Summer Wildfire 2017: ShareVR

Only yesterday, virtual reality (VR) seemed like a far-off dream. But the field has grown exponentially over recent years, and it doesn’t seem like the momentum is slowing  anytime soon. VR is extremely popular for gamers as it gives them an immersive experience like none other, and it provides developers a new avenue to create innovative games. However, currently it is hard for these developers and players to show the rest of the world how great VR is since there isn’t an easy and efficient way to capture this footage.

ShareVR aims to solve this problem by connecting VR players and their experiences to social media with easy video creation and sharing integration. It’s the easiest way to show your friends what you’re up to in VR. The Garage sat down with the ShareVR team to learn more about their startup and their future goals.

​Left to right: Eleanor, Vivian, Adam, Henry, Chen

 

​Left to right: Eleanor, Henry, Chen, Adam, Vivian

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What sparked the motivation for your startup?

Henry Keyser: “The five of us came together as part of the NUVention class for the past 6 months. We were all interested in working in virtual reality (VR) but we didn’t know in what capacity. We initially considered a language learning application but we realized we didn’t have the manpower nor the background to succeed in that area. But we conducted a lot of interviews with VR developers to learn about what we would need to pursue a VR startup, and during that period we learned that many of them were struggling with capturing VR videos for their own marketing purposes. In addition, many VR players couldn’t effectively make videos of their own gameplay either. As a journalist who was trying to capture and show VR, I also was struggling to make these videos. When we recognized this was a recurring problem: specifically that it’s difficult to describe what it’s like being in VR without being able to properly show it, we spotted an opportunity for our startup.”

Chen Chen: “Also, in our conversations with prominent VR game developer, Steve Bowler, he demonstrated a strong need to capture and show the VR experience for his own promotional materials. He told us he wishes that he had an easier and more efficient way to capture VR videos.  And we believed that with our skillset we would be able to create an easy, and efficient way to capture VR videos. And to take it a step further, we want to extend this beyond VR developers to the players as well so that everyone can easily create and share VR videos on social media.”

Vivian Zhang: “I think another important part is our user research. That’s a big reason we chose sharing VR, because during our initial interviews with VR users, we repeatedly heard that it was hard to share VR videos because they couldn’t capture them and share them efficiently. Therefore it’s hard for them to get their friends on board to try VR as well since they can’t show them what they’re missing out on. So after all of our interviews, this problem really stood out..

Henry: “We heard Steve Bowler at an event in Chicago pretty blatantly say that there is no way to portray the VR experience to someone else without putting a headset on them. To some degree, that was kind of like ‘Challenge Accepted’. We believe that there are ways to communicate everything in life without actually being there. For example, I can explain what Rome is like without having gone to Rome. So we knew there had to be ways to show what it’s like to be in virtual reality without requiring everyone to buy a headset.”

How do you plan to solve this problem?

Eleanor Burgess: “Very simply, we help capture the virtual reality experience and share it on social media. We are focusing on action games and one of our key features is to take a third-person, drone view rather than a first-person view. We opt for a third-person view because often action games can be jerky and fast-paced whether it’s running away from zombies or fighting in a gunfight. We then encode this gameplay, captured in the third-person, as a video using an audio voice command: ‘Start recording’ and then ‘Stop recording’ to share on various social media platforms.”

Henry: “We recognized there was no way to get the perspective we wanted people to have because the first-person perspective was making people motion-sick as they watched. We wanted to have a super simple way to capture this footage in the same sense that when you take a selfie, you usually don’t have to plan it out; it’s pretty spontaneous. We also wanted it to be super easy for developers and gamers to integrate and right now it can be installed in about 40 seconds. It really doesn’t require any knowhow, I’m not a coder and I can even install it in someone’s game.  And our solution will work with any game since it’s not tethered to any single game or button, rather the voice control allows it to be universal across games by simply saying ‘Start/stop recording’.”

Eleanor: “The technological solution is twofold. On the developers’ side, they have a huge amount of grassroots marketing. We are currently building the analytics to show how many people are watching the videos and how are they performing, to provide insight and show our value to developers. On the player’s side, it allows them to start and have ongoing conversations with their friends on social media even with those who don’t have a VR headset. Ultimately we want to take VR from an isolated experience and make it something fun and interactive.”

Chen: “The videos will be in 2D, not even in 360 degrees. But this is actually really good because it makes the videos very easy to share and allows others to see what you’re doing in your VR games. We’ve seen this to be very successful as friends of VR players get to see the experience of fighting zombies or running away from dinosaurs and they end up wanting to join as well. We track these analytics and we have seen a lot of buzz created surrounding VR just by the videos being uploaded; for example just looking at Steam, we can see how many more games have been bought and downloaded after our videos went live.”

Henry: “Our product makes Youtube videos and so not only can people watch videos that others share, but there’s also a link to Steam store to purchase the game as well. This really streamlines the whole discovery process.Looking ahead at our future goals, we want to get people excited about VR and entice their friends to get involved in VR as well. We hope to support a and create a social culture in VR, Rather than you as Avatar 4 and me as Avatar 8 while in-game, we want you to be Travis and me to be Henry, looking like we do in person, so that when I see you, I see my friend. Then, we can go on crazy adventures together like climbing Mt. Everest, racing cars, or fighting hordes of zombies, and we can look back and see us in that adventure and hopefully entice our other friends to join in as well.”

Which entrepreneurs do you admire and why?

Henry: “I admire the late and great Steve Jobs because he was truly a visionary even though he may have rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. I also really admire Elon Musk for being a visionary and also for being awkward and owning it. You can be awkward but if you’re smart, driven, and treat people fairly, you can do great things. And we try to treat everyone equally and fairly and not abuse the industry.”

Chen: “I’d say Bill Gates. He is my all-time favorite not only because he started Microsoft, but also because of what he has done since then. He keeps changing the world from a different perspective through foundations and assisting research. The way he utilizes resources and money is really quite educational and admirable.”

Eleanor: “For me, it’s Veronica Costa Teixeira Orvalho. I met Veronica at TechStars while I was working on a previous startup. She’s the CEO at a company called Didimo. She actually previously worked as a professor with her graduate students on the technology for really good face rendering software. But she realized this technology was her dream and she quit her job as a professor and pursued her startup full time. She is a woman of incredible grace and courage and she is a true role model for me.”

Vivian: “There’s a Chinese entrepreneur named Kai-Fu Lee and he was a senior VP of Microsoft and after that he actually went back to China and build an incubator for Chinese entrepreneurs. He has this connection with younger generations and always does many speeches at various campuses. He always encourages the younger generations to learn from different entrepreneurs and try to pursue their ideas. He provides funding and technical support as well as other resources for these individuals as well. I really admire that he is giving back and helping the younger entrepreneurs even though he is already very successful and I hope there will be more people like him in China.”

Follow ShareVR here!

Twitter: @ShareVr

Youtube: ShareVR Team

LinkedIn: ShareVR

Website: ShareVr.io

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.

