Law School Student and Alumna Win Coveted New Venture Awards

Flavio Umeda Pacheco, JD/MBA ’25, and Michelle Mbekeani, ’14, win funding for two very different ventures

Flavio Umeda Pacheco, JD/MBA ’25, knew instantly when he met representatives from Alnair Therapeutics that he wanted to join their team. A student in the Nucleate Activator program, which matches MBA and JD students with scientists, he sought to put his legal training and experience in biotechnology and operations to work on something meaningful.

Pacheco got his wish and was matched with Alnair, a start-up oncology company focused on improving the delivery of drugs to difficult-to-treat cancers. “My role has been a jack of all trades,” he said. “I’ve helped with pitch decks, legal issues, IP strategy, and product management. My legal education has helped me navigate the regulatory arenas.”

Last June, the company won first place in the 27th Annual Edward L. Kaplan New Venture Challenge (NVC), taking home $585,000. At the beginning of July, the company closed an oversubscribed $1M+ pre-seed round.

Person in the middle of a speech in front of two signs
Flavio Umeda Pacheco, ’25

Pacheco spent the summer serving as product manager at Alnair, working with the company’s chief business officer, and as a summer associate on the company’s intellectual property landscape alongside outside counsel.

Alnair’s technology is based on the research of Xiaoyang Wu, an associate professor of cancer research and stem cell biology at the University of Chicago. Alnair leverages a well-known metabolic feature of solid cancers to target tumors. Preclinical studies in animals have shown significant increases in tumor targeting and drug penetration, resulting in improved subject survival. “It’s an exciting technology because you’re delivering chemo directly to tumors, not to healthy tissue,” Pacheco said.

Pacheco immigrated from Brazil when he was 17 and enrolled in a community college in Florida to learn English. Researching fat metabolism in a lab set him on the path to study molecular biology. He transferred to Cornell University on a full scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. He got involved in immunology research but decided he did not want to go to medical school or be a researcher.

“I was interested in the business and legal aspect, so I petitioned to take some law school and MBA classes in patents and entrepreneurship,” Pacheco said. After graduating, he moved to San Francisco to become a program manager at Google. He chose to return to school at the University of Chicago because of the joint JD/MBA program.

While the combination of the joint degree program and work with Alnair is intense, Pacheco says he thrives in a high-intensity environment. “I think it’s important to work with something you’re passionate about, and while sleep is the thing I sacrifice most, I can sleep later.”

Social Justice Start-Up

The office of Michelle Mbekeani, ’14, is piled high with letters from people who are incarcerated and seeking post-conviction relief. As a senior legal and policy advisor for Justice Reform in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, she receives dozens of letters weekly from people asking for help with resentencing, innocence claims, and more.

“Our current system is based on physical mail, which is labor intensive for all parties,” Mbekeani said. “In prisons across the country, personnel have to scan every letter that goes out or comes in. Someone then has to sort through the letters to understand the claims.” People who are incarcerated can wait months for a letter to be answered; an innocent person currently spends an average of 14 years in prison before being exonerated.

Enter Mbekeani’s new idea—Period—which helps end sentences through a digital platform that matches attorneys with incarcerated individuals. It offers both an efficient resource for attorneys and quicker resolutions for those who incarcerated. The application is free to people who are in prison; attorneys pay a subscription fee that is less expensive than what it currently costs to administer intake, case management, and postal mail correspondence.

Two people holding up a large check for $75,000
Michelle Mbekeani, ’14, with UChicago Booth alumnus John Edwardson (for whom the New Venture Challenge is named)

Period won the top prize of $75,000 and unexpectedly received an additional $50,000 from one of the competition judges in this year’s John Edwardson Social New Venture Challenge at the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

“Period is parallel to many social platforms with a swipe and match component,” explains Mbekeani, who is also pursuing her MBA at Booth. Through profiles they create on the platform, attorneys can proactively identify potential clients in prison and connect with them without having to use postal mail or costly phone calls. “Period efficiently collects a lot of front-end data that attorneys need and lets lawyers list the types of services they offer,” she said. “For the person in prison, it helps someone see your case quickly and opens a messaging portal where you can upload documents and have a conversation with a potential attorney.”

Period can also highlight data and practices. “For example, you can see if an unusual percentage of false confessions are tied to a particular officer,” Mbekeani said. “The platform is about efficiency and justice.”

She has built an advisory board that includes a person who spent 15 years in prison before being exonerated, as well as leaders of correctional systems and the Innocence Project.

Mbekeani will begin testing soon, most likely in Illinois, New York, and California. As she continues to raise money for implementation, she believes Period can be a game changer. “It makes the legal process easier for prison staff and attorneys while giving hope to people in a situation where they are often hopeless.”

Kathy Graves is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis.