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A Dallas-based founder looks to tackle the student loan crisis with his startup, College Cash

Demetrius Curry has spent the last couple years chasing a dream.

His startup, College Cash, allows brands to petition users to create photo and video marketing content highlighting their product or service, with the wrinkle being that content creators are paid by the brands in the form of credits that go directly towards paying down their student loan debt. This model awards the brands involved a level of social good will and tax benefits.

The Dallas area founder was inspired to tackle student loan debt crisis after talking with his daughter about the prospect of eventually paying down her own loan debt. Curry has spent the past two years building out the nascent platform, tracking down brand partners, navigating accelerator programs, enticing users and pounding the pavement to find investors that are willing to bet on his vision.

College Cash has raised $105,000 to date, and is hoping to eventually wrap the funding into a $1 million seed round.

Filling out the round has been its own challenge for Curry who has struggled at times to find opportunity, even among historic levels of capital flowing into the startup ecosystem, a distinction that has been less noticeable for black founders that still make up just a small percentage of VC allocation. In the aftermath of last summer’s protests against police brutality, a number of venture capital firms issued statements decrying institutional racism and pledging to back more underserved founders, spinning up new programs for diverse founders.

Demetrius Curry, CEO of College Cash

While Curry says he appreciates the scope of the problem and the good intentions of those making the statements, he believes that venture capital networks still have a lot to learn about what being an “underserved” founder means and that plenty of the existing efforts feel like “lip service.” He says that even as Silicon Valley continues to idolize dropouts from prestigious universities, stakeholders have less interest in recognizing the accomplishments of founders who fought their way through poverty or found opportunity in geographies where opportunities are harder to come by.

“You can’t look for something different if you’re looking in the same places,” Curry tells TechCrunch. “When you look at the topic of ‘underserved founders,’ it’s not only a skin color thing, it’s also about where they came from and what they’ve been through.”

Curry says that it can be frustrating to compete for early stage opportunities when investors aren’t willing to meaningfully adjust their parameters. Of particular frustration to Curry has been navigating the world of “warm introductions” to even get a foot in the door for programs meant for diverse founders, or applying for early stage programs geared towards the “underserved” only to be told that they weren’t far enough along to qualify.

“Think about how much we had to go through to even get in the room with you,” Curry says. “I’ve sold plasma to pay a web hosting fee, nothing is going to stop me.”

College Cash’s mission of expanding opportunities for people struggling to manage their student loan debt is personal to Curry who saw his life turn around after going back to school.

Decades ago, fresh out of the military, Curry said he had a random conversation with a stranger while eating at a Hardee’s — the discussion about what more he wanted from life ended up pushing him to to go back and get his GED and later a business degree. What followed was a career in finance that eventually led towards his recent entrepreneurial pursuits with College Cash.

The platform is firmly an early-stage venture at the moment, but Curry has big ambitions he’s building toward. His next effort is building out a College Cash tipping integration with gig economy platforms, with the aim that users of those platforms could ultimately opt to tip a worker and route that money directly towards paying down that person’s student loan debt.

Curry says the team at College Cash has been working with a “national gig economy platform” to run a pilot of the integration and has run focus groups showing that users are more likely to tip when they know that money goes towards erasing loan debt.

Firehawk Aerospace extends seed funding to $2.5 million with $1.2 million from Harlow Capital

Rocket fuel technology startup Firehawk Aerospace has added $1.2 million to its existing seed financing, bringing the full amount invested in the round to $2.5 million. The new tranche comes from Harlow Capital Management, a Dallas-based firm run by Colby Harlow, who will join Firehawk’s Board of Directors as part of the deal.

Firewhawk, which was a finalist in our first-ever all-virtual Startup Battlefield at TC Disrupt last September, has developed a new kind of hybrid rocket fuel that greatly enhances rocket launch safety, cost and transportation using additive manufacturing (basically, the grown-up version of 3D printing). Hybrid rocket fuel (which combines aspects of both liquid and solid propellants used previously) isn’t new, but past technology has been unable to compete on cost and efficacy relative to existing non-hybrid alternatives.

The startup’s Chief Scientist Ron Jones was able to get around these limitations with two new approaches: Using a fuel with a hard polymer structure, and producing it using additive manufacturing instead of casting via molds with a liquid that hardens.

Firehawk now intends to use its seed funding to test its technology in operational conditions and at the kind of scale required for commercialization, and to build out its partnerships and client list. The startup also intends to grow its R&D and manufacturing operations in both Texas and Oklahoma.

Nomad’s charcoal grill suitcase is modern ingenuity combined with classic cooking

Dallas-based Nomad set out to take an age-old cooking method and modernize it – but not by introducing connected or smart features. Instead, the Nomad Grill & Smoker takes classic charcoal grilling and relies on clever industrial design to make it packable and portable, while making sure cooks of all expertise levels can make great-tasting food even if they’re cooking with charcoal for the first time.

Basics

Nomad’s grill looks like some kind of fancy protective case that you’d expect to see traveling with a film crew, crossed with maybe a modern Mac Pro. It has an anodized aluminum build that uses a unibody casting in manufacturing, with high external durability and internal heat retention. It measures roughly 2 feet by 2 foot, and is around 9.5 inches tall when closed, with a total weight of 28 lbs including the cast stainless steel grill grate that’s included int the basic package.

28 lbs may seem like a lot, but it’s remarkably light for the cook surface you get with Nomad, which adds up to either 212 square inches of space in single-grate closed mode (good for smoking) or up to 425 square inches in open grill mode, which can double the cooking surface with the purchase of an optional second grate and charcoal placed in either side (better for open flame BBQing).

The case features a strong and durable dual latch closure system, and a reinforced handle for toting it around. Silicon skids offer protection for surfaces when laying the grill down to cook, and there are two magnetic air vents on either side for controlling airflow and flame, which are adjusted simply by manually sliding.

Design and performance

Image Credits: Nomad

The Nomad design is deceptively simple – at heart it’s essentially a metal box. But looking below the surface a bit, it actually hides some very advanced construction, including a layered shell design that means the outside never actually gets too hot, which is great not only for chef safety but also for setting it down on a wide range of materials during the actual cook process. For a portable grill, that’s a huge benefit.

Looking at the grill grate specifically, it features a honeycomb design that helps better distribute the heat, which is also domed subtly to allow more clearance for the charcoal underneath. It’s removable, but also snaps into place in the grill itself using magnets, which is great for transport and also for ensuring things don’t move around with any bumps.

One other huge benefit that seems like a small thing at first glance is a built-in thermometer that’s molded into the case. This provides you easy, clear temperature readings for the grill, and it’s analog so there’s no power required – another big benefit for portability.

In practice, the grill works exactly as you’d expect a great charcoal grill to work, which is amazing given its size and portability. It should definitely be mentioned that you’re going to be much happier getting the grill lit if you pick yourself up a charcoal chimney, which eases the lighting process – but that’s a great accessory regardless what kind of charcoal grill you’re using.

Image Credits: Nomad

I was particularly impressed at the Nomad grill’s performance when it comes to smoking. It maintains an even and consistent temperature with the box closed, and it’s easy to moderate the temperature with the built-in vents if you need to adjust the cooking intensity. The proximity of the charcoal to the food also imbues it with great flavor.

Bottom line

The Nomad Grill & Smoker is $599, which is a fairly high asking price, but it’s also unique in the market for the convenience it provides combined with the performance it offers. Whether at home or on road trips, Nomad is a wonderful addition to any home cook’s arsenal, and an all-in-one supplement that can replace even a dedicated, more fixed installation charcoal grill if that’s the way you want to go.