The Garage Goes to Washington

This week, two student founders had the once in a lifetime opportunity to represent The Garage and Northwestern at a special show and tell event in Washington, DC as part of the “Disrupter Series: Update on IOT Opportunities and Challenges,” organized by the subcommittee of the House of Energy and Commerce Committee, formed to identify policies that could affect technology and innovation in the realm of communications-based products and services.

Integrating the Internet of Things into the everyday American life doesn’t come without challenges. From smart cities to medical sensors to self-driving cars, policy makers are aiming to support IoT and address barriers or obstacles to innovation.

 

In her opening remarks at the event, Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), and representative of Northwestern’s district, talked about the value of of energy generation and medical devices in the IoT “race,” citing them as two important examples of how innovation can benefit the country.

Northwestern University also received a special shoutout from Jan, noted as being a “research university critical to the future of innovation.” And here at The Garage, we like to think we have something to do that with.

Two student founded startups, PedalCell and LifeMotion Technologies, were featured at the exhibit representing the world of academic incubators, alongside about two dozen other organizations demonstrating their products and innovations, including Qualcomm, Panasonic, General Motors, Honeywell and Siemens.

Founder of PedalCell, Vishaal Mali (McCormick ‘20), is looking to address the alternative energy crisis through convenient, powerful and wicked cool measures, starting with the ubiquitous bicycle. PedalCell’s goal is to create a bike-powered cellphone charger that will reduce the need for conventional charging methods as well as reduce the use of cars for commuting. Vishaal and his team have been Residents at The Garage, incubating their startup and will also be participants in this year’s Summer Wildfire Pre-Accelerator Program.

Pictured: Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) with student founder of PedalCell, Vishaal Mali

LifeMotion Technologies, founded by Northwestern Ph.D student Michael Young, is focused on improving jaw function for patients recovering from Head and Neck Cancers, with an objective to improve function for those suffering from any condition which may reduce jaw mobility. Understanding that one size does not fit all, LifeMotion has provides individualized rehabilitation with technology capable of adapting to a patient’s unique anatomy, making recovery predictable, personalized, preemptive, and participatory. LifeMotion is currently incubating at The Garage.

Pictured: Michael Young, founder of LifeMotion Technologies and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.)

Summer Wildfire 2017: HotPlate

With over 7,000 restaurants in Chicago, it’s no wonder why people have a hard time picking a place to eat. And once you have decided on a restaurant, more often than not, many of these restaurants boast a wide menu selection which poses the difficult and daunting question of “what do I order?” And after you sift through the menu and finally settle on what you want, it’s a huge disappointment when the dish comes out and looks nothing like you had imagined and tastes even worse.

HotPlate aims to solve this problem. It’s is an app designed to help you decide what to order at restaurants. Users can rate individual menu items, so that it’s quick and easy to see the best dishes. HotPlate also allows users to see friends’ ratings, search by specific dish item, and receive tailored recommendations. The Garage sat down with the HotPlate team to learn more about HotPlate and their future goals.

From Left to Right: Connor Hanley, Rushi Shah, Sarah Ahmad, Laura Barrera, Sabreen Ali, Sameena Khan

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What sparked the motivation for your startup?

Sarah: “Over the summer, I spent a lot of time researching different restaurants in Chicago because I really enjoy eating out and trying new places. I spent hours browsing through sites like Yelp and various food blogs and I thought there had to be a more efficient way to figure out what restaurant to try and which dish to order once I got there. There were no services that compiled this data and this sparked my idea for HotPlate. I wanted a more efficient way to see the best restaurants and dishes around Chicago. From there, I researched if there was anything like that already and I found that there were two startups that were similar but they both failed because they immediately tried to launch across the entire United States rather than focusing on a specific area and expanding from there. And four of our team members including myself took Engineering Entrepreneurship 325 during Fall quarter and that’s where I pitched the idea. It was voted one of the top ideas in the class and we were assembled into teams and went from there.”

How do you plan to solve the problem you’ve identified?

Sarah: “We are creating an app that allows users to rate individual dishes at restaurants so that if you’re at a restaurant and have no idea what to order, we’ll provide a super quick and easy way to see what the best dishes are. Also, there will be other features like discovering new dishes near you tailored to your taste palette, engaging with your friends, and seeing exactly what you’re getting.”

When did you all first feel the entrepreneurial spirit?

Connor: “Prior to that class, I hadn’t done anything entrepreneurial before. I never really planned on doing anything entrepreneurial and I took the class as more of an “I have to” class. But coming out of it, my thought process and how I viewed things was very different. I never thought I’d enjoy the class as much as I did and I think a major factor was the team I ended up on. We work pretty well as a team and this teamwork coupled with the environment we worked in really solidified my interest in the class and sparked my entrepreneurial spirit.”

Juju: “I share a lot of the same feelings as Connor. This is my senior year and I took the class to fulfill a BIP requirement and I thought it would just be fun because I had never been a part of the entrepreneurial scene. I ended up really enjoying the team and the project we were working on.”

John: “For me, a couple computer science classes touch on aspects of entrepreneurship like being on a development team but I had never gotten the full experience and I was pretty interested in that. So I took this class as a feeler for what entrepreneurship is and I really enjoyed it and I’m really glad I met these people.”

Rushi: “So I joined the team later in December, after the class was already over. I knew Sarah previously and we both knew we were interested in entrepreneurship. For me, the interest was always there, I just didn’t have an avenue to pursue it. But this opportunity kind of fell into my lap and it was a great way to dive into entrepreneurship.”

Sarah: “I’ve actually always been kind of interested in entrepreneurship. Back in the summer before high school, I took a class in an immersive summer camp called entrepreneurial leadership. So I’ve always been really interested in what it takes to start and run a business. For a long time, I actually thought I wanted to major in business until I discovered engineering. And with the vast resources of Northwestern, I knew I wanted to start something or get involved with a startup at some point.”

How did you choose the name HotPlate?

Connor: “We were initially Eat Up, which Sarah came up with, but during the class we realized that Eat Up would be hard to trademark since it’s a very common phrase. So for a while, we were just writing Eat Up while trying to get rid of it. During the Winter Wildfire program, we decided we needed to come up with a new name. At that point everyone was just throwing out ideas, and HotPlate was suggested and we all liked it. With that, we’ve incorporated features like the “hottest plates” into our app and we like how it sounds.”

What has been the biggest failure so far and what have you learned from it?

Sarah: “I think the biggest failure is our timeline of things because when we initially entered the Winter Wildfire program, we planned to launch the app halfway through the quarter. And that wasn’t realistic since it takes a lot of time to develop the platform and we have to constantly troubleshoot bugs. We also realized that we hadn’t found the right time to launch the app because you want to launch the app strategically so when it’s in the app store and people download it, it’s fully functioning. This is really hard because of being in school and a lot of us are engineers which cuts a lot of the time that we would like to dedicate to HotPlate.”

What do you hope to achieve through the Summer Wildfire Accelerator?

