START Innovators: Supporting the Translation of Academic Innovation into Impactful Ventures

Written by
Jocelyne Wijaya '26
March 14, 2024

After celebrating the success of the inaugural START Innovators, each of whom raised seed funding to spin their ventures off campus, the START program is thrilled to welcome our second cohort of academic founders to the program. These researchers are working closely with faculty members across the university to translate scholarship at Princeton into tangible impacts for society. 

In addition to their work with faculty members, the START Innovators receive entrepreneurship education and mentorship to help them build fundable, early-stage new ventures such as startup companies or non-profit organizations. 

The START program is run by the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council, in the Office of the Dean for Research.  ​​​​ 

“The START program has been a very successful to date” says Craig Arnold, the Vice Dean for Innovation.  “By bringing entrepreneurs to Princeton to work with interested faculty members, we are creating new opportunities for impactful and scalable for-profit and not-for-profit startups.” 


Developing a Smarter Food System: Kat Tarasova  

Upon immigrating from Uzbekistan as a child, Yekaterina (“Kat”) Tarasova became deeply fascinated by the food offered in the U.S. and how it differed from what she knew. This curiosity sparked a life-long interest in the US food system.

In her studies, Kat learned that foods sold in the US are manufactured using large amounts of energy and water to break down plants and then to construct products from the resulting isolated components. In addition to being energy intensive, many of these manufactured food products lack nutritional value. 

“I want to challenge entrenched supply chains by figuring out ways to mitigate the large expenditures of energy and water associated with food production,” she explained. 

Working closely with Professor José Avalos whose lab focuses on engineering microbes to address challenging problems in environmental sustainability and human health, Kat is creating a fermentation technology that yields minimally processed, nutrient-dense high protein ingredients from plants using different types of microbes. 

“This technology can be applied in numerous ways, including but not limited to, supplying ingredients to food manufacturers for lower costs,” Kat elaborated. By using the traditional process of fermentation, Kat hopes to add to the existing infrastructure of food production methods.  “All of these problems in our food system are opportunities for people to make an impact” according to Kat. She is looking forward to how the START program will help her to advance her research, will provide a support network, and will give her access to intellectual capital.” 


Reinventing Publicly Accessible Toilets (as Healthcare Infrastructure): Chukwuemeka V. Chukwuemeka 

With extensive expertise in architecture and entrepreneurship, Chukwuemeka V. Chukwuemeka has utilized his background to reinvent publicly accessible toilets. Chukwuemeka’s journey began after a doctoral research trip to Nigeria in 2018, where after a particularly bad case of food poisoning, he experienced first-hand the lack of decent accessible toilets. Inspired by this experience, Chukwuemeka noticed how this inaccessibility was a global issue. Chukwuemeka started to notice how the lack of public toilets created unnecessary health and sanitation challenges for both municipalities and for their most vulnerable populations.  

Chukwuemeka is building on work he has done at Princeton as a Princeton-Mellon Initiative Postdoctoral Fellow and as a Sugarman Practitioner in Residence. He is working closely with Professor Mario Gandelsonas, Director of the Program in Urban Studies, Co-Director of the Princeton-Mellon Initiative and an expert in urban infrastructure. Chukwuemeka has also worked closely with Professor Eldar Shafir to incorporate best practices from behavioral science to ensure that his solutions are embraced by individuals in the communities that he serves.   

“My work attempts to solve a problem that not many people really want to talk about and to envision what it will take to deliver clean, safe and scalable publicly accessible toilets to diverse communities globally.”  

“Since coming to Princeton, I have made great strides. I look forward to working with the START program to continue that progress. I am excited to leverage the rich Princeton ecosystem, the expert mentor network, and programs like the Princeton I-Corps to refine product-market fit and to develop a funding strategy that will allow me to deliver publicly accessible toilets as integral components of healthcare infrastructure network where they are most needed.”  


Community Finance: David Henderson 

START Innovator David Henderson was inspired to utilize his entrepreneurial skills to create a service that helps to alleviate the financial insecurity that is felt acutely by so many low-income Americans. 

His non-profit startup, Giving Credit, is a social credit network that amplifies community finance by bringing transparency to informal lending networks, protecting peer-lenders against loan loss through loan guarantees, reporting informal loan repayment to credit bureaus, and enabling lenders to deduct loan-loss from Federal income taxes. 

“There is a huge disconnect between the way government anti-poverty programs and non-profits look at impoverished communities and how they actually are,” Henderson explains. “Most programs assume individual failure. I am developing a solution that capitalizes on human resilience and empathy.” Henderson is working within the existing peer-to-peer lending networks that already exist in low-income communities throughout America. His platform will help individuals through difficult financial moments while also giving them the track record that they need to enter the mainstream banking system.  

Henderson is working with Professor Frederick Wherry to ensure that key learnings from his Dignity and Debt network are incorporated into Giving Credit’s offerings.  

Through the assistance of the START program and the greater Princeton community, Henderson plans to move beyond the pilot phase to meaningfully expand Giving Credit via strong partnerships and a sustainable operating model. 


Educational Excellence in Africa: Khadidiatou Sall 

Khadidiatou Sall, known as Khady, joins the START Innovators program with the goal of transforming STEAM education and infrastructure in Africa – starting with her home country of Senegal. Prior to coming to Princeton, she already created a molecular genetics and bioinformatics degree at a public university in Senegal. This program is the first of its kind in West Africa. Graduates of this program are equipped to contribute meaningfully to the scientific community both at home and abroad. This degree program is Khady’s first step in her long-term plan to build world-class research capability in Africa. 

In addition to her work in academia, Khady has founded two impactful ventures: SeeSD, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting STEAM education, and Ubbil, a startup incubator. 

Upon completing her PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology in the United States, Khady had to make the difficult decision between working in a cutting-edge research institution in the US or Europe or returning to Senegal. She is working to create the strong scientific ecosystem in Senegal that she would have liked to come home to.  

“Growing up in a region where access to quality education was limited, I witnessed firsthand the barriers and inequalities that hindered the growth and potential of talented individuals. I was lucky to have an opportunity to later study abroad in France and the U.S. This experience ignited my motivation to bridge this educational divide and empower others with the necessary skills and knowledge to thrive in the modern world.” 

“I am thrilled to be working with Princeton Professor Leonard Wantchekon, founder of the highly successful African School of Economics. I have so much to learn from his experience. While I am only at the beginning of my time as a START Innovator, I have already reaped the benefits of the ecosystem both on campus and via the larger Princeton ecosystem. I look forward to building the world-class learning, incubation and research center that I wish had existed when I completed my PhD in molecular biology.”