Sprout 2020: A Reflection

Sprout is an annual immersion trip to San Francisco for students from across Northwestern who are interested in entrepreneurship. It’s run by EPIC, Northwestern’s entrepreneurship student organization. Both EPIC and Sprout are student run programs supported by The Garage through limited funding and co-working space. 


As a journalism student who knew relatively little about the world of entrepreneurship, I approached the opportunity to go on Sprout with both eagerness and anxiety. Sprout, offered through the student entrepreneurship organization on campus, EPIC, believes having an entrepreneurial mindset is important no matter what students do after college, and created the program to give students an immersive experience in the undeniable startup capital, Silicon Valley.

I was afraid that I would appear out of place, especially when compared to my mostly technical peers. However, my anxieties were quickly subdued once I was actually on the trip. Over the five days of the trip, I had the opportunity to learn more about roles in the startup world that I could actually envision myself in and do so with a great group of people I may not have otherwise known.

During my time in San Francisco and Palo Alto, I was immersed in the world of startups and entrepreneurship. We visited a wide variety of companies, each with a seemingly more motivating mission than the last. Our group saw behind the scenes of a vertical farm looking to change the way produce is grown and people are fed. We got to explore the beautiful building that is home to Slack, a messaging platform I use daily. We even had the opportunity to receive a behind-the-scenes tour of the Tesla factory that was reminiscent of a carnival ride. However, even with all of the site visits and talking to interesting people, we still managed to find time to explore the city and get to know the other members of our group.

One of the best aspects of being on the Sprout trip was getting to meet the Northwestern alumni who are currently working in roles that our group aspires to obtain. I found it inspiring to meet a former Medill student who now works for her own tech consulting agency and an employee in Slack who had studied theater at Northwestern.

Not only were these people took the “less traditional” path into the world of startups and Silicon Valley, but they were thriving in their roles. They were encouraging to me and made me feel like I could follow a path like theirs, too. The importance of having people to look up to is important in any profession and Sprout was able to provide me with those people and help me build a valuable network. Now that I have a better understanding of what a life pursuing entrepreneurship would look like, I am able to do so with enthusiasm and excitement!

Little Joe Ventures x LA 2020

Last week, the five Northwestern juniors who comprise the second cohort of the Little Joe Ventures fellowship had the opportunity to visit some of the most innovative technology companies in Los Angeles. Lilliana de Souza, McCormick ’21; Sophie Davis, Medill ’21; Ahmed Al Madan, Weinberg ’21; Shyam Mani, McCormick ’21; and Nissim Senfeld, McCormick ’21; left Evanston Wednesday evening for a packed schedule of office tours and meetings arranged to give them a wider perspective of innovation and entrepreneurship in the real world. 

 

 

The first stop for the trip was SpaceX’s headquarters and rocket manufacturing facility in Hawthorne, California, where the students learned about SpaceX’s history and ambitions, including building a satellite internet product comprised of thousands of satellites and sending humans to Mars. During a walking tour of the factory floor, the group saw employees working on the assembly of each stage and component of SpaceX rockets, including the Dragon Capsule which will carry the first SpaceX astronauts into orbit in just a few short months.

 

 

 

After a photoshoot with SpaceX’s first ever successfully recovered first stage booster, the group moved on to a tour and taste-test at Beyond Meat’s innovation center. Beyond Meat produces plant-based imitation meat products, the most well-known being the Beyond Burger. Chief Innovation Officer Dariush Ajami led the students through the different laboratories of the R&D facility, including the color lab, flavor lab, texture lab, and testing lab. Afterwards, the group was treated to a taste test of the Beyond Burger for lunch, while Chief of Staff AnneMarie McDummotte described her experience of growing from an eight person team when she joined in 2012, to over 400 employees in the now public company. AnneMarie also explained the company’s mission of reducing the world’s meat consumption as important to both human health and the planet. 

Omaze, the online fundraising platform that offers sweepstakes for experiences and prizes in support of charitable causes served as the final office visit on the first day of the trip. After a tour of the open-office setup complete with celebrity photos, lemon trees, and plenty of employee dogs roaming around, the students sat down for a discussion with co-founder & CEO Matt Pohlson, President Will Kassoy, and Head of Strategic Partnerships Hannah Kamran. After learning more about the company’s history and impact, including over $150 million raised for over 300 charities around the world, the Omaze team invited feedback and suggestions for campaigns and tactics that the students thought could perform well on the platform. One of the student’s suggestions hadn’t been publicly announced, but was already in the works!

The following morning, the fellows convened at the office of the program’s donor, Tony Owen ’97, ’03 MBA, which included a stunning and unique car collection. Tony arranged for two successful entrepreneurs to spend an hour each with the group, recounting their entrepreneurial journeys and answering questions about the lessons they’ve learned and how to overcome obstacles. 

First, the students met with Chuck Ursini, who is the founder and former CEO of System1, a digital advertising market-maker based in Venice, California. Chuck described the trade-offs he made to build a successful company, and the importance of developing interpersonal skills and fostering relationships with the people that you work with. 

Next, the group met Sam Prince, a doctor, humanitarian, and entrepreneur who founded Mexican restaurant chain Zambrero when he was just 21 years old. Sam told a captivating story of becoming a young doctor, providing medical aid in a Sri Lankan war zone, and founding One Disease, a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating disease in Australia, among other impressive endeavors. Sam shared some of his personal philosophy, which included upholding and amplifying the kindness that he receives, being authentic to himself, and knowing his purpose, which he divulged as “having the courage to live out my best thoughts.”

Next up for the Little Joes was lunch with a famous guest: Maye Musk, an entrepreneur, model, dietitian, and mother of Elon Musk! Maye is the author of a new memoir, A Woman Makes a Plan, which she generously signed copies of for every student. During lunch, Maye described her personal journey, from escaping an abusive spouse, to starting her private practice, working as a model, and being a single mother of three throughout it all. When Maye, who is 71 years old, was asked which age she would most like to return to, she emphatically responded “This age! I’m having a lot of fun.” 