Sarah: “We definitely want to build out a lot of the features that we have envisioned; for example, being able to interact with your friends and seeing what restaurants and dishes they have rated. Also we want to build out a search function so that you can see the best restaurant recommendations for any dish. We hope to finish these features during the summer so when we return during the Fall, we are ready to capture the Northwestern audience, specifically the 2,000 or so new freshmen and master’s students. They are a great target audience since they won’t be as familiar with the Evanston area and this will help them identify which restaurants to eat at and which dishes to order.”

Which entrepreneurs do you admire and why?

Rushi: “Sarah and I had a chance to meet Mark Cuban through The Garage Secret Field Trip last year. I’ve always really admired him and meeting him in person was amazing. Talking to him about being an entrepreneur and his successes was great. And what I admire most is that he knew he was smart and successful and he applied his abilities toward his passion, basketball. He is a very active owner with his NBA team and gets to know and develop meaningful relationships with all of his players.”

Sarah: “I really admire Michelle Phan, she’s a Youtube content creator and I started watching her videos when I was in middle school. It’s really cool to see how her career has grown over the past 10 years. She started her own subscription-based makeup company similar to Birchbox and she pursued something she was passionate about and was able to create an entrepreneurial business from it. Through her journey, she has become a very strong woman and she has been able to balance everything which is very admirable as many entrepreneurs often get engulfed by their work.”

How has The Garage helped you with your startup?

Everyone collectively agreed that the mentorship, guidance, and support from The Garage has been amazing. Everyone is constantly pushing each other to strive for greatness and this allows the HotPlate team to stay motivated and driven.

Check out the HotPlate website here and follow them on Instagram: @hotplateapp!

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.

Summer Wildfire 2017: Local Technologies

It’s no secret that college students are always looking for a little extra spending money. Whether it’s to help with groceries, hang out with friends, or even buy textbooks, a couple extra bucks never hurts. Students explore a wide variety of opportunities to make this extra money. From giving blood for mono research to random Kellogg studies on relationships, the possibilities are endless. But why waste your time with these inconsistent and strange methods of making money?

Local Technologies, a startup founded by Collin Pham, aims to solve this problem by connecting students interested in earning money with community members interested in getting tasks done. This will be a mutually beneficial relationship for students and local homeowners. After getting the ball rolling in Evanston, Collin plans to scale this platform to college towns throughout the nation. The Garage sat down with Collin to learn more about Local and its future plans.

Left: Caraline Pham, Right: Collin Pham 


The following interview was edited for length and clarity.

What sparked the motivation for your startup?
Collin: “So it’s actually kind of a long story. During the summer of my sophomore year of high school me and two friends, Charles and Cam, really wanted to make some extra money. We went to all the ice cream and pizza parlors but we weren’t hired because we were still pretty young. So we decided to put up some flyers around town and we called ourselves “Newton Odd Job Services.”  Our motto was “You name it, we do it.”  We mowed lawns, painted walls, and pretty much did whatever other opportunities presented themselves to make some extra money. And this really small idea started growing into something really big.

By my senior year I had bought out one of my co-founders and the other had left of his own accord. I had employed about 20 students from my high school and we were making about $20,000 per summer. I took a step back and thought to myself, “what’s going on here?” We learned quickly that there are already homeowners who are hiring general laborers to come into their homes. However, these homeowners are generally unhappy with the laborers because they’re expensive and can also be kind of strange — students are a lot more pleasant to hire. On top of all of this is price — if you hire a painter, they cost $40-$50/hr.  Students can come in at 50% under that cost . And because these tasks are so simple they’re pretty much commoditized; the quality of work we’re providing is the same, if not better than these adults.  We looked at this and were like, why isn’t everyone hiring students for their general labor needs?

Local aims to bring this solution to scale to solve this 2-sided problem. One, there’s no simple way to find general laborers as an alternative to the expensive labor homeowners are currently paying for. Two, there’s no highly flexible, simple way, for students to earn extra money. Now we’re building an online platform for that to scale across college campuses. My high school experience was what really sparked our idea and I want to take that and make it more efficient, profitable and impactful with a powerful tech backend.”

Who’s on the team?
Collin: “Right now, we have a team of six with three more that just came on board. I’m the founder and I have a computer science background. On campus, I’m involved in other entrepreneurial groups and I also run NU Tutors which has a similar business model and growth strategy to Local. My sister Caraline studies strategic communication at the University of Wisconsin and she’s currently building our brand. She’s making all the content on our website. Since our company’s name is Local, it’s really important to us that every time someone hires a student, they feel like they’re hiring someone down the street, someone truly local to the community. She’s working on our mission statement and core values and making sure we have a solid foundation. I also just recruited three Northwestern students to help out with tech for the summer. Each of them has an awesome background and I’m really excited for what we’re going to be able to accomplish. The sixth person is Abby Stratton and she’s the head of ISBE Mark. She’s a junior and she’s helping with a lot of operations to figuring out how we are going to scale.”

What has been your biggest failure so far and what have you learned from it?
Collin: “When I first started doing this, I dove into the code, and I was trying to create a login process to authenticate our users. I basically spent an entire month building everything from the ground up. I created our own authentication process and it was working about 90% of the time. But it just took so long and it still wasn’t perfect. Then I realized I could  use a third-party service and I was able to implement it within a day. Trying to build it out from scratch was a huge waste of time. I learned that you shouldn’t try to reinvent the wheel. There are a lot of free things out there that can help you and you should use them!”

Which entrepreneurs do you admire and why?
Collin: “ I think the entrepreneur I admire the most is Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, because of his ability to compartmentalize everything. When he was first building Amazon, he did this really interesting thing where he told everyone that they need to make sure everything they’re building needs to be able to communicate with everything else.  Apparently it was really annoying for every single team because they not only had to build what they were told to build, but they also had to make it really easy to communicate with everyone else. But that turned into Amazon Web Services (AWS), which is this huge thing today. So I really admire his ability to plan 5 to 10 years in advance.”

How as The Garage helped you with your startup?
Collin: “I think two things have been really helpful here. First is the space; it provides a location for me to come and work. And the second is the people I’ve met. Just the other day I met someone who was able to help me with our taxes. Just the broader network of connections that you make here is amazing.”

What do you hope to get out of the Summer Wildfire Accelerator?
Collin: “Hopefully by the end of the summer we will have our website up and running to scale. We’ll have our login features and our matching algorithm done and pretty much be able to pick up from Northwestern and go to any other location or college campus. The next place we are looking to expand to is the University of Wisconsin because my sister goes there. Although it doesn’t have the exact audience we are targeting, it makes the most logistical sense since we will have someone onsite to oversee things. Ultimately I hope to go national with this and to achieve this, we have a very slow growth strategy. Once we know this model can scale, we’ll be looking for investments to help accelerate it!”

To get in touch with Local, visit their website or shoot them an e-mail.

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.

Summer Wildfire 2017: Unruled.

In a world where everything seems to be regulated by one thing or another, why confine our ideas to the spaces between lines on ordinary notebooks? Let these ideas flow and simultaneously fight for a more sustainable future.

