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, clickhere.

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, clickhere.

The Garage Gift Guide: Mother’s Day 2017

Moms give you everything and then some. And even though they deserve the world, we’ve narrowed it down to our top five startup friendly gifts to celebrate mom this year, featuring fun technology, cozy tea and plants, and even a way to make wine better. Brought to you by Northwestern alumni and Resident Teams incubating their startups out of The Garage, here’s a few things we think the moms in your life deserve.


1 //Bigelow Tea// Engraved Tea Chest

Cindi Bigelow, CEO, Kellogg School of Management ’86

Why we love it: Founded in 1945, we love that Bigelow is still a family owned and operated business and how they turn something as simple as a warm cup of tea into a memory. After making tea for three generations, the company strives to get better and better each year. We also can’t help but relate to the founder story of Ruth Campbell Bigelow who simply wanted a better cup of tea, so she made it herself.

 


2 //Welltended//Plants for a well-tended life.

Carolyn Snider, Founder, Kellogg School of Management ‘17

Resident Team at The Garage

Why we love it: Welltended has a beautiful, grand, and green vision for the world with the belief that plants are right at the intersection of health, happiness and beauty. Launched in 2017, Welltended is a group of people with a passion for plants and a love for the environment. Currently serving the Chicago area, we love how this startup makes having a houseplant easy for city-dwellers.


3 //Amaree Jewelers//Authentic silver filigree jewelry and artwork from Mardin.

Erkan Kilic, Founder, McCormick ’18

Former Resident Team at The Garage

Why we love it:Sourced from the city of Mardin in Turkey and handcrafted by silver filigree artisans, Amaree Jewelers unites eastern craftsmanship and western fashion as an international company.

We love that it’s more than jewelry, and with every piece, Amaree hopes the wearer will find optimism, harmony, and be a part of a legacy unifying people of 28 cultures for more than 3,000 years.


4 //Üllo Wine Purifier//A revolutionary wine purifier that restores the natural taste of wine.

James Kornack, Founder, WCAS ’15

Why we love it:Üllo is a Chicago startup with a simple mission to bring wine back to its natural state. Founded in 2014, James Kornacki used his education and resources from Northwestern to solve a problem (the root of all great innovation).

Using a proprietary technology to filter out free sulfates and their bitter taste, the Üllo Wine Purifier simply makes wine taste better. Raving reviews and more than 200 backers pledging upwards of $250,000 make this gift perfect for any wine loving mom.


5//Ampy Move//A portable smartphone battery that charges as you move.

Tejas Shastry, McCormick ’16

Why we love it:This one is near and dear to our hearts. AMPY was created by three PhD students in 2012 as a project for an entrepreneurship class at Northwestern (something we know very well). It converts the wearer’s kinetic energy from movements like walking, bicycling or running into electrical energy which is stored in a battery to charge a cellphone or other devices. Still based in Evanston, AMPY’s Kickstarter campaign surpassed its goal in 72 hours in 2015. Shastry’s innovation and entrepreneurial success also landed him on the 2015 Forbes 30 Under 30 List.


Want to learn more about the student founded startups incubating out of The Garage? Check out our series on The Magazine featuring teams heating up to participate in Wildfire, The Garage’s Pre-Accelerator program.

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Summer Wildfire 2017: Community Currency

Traveling abroad to a foreign location can be a great experience! Every location has its own culture and unique wonders to experience. But whether it’s for business, vacation, or academic reasons, you’re bound to need money. Sometimes you’re lucky and your destination uses the same currency as your home country, however, this is not always the case. Usually, travelers must exchange their currency for foreign currency. And often at the end of their trip they end up having excess foreign currency without anything worthwhile to spend it on and they end up wasting it.

Community Currency, a startup founded by Evan Taylor, is a 501(c)(3)-incorporated non-profit that repurposes leftover foreign currency from international airport travelers, changing the lives of underprivileged children by funding local charities. They aim to collect any extra foreign currency that travelers may have as they return to the US through eye-catching receptacles placed throughout international airport terminals. Ultimately, they hope to use that money to make an impact on US public education, beginning with Chicago Public Schools. And The Garage sat down with Vice President, Jackson Lehmar, and Director of Research, Robbie Markus, to learn more about Community Currency.

 

(Left to right: Lauren Burns, Robbie Markus, Jason Kerr, Meghan Harshaw, Justin Hennenfent, Jackson Lehmar, Evan Taylor, Zach Hennenfent)
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What sparked the motivation for your startup?