Following lunch, the group met with the management team of goop, the lifestyle brand founded by actress Gwyneth Paltrow (or “GP” as her employees refer to her). While GP wasn’t able to join due to travel, goop’s CFO, CTO, Head of Partnerships, Head of Wellness, and Gwyneth’s former Chief of Staff sat down with the students to describe goop’s 12 year history, including growing from 9 employees in 2014 to over 250 employees today. The team also explained the company’s plans for the future, and answered student’s questions about what it’s like to work at a startup. 

The final office visit of the trip was to Snap’s Santa Monica headquarters, which was organized by Medill M.S. graduate Mark McMaster, who serves as the Head of Emerging Commerce. After a short tour of Snap’s main building on the campus, the group was joined by Quincy Kevan, the Head of Official Accounts and a 2010 Northwestern alum, and Fai Nur, a 2017 Northwestern alum who works in the Communications department. Mark, Quincy, and Fai each described their professional journeys from Northwestern to their current roles and gave their own perspectives on the values of working for a “big” tech company after graduation. After an hour-long conversation, the Little Joes were sent home with armfuls of Snap “swag!” 

For their final dinner in Los Angeles, the Little Joes were joined by program donor Tony Owen and a group of successful entrepreneurs and Northwestern alumni including Maura Rampolla ’90 (co-founder of Zico Coconut Water), Lynn Hopton ’82 KSM ’86 (co-founder of HalseyPoint Asset Management), Greg Davis, Jamie Star KSM ’89 (CEO of Longview Asset Management), Audrey Kania (co-founder of the World Poker Tour), Matthew Carpenter ’15 (founder of Howevvr), and two alumni of The Garage at Northwestern, Ali Movassaghi ’18, and Kripa Guha ’19. Over a four hour meal at renowned Italian restaurant Scopa in Venice, the group of students and professionals shared their backgrounds, interests, and ambitions to build something in the world. After a whirlwind two days of conversations with engaging leaders of innovative technology companies, the students had a lot to talk about and a lot of excitement to share.

Saturday morning, the fellows reflected on their shared experience from the past 48 hours over a brunch of avocado toast and pancakes. Next, the fellows heading to Venice Beach to get some sun before heading back to frigid Evanston. As one fellow put it “I really appreciate being nominated [for the fellowship.] It truly changed the trajectory of my Northwestern journey, and I am so grateful for that.” 


Mike is the Director of The Garage SF. He is responsible for local operations, programming, and building a community of entrepreneurial focused Northwestern alumni, students, and faculty in San Francisco. Prior to The Garage, Mike was an investor at a venture capital firm founded by Northwestern alumni, where he provided support and mentorship. He began his career serving in a multitude of strategy-focused roles at one of the largest media companies in Los Angeles. Mike is a proud Northwestern alum, having graduated with a BS in Communication focused on TV & Film. 

The Garage SF: Building a Platform for Serendipity for the Northwestern Network

If it wasn’t for Northwestern, I wouldn’t have landed my first job after graduation working at Twentieth Century Fox Television. As a Radio / Television / Film (RTVF) major, my dream was to work on the business side of the entertainment industry in Los Angeles — and thanks to my roommate after graduation (a Northwestern alumna), I landed such a role. 

Years later, another Northwestern alumnus that I had previously worked with founded a venture capital firm and invited me to join the team in San Francisco. To be frank — it’s unlikely that anyone else would’ve given me an opportunity to do something that I had little-to-no experience in, but the relationships formed through Northwestern have, at least for me, created serendipity more than once. 

It’s a story that I’ve heard from dozens of Northwestern students and alumni, and one that I hope to reproduce and enable for hundreds more through The Garage San Francisco (SF), a new extension of The Garage at Northwestern. Since opening in 2015, The Garage at Northwestern on the Evanston campus has served as a resource and community for more than 1,000 students and incubated over 350 startups. Many of these students have ambitions to work in the Bay Area eventually, whether through an internship during school, at a larger tech company upon graduation, or continuing on with their very own startups. Our alumni network offers invaluable connections, mentorship, and resources for these students that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. 

Northwestern alumni at The Garage SF space

The Garage SF is the bridge between these students and the Northwestern network in the Bay Area. We’re a collaborative community of Northwestern alumni founders, operators, and investors who live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area, support each other professionally, and offer our resources to current students at Northwestern. Our goal is to create “a platform for serendipity,” (is that Silicon Valley enough?) which really just means getting the right people together in the right rooms to enable good things to happen down the line. 

There are approximately 16,000 Northwestern alumni in the Bay Area — yet when I share that figure with alumni out here, they are shocked! With such a vast and robust network, there’s enormous potential for us to support each other professionally! But in order to utilize this network, it needs to be 1) visible; and 2) accessible. How can we enable this visibility and accessibility? 

To start, we’ve launched a weekly newsletter, which profiles Northwestern alumni doing interesting things, features job openings that alumni are hiring for, includes “gives” and “asks” for our community, and highlights all of the upcoming Northwestern-affiliated events in the Bay Area. 

Northwestern alumni gather in SF for a Product Management Roundtable

We’re also organizing intimate events around specific job functions and interests — think “Product Managers” or “The Future of Healthcare.” By gathering small groups of professionals with similar interests or roles, we can provide a casual context for expanding one’s professional network, making the Northwestern network more accessible than relying on cold LinkedIn messages. We’ve already hosted a few of these gatherings, including an Alumni Founders Dinner and a roundtable discussion with Product Managers, and we have many more in the works.

As any new venture should be, The Garage SF is highly experimental and iterative. Some of the things we’re working on include a mentorship program, an alumni forum, and more casual ways to connect with others in our community. 