Unruled. is a sustainable notebook for creative thinkers. The team has designed a minimalist and aesthetically pleasing unlined spiral notebook that students can be proud of. It’s tailored to creatives and intellectuals alike by taking the best features from traditional notebooks and improving the rest. The Garage sat down with Bennett Hensey and Jacob Morgan from Unruled. to learn more about their startup and goals for the future.

From left to right: Lexy Praeger, Jacob Morgan, Ellen Ehrsam, Bennett Hensey, and Christina Allen

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What sparked the motivation for your startup?

Bennett: “We were in the same Principles of Entrepreneurship class and we needed to brainstorm problems that occurred in our lives.  One problem that I had as a freshman was that being an engineering student, a lot of my classes were not conducive to lined paper. So I was looking for a spiral notebook that didn’t have lines and that was really hard to find. I ended up just buying an expensive sketchbook that was big and bulky which wasn’t ideal at all. I remember writing this idea down in an Evernote file thinking that this could be a great project to fill a need and learn about what it takes to create and grow a business. Then I pitched this simple idea and we all went with it. Since then, it has turned into a lot more than just a simple idea.

How was the process from ideation to creation?

Jacob: “So like Bennett said, it started in the Principles of Entrepreneurship class where you come up with an idea during the first couple weeks and then you walk through all the steps of what it takes to start a business. This included business plans, marketing, social media, funding and more. So we created a plan for all of this and at the end of the quarter, we decided that we could take this a step further through The Garage. We applied to the Residency program and through that, we’ve started to implement our plan. Last quarter we had our Kickstarter that was very successful and we raised $6,400. That was our first funding goal and with that we have purchased our first round of manufacturing for our notebooks, which have just arrived, and we’ll begin selling very soon!”

How has The Garage helped you with your startup so far?

Bennett: “I think The Garage has given us a place that catalyzes our business. As students and first-time entrepreneurs, there are a lot of small things that you may not know how to do as well as thoughts and road bumps that can inhibit your progress. Having the guidance of our mentors who have worked through many entrepreneurial projects and having the help of other students who are struggling with their own projects, pushes us to do more than we could do alone. It also allows us to meet a lot of like-minded people and overall it’s just a great place to be.”

How did you choose the name Unruled. and what was that process like?

Jacob: “I think it came about when I was doing the graphic design for the cover. I was looking at traditional notebooks and they would say things like: 1-Subject, 80 sheets, Wide Ruled, 8” x 10.5”. So I wrote out: 1-Subject, 80 sheets, and I was thinking what we should put in the following spot and Unruled just made sense. It’s the one thing we all agree on and hasn’t changed.”

What has been your biggest failure so far and what have you learned from it?

Jacob: “Fortunately, we haven’t had any really big failures yet but one thing we could do better is delegating tasks and figuring out who is doing what to improve productivity. We’ve had a bit of trouble with that this quarter. We’ll come to meetings where we usually do a lot of problem solving as a team, and we’re at a point where that’s not the most effective way to go about things. We need to figure out everyone’s strengths and let those individuals take ownership of their particular projects and have a system that encourages trust and cooperation.”

What is the most important lesson you have learned?

Bennett: “I think for me, it’s taking criticism in stride. I think realizing that criticism always comes from a real and valid place is important and we need to understand and identify the root of that criticism. Whether it’s clearly explaining the purpose of the product or the product itself, there are always areas of improvement. So you need to accept criticism in order to learn and grow from it.”

What do you hope to achieve through the Summer Wildfire Accelerator?

Jacob: “I think it’ll be a huge motivator for us and a force that makes us go out there and really build Unruled. We have a lot of plans for this summer to grow and scale and start selling and solidify channels for manufacturing and distribution. Having the constant pressure of other students working on their projects and the mentors checking in on us will really help us get our work done whereas right now we have a ton of stuff going on like classes and clubs that can get in our way.”

Bennett: “I think it’ll be a good experience to not have any classwork and focus on Unruled. I’ve spent a lot of time in school where you’re told to do an assignment and you do it for the sake of doing it. But having an opportunity to do something you want to do and doing it full-time is something really special and not something that happens everyday. We also have a lot of personal goals in addition to our business goals that we hope to accomplish this summer as well.”

What are your next goals for Unruled.?

Jacob: “Right now, we’ve ordered 600 notebooks and we have to fill around 360 pre-orders that we received through our Kickstarter. So we have around 240 left that we need to sell, so that should be fun. We’ll be setting up pop-up shops around campus and maybe partnering with other startups and organizations on campus.

Over the summer, we will focus on establishing relationships with retail locations and also other distribution channels like a website for online orders or other platforms like Amazon to really solidify and streamline the process of ordering notebooks. So when school comes back around, hopefully we aren’t scrambling around to try to figure things out and instead we can run things smoothly.”

When did you first feel the entrepreneurial spirit?

Bennett: “I think I’ve always been motivated “to do.” I’ve realized that I learn best by struggling rather than learning to do something perfectly. As a recovering perfectionist, I’ve learned to push myself outside of my comfort zone like teaching myself how to code over a summer and thinking about how to monetize the terrible Twitter bot.  So I’ve always been motivated by learning to do new things and had an interest in entrepreneurship as it became more and more trendy. I read a book on entrepreneurship and always thought about how I could make money from various projects, so I wanted to learn how to actually do it and the process behind it.

Jacob: “I think I’ve always loved creating and making things. I think I always knew I wanted to do something with entrepreneurship even though I hadn’t done anything related to it before I took the class. Prior to the class, I actually made my own major which is Product Design and Entrepreneurship Engineering, so I jumped into it without knowing too much about it. I enjoy everything from designing, building, and making, but also being able to do something impactful. The class really opened my eyes to entrepreneurship and we see a lot of teams in The Garage who are working on their startups full-time and it’s a great way to see progress in real life. Hopefully working through Unruled. will give us the skills and experience to work on bigger projects in the future.”

Check out the Unruled. website and follow them on Instagram: @be_unruled!

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.

Summer Wildfire 2017: BOSSY

Traveling is an unparalleled way to experience new places and cultures. And to make the experience even more meaningful, it’s always nice to interact with and support local business owners. These can be local restaurants, fashion boutiques, coffee shops, museums, and so much more. It’s a great way to learn more about your destination from a genuine and knowledgeable source and as a result, this also fosters a greater economy among these local businesses. However, sometimes it may be difficult to find these businesses, especially those owned by women, which results in low engagement with these local communities.

BOSSY, a startup founded by Sam Letscher and Isabel Benatar, aims to solve this problem by connecting socially conscious travelers with local female business owners, facilitating ethical traveling and purchasing while empowering women worldwide. The idea was sparked in Mike Moyer’s Entrepreneurship 225 class and the two are currently focused on telling the story of various female business owners in Chicago to increase awareness and engagement with these local businesses. The Garage sat down with Sam and Isabel to learn more about BOSSY and their goals for the future.

Left: Isabel Benatar, Right: Sam Letscher

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What sparked the motivation for your startup?