Robbie: “So it’s pretty funny actually. The idea initially came from the mom of our CEO, Evan Taylor. They were flying back from Mexico last summer and they had a good amount of pesos left over which they ended up just spending on wasteful things. They realized that no one is doing anything with this money so Evan’s mom said something along the lines of, “I wonder how much foreign currency is out there that is just completely wasted and unused.” Evan played around with the idea that summer and when he got back to campus he reached out to some of his friends and others who had work ethics that he respected and told them that he really wanted to make this happen. He believed we could use this completely wasted foreign currency for a really good social cause. We could convert this money and turn it around to give it to a socially inclined purpose.”

What is the problem you are targeting and how do you plan on solving it?

Jackson: “So Robbie just touched up on it, but the problem is that there is this space of foreign currency that is brought back to the US without anywhere to put it. We did a ton of research and found out that currency exchange partners in the US no longer take foreign coins because it is too costly to ship all them back to their manufacturers. Also, processing is too expensive and they don’t do it anymore, only third parties do it now. We did hours and hours of research and market analysis. We crunched a ton of numbers and found out based on our estimate, that there is roughly 95 million dollars in wasted currency that will circulate throughout the year.

Currently, there’s this company called Change for Good. They’re a non-profit that works exclusively with Unicef and American Airlines. Instead of placing a receptacle in the airport, they take bins on flights and the stewardess will walk by to collect any donations. So, imagine these numbers: since 1997, Change for Good has made 27 million dollars, thus averaging about 1 million dollars per year. Our solution is to be in every major international terminal and TSA checkpoint and have receptacles placed that are eye-catching so when people walk by they will see a an initiative worth donating to. These individuals could walk by and drop their coins in and we would take the money and ship it to Global Coin Solutions. Global Coin Solutions is a third party currency exchange company that we’ve already talked to and have a handshake agreement with. We drop the coins in a box which is pre-labeled and we ship it to them and they send the money back to us while they take a 25% cut.”

Robbie: “And the larger social impact that it’s going towards is education. A lot of what Jackson and I will be doing this summer, especially because education policies in the U.S are so tough, is trying to figure out how to make a difference with the resources we have and cut through all the tough problems with public education in the U.S. It’s something that, as a political science major, I very much look forward to doing!”

Jackson: “There’s two spaces that we will really be working on this summer at the Wildfire pre-accelerator program. One is the manufacturing side, prototyping the receptacle as well as branding and marketing it so that it is appealing to people in the airport. The other side is continued research into what demographic we are looking into to get people to drop coins into the bins and reach out to CPS, principals, local hospitals, and nonprofits to identify their biggest need/problem.”

Who is the team composed of?

Jackson: “I am the Vice President and I run operations, float around, and oversee the Board and chair positions. Robbie is similar and we do a lot of floating around together. Although we have positions, everyone collaborates which I think is really important because it keeps people on their toes.

I’ll speak on Evan’s behalf. He is our president, our CEO, and the one who came up with the idea. He runs most of the motions, keeps us on our toes, and keeps us motivated. As for the rest of the Board of Directors, we have Jason Kerr, our treasurer who runs everything in the legal realm, and Justin Hennenfent, our secretary, who also headed our recruitment process recently.”

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

Robbie: “Over winter break I wasn’t working so I was really excited to go 24/7 with Community Currency. I was hyped! During the school year, you’re taking four classes and you’re in various student groups. Over winter break, I didn’t really have anything. My main goal over winter break was to find someone that could convert this money for us. I wanted to figure out how to do this because there aren’t that many other people out there aside from Change for Good that are doing what we’re doing. I was a little bit concerned that people hadn’t done this because there wasn’t someone to convert this money. We needed to find someone that could convert this money in an efficient way, the way we want it.”

Jackson: “This is something we had researched all throughout fall, but we still couldn’t come up with a solution.”

Robbie : “Yeah, so over winter break I did a lot of research on it and I reached out over LinkedIn to people with banks or foreign currency exchange companies. I must have reached out to three CEOs each day with a 5% response rate. And that’s tough because you know you have a good idea, but people just won’t respond. You know you just have to get up the next day and do it all again. That was the time when I felt like wow, this is tough, but once we find the one person that will work with us, our problem will be solved. And we finally found this guy in Canada who seems incredible.

Jackson: “And to touch on that as well, this isn’t so much a failure rather it’s more of a learning experience. I think something to be said for everyone who begins a startup is that you should clearly set out your goals and define them. And then you specify and redefine them and then specify and redefine them again. You should specify and redefine them almost every day.”

Which entrepreneurs do you admire and why?

Robbie: “This is an interesting question for me because I’m not particularly interested in entrepreneurship since I’m majoring in political science and radio television and film. But the main reason I’m here is that I’m very interested in helping people and because of the the social impact of non-profits. The entrepreneur that I do look up to most is Elon Musk because I think it’s so easy for your thinking, and daily thought processes to be defined by the context around you and the news you read. But Elon Musk has consistently shown an ability to think completely in a manner that the rest of the world isn’t thinking in.”