Our hope is that a few years from now, The Garage SF will have fostered thousands of relationships, helped founders raise money and grow their companies, enabled career moves and transitions among our community, and maybe even ignited a few friendships. 

Personally, I’ve benefited immensely from the power of the Northwestern network. I’m excited for the potential that The Garage SF has to benefit thousands of other alumni in real, meaningful ways through connections to others in our community. 

If you’re a Northwestern alum in the Bay Area or a current student with ambitions to work here, I’d love to connect to learn more about the connections, resources, and support that you’d be interested in engaging with. You can also sign up for our weekly newsletter here

As always, Go ‘Cats, 

Mike Raab ‘12
mike.raab@u.northwestern.edu


Mike is the Director of The Garage SF. He is responsible for local operations, programming, and building a community of entrepreneurial focused Northwestern alumni, students, and faculty in San Francisco. Prior to The Garage, Mike was an investor at a venture capital firm founded by Northwestern alumni, where he provided support and mentorship. He began his career serving in a multitude of strategy-focused roles at one of the largest media companies in Los Angeles. Mike is a proud Northwestern alum, having graduated with a BS in Communication focused on TV & Film. If you’re interested in learning more or becoming involved with The Garage SF, you can reach out to Mike via email or LinkedIn.

The Propel Program + NYC 2019

For the second year in a row, the Propel program traveled to New York City, where The Garage has built relationships with notable alumni and some of the best known companies in the world.

Our group of eight student ambassadors, women entrepreneurs representing McCormick, Medill, SESP, Weinberg, and the School of Communication, was joined by Hayes Ferguson, Associate Director of The Garage; Elisa Mitchell, Assistant Director of Finance and Operations at The Garage; and Lilia Kogan, Propel Program Manager and longtime mentor at The Garage.

We started the trip off with an amazing tour of the New York Stock Exchange. Inside, the walls were decorated with pop art hundred dollar bills, bears, and bulls. It was a capitalist’s heaven! From the trading floor, we saw hospitality services company Ashford Inc. ring the opening bell and television personality Jim Cramer shoot Squawk on the Street. We even chatted with Stacey Cunningham – the first female President of the NYSE in its 200+ year history. She encouraged us to work toward returning to the NYSE when our own companies are IPO ready! 

The Propel group outside the NYSE

 

The Propel group with NYSE President Stacey Cunningham, the first female President in the NYSE 227 year history!

After a starstruck morning, we walked to the 9/11 Memorial and paid our respects to the victims and brave heroes from that day. From there, we walked to Spotify’s New York based offices in one of the new World Trade Center buildings. We met with Lauren Siegal Wurgaft, the music streaming company’s Senior Manager of Social Impact. We toured the eleven-story office space, which includes an arcade room, a crafts room, a meditation room, a sleeping room, a movie theater, a snack room…and the list goes on! 

The Propel group visiting Spotify

Next, we Ubered to Soho to spend the afternoon with Stephanie March, School of Communication ’96. You may know her from her time on Law & Order Special Victims Unit; she’s also an entrepreneur building her bespoke cosmetics brand, SheSpoke.

The Propel group at SheSpoke with founder Stephanie March, SoC ’96

 

Sophie Davis, Medill ’21, Stephanie March, SoC ’96, and Avantika Raikar, McCormick ’22 pictured at SheSpoke

Stephanie shared her journey starting the brand, including successes and failures, and stressed the importance of pivoting. SheSpoke is a makeup bar where customers can make personalized lipsticks and highlighters. We also got to personalize our own lip glosses and lipsticks

That evening, we met up at Jane Restaurant for a delicious dinner. We were joined by Katherine and Steve Elms, MBA ’92 and Heather and Andrew Zuckerman, Weinberg ’91, who have generously funded Propel, as well as other alums who have supported the program by sharing their experiences as professional women: Erica Futterman, Medill ’06, Deputy Director of Newsroom Strategy Operations at the New York Times; Melanie Greifer, Weinberg ’93, renowned gastroenterologist; Linnea Perelli-Minetti, Weinberg ’09, Platform Product Lead at Square Capital; and Bethany Crystal, Medill ’09, General Manager, USV Network at Union Square Ventures. 

The Propel group enjoyed an intimate dinner in NYC!

Students talked one on one with the alums and learned about their career journeys. This was such an impactful evening. The opportunity to find out that not all careers are as linear as they seem encouraged us to pursue our own passions – wherever they may take us. We then headed back to the Wall Street Inn, where we slept very soundly after having such a fun-packed day. 

The next morning, we made our way to the Northwestern NY offices at Rockefeller Plaza to meet with alumnae for a roundtable discussion: Lauren Bradley, Weinberg ’07, Equities COO at Cantor Fitzgerald; Elise Densborn, Kellogg ’14, COO at Splendid Spoon; and Kathryn Haydon, Weinberg ’99, Founder of Sparkitivity. We listened in depth to each alum as they shared their life stories and career experiences. Afterward, we explored the city and networked with friends. 

The Propel group at the Northwestern NY offices at Rockefeller Center with established NY-based alumnae

Now that we’re back in Evanston, it’s our turn to give back, by recruiting entrepreneurial-minded women students on campus to apply for Propel. In addition to being eligible to participate in next year’s Propel trip, those accepted into the program are included in networking events and can receive up to $1,000 to work on their ventures.  Learn more here.

Wildfire 2019: Demo Day Wrap Up

On Wednesday, August 28, The Garage was packed with more than 150 staff, faculty, mentors, community members, and guests for our annual Demo Day – the culmination of the Wildfire Pre-Accelerator Program and for us, one of the most exciting days of the year. 

Before Demo Day, we gathered all of the Wildfire 2019 participants for a quick group shot.

The Wildfire program is without doubt, a full time job for participating students. For the last 10 weeks, while most of the campus is quiet and many Northwestern students have taken internships around the country or traveling abroad, 9 dedicated teams of entrepreneurs convened every day at The Garage to hustle and grow their ventures. The program kicked off with a field trip to Groupon and Tempus, and between weekly pitch practices, an improv workshop and a trip down to Wrigley for a Cubs game (we know how to work hard and play hard), our group of students bonded and thrived for 10 weeks together.

