The stretch of the Tobacco Road separating UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University is only 11 miles.
Even so, the students on the two campuses typically live worlds apart. The lack of cross-university classes and programs—coupled with that small rivalry you might have heard about—limit the opportunities for the students at the two universities to meet and collaborate.
The prestigious Robertson Scholars Leadership Program—established by a $24 million donation from Julian Robertson in 2000—works to bridge this gap. The scholarship provides opportunities for Carolina and Duke students to enroll in classes at both universities, live on each campus and collaborate with other students while living and working together.
The scholarship was inspired by Mr. Robertson’s personal experience—one of his sons attended UNC-Chapel Hill and the other attended Duke. After they graduated, he realized that combining an education from both universities would foster more collaboration between the students of the two universities and better equip them for post-graduation life.
Carpe Lotion—an antiperspirant hand lotion and startup by the same name developed by a pair of Robertson scholars—is likely the type of collaboration Mr. Robertson envisioned when he developed the scholarship program.
Now in their third year at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke respectively, Carpe Lotion’s co-founders, David Spratte and Kasper Kubica (pictured above) may not have crossed paths if they hadn’t met through the Robertson program. They grew up in different parts of the country—Spratte hails from Atlanta, while Kubica is from Utah. They are attending different schools—UNC for Spratte and Duke for Kubica. And they have different interests and career aspirations—Spratte is a pre-med major with a minor in philosophy of politics and economics while Kubica is a computer science and physics double major.
But because they met their freshman year through the Robertson program and both lived and worked in New Orleans for a summer (a Robertson requirement), they developed a friendship that created the base for a strong business partnership.
This partnership and the innovative, one-of-a-kind product they’ve developed have attracted both customers (they’ve sold at least 1,000 bottles of Carpe so far) and investors. Earlier this year, they received an investment in the ball park of $100,000 from Durham-based Bootstrap Advisors, which focuses on early stage consumer product companies.
We caught up with Kubica and Spratte before they went back to school to try Carpe for ourselves, learn more about the company and the pair’s plans for the future.
Spratte never intended to start his own company, and still doesn’t want Carpe to be his sole career path—he is on the pre-med track and wants to eventually become a dermatological surgeon. But he dreamed up Carpe as a senior in high school when his sweaty hands kept inhibiting him during mass at church, while playing any of his four sports, working or interviewing for colleges. His focus was always drawn to his hands which made him feel self-conscious and diverted his focus from the task at hand.
He says, “I’ve never thought of what I’m doing as entrepreneurship, I’m just a guy trying to make a solution to a problem that a lot of people face that’s annoying and frustrating.”
Kubica, meanwhile, has a very different entrepreneurial journey. He began dabbling with entrepreneurial ventures at a very young age—he ran his own DJ business throughout high school, but quickly realized that he wanted his future legacy to include “moving humanity forward” by starting “very significant companies.”
Kubica’s entrepreneurial “dabbling” continued when he arrived at Duke. Shortly into his first semester, he and two classmates started building an app-controlled light sensor called Mantis Lightsystems. The project (Kubica dislikes referring to it as a startup) was short-lived—they lost momentum after failing to place in the Duke STEAM challenge in January 2014.
But the lessons Kubica learned attempting to build a company and product—albeit unsuccessfully—proved useful when he and Spratte founded Carpe. Kubica says Carpe would have failed if he hadn’t learned the lessons he did through the project’s failure.
The pair grew close while working at non-profits in New Orleans in the summer of 2014. Late one night, Spratte pitched Kubica on an idea to create a hand lotion that would work as an antiperspirant. Kubica says he “tries not to say no quickly” so he committed to helping Spratte develop the product and business for a few weeks.
After those weeks ended, he realized the partnership the two had built was special and worth pursuing. He notes that alone, both would fail at building this business, but together they balance each other out and are stronger. He was also excited by the product and creating a “new something” not just a “better something.”
Once they returned to the Triangle and began their second collegiate year, they set up shop in 1789 Venture Lab in Chapel Hill and got to work developing the right formula for their lotion. They roped in a friend and chemist in training—Chris Jenks—to help develop the formula. Simultaneously, they tested for demand. They surveyed fellow students and heard from 40 percent of survey respondents that they would buy a product like Carpe.