Jackson: “Similar to Robbie, all my life the best thing in this world is to be able to help someone else in need and I’m involved in multiple nonprofits on campus aside from this as well. I never really had the entrepreneurial mindset but I would say the one closest to me that I admire most is Evan, our founder. And throughout the past nine months he’s been so steadfast and such a great leader. He has done everything from meeting every week and emailing every person on this planet to securing every promotion and connection that we have.”

How has The Garage helped you with your startup?

Robbie: “For me, I find The Garage interesting for us because we are outside the norm. Almost everyone here is either a) a for-profit startup or b) largely invested in tech. We’re a non-profit, social impact focused startup, which is very outside of the mold. What I can say is that The Garage has absolutely given us a community that is very engaged and very interested in what they’re doing. Being in this mindset is very motivating and pushes us to constantly rethink, innovate, and redefine our mission, which I’m very appreciative of.”

Jackson: “For the team, I have been in multiple mentorship meetings over the past three or four months and every meeting I’ve gone to, I’ve learned something new that I can’t believe I didn’t know before. For me personally, for Wildfire, we had to make a pitch deck and prepare an elevator pitch which is something I had never done before. Now I can confidently build a PowerPoint and present our company to anyone at this point because of their guidance and help. These are skills you don’t really learn in the classroom and we get to practice at The Garage and apply them to our startup.”

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

Summer Wildfire 2017: MOGO

It’s no surprise that viral video challenges spread like wildfire. These challenges drive creativity and innovation as each challenger tries to create something new and unique. These challenges take many forms (for example, the cinnamon challenge, the mannequin and running man challenges, and even challenges to raise awareness like the ALS ice bucket challenge). However, there really isn’t one central social platform that hosts all of these challenges.

That’s where Mogo comes in. Mogo stands for Making Our Generation Original and it’s a video challenging social network looking to create sustainability in users doing viral video challenges. Mogo hopes to become the location that all users look to in order to find, watch, and upload video challenges. The Garage sat down with Lloyd Yates and Drew Luckenbaugh, two members of Mogo to learn more about their journey.

 

Left: Shane Davis, Middle: Lloyd Yates, Right: Drew Luckenbaugh (not pictured: Megell Strayhorn)

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What sparked the motivation for your startup?

Lloyd: “I would say high school was when me and my two other founders really got into the entrepreneurial world. We tried network marketing and all that scam stuff, it didn’t work out, but nevertheless a good experience. It was good for us to dabble in entrepreneurship and figure out what we wanted to do. We kept seeing this common theme of video challenges resurfacing from middle school to high school and it’s become a huge phenomenon, that I’ve partaken in. And at the time we thought, let’s just start an app, it sounds really cool. We had no prior understanding of this area but we definitely wanted to build an app. And that’s kind of where it all came about, a passion for doing something we had seen for years and wanting to build something really cool.”

 

What are each of your roles on the team?

Lloyd: “So I’m kind of like the leader of the team even though we can all lead in different aspects. Drew, the tech guy, is the best in the business. We have Megell in Michigan, who’s amazing at marketing. Currently he’s promoting our brand and building up our Instagram page and now we have thousands of followers. And there’s Shane; me and him kind of go hand-in-hand with everything we do. We’ve actually kind of made up a position for him: the Chief Visionary Officer. But I don’t think that title really does him justice in the sense that he’s a genius, especially with the vision of Mogo, where we want to take it, and understanding our users’ desires. We are definitely a solid team!”

 

What’s the problem you’re working to solve and what’s the solution you’ve created?

Lloyd: “I think we’re facing two problems. One, we believe there is a lack of a centralized video platform throughout social media. We conducted a survey of roughly 100 people and asked them what their favorite mobile video app is. Among those 100 people, there is no clear-cut answer. Snapchat was first, then YouTube, then Facebook, then Twitter, and finally Instagram. There was no clear winner with users saying “this is my favorite video platform.” And the second is the problem and conflict of video challenging. Like I said, it’s been going on since before our time. As long as I can remember, since I was 13 years old, people have been consistently doing viral challenges and competing with each other. Over 28 million people got involved in the ice bucket challenge in the summer of 2014 and recently over 16 million people mentioned the mannequin challenge on Instagram. So from me and my team members’ past seven years of observation, this is something that needs to be resolved. Since it’s a continuous process, it can be done better and that’s why we’re doing Mogo.”

 

How did you choose the name Mogo?