Wildfire 2019 takes on Chicago! Here we are in our hoodies repping The Garage at 600 West Chicago Avenue where Groupon and Tempus are housed.

It all leads to Demo Day, where we give away $10,000 in non-dilutive prize money disbursed among first, second, and third places – plus a live audience vote! And while Demo Day is a ton of fun, it’s one of the biggest days of the summer for the students pitching. Early in the day, we welcomed six esteemed judges with varied backgrounds – from experienced founders and entrepreneurs to alumni of Northwestern and The Garage.

They listened to nine pitches in the morning behind closed doors, allowing ample time for Q&A and for students to get valuable feedback. This year, our judges included Scott Kitun (SoC ’12, Medill ’13), CEO of Technori and host of the Startup Showcase on WGN; Eric Ong (Weinberg ’14), Vice President of Lightbank; Blair Pircon (Kellogg ’16), CEO and co-founder of The Graide Network (a startup incubated at The Garage); Jason Rowley, a Chicago based tech and venture capital reporter; Scott Schonfeld, associate at Fox Swibel focusing on mergers and acquisitions; and Adrienne Weissman, angel investor and executive advisor at G2 Crowd.  Judges then deliberated privately to choose first, second, and third place. But this year, something new happened. Judges were so impressed by our cohort of students, they opted to give away an additional $1,000 check to a fourth place!

In total, we had nine teams pitch at Demo Day.

alula: alula is a smart lamp that helps you reclaim your time in the mornings by waking you up with a sunrise.

CatsWork: CatsWork: We turn college students into networking experts. 

City Health Tech: Improving community health through education, engineering, and design. 

CurtoTech: CurtoTech makes endoscopic procedures safer and more efficient.

eoeo is a student-centered dockless bikeshare for universities focused on maximizing bike ridership, engaging our community, and creating sustainable life habits.

JampackJampack helps people fall in love with music all over again by curating music on an individual level.

Powder Blue Media: Powder Blue Media is a multimedia publication dedicated to giving a voice to Generation Z and initiating real conversations in an increasingly divided and hostile media landscape. 

Ribbon: Ribbon helps managers show their appreciation to their teams by providing curated recognition recommendations that are specifically tailored to each individual employee.

Tilt: Tilt is a technology platform helping under-resourced students navigate and succeed in the college admissions process.

After the back to back pitches wrapped, we let the audience vote for their favorite and handed out FIVE big checks! Here’s what happened:

Taking fourth place, and a check for $1,000 was CurtoTech, led by Denise Reynish, Pritzker ’21.  One of the judges said, “The market opportunity for this team is compelling. I’m excited to see this technology brought to market.”

The CurtoTech team

Taking third place and a check for $2,000 was Jampack, led by Nissim Senfeld, McCormick ’21. One judge said, “I’m thinking to myself, I know exactly who needs this right now.”

The Jampack team L to R: Nissim Senfeld, McCormick 21 and Bradley Ramos, McCormick ’21

In second, with a check for $3,000 was City Health Tech, led by Ibraheem Alinur, McCormick ’19. According to the judges, “This is a super meaningful problem space backed by strong research.”

The City Health Tech Team L to R: Imran Khan, Weinberg ’19; Kevin Lai, Weinberg ’22; Ibraheem Alinur, McCormick ’19, unknown; Anya Kothari, McCormick ’21

Finally, taking first place and a check for $4,000 was Powder Blue Media, led by Nathan Graber-Lipperman, Medill ’21. What did the judges say about the winning startup? “There’s an authentic commitment to high quality content and engagement. This needs to exist!”

Powder Blue Media team L to R: Karim Noorani, Medill ’22; Nathan Graber-Lipperman, Medill ’21; Owen Guetschow, Medill ’21

Next, we handed out the check for $1,000 to the audience favorite: City Health Tech! That means in total, we gave away a record $11,000 in prize money to four teams!

Congratulations to ALL the teams that pitched at Demo Day. We can’t wait to see what’s next for you! To stay in touch with everything at The Garage and keep up with events like Demo Day, sign up for our monthly newsletter here

Wildfire Spotlight: CurtoTech

How are you doing today?

Denise: We’re doing well! Yeah, we had a helpful workshop this morning. They came and helped us to build a sales engine and that’s something we don’t have a lot of experience with so it was helpful.

 

What does CurtoTech do?

D: We are a medical device company and we’re trying to develop an accessory for current colonoscopes to make endoscopic procedures safer and more efficient. So we’re trying to develop something that’s relatively low-tech and low cost for physicians in independent centers and rural areas to help them see more patients.

 

What is the key problem you’re trying to tackle?

D: It’s a little bit hard to explain without showing images, but essentially during colonoscopies a lot of the times, there is an issue called scope looping which is a result of friction that’s encountered along the bowel wall and it makes it difficult for the scope to advance. It takes a long time for the physician to resolve and it unnecessarily extends the procedure time, which is bad for both the patients and for the physicians. We want to reduce complications, reduce risks, and make the procedure more efficient so that more patients can be accommodated.

 

Why do you call yourself CurtoTech?

D: It was a name we came up with about four months ago. We were looking for a name that was descriptive and could possibly be trademarked. We did hours and hours of online research about Latin roots and Greek roots, then we found “Curto-” which means to shorten or make something more efficient. We were like “Yes! CurtoTech!” It was good enough and it kind of just stuck.

 

How did you come into this project? 

D: Well, I wanted to go to medical school for a long time, but I ended up getting my masters at the law school at Northwestern. I’ve shifted gears, but I had a lot of experience working in the healthcare field. I’ve worked in an outpatient surgery center, I’ve done a lot of shadowing and I’ve done a lot of medical research through all of my undergrad. I have some background in medical fields, and even though I don’t think I want to go to medical school, I have a network of physicians I know. 