A moisturizing, antimicrobial formula that penetrates sweat glands
After months of preparation, Spratt and Kubica settled on a waterproof formula that has antimicrobial agents, moisturizes skin while also inhibiting sweat from forming and lasts for hours after the first application. The formula includes dermatologist-recommended ingredients like natural eucalyptus oil to first gently dry the surface of the skin and aluminum sesquichlorohydate—the antiperspirant found in many extra-strength underarm antiperspirants—to dry the skin further and penetrate the sweat glands.
They also went through additional testing to make sure the formula complies with all FDA warnings and is safe to use. They’ve yet to hear of any negative reactions to the product.
In the spring, the pair began seeking funding and support to manufacture the product. They entered the Carolina Challenge and placed ninth. Simultaneously, they connected with Bootstrap Advisors, a group of serial entrepreneurs who invest in and advise entrepreneurs creating consumer products.
Bootstrap invested around $100,000 (the exact amount is undisclosed) in Carpe, and has provided space in its building in downtown Durham to work, package and ship the product. But more than the financial support, the mentorship that Bootstrap provides to its portfolio companies was what attracted Kubica and Spratte. Collectively, the advisors have started over 10 companies—including ThunderShirt and Snaptotes.
Perhaps the most important lesson Kubica learned when his first venture failed, was the importance of seeking advice and mentorship. Knowing Bootstrap offered mentorship and advice for building consumer products was the deciding factor in dealing with the firm over other potential investors.
With Bootstrap’s help, the pair quickly moved from the test lab to production and officially launched on July 15th. All operations are currently based in Durham—they mix and bottle the products at a local facility, and then package and distribute from the Bootstrap warehouse. Bootstrap employees (employed to assist in all its portfolio companies) help with the process.
Chris Ng Cashin of Bootstrap says his team was really attracted to Carpe because they loved Spratte and Kubica’s enthusiasm and proven capability. They also believe the market is clear and addressable and that the pair is solving a clear, defined problem that they have personally experienced. He says, “people are always good at solving their own problem.”
Cashin says he’s excited to see a new consumer product come out of the Triangle—he hopes there will be more companies like Carpe coming out of this region in the future.
Building a product line and a brand
The Carpe duo has big dreams for the lotion. Kubica says they hope to make it as “ubiquitous a product as underarm antiperspirant or sunscreen.” So far, they’re selling the product on their website and Amazon. They’re also setting up wholesale relationships with specialized stores like sports and drugstores.
They’re also still testing the market to find the best-selling market. Kubica recently promoted the product at RTX, a gaming conference in Austin, Texas where gamers found the product to be helpful in keeping sweat off their palms while using their controllers. But based on early feedback and demand testing, the product appears to have mass market appeal.
Other skin and hand care products are in the works as well—helping to make Carpe a brand rather than a singular product.
The real test for the product’s success will come over the next two years as Kubica and Spratte attempt to finish their degrees and run the company. But these aren’t normal college students. Becoming a Robertson Scholar is a major accomplishment in and of itself. The program, which accepts up to 40 students per year, receives anywhere from 1,500-2000 applications annually according to one of the program’s representatives.
Bootstrap’s investment also serves as a vote of confidence. In addition, Bootstrap can help run the everyday operations as Spratte and Kubica work to grow the business.
The men believe they are well equipped to manage the stress and workload that running a company and being full-time students bring. Both were already well-versed in balancing multiple responsibilities before they began their undergraduate careers—and increased their workload and extracurricular activities once they began undergrad with research assistantships and roles in organizations like the student government.
They’ve already displayed their ability to pivot too. The company’s name was originally “Clutch.” Spratte says the word became more than just the name of their company, but part of their everyday vocabulary and identity. But it shared a name with a particular cologne at Abercrombie and Fitch. After months of trying to retain the name and failing, they decided to rebrand, switching to “Carpe,” homage to the phrase, “Carpe Diem”. The change was hardest on Spratte, who admits to locking himself in a bathroom to listen to “Let it Go” on repeat until he did, in fact, let it go.
But they made the change, and are now poised to grow Carpe into the future. And both are pretty confident they’ve got a friendship and business partnership that will last that long as well.