2021 Most Disruptive MBA Startups: LiRA, North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler)


University of North Carolina, Kenan-Flagler Business School

Industry: Healthcare Technology

Founding Student Name(s):

Andres Tello (MBA student), CFO

Dr. Andrew Prince, CEO

Nga Nguyen (Master of Public Health and MD in School of Medicine student), COO

Alison Schaefer, (doctoral student in biomedical engineering), CTO

Dina Yamaleyeva (doctoral student in biomedical engineering), CPO

Brief Description of Solution: LiRA’s goal is immediate, easy-to-use lip-reading communication. The dream is an out-of-the-box artificial intelligence-based technology that instantly begins to alleviate the handicap of voicelessness.

The lip-reading platform will help people who have lost their voices due to cancer, physical trauma to the neck or from being intubated to spend significant time on a ventilator to battle Covid-19. These patients are not expecting or preparing for voicelessness, and they need a way to speak immediately.

Real-time communication restoration looks to change the paradigm of aphonic (voicelessness) care. Currently, these individuals face a three-times higher rate of adverse events compared to speaking patients. LiRA hopes to alleviate that harm and empower a currently silenced patient population.

Funding Dollars: >$200K, all non-equity based (grants, awards, competitions)

What led you to launch this venture? UNC-Chapel Hill’s healthcare ecosystem across all of the professional and graduate level schools fosters collaboration and innovation by leveraging all of our distinct backgrounds and specialization to address unmet needs in unimagined ways. LiRA’s founding team is comprised of MDs, a master of public health, student, two biomedical engineering PhD students and an MBA student to cultivate the diversity of thought required to address real-world issues.

Our CEO is a third-year head-and-neck resident surgeon who treats the very patients we are building this technology for. Collectively, we have seen these patients and the significant handicap of voicelessness firsthand, which enables us to drive towards our goal with an empathetic mindset.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? We began our journey in fall 2019 in a night-time, extra-curricular course targeted to graduate and professional students at UNC that explored lean methodology. There, we began crafting the earliest roots of what would become today’s LiRA. We finished this program at the onset of the pandemic and quickly transitioned from a “team” into a virtual “family,” supporting each other through the COVID roller-coaster as we built towards a common goal.

Along the way we were fortunately accepted into numerous accelerators across UNC, the local Research Triangle, and nationally, which led us to secure a partnership with Microsoft. All of these resources prepared us for an incredible run at competing with some of world’s leading student-led startups.

We placed in the top three across the Tulane Business Model Competition, Baylor New Venture Competition and the Oregon New Venture Championships, while also winning a Business Plan award at the Rice Business Plan Competition. It was an honor to represent our respective schools alongside our entrepreneurial peers on an international scale.

How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? UNC Kenan-Flagler is at the forefront of entrepreneurial talent development through its partnerships with Innovate Carolina – our campus’s dedicated network of resources, innovators, ideas and capabilities that help students and professionals tap into their entrepreneurial potential. My professors and dedicated entrepreneurship courses served as LiRA’s consistent advisory that allowed us to practice the academic curriculum across real-world scenarios. The network at UNC Kenan-Flagler also helped us build our pedigree and credibility as we engaged with Angel networks, masters of the practice, and other entrepreneurs on-and-off campus.

What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? My parents decided to start a family business right around the same time that I applied to join the 2019-2020 Innovation Challenge cohort out of the E I Lab program at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy. I witnessed my parents invest in a small business, and ultimately weather the pandemic’s effects on their business risk. We supported each other, and often would strategize on the application of business model development and customer discovery across both of our burgeoning businesses. I’d say that even though we have completely different businesses, across unrelated industries, what we shared during that first year was grit and passion.

Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? There are many to mention because the way that the UNC Kenan-Flagler entrepreneurship courses are developed play off well with each other. There is also a clear sequence across the curriculum that allows the students to grow alongside the business.

My first MBA course that presented me with an exceptionally unique experience is Startup Consulting with Professor Jason Doherty. This course allowed me to become both a “client” and a “consultant” by bringing a team of four MBA students together to help me solve for critical market modeling and financial strategy initiatives at LiRA. The course is set up for student consulting teams to work with real startups across the Triangle. In my team’s case, my role as one of LiRA’s executive founders allowed us to break down barriers and establish an incredible chemistry throughout the semester. This course was a defining moment in the way that I expressed my ability to lead because the duality in my role could have easily become a bottleneck. I was tested to produce results for LiRA and for my consulting team, and I took the pressure on with humility.

What professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? Hands down, it was Professor Tim Flood. He believed in us from beginning-to-end and went out of his way to mentor us from the very first national competition we entered. In fact, Tim was the advisor who encouraged us to begin applying to these competitions, and the experiences and the awards have propelled our momentum for all of 2021. Tim co-teaches a series of courses called Startup UNC, alongside another fantastic mentor – Scott Albert. Together, they helped us push LiRA even further throughout my final semesters at UNC Kenan-Flagler.

Tim texted me in real time to congratulate the team, the moment we were announced finalists at the Oregon New Venture Championship, and we couldn’t have asked for a stronger support system. It’s just the kind of person that he is.

What is your long-term goal with your startup? LiRA is at a pre-commercialization stage in the venture’s life. We’ve accelerated our development with our lean-based foundation, and we truly tested our abilities as managers this past summer when we grew the company from the five of us to a total of 15 employees. We want to see this technology through, and we’re extremely thankful to our advisors for helping us navigate the intricacies across the healthcare industry. Ultimately, we see several paths to success with our team and right now we are very focused on continuing to improve the technological development of our product and to continuously adapt our business in anticipation of a commercial launch soon.


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