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From friends to founders: SafePlate’s journey to revolutionize allergen testing

Co-founders of SafePlate Technologies (left to right): Josh Chao, Mitchell Dann (front), Avery Taylor, Nahal Sadeghian. SafePlate Technologies during Cal Poly’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) CIE Summer Accelerator photo session on June 05, 2024 in San Luis Obispo, California. Photo by Ruby Wallau for the CIE

In the world of startups, it’s extra special to find a team that is not only a cohesive unit of innovators but also a close-knit group of friends. For the founders of SafePlate Technologies, this unique dynamic is their everyday reality. 

This startup aims to revolutionize the allergen testing industry by simplifying the process for food manufacturers. 

Not only are they a team of entrepreneurs, but they are best friends and roommates, each with a unique entrepreneurial spirit nurtured from a young age. 

Avery Taylor, the CTO of SafePlate and a recent California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) graduate in computer engineering now pursuing a master’s in electrical engineering, developed his entrepreneurial skills throughout his childhood. Growing up with a single mom who worked two jobs, he learned to be self-sufficient early on by selling various items at school. 

“It’s been instilled in me that you can’t just depend on someone else giving you money, you have to earn it,” Taylor shared. His journey has shown him his ultimate goal: to use his skills and expertise to improve people’s lives. 

Nahal Sadgehian, the CEO of SafePlate, has a similar story of entrepreneurial roots. A mechanical engineering graduate with a minor in entrepreneurship, Sadeghian had several mini businesses starting at the age of five, including a knitting shop in Iran before moving to America. 

Sadgehian’s family history is steeped in entrepreneurship, with both of her parents running their own businesses. 

Her immigrant experience fuels her drive for success. “After both of my parents moved here, they had to completely start from scratch. My mom built up her own business and it is super successful now, so for me to be here, I feel like I have to prove I am doing my parents justice by pursuing entrepreneurship,” Sadgehian said. 

Josh Chao, CFO of SafePlate and recent Cal Poly business administration graduate, comes from four generations of entrepreneurs: his great grandfather sold cattle in China, his grandfather owned a tire factory, and his father worked as an entrepreneur in America. Despite facing a significant barrier in his early years due to a stutter, Chao transformed this challenge into a source of inspiration. 

His journey from a child who could barely speak to now pitching in front of large audiences is a testament to his perseverance. “I’m showing the world that I can overcome challenges. I’ve always wanted to inspire people and show them they can do it as well,” Chao stated. 

Mitchell Dann, the COO of SafePlate and recent Cal Poly graduate in mechanical engineering, discovered his appreciation for business and entrepreneurship in high school where he had a custom T-shirt business that eventually turned into an LLC. 

“Ultimately, I couldn’t pursue it due to taking 4 AP classes, an engineering class, jazz band and marching band my senior year,” Dann said. However, this was not the end of Dann’s entrepreneurial endeavors, as he had a successful bicycle repair business in his dorm during his freshman year of college. 

After several internships and other various career opportunities, Dann found that the corporate cubicle life wasn’t for him and the startup world was the only place that allowed him to take an idea from scratch and turn it into something impactful. 

Co-founders of SafePlate Technologies (left to right): Avery Taylor, Mitchell Dann, Nahal Sadeghian and Josh Chao.

All four founders began working together during a senior project group led by Dr. Thomas Katona, the Cal Poly Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship’s (CIE) Academic Programs Director. They shared a common goal of improving the food industry in America and instantly clicked upon meeting. 

SafePlate’s innovative technology uses spectroscopy to scan for proteins within allergen structures, analyzing how light interacts with matter to understand a material’s properties. FTIR spectroscopy, a specific technique using mid-infrared light, identifies a material’s unique “fingerprint” based on its absorption pattern.

The personal connection to food safety hits close to home for Chao and Dann, whose parents have severe allergies that require extra attention when eating at home and at restaurants. This, along with speaking to other people with severe allergies, influenced the team to delve into the allergen spectrum of the food industry and develop a solution that ensures everyone can enjoy a safe meal. 

“It got to the point where we got frustrated because we can send rockets to the moon but we still don’t really know what’s in our food,” said Taylor. 

SafePlate participated in Cal Poly CIE’s Innovation Quest earlier this year, a high stakes competition where Cal Poly students pitch their innovative business ideas and prototypes to a panel of judges in hopes of winning thousands to fund their startup.

This experience led them to apply to the Cal Poly CIE Summer Accelerator, an intensive 12-week program that provides Cal Poly students and recent graduates with the resources necessary to turn their innovative ideas into full-fledged startups. Participants in the Accelerator receive $10,000 in seed funding, as well as access to expert mentorship, entrepreneurial workshops and a dedicated workspace in the HotHouse, the CIE’s office located in downtown San Luis Obispo.

“We saw a big gap in the market and saw how we could use this emerging technology of combining AI and spectroscopy. We also had to take advantage of this opportunity under the guidance offered in the Accelerator,” said Dann. 

Each founder brings unique skills to the startup. Dann focuses on mechanical design and research, Taylor specializes in AI and programming, Chao handles customer development and branding and Sadeghian’s dual expertise in entrepreneurship and mechanical engineering allows her to help in all areas of the company.

“She’s the glue that holds us all together. She has strengths in the marketing/business side and also the technical side – that’s why she is in the best position to be the CEO,” said Taylor. 

The startup is currently focused on solving the problem of gluten detection in flour with hopes of expanding and developing a machine that tests for all nine major allergens (milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, soybeans and sesame). They also anticipate their technology will bring allergy-free food prices down with fewer recalls and fewer allergic reactions. 

What sets them apart from their competitors is their commitment to creating a reusable and easy-to-use allergen testing solution. While other companies spend a significant amount of money and labor to complete testing, SafePlate wants to empower more manufacturers to scan for all the allergens in the most efficient way, they said. 

With their deep-rooted friendships and diverse entrepreneurial backgrounds, the founders of SafePlate Technologies are transforming the food industry one allergen at a time. 

SafePlate, along with the rest of the 2024 Summer Accelerator cohort, will pitch their startup and showcase their progress at Demo Day, on Sept. 6 at 4 p.m. at Rod & Hammer Rock. Tickets are available here.

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