Lloyd: “Well, when developing the idea of the platform and tweaking things around, at one point we thought it would be cool to turn this into a game where the point of the game is to do video challenges and eventually work your way up in the system until you become a mogul. So that’s where it’s derived from and we said, Mogo, it sounds really smooth and it’s short and catchy. We also wanted it to mean something; Mogo is an acronym that stands for Making Our Generation Original.”

 

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

Lloyd: “I would say, when we first got started right out of high school, we just really wanted to jump into it. We had no idea where to take things, how to build an app, and how to go about our business. We started by looking for freelance developers and we were going to pay out of pocket for their service. We got into contact with this one guy who sounded really cool and said he could do it for a reasonable price. Eventually, we started working with him, but things didn’t turn out as well as expected because for one, we didn’t know what we were doing or what we were looking for. We didn’t really see the vision or have a clear idea of Mogo at the time. And in a way, this guy played us because he knew we didn’t know what we were doing or what we wanted. He overcharged us for what he provided us. It was just a bad ordeal. But it turned out for the better; we learned we had to take things slow and do things ourselves and it was kind of a wakeup call. Now we do everything internally and it has been relatively smooth ever since.”

 

What has been the most important lesson you have learned so far?

Drew: “I would say with developing and everything, patience, double-checking and testing what a brand new user would be experiencing is key. You have to figure out what they would be doing as a user and become one of them. You need to think of all the different possibilities and at the same time make sure everything is secure and good to go.”

Lloyd: “I would definitely say patience is a virtue. For starters, we really wanted to rush into things and pay somebody to build it. We didn’t really focus on the team, the product, or the users. But I think from just doing Mogo for two years now, patience is key. There’s no reason to rush into it. And another thing I’ve learned is to go ahead and just do it. There’s a lot of resources out there to tell you to create business plans and business models and 18-month runways. That’s fine and all, but I’ve read a lot of cool stuff that says creating those plans is just a prediction. You have to actually do it to figure out if it’ll actually work. Why waste your time building this elaborate plan when that plan is more than likely to fail? So just go ahead and do it and you’ll learn from trial and error.”

 

Which entrepreneurs do you admire and why?

Drew: “Linus Torvalds, he’s the guy that invented Linux! Mainly because he’s like a big-time developer and everything but also because he competed with Windows and UNIX at the same time. He wanted a cheaper solution that he also wanted to be as open sourced as UNIX was and he just came up with his own. And now even Windows incorporated their bash shells so he practically won, because they’re using his stuff now.”

Lloyd: “I would say two people, my dad and my brother. My dad is a doctor who has recently gone into a private practice and started building his own brand and products. Seeing him go through that has been really inspiring and he has greatly helped me with my ventures as well. My brother has been working on a music startup for a few years and just having them in front of me and looking at what they’ve done is inspiring in its own way. I would also say, like big-time entrepreneur, would be the CEO of 5 Hour Energy, Manoj Bhargava. He started 5 Hour Energy and became a billionaire and he’s working on this project called Billions for Change which is a dope project. He’s really trying to change and influence the world by creating resources that will allow countries in need to have access to water and energy and I think that’s incredible.”

 

How has The Garage helped you with your startup and your progress?

Lloyd: “I would say I got kind of lucky when I got here because I got here the summer of 2015, right when it opened. It was cool because I had never seen anything like it. I talked to Melissa and since day one, she has been super helpful with finding the right people to talk to and growing our network. She helped me figure out and get a clear vision of Mogo along with Billy, Gregg Latterman and Neal Sales-Griffin (Mentor at The Garage). To me, The Garage has been vital in figuring out what Mogo is and where we want to be.”

Drew: “It’s a great place to come to and work on stuff to clear your mind and there are so many resources available. There are always coders everywhere so if you have any questions you can always turn to them to help you out!”

 

Where do you guys see Mogo going in the future?

Lloyd: “We just want to grow it to its potential. We see it being one of the next big things. In a way, people have asked us if we want to compete with the big social media platforms. And it’s like why not? We’re not trying to do what they do, they’re trying to do what we do.”

 

What’s your favorite viral video challenge?

Lloyd: “My favorite is the Jukebox Challenge. It started at an HBCU where these guys held up a speaker and played All Day by T-LO, and a group of 20 guys and girls would dance and have a good time. This really resonated with the football team. We brought that into the weight room and when someone would hit a PR (personal record) and go ring the bell, the guy who hit the PR would get a 45-LB plate and hold it up and start dancing like the jukebox challenge while more guys followed. And it just really stuck with me.”

Drew: “The cup-blowing one, mainly because I can do it. It’s the one where you have to blow one cup into another cup. That’s one of the only ones that I was good at.”

Currently Mogo is developing their mobile app which they hope to launch soon! In the meantime, check out their Instagram page @mogothat!