Carolina: And I’m studying Mechanical Engineering, but a lot of my family have medical backgrounds. I’m really happy to be here at The Garage, because I actually go to University of Illinois-Champaign and it’s crazy to be here and have so many opportunities and connect to this network.

 

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far in getting CurtoTech started?

D: There’s two. The first one has been making sure that we have a good team and network in place, especially since we aren’t physicians. Being able to expand and have people who are doctors and engineers as advisors, having material scientists on our team, and having people who have legal knowledge on our team has been helpful, and it took us a while to get here. Another challenge that has come up lately is our manufacturing and prototyping. Because it is a unique product it has taken some time to find a manufacturer who can fulfill our exact requirements.

Carolina: Yeah, we had a plan A and a plan B. Now we’re on plan C. We’re just trying to find a different manufacturer. In the beginning we thought this would be easy, but our prototype has dimensions they won’t do. We’re actually kind of behind schedule, ideally we wanted to have a basic prototype already. But we should have it soon.

 

What is strange about your prototype?

D: The diameter is very small but it’s also very long. It’s unusual, a lot of manufacturers just don’t have the tools to fulfill that. Some places do, but we are really looking to be cost effective.

 

Who has been your greatest mentor so far in this process?

D: That’s hard, we’ve met a lot of helpful people through The Garage. Paul Burton, he’s an Entrepreneur in Residence here, and he’s been super helpful. He meets with us whenever he’s available and we reach out to him. We’ve worked with Ben Kleinman through the Garage as well, and he’s offered us a lot of guidance. We’ve met with consultants, and with physicians we met through Northwestern as well.

 

What has been most surprising about having a medical startup at Northwestern?

D: I think that a lot of it has been a surprise. I didn’t know much about business beforehand, it’s really a whole new experience!

C: Neither of us are medical students, but we both have a touch of it just by being around it. For the business side, it’s been a lot more unfamiliar. We’re just trying our hardest to do every task and pull everything together.

D: The most surprising thing is probably actually how many resources there are available to help students who are like us. Lots of people get stuck, they have an idea but they don’t necessarily know what to do next. That’s been one of the biggest surprises: if you look for help you’re going to be able to find it. It’s been a pleasant surprise.

 

What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned this summer at Wildfire?

D: I think I have learned to be more open-minded. There’s always going to be so many things you haven’t thought about yet. Like I said, we had a workshop today about Sales Engines, which I hadn’t really even thought of. So I think that being open minded, as well as being adaptable are the most important things. As we were saying, there are issues that come up with any business about manufacturing, about patenting, and about budgeting, but you can navigate that if you’re flexible and adaptable.

 

Do you have any ideas about what may be next for CurtoTech after this device?

D: We’re trying to take things one step at a time. I do really want to get this product out and see how it affects the market and how it helps physicians. I have a lot of ideas that are on my mind and that I’m working on incrementally, but for now this is my main focus.

C: I feel like right now, we are just working to get this through, but as I go through patents and research I have so many ideas about how to make things better and innovate the tools we use every day.


This article is part of an ongoing series highlighting the startup teams admitted to Wildfire, The Garage’s Summer Pre-Accelerator Program. For more information about Wildfire, click here.

Wildfire Spotlight: Tilt

Tilt

We sat down with the co-founders of Tilt, Jimmy Kam (Kellogg ’20) and Sintuja Nagalingam (Kellogg ’20), participants in this summer’s Wildfire program, to learn more about their startup.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What is Tilt?

Jimmy: We are building a mobile college guidance platform. The hope is to help under-resourced students navigate and succeed in the college application process. Right now we are focusing on building tools that help students keep track of their application process.

 

How was the college application process for each of you?

Jimmy: Well, I went to school in Hong Kong. I was born and raised there, but I always wanted to go to school in the United States. During my high school years I applied; I was also a first generation student – my parents never went to college and didn’t speak any English – so I was navigating the whole application process on my own. I applied to 6 or 7 schools in the U.S. and didn’t get into any of them. I ended up going to college in Hong Kong, but I realized the process can be really difficult if you don’t have the knowledge or resources. I had friends who got into schools as legacies because their parents studied at one place, even if their grades were not as good as mine.

Sintuja: My college application process was a really long time ago, I don’t remember it that well now. I do know that I was really lucky, growing up in California and having the UC system (a single application system that helps students apply to multiple California Universities at once). I did apply to schools outside of that system, but that process was really not straightforward. I have more recently gone through the graduate school application process. Especially for business school, a lot of students hire counselors and pay thousands of dollars to walk them through the application process. And now even a lot of high school students are paying for that type of service for their undergraduate admission process.

 

Who is Tilt for?

Sintuja: I think students who are either first generation, or low income, or students of color. We are really gearing this towards students who do not have adults in their lives who have gone through the college application process. We are also thinking about schools with guidance counselors who have hundreds of students to help through this application process. We really want to help support them with the menial tasks like tracking application deadlines and take those off of their plates so that they can have personal one-on-one interactions with the students.

 

What is Tilt right now?

Sintuja: Right now we are doing a six week “summer bootcamp” with 40 students. We’re really just trying to give them resources each week to begin thinking about the college application process. That can look like online communication, articles, videos, emails, and text reminders. We just want to keep college on their minds. In the fall, we are launching the next stage of the project which will center around the process of applying once students have a list of schools they are interested in. We will help walk them through what they need to do to apply to each school as far as testing, recommendations, and essays. We want to help students get it all done. In the long term, we want to help students navigate all the way to career success. I think college is a huge opportunity for mobility, so we want to help students get into a college that is a good fit, and then help them understand what the next step is to the career they desire. We are really excited about helping students on the path to success, and we haven’t decided when that path ends.