Sam: “So when we were first coming up with the concept for BOSSY, we were focused on travel. This was because Isabel had taken a gap year after high school before coming to Northwestern and I was abroad for 6 months in Madagascar and Switzerland studying public health. As we were traveling, we saw the difficulties with traveling ethically and engaging with the local community in a mutually beneficial way. We found that local businesses owned by women were the best way for us to make an impact. While traveling, we’ve both come across amazing, small women-owned businesses and we have had great experiences with them.  And right now we’re taking that concept and condensing it to Chicago and thinking about how we can be more ethical consumers rather than just travelers. For example, when we go out to a restaurant, instead of  supporting one of the big Chicago restaurant groups, how can we support local, independent businesses run by women. The focus on female ownership has really come from our dedication to women empowerment stemming from the disparities in women’s access to capital and how easy it is for people to get a business up and running, which is usually very difficult for women. Often, they’re mothers and they’ve taken a couple years off when their children were young and suddenly people don’t see them as credible or professional anymore. So there are a lot of factors in play that make it hard for women to start a business. We really wanted that to be  part of our mission because it’s something we’re both very passionate about.

How are you solving the problem you’ve identified?

Sam: “So right now we’re storytelling and we have found it so compelling to hear from women who own businesses in Chicago, especially their trials and tribulations when starting out with their own ideas. We also really enjoyed learning about their inspirations and motivations so when we step into one of these spaces, it’s a much more meaningful experience. When we sit down for a meal, we know the history of the restaurant and where the profits are going. Really understanding that background adds value to us because we are supporting someone we want to support. It’s the difference between sitting down at the Cheesecake Factory and sitting down for a home cooked meal by your grandma. We want to help people understand the history behind these local and independently run places so that when they go there it’s a more meaningful experience and simultaneously drive traffic to these locations.

How did you choose the name BOSSY, and what was the process like?

Isabel: “So we were originally calling it ‘Soar’ which we didn’t realize might be confusing if you didn’t see it written down. We both felt like we wanted to use something more powerful and we had chosen ‘Soar’ with the idea of uplifting women. We ended up brainstorming for a long time and Sam came up with BOSSY. We struggled a little bit because it does have a certain negative connotation but that’s why we liked it because it’s reclaiming that word. Also, people have a reaction to the word and it makes people curious and want to learn more about us. Ultimately, we want to encourage and celebrate women who are bosses.”

What has been your biggest failure so far and what have you learned from it?

Sam: “I don’t even know if we’ve been going long enough to have a biggest failure yet. Honestly, we’ve taken so long to decide on how we want to start with this concept since it’s so broad. How do you connect socially conscious tourists with women-owned businesses to create meaningful travel experiences and support women’s economic empowerment? We decided to start with Chicago and figure out what we want to do from there. We decided to go with storytelling because that was the most interesting and compelling thing for us and we wanted to bring that content to our customers and people who will appreciate it. The hardest thing so far has been taking this broad idea and figuring out how we want to start and how we want to test it. I think that the failure was the period of being very jumbled in our thoughts and concepts and having so much going on that we couldn’t solely focus on one thing. But now we have our blog and our instagram page that we can drive people toward and we have a space to tell these stories.”

What’s the most important lesson that you have learned?

Isabel: “You have to start small. Since we started with a passion for travel, that automatically generates the question of where do we start? Do we start in a city in Mexico or take on the whole world right off the bat? So just learning that we need to start on smaller scale and more locally has allowed us to grow. “

Which entrepreneurs do you admire and why?

Sam: “Personally, thinking about what we’re trying to do, I really admire the founders of Airbnb because they’ve given so many people the opportunity have another source of income. When we look at what we may eventually do in the travel space, we’re really passionate about the idea of supporting the people who actually live in a location rather than the large hotels there. So I really admire how the founders of Airbnb have been able to line up this need that travelers have with a social impact. I feel like they don’t even emphasize the fact that they are trying to support local economies. But they do and this is really inspiring because it’s such a simple idea yet it has such a big impact.”

Isabel: “I strongly agree with that and I also want to say my dad, who’s also an entrepreneur; I always bounce ideas off of him and we’re from Palo Alto so I’ve been surrounded by this culture growing up. I’ve worked with his company before and I really admire the values he brings to the organizations he works at. “

When did you first feel the entrepreneurial spirit?

Sam: “We lived with each other last year, we were roommates, and we took the Entrepreneurship 225 class with Mike Moyer. We were working on this ‘Just add water cereal’ idea that wasn’t a very interesting product to either of us but nonetheless, still a satisfying process to go through. But I think the seed was planted there and we started thinking about the problems and opportunities in our own lives.

Basically right after this class, I went abroad for 6 months and during my time abroad I was noticing problems and how we could do them better. I had always been interested in traveling so it was a great opportunity from a personal perspective to notice these things which the 225 class really primed me to do. And when I came back, I took the 325 class with Neal Sales-Griffin and he just took the base that I had and gave me the tools to try and identify meaningful problems. I think that both of our issues in the past have been that we didn’t have anything that felt compelling enough to pursue. But once we did, it was almost a no-brainer to get together and do this because we have complementary skills and passions.”

How as The Garage helped you with your startup?

Isabel: “Honestly, the workshops like the financial modeling workshop and having a structured environment where someone is giving you this information is so helpful. Also, The Garage keeps us organized, gives us deadlines and provides networking opportunities to meet people.”

Sam: “And it’s not just the physical space that The Garage provides. It also provides a headspace for you to work in as well because you meet all these other students that have these amazing ideas which is very inspiring. Having this dedicated space creates that headspace where you’re more free to explore your ideas which is something that we all should be doing more. Overall, this really validates the student’s’ interests instead of being some alternative path and crazy side project.”

What do you hope to get out of the Summer Wildfire program?

Sam: “We’re both so excited to be focusing on this full time. It’s so hard to do this throughout the year. We started a quarter ago and we’ve already made a lot of progress, but it’s hard when you don’t have the dedicated time for it. In our heads, this is a priority but there are so many other things we need to prioritize as college students. Being surrounded by people and resources who want us to succeed will be amazing. I don’t know where we’ll be and what we’ll have done by the end of the Wildfire program but I’m confident that we’re going to do something that we’re proud of and be satisfied with the work that we’re doing.”

Stay connected with BOSSY by following their blog here and their Instagram: @BOSSY_Chi!

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

Summer Wildfire 2017: Gulu

With more than 300,000 Chinese international students coming to the United States each year to pursue a college degree, it’s no surprise that the application process is becoming more and more rigorous for these students. Competition is constantly on the rise and as a result, many of these students turn toward outside resources to aide them throughout this process. Chinese education consulting agencies are one of the main sources for this guidance, however they often only act as a middleman to connect mentors with eager students without any consideration for fostering relationships. They overcharge students who will do anything to get accepted to their dream schools and they also underpay the mentors who actually put in the time and effort to help them.

Gulu, a startup co-founded by two Northwestern juniors Ann Yu and Danqi Liao, aims to solve this problem by providing a platform that helps students in China (mentees) find the perfect mentors to help them navigate and excel through the college application process. Gulu provides a direct channel of communication between mentors and mentees and eliminates the need for education consulting agencies. The Garage sat down with both co-founders to learn more about Gulu and their goals for the future.