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

Summer Wildfire 2017: myVillage

In the United States, a baby is born every 8 seconds leading to approximately 11,000 newborn babies every single day. That’s a lot of diapers, pacifiers, toys, baby formula and whichever hot new product is currently on the market. Parents buy these items trying to ensure a healthy upbringing for their newborn child. However, many moms often neglect one of the most important things conducive to a healthy child: their own health.

myVillage, founded by Dianna He, a student at the Kellogg School of Management, believes that in order for new parents to best take care of their newborn, they must first take care of themselves. In an era in where it takes a village to raise a family, the village is at a loss for what to do. myVillage is the only lifestyle management platform that enables healthy living through the support of friends and family for new moms (and ultimately, new parents). myVillage empowers the village to take care of new moms because that’s really the best way to help a mother out.

myVillage began in Carter Cast’s New Venture Discovery (KIEI-462-0) class originally aiming to prevent Type II diabetes for women post-pregnancy who had gestational diabetes. This idea initially hit a roadblock but Dianna and her team were able to pivot their efforts; thus, the birth of myVillage. Aside from, Dianna, myVillage is composed of 6 other Kellogg students as well as an undergraduate intern, Ziyi Lu, who will be working full-time with Dianna this summer during Wildfire. They are also currently seeking technical developers who share their same passion to join the team.

Founder of myVillage Dianna He (Not pictured: Intern, Ziyi Lu)

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What sparked the motivation for your startup?

Dianna: “I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I feel like ever since I was little when people asked me what do you want to do when you grow up, starting my own company or being a CEO was always on that list. But in terms of why now, why Kellogg, and why business school, I was in a pretty bad car accident two years ago. I kept a journal of all my ideas since maybe 10 years ago and I’m always coming up with excuses for why not and why I shouldn’t do it. During the 8-month recovery process I was just thinking, why am I here? What am I doing? What is my purpose? And I realized the thing that gets me most excited about life and getting up in the morning is enabling and inspiring people to live healthy lifestyles. I really enjoy everything related to healthy living. We started with Carter Cast’s New Venture Discovery class in January. The pain point we were looking at originally was how to prevent Type II diabetes because one in five people in the US will get it and 80% of those people can prevent it through lifestyle changes with a healthy diet and exercise. We talked to women who had gestational diabetes, a disease that occurs during pregnancy. It’s temporary but after pregnancy you’re at a high risk of getting Type II diabetes. We learned that there wasn’t much help for these moms so we began digging into it. We found that this could apply to all new moms so we ended up pivoting from diabetes prevention to helping new moms post-pregnancy.”

 

What problem is myVillage aiming to solve and what is your solution?

“During pregnancy, moms are extremely motivated to take care of their baby. So as such, there are things to help her during pregnancy. But immediately post-pregnancy, it’s basically a drop-off or a cliff, for things out there to help the new mom take better care of herself. It’s shocking the number of women who forget to eat because they’re not thinking about themselves. It’s like a switch flips in their brain and they completely forget about everything except for the baby. And that’s 100% of the people we talk to, it’s like a universal mom gene. If you think about the airplane analogy, when you’re on the airplane the flight attendant says to put on your own oxygen mask first before helping with someone else. The same exact thing applies here, in order for a new mom to best take care of her newborn, she needs to take care of herself first.

So, the solution that we want to create is a lifestyle management platform that connects new moms and her village, the people around her. It takes a village to raise a family but that village may not know what to do. When connected, her village can sign up to help with a list of pre-populated items that we provide based on what new moms need. By signing up they reduce the mom’s stress and she can focus on her holistic wellness, targeting her mental, physical, emotional, and nutritional health.”

 

How did you decide on the name myVillage? What was that process like?

“Good question! It was very functional in the beginning. Because in Carter Cast’s class, he would say things like that’s the diabetes team or that’s the environmental team to identify and distinguish teams. So, when we moved off diabetes we couldn’t be the diabetes team anymore. So, we were like, we’re helping a mother out so, Help a Mother Out, and that was our working title. We never intended for it to be the name of our company. As we talked to more people and conducted customer interviews, moms were like, “that’s a cool tagline, but I don’t know if I want to introduce something to someone and have them constantly use it and be reminded that they need to help me out.” So, the name actually came from our first customer. She was like, basically it’s my village, and we liked that and so we became myVillage.”

 

What has been the most important lesson you have learned?

“I think there’s two. Your customer is everything. Never lose sight of who they are, what they want, what they feel, what their motivations are, and what drives their needs. The reason you exist is to solve a problem that they have and to do it better than anyone else can.