Jimmy: We really want the students to feel empowered and in control of their future. I think that’s the key mission that we have.

 

Is your ideal product something that leans more heavily on the automation of tasks during the college application process, or the personal connection and mentorship side of things?

Jimmy: One thing that we’re trying to do is really simplify the application process for students. We want to help them make sense of the mess of information they’re seeing in the college application process – that could definitely involve automating certain things for them and having the tools to structure and organize the process. We are trying to build in that human element, too, just because the process is so stressful. On top of the social and emotional support, these students just need mentorship from people who have been through the application process already. We are looking at how to build that community with peer support and mentorship.

Sintuja: Building off of that, we don’t want to be the one-on-one interactions students have in this process, but we want to facilitate it with people already in their community. We’ve been working to partner with more localized nonprofits and providing them with tools and resources. So we are automating, but we want to build in that human touch.

 

How did you choose Tilt for your name?

Jimmy: We chose this name around the same time as the recent college scandal with money influencing college admissions. One of the articles on this issue had a quote about how important it is for us to be tilting the admissions system back into the students favor, and I think that’s what we are trying to do. Tilt wants to give under-resourced students an advantage in a system that is rigged against them. 

 

Who has been Tilt’s greatest mentor?

Jimmy: We have been working with Mark Desky, a founding member of the Groupon marketing team and startup executive. He has a lot of experience working with startups that seek to benefit disadvantaged communities, so picking his brain on this product has been really helpful. He’s offered a lot of good advice. We really enjoy working with Mark because first, he gives really actionable advice, and second, he always makes time for us.

 

How has your experience been different working on Tilt in Wildfire than outside of Wildfire?

Jimmy: One of the biggest differences is just having the time and space to work on it. We started this idea in the school year and worked on it through classes, but it was still difficult because we didn’t have time to think about the big ideas: our mission, how this product might evolve, what we want our messaging to be. We’ve actually had the time to think. In classes we get 30 minute time chunks to think, but in Wildfire it can be all day brainstorming. I also think that collaborating with the other teams in Wildfire can help us to inspire each other and not get stuck.

Sintuja: I think the other thing is the motivating factor of the program. It’s so much easier to dedicate this time to our business without feeling like we should be taking internships or working on other things when we are able to say that we are part of this Wildfire cohort and meeting goals. It’s hard to leap to working full time on your startup when there are other options that may be easier. Wildfire really made it easy to say yes to our own startup.


This article is part of an ongoing series highlighting the startup teams admitted to Wildfire, The Garage’s Summer Pre-Accelerator Program. For more information about Wildfire, click here.

Wildfire Spotlight: Clavè

We recently sat down with Nissim Senfeld (McCormick ’21) and Brad Ramos (McCormick ’21) to learn more about the project they’re working on during Wildfire. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How are you guys doing today?

Brad: Superb.

Nissim: We were just outside for a while

Brad: It was a nice little escape

Nissim: I feel like a flower. We photosynthesized

 

What is Listen?

Nissim: Funny thing about that.

Brad: We’re no longer Listen.

 

Oh! Okay, that’s important. What are you guys working on, what’s up?

Brad: We pivoted pretty dramatically yesterday. Up until this week we’ve been working on something completely different. We just delivered a brand new pitch for a brand new idea. That being said, I hope our mission hasn’t changed too much. It’s just that the model we’re using and the product we’re pursuing has changed. A lot of the stuff that we’ve been doing so far doesn’t apply.

Nissim: To give you something more concrete: we’re bringing the human touch back to digital music consumption. We started out really focused on helping independent artists, but nothing we tried was really sticking. And then our new idea came up, and it was a new way that we could help independent artists. We just want to provide a platform in which one of the goals is to give independent artists a voice.

 

When did each of you get involved with The Garage?

Brad: Freshman year when we wanted to have a startup.

Nissim: Oh my God. I wasn’t even thinking of that. I think I’ve mentally blocked that out because it was so traumatizing.

Brad: To be fair, we didn’t get anywhere. We got nowhere.

Nissim: Basically what happened was we took an entrepreneurship class. And then we both felt very empowered to start a startup. Like “Yeah! We got so many ideas!

How do we get started? Let’s do it!” And then we went to The Garage and they were like, “all right, make appointments with all these people and talk through your ideas with them.” And we did it and by the end we had made an appointment with every single person that we could. All of our ideas got rejected.

Brad: We realized that we were in way over our heads. Our ideas weren’t actually that good or that feasible. Some of them had been done before. From there we kind of had to take a step back, but we’d definitely learned something. And then separately we sort of found our ways here. I was a Tinkerer last quarter. I have a walk-home app called Tag Along. The team wants to be here next year as well. Basically a bunch of CS people got together, we made an app for a club, realized our that the app is kind of cool and interesting. But we had no idea of marketing or testing.

Nissim: I can help with that.

Brad: Actually, like, I’ll talk to you ‘cause we need that. But yeah, our team was like “We need to make this a business, let’s take it to The Garage.” We applied and we got in and we’ve been working on that, so that was my first like direct affiliation with like The Garage and what it has to offer. 

Nissim: I think after the first try, I was like, “f*ck. I’m never going to The Garage again. I exhausted all my credibility. Now everyone’s going to hate me forever.” And then in spring quarter, there was a class that I co-TA’ed for that was here in The Garage. I’ve overheard on the tours that they host classes here and that’s a major pipeline into The Garage’s programming. And it really was for me; it reintroduced me to this space. And then sophomore year, I started working here because it was really great and I had a lot of classes here. I took Neal Sales-Griffin’s class, which was awesome. Dude’s a superhero. I was always working here and then became friendly with Hayes and Melissa, I was doing AR with my friend Olivia. I was just in this space every day for a long time and that’s how I got reintroduced to The Garage. Oh. And then I got invited to apply for a Little Joe fellows. Got that through some twist of fate. Now this is like the place I feel most comfortable on campus.