Left: Ann Yu, Right: Danqi Liao

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What sparked the motivation for your startup?

Ann: “Our startup targets Chinese international students to help them gain access to resources throughout the college application process. My co-founder and I are both Chinese international students and we went through college applications with the help of Chinese education consulting agencies. We paid them a lot of money and they advised us through the college application process. But both of our experiences kind of sucked. We hated that agencies were in between the mentees and mentors. We really wanted to create something that would kick them out of the picture because all they provide is marketing and PR. Although they recruit the mentors, their process for assigning them to the students is inefficient and rushed. And they take at least half of what the student pays them. It’s pretty unfair.”

What is the problem you’re working on and what is your solution?

Ann: “I think the problem is that the industry of Chinese educational consulting agencies as a whole is very high-profit, but it does a poor job of pairing mentors and mentees because they work like a business or a big a corporation. They don’t care about relationships; all they care about are numbers and money. The other side and the bad thing for mentors is that they get paid less hourly while they do most of the work. I personally worked for three major college application consultant agencies in China. I got paid a lot, like $30/hour, but that’s still not even half of what students pay the consulting agencies to help them even though I was the one doing all of the work. And the students who sign up for the services don’t have a chance or opportunity to look through all the available mentors. They just get assigned one from the agency. We want to provide freedom, autonomy and transparency when making that decision. Our plan is to design a mobile app and create a community that is interested in or currently studying abroad. So for example, if you’re a student in China, you would go on our app and sign up as a mentee and you can browse through all the students who are studying a particular university like Northwestern or UChicago. You can be like “Oh, I’m interested in your experience! Can you help me write my essay?” And you would directly pay the mentor. In this way the mentees can pay less while the mentors receive all the money.”

How did you choose the name Gulu? What was the process like?

Ann: “We started with Guru, because it implies you’re the master of something and we like to think that everyone can master a subject and be someone’s mentor. But then we realized a software company already had the name Guru. So we decided maybe we should use something that doesn’t mean anything but still sounds like Guru. So we just changed the R to an L and created Gulu.”

Who’s on the team right now?

Ann: “I’m a junior studying philosophy and computer science and my co-founder Danqi, is a junior studying computer science. We currently have two teams, a software development team and a marketing team. There are two computer science majors who are on the software development team. Zilun will be working full-time and Jennifer will be working part-time. On the marketing team we have Kate who will be working full-time and she is currently a junior at UPenn, studying Econ, Philosophy and Political Science (PPE). Our last two members are both high school students, one will be going to Claremont McKenna College and the other will be attending Wesleyan and they will be working remotely. I actually met them through college application consulting services and I mentored both of them during their college application process and and we’ve kept in touch ever since.”

What has been your biggest failure so far and what have you learned from it?

Ann: “I don’t know, I feel like we haven’t succeeded in anything yet to be honest. So far, failure is a normal state of life. We are currently trying to write the app but everyone is really busy. We have a five hour working session every week where we just sit there and learn iOS coding but it’s a huge time commitment for our members who are taking computer science classes. So that’s the biggest struggle. Hopefully we will get it done before summer so we will have a prototype to work with.”

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far?

Ann: “I think when someone is creating and leading a team, one thing you need to think about is the quality of the team. I feel like a lot of student groups on campus are facing the same issue. Many of them are really big, but no one is actually doing anything. I feel like the key for a team is that the size of the team doesn’t matter. What’s important is how dedicated the members are, how interested they are in the mission of the company, and how well they work with each other. Teamwork and the social fit are also really important because you have to see your team members 24/7 so you need to get along with them.”

When did you first feel the entrepreneurial spirit?

Ann: “ If I could define ‘thinking entrepreneurially,’ I would define it as thinking critically and independently, which is something that my parents have always encouraged me to do. I feel like the culture of my family is pretty free and open. My parents always encourage me to think of every decision I make and what I want to do and this has really helped me become a more autonomous person growing up. So I guess the spirit has always been there.”

How has The Garage helped you with your startup?

Ann: “We are relatively new here, and I really appreciate how we have a space to work in, instead of sitting in one person’s apartment or living room. Also, the weekly family dinners with the various speakers are very cool. It’s very interesting to see how people come up with different ideas. I remember the first week of Family Dinner with Noah Mishkin; he was an architect and he spent like seven  years in school. And it’s really cool because when you think of entrepreneurs, they’re not necessarily coming from a similar background, like computer science. You could be doing anything when you decide to create something and start a project. Also the dinner with Oliver Leopold was very cool as well.”

Where do you see your startup going in the future?

Ann: “I hope to actually bring people some benefit and convenience. I’m not expecting to go big like a unicorn or anything. When I was a freshman thinking about startups, I felt like a startup was a failure if it didn’t become a unicorn. For a lot of startups, there’s no need for them to become a unicorn because their market is very niche. Not every startup needs to become a unicorn, but if your startup can semi-successfully solve a problem and it fits a part of the user’s need, then I think that that’s a good startup and a good goal to hit. I wish that my effort can change people’s lives, even if it’s just a little bit.”

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

VentureCat 2017: The Finals

VentureCat is Northwestern’s annual student startup competition, offering the best and brightest Northwestern student entrepreneurs a shot at a piece of a $100,000 dollar non-dilutive capital pie. Didn’t get a chance to see the finals? Here’s how it all went down.

A total of 23 teams competed in semi-finals rounds in six different tracks. Interested in learning more about the semifinalists? Click here. Prizes of $5,000 were awarded to the winners of each track, and $3,000 to each track’s runner up.

Business Products + Services (B to B)

Track Winner: Quickpulse

Runner Up: Zcruit

Consumer Products + Services (B to C)

Track Winner: Welltended

Runner Up: RE-Bucha

Energy + Sustainability

Track Winner: Aerospec Technologies

Runner Up: PedalCell

Life Sciences + Medical Innovations

Track Winner: Actualize Therapy

Runner Up: ActiWit

Social Impact + Nonprofit

Track Winner: Tiltas

Runner Up: Sidekick

Transportation + Mobility

Track Winner: IFM

Runner Up: SHURPA

Then, each of the finalists took the VentureCat stage. Finals were MC’ed by Northwestern alum, Samir Mayekar (a former student founder himself).

The Finalists From Left to Right: Tiffany Smith (Tiltas, Kellogg ’17), Carolyn Snider (Welltended, Kellogg ’17), Selin Halman (Actualize Therapy, WCAS ’18), Smit Naik (Actualize Therapy, Kellogg ’17), Jessica Tsai (Quickpulse, Kellogg ’17), Lance Li (Aerospec Technologies, Kellogg ’18), Marc Gyongyosi (IFM, McCormick ’17) and Alexis Baudron (IFM, McCormick ’20)

IFM (Intelligent Flying Machines) took home first place and a check for $30,000. Founded by Marc Gyongyosi, IFM is a data analytics startup using robotics, computer vision and machine learning to automate indoor data capture and is currently focused on warehouse inventory tracking. Marc has become a pitching veteran, competing in multiple venture challenges just this year. Marc is currently a senior, graduating from Northwestern this year and has been incubating his startup at The Garage.

