Founder Profile

Tia Lyles-Williams

LucasPye Bio

For tackling the diversity gap in drug development.

How in the heck does one start a drug company? “I just hit the pavement and knocked on doors,” says Tia Lyles-Williams, by way of explanation. She leveraged this determination and two decades in the biotech industry to build biologic drug manufacturer LucasPye Bio, in 2018, as well as a co-working space for commercial life science startups in 2021. As an industry veteran, Lyles-Williams had seen firsthand how drug companies didn’t recruit people of African descent for clinical trials, even for conditions that primarily affect them, like lupus. “There are a lot of things to fix in biotech,” she says. LucasPye Bio spent several years consulting and building partnerships, and then landed its first customer in 2021, in the form of a multibillion-dollar contract with Nairobi-based IndyGeneUS AI, which is mapping the genome of Africans and people within the African diaspora. LucasPye Bio will help develop drugs based on the findings. As for the co-working space, it’s called HelaPlex and has a built-in accelerator. The name is a nod to Henrietta Lacks, the Black patient whose cancer cells were extracted and stored without her knowledge or consent, and then cultured for use in medical research for decades after her death (they're still being used today). Lyles-Williams says she is in discussions with Lacks's legal team to help the family receive compensation for Henrietta Lacks's contributions to the industry. And, with LucasPye, Lyles-Williams also is firm that she will offer higher wages for employees and focus on bringing people of color into the biotech C-suite.--Gabrielle Bienasz

Company Information
Location
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Inc. Honors
Inc. Female Founders
2021

Jennifer Liao

Xiao Chi Jie (XCJ)

For executing the pivot that saved her food business.

When fate came knocking at Jennifer Liao’s door, it asked for ground-shipped frozen soup dumplings. Liao, who co-founded Xiao Chi Jie (XCJ) as a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Seattle, wasn’t sure how to keep her employees busy (and employed) after Covid-19 shut down the restaurant in 2020. So, Liao and her co-founders experimented with freezing soup dumplings and letting their delivery customers heat them up in their own kitchens. People told their friends, and before long out-of-staters began contacting XCJ for dumplings. As a second-generation Chinese American who endured her peers' making fun of her “smelly” food growing up, Liao has always been motivated by introducing a wider range of Chinese foods to people in the U.S. to “break that cycle of [foods] seeming ethnic, foreign, or inaccessible,” she says. So, when Covid provided the opportunity to expand XCJ's reach and build a full e-commerce business on top of the restaurant--allowing her to keep her employees--Liao did it. She and her co-founders examined air shipping and dry ice packaging, finding that it would cost $60 to ship, “not a viable option for most families,” Liao says. To truly expand access, the team had to find another way and has opened six warehouses in 2020 and 2021. XCJ can now access all 48 contiguous states via ground shipping, and the founders also negotiated up and down the supply chain so that customers can buy frozen soup dumplings with about a $20 shipping cost (free for orders of $99 and above)--with a no-melt or get your money back guarantee.--Gabrielle Bienasz

Company Information
Location
Seattle, Washington
Inc. Honors
Inc. Female Founders
2021

Alexandra McManus

Eyrus

For recasting construction data tools for the pandemic era.

Big construction projects can be shrouded in mystery, and after about 20 years of wondering what actually happens at building sites, Alexandra McManus built a solution to that opacity: Eryus. The Washington, D.C.-based company uses IoT tracking to build data sets that give visibility into construction sites in real time. (If your contractor has ever told you they are going to need more money for a project than originally intended, you get why this is important.) Covid-19 pushed the company to retool and supplement its suite for the pandemic, with contact tracing and proximity tracking. It drove revenue by four times from 2019 to 2020, and added 10 employees. In her early career, McManus worked as an engineer and then on organizing pre- and post-construction portfolios with large property owners. When it came time to make changes to a project, “Sometimes it was just a contest of who can yell better,” she jokes. With Eryus, in a pandemic, she can solve those issues, not to mention safety concerns--it’s just a matter of having the data.--Gabrielle Bienasz

Company Information
Location
Washington, District of Columbia
Inc. Honors
Inc. Female Founders
2021

Alix Peabody

Bev

For building a brand that broke through the male-dominated booze industry.

Alix Peabody got into entrepreneurship after she started throwing ticketed pool parties at her family’s house in Sonoma to raise funds for medical debt. (She brought in guests by the busload, literally, on a borrowed, Google-branded commuter transport.) She discovered that she wanted to start a socially conscious business, but events didn’t seem like the ticket. “I realized pretty quickly that if I wanted to have a company that actually has something to say, they probably had to, like, sell something,” she says. That’s when Peabody created an alcohol brand centered on women, now called Bev, a purveyor of canned wine. The mission was obvious, she says, because of trauma she’d experienced years earlier—she was sexually assaulted in college and sexually harassed at her first job, and both incidents involved alcohol. She sees Bev as something of a Trojan horse for changing drinking culture by creating a brand focused on empowering women. “When you walk into a bar, look at the back. What does that say about whose space that is?” she says. “Jack Daniels. Johnny Walker. Budweiser.” Her customers got it: DTC demand for Bev skyrocketed in 2020, and the company saw 1,700 percent year-over-year revenue growth. Brick-and-mortar was a tougher sell because, she found, alcohol distribution is controlled mostly by older white men. But, with the DTC success, Peabody finally broke through and partnered with E&J Gallo for nationwide distribution in 2021. “DTC was originally intended to show people that people really wanted a product like this and a brand like this that spoke to them,” she says. “And 2021 is when that story—that fairytale—is starting to come true, which is really exciting.”--Gabrielle Bienasz

Company Information
Location
Venice, California
Inc. Honors
Inc. Female Founders
2021

Sarah Rundle-McKinney

Truffle Shuffle

For turning a make-or-break moment into a new mission.

Sarah Rundle-McKinney created Truffle Shuffle with two chefs from the French Laundry (one is her husband) in 2018 to bring transparency to what they saw as a shady trade. Then, in March 2020, she found herself sitting on $20,000 worth of very perishable truffles after Whole Foods paused a launch and restaurants canceled their orders because of the lockdown. “It was a very make-or-break situation,” she says. But that’s when Zoom took off, and since she had two chefs from a Michelin-star restaurant as co-founders, they started online cooking classes and sent the unused product to customers to use as ingredients. So began a massive DTC and Zoom cooking-class operation that touched 150,000 people in 2020, with recipes and on-demand video classes using the company’s truffle products. Truffle Shuffle grew from three employees to 50, and was on The Kelly Clarkson Show, not to mention Shark Tank, where they scored a deal with Mark Cuban for more than $500,000 to grow the company, which has now pivoted fully to online cooking experiences.--Gabrielle Bienasz

Company Information
Location
Oakland, California
Inc. Honors
Inc. Female Founders
2021