 

That’s awesome. You two knew each other before you got involved with The Garage?

Nissim: Bradley was the second person I ever met on this campus

Brad: Yeah, like one of the first nights here, I think he was sitting with his roommate and it was still during that freshman year time where it’s like, “oh, can I sit with you guys?” And so we did. And then we ended up talking in the dining hall until it closed. The next day we meet our PA group and we’re in the same one. 

Nissim: Yeah. I remember we compared our schedules the first quarter and found out that they were identical.

 

What are the challenges of working on a team with someone who you’re friends with?

Nissim: I just think it’s really important to take the time to be friends. It’s really easy to have co-founder relationship that kind of sucks. It’s a little bit stressful to do something like this. But with the lunch we just had or the times we hang out there’s this extra buffer before we come back and work. Making time to just be friends is important.

Brad: Yeah. I think he has a good point there because I couldn’t imagine myself strictly working all day, every day. I think we both place value in the relationship and culture that we have together. And that being said, we have pretty complementary strengths and differences. 

Nissim: I also think at this point we’re really good at reading each other which is fun

Brad: Yeah. If Nissim is like wiped out. I’m like, “Hey man. Listen, let’s take five minutes and rest.”

Nissim: And I can always tell when I’ve lost you or like you’re really stressing on something. Yeah, I think it’s important for co-founders to be friends anyway.

Brad: I think if anything, it actually has helped us, rather than gotten in our way. That being said, I think it’s just because we’re both really interested in the mission of our project. Working doesn’t feel like as much work when you get to choose what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. Sometimes we don’t get to choose that. And we both struggle. But we work through it together. 

 

What is your brainstorming process?

Nissim: Well, my superpower is spitting out terrible ideas. So sometimes Brad censors me. I’ll word vomit ideas. He’ll do the “all right, chill out.”

Brad: Yeah, I think some of Nissim’s ideas were never meant to be shared with the world. That being said, what happens is that he shares ideas and sometimes we do stumble upon something interesting. Picking through those, sometimes it’s like, “okay, how about we stop here and  expand on this and move from there for a day.” Sometimes it’s like, “okay, reset. None of that works. We need to start over.”

Nissim: But I’m aware that my ideas can also fill the room, so I will dial it back, you know? It’s just a time thing. Like, I can compress all of my thoughts into like 30 seconds and it can become overwhelming. I have to calm down!

Brad: But also I think we’ve gotten pretty good at rejecting each other to our face. Like I can say “No, actually, no.”

 

What has been the best part of Wildfire for you?

Brad: I came here as a CS major. All of my experience and background is in tech. But I realized that that’s not all that I want to do. And so coming here being a co-founder with a team, I was able to expose myself to a lot more than the bit of code that I’m used to staring at all day. That’s something that I’m really thankful for. And I think the mindset and the general methodology of entrepreneurship that Wildfire has thrown at me constantly has made me feel a lot more whole rather than having only my technical skills. 

Nissim: Bradley’s better at self discipline than I am. Stephen (the Wildfire program manager) kind of talked about this in the beginning of the program: this is going to be secondhand fun where it’s not fun in the moment, but you look back on it and it’s like, “Oh wow, that was fun.” A lot of learning moments that happen in Wildfire I would not have been able to do on my own because I couldn’t have forced myself through it. There were literal moments where I felt like blood vessels are popping in my head and those are actually the moments that I feel like I learn the most about myself. That’s been the most valuable thing for me in Wildfire. And that’s, I think the thing I appreciate most that it’s forced me to be so far out of my comfort zone at certain points. 

 

Do you align what you’re doing more closely with the idea of nonprofit work or with for-profit work? How do you see yourself in the whole spectrum of startups?

Nissim: We want people to have fun and happy experiences and, on the spectrum of profit to nonprofit, I don’t know if that’s relevant because we’re trying to get people more value than we take. That’s the philosophy of entrepreneurship that I’ve inherited from my teachers and my mentors. A real business is when you give people something more than you take back. That’s how you give real value to the world.

 


This article is part of an ongoing series highlighting the startup teams admitted to Wildfire, The Garage’s Summer Pre-Accelerator Program. For more information about Wildfire, click here.

Wildfire Spotlight: Ribbon

Introduce yourself!

I’m Chris Rochester. I’m starting my second year at Kellogg in the fall. And I’m the co-founder of Ribbon.

 

How are you doing today?

Doing pretty well. Just keeping busy. It’s been a fast five weeks.

 

Yeah, you’re nearly done. How are you feeling about that?

It kind of ebbs and flows. For the first couple of weeks there was a lot of programming to get some of the infrastructure in place. I think now we’ve really ramped up. We’re getting in front of a lot more potential customers. I wish we’d been in this position a couple of weeks ago, but I’m excited about where we are now and the next couple weeks we have left.

 

What is Ribbon? Can you tell me more about it?

Sure, so Ribbon is an employee appreciation platform. What we’re trying to do is help managers provide their employees with more impactful recognition. We believe to provide that recognition, you need to personalize it. We use a unique onboarding process to better understand employees’ personal interests and career aspirations. Then we use that to distill key insights and provide personalized recognition recommendations to their managers.

 

What inspired you to create Ribbon?

Well, it kind of started as a different product. I had been working with another Kellogg student on a more personal gifting experience product. A few years ago I was working crazy, crazy hours at this job and my girlfriend at the time – luckily, she’s now my wife – her birthday was coming up. I was like “I’ve gotta get her a card, gotta get her a card, gotta get her a card,” but I just never got away from my desk. Then suddenly I found myself rushing to the airport to meet her for a trip we were taking without a card in hand. And that almost ended our relationship. I was thinking back on this and a light went off in my head. The intention was there, I wanted to get her something nice, but there were enough hurdles that it just didn’t happen. I was looking for a solution that would give me a little more ease with gifting.