We don’t mean to brag, but second place and $15,000 went to another Resident Team of The Garage, Tiltas. Founder Tiffany Smith pitched her technology platform that connects formerly incarcerated individuals with resources and mentorship as they transition. Tiltas has been one of Tiffany’s primary projects during her time as a student at the Kellogg School of Management, and she’ll be pursuing Tiltas full time after her graduation in a few weeks.

Third place and a (literally) big check for $10,000 went to Quickpulse, a WeChat-integrated tool that allows Chinese millennials to give feedback to employers to improve workplace retention. Founder, Jessica Tsai is a former Resident of The Garage where she worked on Quickpulse and is also graduating from the Kellogg School of Management.

The VentureCat audience also heard pitches from the remaining three finalists, Welltended, Aerospec Technologies, and Actualize Therapy.

Summer Wildfire 2017: ORIHD

Recently, over 20 cities in China have issued red alert warnings for air pollution and smog. Red alerts are the highest of the four-tiered pollution warning system used by mainland China and are a definite indication that something must be done to combat this air pollution. Chinese authorities are taking steps to fight the pollution and limit the smog, but this is still an issue that continues to plague the citizens of China. Fortunately, ORIHD aims to produce new and innovative technology to solve this problem.

ORIHD began in Northwestern’s NUVention: Energy class where Co-Founders Kuanze Ma and Edgar Palacios originally developed the idea to tackle the air pollution problem in China. ORIHD is the world’s first design of a functional and intelligent mask providing endless clean air both indoors and outdoors. The Garage sat down with both co-founders to learn more about ORIHD and their innovative mask.

Left: Kuanze Ma; Right: Edgar Palacios 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What sparked the motivation for your startup?

Kuanze: “Our idea started in NUVention, a course we took together during the beginning of 2016. Initially, we were required to complete a project related to energy. However, we asked whether we could do something else that wasn’t necessarily related to energy but that could still solve a big problem and our instructor was open to it. And then I thought back to my life; I was living in Beijing for four years and I suffered a lot from the smog. So, I would like to tell two stories, the first is my experience when the smog first popped up and I had no idea what it was.

It just looked like dirt in the air. I walked outside without any protection just to enjoy the comforts of the campus. But after 15 minutes, I got back to my dorm and I couldn’t go anywhere for the next two days because I kept coughing. The second story involves my roommate at the time. He was a pretty hilarious guy because he frequently opened the window during the night and I would ask him why he opened the window and he said he wanted to freshen the air… I said seriously? It definitely didn’t help freshen the air. Every time a window was open, whether it was ours or someone else’s in the hall, I couldn’t fall asleep for the next two hours because the smog and internal air pollution was so intense. So when we got to NUVention  and we had a chance to solve this; we had the technology team and myself, who has knowledge and experience with the pollution in Asia, we decided to start a technology related project to solve this problem.”

Edgar: “We initially started with a thermoelectric generator based-device because we tried really hard to make it an energy-related product, but that was a longshot. So we ended up with a really cool and simple idea which is much more feasible.”

What problem are you targeting and how do you aim to solve it?

Kuanze: “Initially the problem we were trying to solve is the outdoor air pollution and our product was a mask. But gradually, we revised our business and project model. One year after the initial stage, I realized a mask is cool but there are other problems with indoor air pollution as well and why can’t we solve both? So we changed our project model and we wanted to create a product that can protect the users from both outdoor and indoor air pollution. We changed the product from a mask to an integrated design of a mask and a portable air purifier. You can wear it as a mask when you travel outside and you can put it on a table while you’re inside as it will blow fresh air into your face. This will create a micro-ecosystem for yourself and in that way, you’re always protected!”

What has been your biggest failure so far and what have you learned from it?

Edgar: “Probably that we didn’t get a designer sooner. None of us are designers. I come from an engineering background and Kuanze comes from a business and law background. And when you have a product like ours, people want to see it and that became a roadblock pretty frequently. We had an idea but we never had an actual physical or even visible representation of the product and that set us back a lot.”

Kuanze: “Yeah, I think that’s the problem as well. If we could have found someone who could really commit to this team, the whole process will be much more smooth. Although we are still developing our technology, we need the technology to go together with the design. Initially we had a friend who came onto the team as an intern and she helped create a 3D model for us but unfortunately she couldn’t remain on the team as she was applying to schools. Then I spent the next few months looking for another designer and I got to The Garage and found one during the Design Expo.”

Which entrepreneurs do you admire and why?

Edgar: “I don’t think I know too many to be honest.”

Kuanze: “You should say Kuanze!”

Edgar: “Definitely Kuanze! But also Elon Musk is definitely one that I look up to and I consider him more of a futurist. He also just bought a solar company and he has Tesla as well. He has a bunch of different things.”

Kuanze: “For me, it’s Elon Musk as well. I admire him because he’s an explorer of so many fields like PayPal and SpaceX. And I feel like he really wants to make a change in the world, not just profit.”

Edgar: “And I think the thing I admire the most about him is that he went beyond the idea that not very many people can travel to space and he actually made it semi-affordable. I think that’s really cool because it’s outside the box and before, you’d never be able to go to space unless you were an astronaut, but now,  if you can fork up a little bit of money, you can do it.”

How has The Garage helped you with your startup?

Kuanze: “A lot!”

Edgar: “Resources and a lot of them. Networking and resources have been huge because when you talk to someone they say, oh I know someone who can help you. You’re constantly surrounded by people who can help you or know someone who can help you. As an entrepreneur, you’re constantly learning and being surrounded by experienced individuals is definitely a very valuable aspect of The Garage.”

Kuanze: “There are so many ‘spark’ moments here in The Garage. Every time we schedule a meeting with one of our mentors, we always feel surprised and humbled by how experienced they are. They always propose so many great ideas!”

Edgar: “And the Northwestern community in general is also so helpful.”

Kuanze: “Melissa and Billy are always super willing to help. I actually just met with Insight, an industrial design group in Chicago because I was talking to Billy and I told him we were looking for an industrial design firm. The next day Melissa actually introduced us to Steve, a partner at Insight. The meeting went really well and now we might have a chance to work with this firm. Overall they have opened up a lot of opportunities for us which will definitely help us throughout the whole process.”

What do you hope to get out of the Summer Wildfire program?

Edgar: “A functional prototype. The money we are receiving is great because you need money to make and develop your product which is something that we’re missing. Also, I think the fact that there will be be people here who will be pushing us is also  great because right now we’re just working at our own pace and sometimes that can be a little slow. Having someone to constantly push us will definitely keep us on track!”

Kuanze: “And if everything goes well, the next step will be crowdfunding!”