The second thing is related to startups in general. At the stage we’re at now, it’s all about de-risking, the idea of looking at all the problems you’re facing and testing hypotheses to de-risk the risks you’ve identified. If you find out your hypothesis is right and it’s a good thing for you, great! You just de-risked it; you quantified it and de-risked it. If you find out your answer is bad for you, it’s all relative. Bad could mean it’s so big and insurmountable that it will cause huge problems down the line, and you’re just helping yourself now by making the decision to pivot.”

 

Which entrepreneurs do you admire and why?

“Oprah! I grew up watching Oprah, and just her story, kindness, spirit, character, and willingness to help is very admirable. This is a bit biased too because I was once at a work dinner and she was at the restaurant and, like a fangirl, I ran over there and stood next to the table she was having dinner at. I didn’t want to be rude so I stood there until she said ‘Hi!’ And I was like ‘Hi, sorry to bother you but you’re amazing and you’re my hero.’ I was almost on the verge of tears because I couldn’t believe she was there. And she was like ‘Give me a hug! Do you want a picture?’ Total fangirl moment.”

 

How has The Garage helped you with your startup?

“The Garage has been the catalyst for a lot of the stuff happening this spring and summer. I applied to Wildfire and that was going to be my indication and outside validation. I saw Wildfire and The Garage as an unbiased opinion of my idea. If they think that our team is worth investing in and we are at a stage in development worth working on full-time this summer then we’ll be a part of the Wildfire accelerator. And if they don’t, I’ll take that as an indication that it’s way too early and I need to pick up another skill or pursue something else this summer. It was a huge early validation point and from there it lit a fire to go find more team members and try to hustle even more. I can’t wait for the summer!”

 

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

VentureCat 2017: Meet the Semifinalists

VentureCat is Northwestern’s annual student startup competition showcasing and celebrating the best of the best student founded ventures. The event culminates with a pitch competition, where more than $100,000 in prize money will be distributed by an esteemed panel of judges. After reviewing submissions, the team behind VentureCat has selected 25 teams to advance to the semi-finals!

VentureCat is an evolution of the Northwestern University Venture Challenge (NUVC), which was originally introduced in 2007. From inception, NUVC has distinguished itself from other pitch competitions around the globe by organizing competitors in industry-specific tracks, which leverages the rich expertise of distinct schools from across the university in both graduate and undergraduate programs, and awarding top teams with non-dilutive capital.

Kicking off on Monday, April 24, the 25 semifinalist teams will participate in a four week Semifinalist Pitch Prep Program, supporting the teams with pitch coaching, advice from industry experts, and professional graphic design support.

On May 24, those 25 teams will compete in one of six tracks: Business Products and Services, Consumer Products and Services, Green Energy and Sustainability, Life Sciences and Medical Innovations, Social Enterprises and Nonprofit, and Transportation and Mobility. The 1st place winner of each track will take the main stage to compete for the grand prize at the Finals. Be sure to grab your spot for the eventand check out the list of the semifinalists below.

ATTEND VENTURECAT 2017

Business Products and Services (B to B)

Dotbound: The habits of golfers have changed, but golf instructors haven’t adapted. Golfers are looking to find and purchase golf lessons online, yet no good solution has enabled instructors to meet this need. Dotbound is a website and marketing platform for golf instructors providing the tools and services golf instructors need to sell more golf lessons online.

Tadpole: The only platform for pre-launch apps to gather user generated content. Using Tadpole’s web platform, publishes define their target market, outline the content they need, deploy projects, monitor progress and gather data-driven insights. The mobile application gathers demographic and behavioral information about the “tadpoles,” and sends targeted, contextual push notifications to users. Tadpole is a current Resident Team of The Garage.

Quickpulse: Despite spending 40 billion dollars on development programs every year, turnover has increased in China’s service industries as millennial crave meaningful work, recognition, and development. Corporations in China lack the right systems to listen and respond to these needs. Quickpulse is the answer: because every person matters.

Zcruit: At Zcruit, the team realized that there is more to football recruiting than scouting and evaluating talent alone. That is why they have developed statistical solutions to help university programs target the right players at the right time, ultimately improving the identification and decision making processes. Zcruit is a current Resident Team of The Garage and a participant in the Wildfire Pre-Accelerator Program.

 

Consumer Products and Services (B to C)

eRetirements: eRetirements.com is a website that helps baby boomers determine their ideal retirement destination and provide resources to help them successfully relocate utilizing a unique, data-backed algorithm to recommend three ideal locations based on an individual’s interests and needs. eRetirements is currently a Resident Team of The Garage.

JitsLab: JitsLab is a personal sports analytics platform that shows athletes stats about themselves for any sport or activity. Using information provided, Jitslab can tell how long an athlete’s stamina lasts before dropping, what moves have the highest success rate from the athlete, and what the normal pattern of behavior from an athlete is.

