Team says “cheeze” to win UB entrepreneurship competition

$75K in startup funding and services awarded as event celebrates entrepreneurial impact across UB

Release Date: April 19, 2024

“Even though I founded Empasta before coming to UB, our pitch was so much more refined because we had a better understanding of the language of business and how to communicate the value we are adding to people who engage with our product.”
Matthew Mullens, Founder

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The creators of a plant-based, cheese-alternative sauce took first place April 18 at the University at Buffalo’s Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Entrepreneurship Competition (Panasci TEC).

Hosted by UB’s Startup and Innovation Collaboratory powered by Blackstone LaunchPad, the event brought together UB students from science, technology, business and other disciplines to maximize their potential and create viable businesses in Western New York.

The winning team, first-year MBA students Matthew Mullens and Neharika Korati, will receive $25,000 in startup capital and in-kind services valued at $40,000 for their company, Empasta, which produces what the team calls “cheeze” sauce—a healthier, tasty cheese alternative.

The vegan product is free of dairy, gluten, soy and nuts, so is inclusive to most diets. Made from a base of potatoes and carrots, Empasta comes in original, spicy and smoky flavors and is recommended with pasta, nachos, vegetables and more.

Mullens was inspired with the idea in 2019 and wanted to create a product that has a low impact on the planet while being accessible and satisfying to those who have adopted a plant-based diet.  

“The value that Panasci TEC added goes beyond the cash prize and in-kind services,” says Mullens. “The feedback we got along the way from our team mentor, Peter Cimino, and the judges during each round stretched both me and my teammate to grow as professionals and individuals.”

Mullens says the team was able to apply several concepts from the past two semesters of the MBA program.

“Even though I founded Empasta before coming to UB, our pitch was so much more refined because we had a better understanding of the language of business and how to communicate the value we are adding to people who engage with our product,” he adds.

In addition to $25,000 in seed funding, the winning team will receive in-kind awards valued at $40,000 for business counseling from Atlas Alignment Growth Partners; legal services from Colligan Law LLP; engineering design and prototyping services from Innosek; accounting services from Lumsden & McCormick LLP; Intellectual Property legal services from Stake; website development and creative agency services from ThreeSixty; and co-working space from the UB Office of Business and Entrepreneur Partnerships.

In second place, for two years running, were Dominic LaVigne, a mechanical engineering student in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Daniel Chan, a business student in the UB School of Management. The team will collect $10,000 for Exergi, which develops and deploys a solar energy generator for residential and small commercial buildings.

Panasci TEC provided coaching and mentoring to participants to prepare them for their pitches.

Selected from 31 first-round pitches and 12 semifinalists, six teams of finalists delivered long-form presentations to judges and spectators on April 17. At the final event on April 18, they delivered 5-minute pitches, 43North style, to a panel of judges and other viewers, and were evaluated on how well they described the feasibility and marketability of their venture, proved the need for their product or service and presented potential sources of capital.

Other new venture ideas included a weighted magnetic band that helps promote stabilization of the hand for people with neurodegenerative diseases; a new technology in the composting industry that will decrease greenhouse gas emissions; an ed-tech platform that seamlessly connects students, clubs and universities; and a pioneering solution that leverages technology and personalized mentoring to help high school students in career exploration.

In addition to the competition, guests were immersed in a demonstration of Buffalo’s “fashionpreneurs” and “foodpreneurs” and an exclusive runway presentation by Western New York Fashionpreneurs.

Kristen Cronyn, founder and owner, Meet & Eat Charcuterie, and Mercedes Wilson, founder and owner of Sadie’s Foods, served as masters of ceremony. Welcome remarks were given by Ananth Iyer, dean of the School of Management.

Judges for the final presentations were E. Frits Abell, co-founder and CEO, materialsIN; Maura Devlin, senior vice president, marketing strategy and public relations, 43North; Bianca Gonzalez, founder and CEO, AMPAworks; Sarah Meegan, global lead for collaboration partner programs and incentives, Cisco; Joe Peacock, founder and president, Peacock Consulting; and Katherine (Kat) Wong Too Yen, director of marketing, Adro.

Rounding out the evening’s celebration of entrepreneurship, 13 individuals received the Luminary Award, which recognizes friends of UB’s Startup and Innovation Collaboratory who have contributed support and guidance to students in their entrepreneurial journey, and assisted with the development of the campus-based entrepreneurship center. They are: Nicholas Ciavarella, Just Dishin; Darren Cotton, The Tool Library/Dügüd Design; Johnathan Ebel, Verivend; Malkijah Griffiths, Team Real Talk/Community Health Center of Buffalo; Brad Hahn, Explore Buffalo; Shannon Johnson, M&T Bank; Carolyn Klotzbach-Russell, UB Libraries; Jim Lenker, UB Department of Rehabilitation Science; Erin Rowley, UB Libraries; Mary Ruelle, TechBuffalo; Phil Schneider, ACV; Sonya Tareke, Team Real Talk/The Exchange at Beverly Gray; and Michelle Zafron, UB Libraries.

Now in its 100th year, the UB School of Management is recognized for its emphasis on real-world learning, community and impact, and the global perspective of its faculty, students and alumni. The school also has been ranked by Bloomberg Businessweek, Forbes and U.S. News & World Report for the quality of its programs and the return on investment it provides its graduates. For more information about the UB School of Management, visit

Media Contact Information

Jacqueline Molik Ghosen
Assistant Dean and Director of Communications
School of Management