Three Longhorn Founders Chosen to Attend the 2020 Fall Fellowship 

Kenna FunkKenna Funk-Tanaka is a sophomore from Dallas majoring in Plan II and mechanical engineering. She is working on Machi — a platform that matches high school students with internships at startups through curated skills and interest matching. Machi addresses the lack of access to meaningful work experience for underserved students and the need for high quality, affordable talent for startups.

“The LaunchPad at UT Austin was a catalyst for my journey into entrepreneurship, and I’m really grateful to be in such good company. The network of both peers and mentors has already changed how I’m thinking and problem-solving.” — Kenna Funk-Tanaka


Tom SmithTom Smith is the founder of Vrify Health. Originally from Northbrook, Illinois, he is a 2019 graduate of the College of Liberal Arts who studied Asian cultures and Mandarin and also pursued an entrepreneurship minor. He and co-founders Kasey Claborn, Ph.D., (assistant professor at Dell Medical School) and Thom Hart (Air Force captain and data scientist) are building an artificial intelligence humanoid for mental health diagnostics. Once complete, this virtual therapist would have one-on-one video chats with users, connect them to a mental health provider, and be the world’s first fully autonomous behavioral-health-care-triaging system.

“I’m excited to work with Blackstone, Techstars and Future Founders staff on advancing mental health care accessibility and effectiveness for everyone with Vrify Health. Nina, Mitch and the entire LaunchPad at UT Austin staff have been extremely accessible and helpful in finding me the resources and mentors that my team and I need to turn our dream into a reality.” — Tom Smith


Ariel LeeAriel Lee, a Dallas native, graduated from UT Austin in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and government. She and her co-founder are working on Remane. Centered at the intersection of hair care and technology, the platform allows individuals with Afro-hair textures to enjoy caring for their hair through a machine learning approach that provides data-driven care plans and personalized product recommendations.

“As entrepreneurs, it’s important to learn from the communities around us. So far, all of the workshop sessions we’ve attended have allowed us to boost our performance as leaders and as a company. We also appreciate all the mentorship and support we’ve gotten from the LaunchPad at UT Austin. At Remane, we are currently building, testing and iterating on the technical systems for our ‘hair care routine builder’! We’re excited for what we will be able to showcase at the end of this experience.” — Ariel Lee

In addition to nondilutive funding, the recipients get access to eight weeks of intensive resources, including coaching sessions with their LaunchPad campus directors, weekly entrepreneurial workshops, and mentoring from Blackstone campus ambassadors and Techstars entrepreneurs and advisers during LaunchPad Mentor Week. Participants also get to hear firsthand from social impact entrepreneurs and organizations, including Future Founders (a nonprofit supporting entrepreneurs between the ages of 18 and 30), to support them across the board on their entrepreneurial journey.