RE-Bucha: Unleash the power of kombucha to improve your wellbeing and the health of the world around you. Each bottle of RE-BUCHA brings to the table a premium kombucha that you would expect while also recovering and re-harvesting imperfect produce streams. So, sit back, enjoy your kombucha, and do so in knowing that you are making a difference. RE-Bucha is a current Resident Team of The Garage.

The Right Hook: The Right Hook is redefining the bra shopping experience. Why shouldn’t women be able to shop for bras from the comfort of their home? The Right Hook’s comprehensive measurement system and personal stylists allow the customer to feel confident they are getting a personalized service and the best fit, without stepping foot out of the house. The Right Hook is currently a Resident Team of The Garage.

Welltended: Welltended is the houseplant selection & delivery service for city-dwellers. The user selects a gorgeous houseplant & beautiful, modern planter, and then Welltended will pair it with potting soil, plant it, and deliver it. Welltended provides easy-to-follow care instructions, taking the hassle and stress out of tending well to houseplants. Welltended is a current Resident Team of The Garage.

 

Energy and Sustainability

Aerospec Technologies: Aerospec’s unmanned aerial system (UAS) efficiently identify, analyze, and predict equipment failures to maximize asset performance in the renewable energy industry.

Gibbs Lighting: Gibbs provides energy efficient LED lights at no cost to commercial and industrial buildings in exchange for a portion of energy savings. This eliminates barriers to installing efficient technology, lowers energy consumption, and saves money.

PedalCell: PedalCell harnesses a wheel’s rotational energy into usable electricity and is designed for the bike share market. PedalCell utilizes the most advanced charging technologies provided by Qualcomm and the USB standard; ensuring consumers that, no matter the phone, their device will charge at blistering speeds. Furthermore, our wheel-hub generator is complemented by a phone mount that’s placed on a bicycle’s handlebars.

Rezilncy: We’re on the brink of a clean energy revolution. All the technology for solar, batteries, and microgrid controls are there, but the know-how required to use it lags behind. Rezilncy is a team of microgrid systems integrators—enabling the clean energy revolution.

 

Life Sciences and Medical Innovations

ActiWit, LLC: ActiWit is a wearable biofeedback device that delivers a personalized behavioral treatment plan for children. We share the concern of many adults who are on the frontline of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) treatment: too much ADD information is “out there,” and yet too little is known about how to choose effective, customized treatments for children.

Actualize Therapy: Our treatment solution will offer university counseling services another option to address the behavioral health of their student population by specifically targeting depression and anxiety in a way that is most convenient to students aged 18-26.

LifeMotion Technologies, LLC: LifeMotion Technologies LLC has designed an

ergonomic “headphone” device with a series of motors to actuate the jaw. These motors contain sensors, which also collect position, velocity, and force measurements for oral-cancer and stroke survivors. LifeMotion Technologies is currently a Resident Team at The Garage.

 

Social Impact and Nonprofit

Kheyti: Kheyti designs, adapts and implements low-cost farming solutions that help small farmers increase yield and predictability of produce. They combine these technologies with end-to-end support to give farmers a seamless path towards income increase. Kheyti has developed a “Greenhouse-in-a-box” – an affordable, modular greenhouse bundled with full stack services that uses 90% less water, grows 7 times more food and gives farmers a steady dependable income.

Sidekick: Sidekick is a digital assistant that makes it easy for high school teachers to turn current company problems into engaging in class projects their students will love and learn from. Sidekick is currently a Resident Team of The Garage.

Spring Slam: Spring Slam brings its signature basketball tournament and outreach efforts to college campuses across the country with the mission of fighting cancer while bringing communities together through sport. Spring Slam is currently a Resident Team of The Garage.

Tiltas: Tiltas is a web-based platform aimed at easing the re-entry process for returning citizens and reducing recidivism. Tiltas has a two staged proposal to reach this goal. First, Tiltas serves as a social network and online resource for returning citizens. Second, Tiltas connects returning citizens with employment opportunities. Tiltas is currently a Resident Team of The Garage.

 

Transportation and Mobility

EaseDrive: EaseDrive is committed to empowering a new way to use the car by providing to the drivers the opportunity to enhance their health while driving.

Intelligent Flying Machines, Inc.: IFM is a Data Analytics Company that uses Machine Learning, Computer Vision, and Robotics to automate indoor data capture. With corporate partners such as BMW, NVIDIA, SAP, Honeywell, and Here, as well as customers spanning the leaders of automotive manufacturing and logistics providers, IFM uses its technology to improve the operational efficiency of enterprises and unleash productivity in the workforce. IFM is currently a Resident Team of The Garage.