Summer Wildfire 2017: PedalCell

Our society has continuously grappled with clean energy and sustainability throughout the years. It’s a threat so large and omnipresent that we may never be able to fully overcome it. Hybrid cars and alternative forms of commuting, especially bikes, are becoming increasingly popular. These alternative forms of transportation save energy and reduce CO2  emissions, a great step toward a more sustainable lifestyle. And why not fill two needs with one by saving the environment and charging your phone at the same time?

PedalCell, a startup founded by Vishaal Mali, aims to address the alternative energy crisis through convenient, powerful and wicked cool measures, starting with the ubiquitous bicycle. Their goal is to create a bike-powered cellphone charger that will reduce the need for conventional charging methods as well as reduce the use of cars for commuting. The Garage sat down with Vishaal to learn more about PedalCell and what they hope to achieve in the future.

Founder of PedalCell: Vishaal Mali (Not pictured: Adam Hokin, Andrew Brown)

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What sparked the motivation for your startup?

Vishaal: “So we started in high school actually. My cofounder and I were really into bikes, and we were also really passionate about sustainability. We wanted to know what we could do as high school students to not necessarily change the world immediately but rather spark an initiative to change people’s mindsets about cleantech in the long run. We wanted to show people that clean energy is cool and something that can be easily applied to our lives rather than something that’s tedious and inconvenient.  Being avid bikers, we decided to create a bike-powered phone charger because the bike market was something that we were  familiar with. We decided to harness the untapped source of power from riding a bike and turn that excess energy into electricity to charge a phone.”

What is the problem you’re targeting and how do you plan to solve it?

Vishaal: “Everyone who has a phone will inevitably need to charge it. People spend a lot of time charging their phones and this requires a lot of energy. Since we’re really big on clean energy and sustainability, we knew that the current way we charge our phones and appliances is not sustainable. Eventually we’re going to hit a point where our current methods will be unsustainable. So we decided to create the bike-powered phone charger to spark this initiative toward clean energy and sustainability. It’s obviously not going to clean the face of energy but we hope to spark a chain movement. We are creating a device that you attach to a bike and mainly bike shares because a lot of people use them on their daily commute. So as they bike to their destination, they can charge their phone and save the energy that they would be using from their homes or other energy sources.”

When did you first feel the entrepreneurial spirit?

Vishaal: “I think the spirit itself has been there my entire life. I’ve always been passionate about things and have been able to refine them as I’ve gotten older. Whenever I approached something, my first thought would always be, “What can I do to change this?” From there, it kind of evolved into the idea of creating a company whose sole purpose is to continue the passion that I have for clean energy and sustainability.”

Who’s on the team?

Vishaal: “I’m the founder and CEO of the device and I brought on my cofounder, Andrew Brown, during high school; he currently studies at Georgia Tech. He’s also really passionate about sustainability and clean energy. We also have Adam Hokin, another cofounder who is a sophomore studying business at the University of Michigan. He’s someone who can take our technical expertise and combine it with the market and really get our product out there as starting a company is more than just creating the product.  

When I got here in the Fall quarter of my freshman year, I continued working on our startup but it was really difficult being the only person working on it. So I brought on a fourth team member, Christoph Aigner, a freshman engineer here at Northwestern University. With him, we’ve been moving forward and progressing through various prototypes.”

What has been your biggest failure so far and what have you learned from it?

Vishaal: “We initially started out with a consumer product before we decided to target bike shares. We made a few prototypes super early on and began testing them; however we quickly ran into a roadblock. In order to charge your phone, you’d have to be biking for a ridiculously long time. Usually, we were sweating by the end of it and your phone got maybe a half of a percent of charge. It was a huge setback as we were forced to redesign our product to make sure it could hit the energy demands of today’s phones. Our device can now charge a phone from 0-85% in 30 minutes.

The second setback was when we were prototyping before we came to Northwestern and we were running things out of a little setup in my garage. We were testing and playing with batteries trying to get the charger to where we wanted it. And then one night some of the lithium ion batteries caught on fire in my garage. Luckily, I figured it out pretty quickly and I was able to contain the fire but it was still a pretty major issue. Playing with batteries in the garage with a soldering iron nearby was definitely not the best move.”

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far?

Vishaal: “I guess the most important lesson is that often as engineers, we get caught up with trying to have the best product and adding new features to the product. But you always have to take a step back and think about what problem you’re actually trying to solve because sometimes you realize these features don’t actually help you achieve that goal. Our goal is to promote sustainability and create a social benefit.

Secondly, sometimes you lose track of your target audience as well as the process of how to get your idea from prototype to implementation. This can be very difficult and our biggest goal right now is to continue the progress of our idea as smoothly as possible.”

How did you choose the name PedalCell and what was that process like?

Vishaal: “It was actually very inorganic. Our first name was Vitruvia- based  off of the Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci. But we realized that idea was cool, but had nothing to do with our product and people need a name that’s related to the product. Again, being in the market where we’re creating bike-powered phone chargers where you pedal to create energy, the idea of PedalCell came up because cell: battery, and you can charge your phone by pedaling.”

Which entrepreneurs do you admire and why?

Vishaal: “I think there are several, very generically, Elon Musk. He does a great job of not caring about what other people think about him and he is very focused on what he wants to do and get accomplished. The second person is Ben Horowitz; he has a huge VC firm and the reason I like him a lot is not for how smart and talented he is at engineering, but it’s because he really highlights and emphasizes that being an entrepreneur, there are a lot of hard things that people don’t want to talk about. He has a book called The Hard Thing About Hard Things, which I just read recently, and I love how he takes the glamour of being an entrepreneur and breaks it down to how it’s actually extremely difficult. He went through so many difficult steps and failures but kept on moving forwards.”

How has The Garage helped you with your startup?

Vishaal: “I think the biggest thing is the mentorship. Being young entrepreneurs, it’s hard to know what to do. You don’t know what the next steps are, but having people like Melissa, Billy, Elisa and our mentors as resources to ask whatever we want whenever we want about anything is super helpful. The Makerspace is also really helpful since we use the 3D printers a lot for prototyping. The new Muse Laser Cutter will be huge for us as well. Also, the other companies in The Garage are really helpful because sometimes products in The Garage overlap and if you have an engineering question you can ask the guy next door. In our case, that’s IFM, and Marc is really good at what he does and he’s a great resource as well.”

What do you hope to get out of the Summer Wildfire program?

Vishaal: “The biggest thing is being able to work together as a team since we are so spread out across different schools. Having all of us together for the summer, where this is our only job, will be huge for us in terms of development. We hope to launch in the Fall of 2017 so we obviously have a lot of tasks to finish from now until then. So Wildfire will be amazing for mentorship, creating time to work, and learning the nitty gritty details of a startup.”

Where do you see your startup going in the future?

Vishaal: “In the future we hope to use this not as the end all be all company but as a platform to get started. Again, we’re passionate about sustainability and starting a chain or a movement but that can’t be done immediately. So, we hope to use PedalCell as a platform and once we can prove that this is doable and that people like it and will use it, we can create bigger and better things. Eventually we hope to have that one company that does have the potential to change 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