As my cofounder and I started working on this project in Kellogg, we were doing all these customer interviews and the thing that kept coming up was that people had received a lot of bad recognition and gifts at their jobs. It was impersonal: like a bottle of wine for a person who doesn’t drink or a Starbucks gift card for someone who doesn’t like coffee. We realized that there were people receiving recognition that actually had a negative effect on them rather than a positive effect. There were so many managers who wanted to do something nice for their employees, but weren’t sure how so they defaulted to these generic options. Ribbon is the solution to that.

 

So currently, what is Ribbon? A software? A training? An experience?

It’s a combination of things. Down the line, we want it to be software based. Right now, we have an onboarding survey, then we pull out key attributes of an employee and we match that to gifts and experiences that would be positive. From there, if a manager has someone they want to recognize, we will provide them with a curated list of three or four ideas we think would be most impactful for the employee.

 

What has been the biggest challenge in getting Ribbon off the ground?

I think the biggest challenge has been finding our audience. In early conversations with HR managers, there was a lot of interest in the product and verbal validation. But when it came time to convert [to customers rather than advisors], we realized interest and adoption were two very different things. We’ve done a lot of work to think about what companies or customers would really be excited and willing to purchase our product. We’ve really been narrowing our scope in order to find meaningful partnerships.

 

How have you been testing your product?

We ran our first pilot right before Wildfire. It was a great experience. It was a lot of logistics and figuring things out on the fly, but at the end of the day the reception we got from the manager who tested the product was really amazing. He had a group of MBA interns that he wanted to recognize and thank for their time, so we helped curate gifts for each of them. The best thing about that was that he sent me a picture of all of his interns opening their up gifts the day after I delivered them and they all seemed so happy. Really, what we’re trying to do is make sure employees feel valued and known in the workplace – so seeing that process play out and succeed was really important to us.

 

Do you imagine that delivery and personal curation of gifts will be a long-term part of Ribbon or was that just part of this testing period?

I think we would like to operationalize it a little better. Right now, we want to have control over the whole Ribbon experience from start to finish. In the future, I think there are many potential partners who could help us facilitate that gift-delivery side of things. We want this product to be a beautiful offering and we want managers to feel really proud of the gifts they’re giving, so we’re playing a heavier role to ensure that.

 

Have you had any really impactful mentors during this process?

Yeah, one of the great things about being a student at Kellogg is that there are lots of great resources through classes and professors. I think one person in particular who has had a lot of impact on us is a professor I had last quarter named Rick Desai. He teaches New Venture Development, which is part of a sequence in Kellogg that teaches you how to think about a new idea, validate it in the market, and launch it. In the development phase Rick really accelerated our process with Ribbon. He made us think about the marketing from the beginning and test all of our assumptions. I don’t think I’d be so confident in Wildfire if it weren’t for his class.

 

How has Wildfire helped you succeed?

As a student, it’s hard to balance personal life, working on a startup, and classes all at once. Having the opportunity to invest more time and fully immerse myself in the business is amazing. Unfortunately I’m still finding that there still aren’t enough hours in the day, even with a team of interns. There’s just so much we need to get done, especially with the summer coming to an end and knowing that I’ll be back in classes soon. I’ve learned so much in the last five weeks and had such an awesome team. There’s been a lot of shared knowledge during the program. The speakers have given me so many ideas about things to try and not to try. I’m excited for the weeks that are left.

 


This article is part of an ongoing series highlighting the startup teams admitted to Wildfire, The Garage’s Summer Pre-Accelerator Program. For more information about Wildfire, click here.

Wildfire Spotlight: Lux

What is Lux?

Lux is a sunrise simulation lamp, or smart lamp. It uses sleep cycles and what time you usually go to bed and wake up to guide you to bed at your optimal time so you can wake up during your light sleep. It’s customizable to the individual and molds to their patterns over time. 

What made you interested in this problem space?

Last spring in my entrepreneurship class we noticed that in the winter time, it was really difficult to wake up. That was because it was dark and gloomy outside and there was hardly any motivation to do anything. We wanted to help people to get out of their bad moods by focusing on sunrise simulation, and although we initially we were similar to a bright light therapy lamp, we’ve transitioned to being a sunrise simulation lamp. We would have an accompanying app that you would enter your usual time to go to sleep and it would guide you into bed by sending you notifications so you can get into bed at the optimal point in your sleep cycle.

How far along in the product development cycle are you?

Right now we are in our prototyping phase. We’ve already created our MVP and we’re already going through three phases of testing, alternating between those week by week. Our main goal for wildfire is product development and honing in on who our consumers are. We know what we offer – we offer time and a better mood. People can attend meetings, spend time with their families, or take time for themselves. We’ve conducted consumer interviews, such as with friends and family, infiltrated Facebook groups, and we’re going over what we’ve found this week. We are trying to find out who wants our product – athletes, parents, professionals – we are trying to find our beachhead consumer.

How has The Garage helped you?

The Garage has really helped us by pairing us with experts who let us gain expertise from them, and ask them any questions we want. For example, last week an accountant came in and he really helped us with setting up our books and figure out our budget. We’ve talked with people offering help with business models and legal advice, and this has all been extremely helpful.

Which entrepreneur do you admire most and why?

Neal Sales-Griffin came to The Garage the other day, and he was telling us a really compelling story about building businesses his freshman and sophomore years of college, and I think that’s a really big driving factor in entrepreneurs. He’s really helping people and tying their purpose into what they do. The founder of Farmer’s Fridge came to speak during the school year at Family Dinner, and he’s really inspirational – he didn’t paint a picture of entrepreneurship being easy, which I think is really, really, easy to do. A lot of people say that it’s very linear, and that’s not necessarily true. It clouds the difficulties you’re going through. He was very transparent about the whole process, and this came through in his delivery.


This article is part of an ongoing series highlighting the startup teams admitted to Wildfire, The Garage’s Summer Pre-Accelerator Program. For more information about Wildfire, click here.