Natasha Brao ’22, G’23, G’24 and Thomas Montfort ’24 Awarded Hunter’s Fund Grants

Feb. 29, 2024, 5 p.m.

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Natasha Brao ’22, G’23, G’24 and Thomas Montfort ’24 , Spring 2024 recipients of Hunter’s Fund Grant Awards

Natasha Brao ’22 (College of Visual and Performing Arts), G’23, G’24 (Martin J. Whitman School of Management) and Thomas Montfort ’24 (College of Engineering and Computer Science) have been selected as spring 2024 recipients of Hunter Brooks Watson Memorial Fund (Hunter’s Fund) grant awards through a highly competitive national application. The grants reward innovation and reflect on the talents and passions that Hunter Watson brought to his life. Hunter was a rising junior at Syracuse University majoring in the School of Information Studies (iSchool) when he died tragically in 2016 in a distracted driving car accident. His family and friends created Hunter’s Fund to honor his legacy and “provide support for young people who also approach life with powerful ideas.”

The grants from Hunter’s Fund will enable Brao and Montfort to develop product roadmaps and business models for their student ventures. They both look forward to honoring the legacy of Hunter’s passion for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Brao founded a creative agency that develops brand strategy and design for clients ranging from products to services to environments. A culinary entrepreneur who is fascinated by food creativity, she is also founder of Root and Seed Brands, a company that is bringing real, whole and culturally diverse food products to market. She is launching her first product line, Shooka Sauce, a Mediterranean spiced tomato sauce that celebrates the mixing and melding of cultural flavors. Brao is also the recipient of Syracuse University’s Orange Distinction Award and is an Invest in Success Scholar.

Working with the Syracuse University innovation ecosystem, as well as alumni and industry advisors, Brao recently completed her first production run of professionally bottled sauce, which won accolades and funding in Whitman’s fall 2023 Orange Tank. She incorporated her venture with the assistance of an SU Libraries Student Startup Award (funded by Syracuse University Libraries’ Advisory Board member Jeff Rich ’67) and recently won an inaugural SU Libraries Orange Innovation award to produce her first commercial run with a co-packer in Rochester to bring her product to market. The grant from Hunter’s Fund will help create larger scale production of her sauce for market placement.

“I am honored to receive support from Hunter’s Fund, and I take this as an opportunity to continue pushing forward with Hunter’s passion for life and creative impact by my side,” said Brao.

Montfort recently completed a software engineering internship at Amazon Web Services in Austin, Texas, following a software engineering internship at JPMorgan Chase the previous summer. Montfort is one of the original co-founders team members and former vice president of Cuse Blockchain, a student organization based in SU Libraries focused on research and education around blockchain technology.

This summer he went to train his own artificial intelligence (AI) model but found he couldn’t get access to the necessary computing resources from the big cloud providers like Amazon and Microsoft. This led him to co-found Agora Labs with the goal of making it easy for AI engineers and researchers to train AI models. To date, Agora Labs performed alpha testing with over a dozen PhD students from multiple university AI labs. They then launched their platform to the public in January, garnering paying customers. Montfort is also the winner of an inaugural SU Libraries Orange Innovation Fund award to help commercialize his venture. The grant from Hunter’s Fund will help him continue supporting the growing costs of the company while accelerating their go-to-market.

“It was very inspiring to hear about Hunter’s story. It means that much more to gain the financial support from Hunter’s Fund to continue building Agora Labs,” said Montfort. “This will help us on our mission to train the next million students to develop AI applications that will transform the world.”

Hunter’s Fund supports young people ages 16-25 who have demonstrated their potential through their talents, experiences and passions, pursuing careers in music, performing arts, computer science and entrepreneurship. More than 84 grants have been awarded since the inception of the fund. Hunter’s Fund is also working with colleges and universities, including Syracuse, on educational initiatives designed to end distracted driving.

Award recipients are selected by ‘Hunter’s Team,’ comprised of former grant recipients as well as volunteers who were friends of Hunter Watson and wish to continue the legacy that Hunter inspired. Team members assist with fundraising, board governance and committees, and grade the hundreds of grant applications submitted seasonally. Team members also serve as mentors to the young people who have won grants, providing guidance and insight to help them in achieving their dreams. They are instrumental in promoting and coordinating safe driving programs on school campuses.

Some previous recipients of Hunter’s Fund grants include Taylor Lotte ’19, Nicholas Barba ’20 and Justin Gluska ’23.

The Hunter Brooks Watson Memorial Fund has a strong partnership with SU Libraries. The Watson Family annually has endowed the funds for the Hunter Brooks Watson Scholarship at the Blackstone LaunchPad in Bird Library. The scholars have included Kayla Simon ’19, Audrey Miller ’20, Emma Rothman ’21, Jack Ramza ’22, Jack Adler ’23 and John (Jack) Rose ’24. Each year the scholar role is awarded by the LaunchPad to a Syracuse University student who exemplifies Hunter’s passion for entrepreneurship and is modeled after the Syracuse Remembrance Scholar program.

Additionally, Hunter’s Fund sponsors the Hunter Brooks Watson Spirit of Entrepreneurship Competition each spring, in conjunction with the iSchool’s annual Raymond Von Dran iPrize.

“I see Hunter’s name and photograph on a wall plaque in the LaunchPad every time I go in there, and it reminds me that we are fortunate to be able to work with Jerry and Judy Watson to remember Hunter Brooks Watson and to celebrate his life and legacy,” said David Seaman, Dean of Libraries and University Librarian. “These Hunter’s Fund grants are an investment in our current students, furthering their ideas and encouraging them on their entrepreneurship journey, wherever it takes them.”

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