SHURPA: SHURPA solves the last mile of parcel delivery by serving ecommerce partners from order to delivery. SHURPA targets small, medium, and large online retailers that sell tangible goods, with an estimated total addressable market of nearly $6 billion.

TravDel LLC: A shipping company that uses travelers to deliver products. With 15 million people taking international flights every day, people can beat Fedex with both speed and price offering a cheaper way to ship and an opportunity for travelers to make money.

 

Currently, these 25 teams are working hard in the Semifinalist Pitch Prep Program. Want to see how it all goes down at the finals?

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AI is Not Eating the World (Yet)

Ray Kurzweil has a fun chart in his book How to Create a Mind; It’s a typical exponential-growth looking chart with various labels on it for types of “minds” – insect, mouse, human and then eventually, all humans. A colleague of mine and I routinely poke fun at this when deploying a machine learning, asking ourselves, “Have we reached insect status yet?”, which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. -Robert A. Heinlein

Artificial Intelligence is slowly iterating its way up Kurzweil’s exponential curve but given all the tech hype around it, you would think we’re only a few years away from reaching the pinnacle: full human cognition. There have been tremendous improvements in some AI algorithms, particularly reinforcement learning and expert systems. We’re barely to specialized insect level and perhaps many decades or longer away from full human, but from reading the tech press, you wouldn’t think so.

Take this claim from a recent TechCrunch article:


It now appears that we will be able to achieve Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) sometime around 2025. Technology is clearly expanding at a faster and faster pace, and, by many accounts, most of us will be caught off guard.

They also cite that AI’s have been beating humans for some time—remember Deep Blue? Remember Watson?


Or, take this recent Wall Street Journal op-ed on Universal Basic Income:

…it [the list of ______] also includes millions of white-collar jobs formerly thought to be safe. For decades, progress in artificial intelligence lagged behind the hype. In the past few years, AI has come of age.


The journalist cites Google’s Go-playing AI as example that we’ve “come of age.” but the technical leap to go from a Go-playing AI to say, an AI that could construct a building or even solve simple math equations is tremendous. These are specialized AI algorithms designed to solve a specific problem and are not yet easily extensible to other problems.

So if we can’t take Watson or the Go-playing AI and extend it to solving human cognition-like problems, what kinds of problems are we solving? One way to answer this is to look at the tools various big tech companies are using and in some cases, open sourcing.

  • Alphabet – Tensorflow – A dynamic platform for building and training all sorts of models, particularly optimized for GPU intensive tasks such as neural networks. They’ve also built some customized hardware.
  • Facebook – FBLearner Flow – An internal tool for engineers to plug in datasets, train models and deploy them into production for specific workflows. Additionally, their AI Research team has been open-sourcing packages related to speech processing and image recognition.
  • Microsoft – Cosmos – Almost identical to FBLearner Flow, though Microsoft created Cosmos before FBLearner Flow. Engineers can plug in datasets and pick models to build and deploy AI.
  • Amazon – Machine Learning – Essentially fblearner flow/cosmos for the general public. Amazon is working on integrating it with iot, and I expect more developments on this product in the near future.
  • Tesla – Highly optimized AI models — Part of the “Master Plan” to create a self-driving car 10x safer than manual via “fleet learning.” In other words, Tesla is collecting massive data and using it to build highly optimized AI models.

What do these all have in common? They’re all tools for humans by humans to automate domain-specific workflows (driving a car, identifying a fraudulent transaction, converting speech to text, etc.) We need, at least for the foreseeable future, engineers and domain experts to make this all work.

In a space where AI is domain specific and tailored to simple repetitive workflows, who has the advantage?

  • Big Tech companies that already have the machine learning workflow technology and can extend to more general cases. See above list.
  • Cloud Tech companies who can build and support the layers required for this to work. I wouldn’t be surprised to see AWS drop some big products in this space before November.
  • Consultants who automate workers by implementing some form of Machine Learning. This isn’t all that different from what has already been going on for the last 40 years—consulting firms have long sought to automate expensive workflows for big clients (remember the movie Office Space?) This is just another tool in their arsenal, which includes things like offshoring, robotic automation, etc.

Unless there is a serious breakthrough in the algorithms for generalized artificial intelligence or we find a way to extend the tools out of domain specific fields, I don’t yet see a world where AI can surpass the insect.

 

Tom Hayden was an engineer on the fraud team at Facebook, and built out the data infrastructure at GrubHub. Tom holds a BA in Telecommunications, Information Studies and Media from Michigan State University, and a Master’s of Science in Information, Incentive Centered Design from the University of Michigan. He was also an NU graduate student in theoretical computer science. Tom currently serves at an EIR at The Garage at Northwestern.