Wildfire Spotlight: Powder Blue Media

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is PowderBlueMedia?

We’re a media startup focused on Gen Z culture and life. It started out as a website called Unplugg’d that I actually created for my senior year high school English class final project back in 2017. I was writing for SB Nation at the time and then I got to see what it was really like – how the sausage was made. Unfortunately I soon realized that the clear business model has and always will be prioritizing clicks and views. And that might be the business, but I thought it wasn’t conducive to providing actual insight and telling coherent stories.

So I started Unplugg’d as a long form sports writing website and it blossomed beyond into popular culture because of my eclectic interests. During my freshman year at Northwestern, a few people joined on and we launched a podcast network in January 2018 – at one point we were operating nearly 10 shows at once, but we had to scale that down to make them as high quality as possible. We just hit 12,000 total listens and we’ve seen it evolve from being commentary on anything to being really focused on our target demographic of ages 16 to 24 providing commentary on sports, entertainment, entrepreneurship, and fashion. We’ve identified these things as very important to our age group’s culture.

We have a second publication called 42 also under the PBM brand that has been in a quasi-launch state for some time. It’s based around the idea that people our age aren’t really communicating in person about important topics because of the advent of technology. When we’re online, we’re usually on social media which isn’t naturally conducive to meaningful conversation about important topics. The idea behind 42 is that the community submits narrative pieces and work with our editing team to create the most engaging pieces. We’ve already received some awesome submissions – out of the 100 received we’ve been able to publish 6, but we’re looking forward to fully going forward soon.

 

Can anybody submit articles, or is there a vetting process?

We used to operate where anyone could submit articles for publishing, and we would work with them to publish it. But we have a pretty high bar when it comes to both writing and the podcast so we’ve had to really cut down on the amount that we were producing. We have staff for Unplugg’d that is open for one-off pieces and new contributors, but there’s a distinct focus on reaching a certain level of quality. Having a great style is really important but so is having an interesting opinion and a unique perspective and offering something really insightful to the reader. With 42 however, anyone can submit a piece and work with our editing team – it’s been really interesting to see that dynamic.

 

Do you have any plans to reach any audiences beyond the 16-24 demographic?

Something that I always admired about the JK Rowling series was that she wrote her books to grow up with the audience as well as Harry. She wrote them to get progressively more and more dark, and I want to somewhat embody this in what I’m doing. We’re not going to write to college kids forever because we wont’ be college kids soon.

I think about the Steve Buscemi meme when I think about that actually, where he has the backwards hat and the skateboard saying “how’s it going fellow kids”. The idea is to produce content that stays important to people our age. I have received feedback from people who have said they’re big fans of our content who are over 30, so we’re not trying to limit ourselves from reaching other people. I want to narrow it down to have a clear vision but if the data tells us something else, we might go that way.

 

What’s the idea for the business model of PBM?

Since PBM started, it’s been a passion project for me. I’m really into building my own things – I ran a t shirt business in high school and I resold sneakers in middle school. I always viewed PBM as a business that I would love to monetize at some point, and for the longest time it was all about building up the brand and following and getting as good of a content base as possible. In December 2018 we sat down and had a discussion where we talked about turning this into a startup that could legitimately make money. That’s where we went from Unplugg’d to PowderBlueMedia. There’s several brands under it, and we’re exploring several ideas for revenue streams.

Melissa and Hayes in The Garage told us to “first go and disprove your baby”. Go talk to people and find out who will pay for it – who are your superfans? If you have 10, you can find 100, and if you have 100, you can find 1,000. Right now, in Wildfire, we’re contacting people and finding out whether we have something. Traditional media has either always had the advertising or subscription model, and we’re definitely preferential towards the subscription model because it’s much easier to keep up the level of quality that way. A revenue model we’re exploring now is how many people we can get to sign up for a Patreon account.

 

Who’s been your biggest mentor so far?

I’ve met so many cool people. And we’ve been really looking for a mentor to check back in with, and in a few hours we’re meeting with the Parkinson brothers who founded Peapod. They started following us on Twitter before we even met, so it’s kind of cool to see that they’re interested. The biggest mentor so far has been my high school English teacher. I had him from sophomore through senior year of high school, and before that I was a very STEM focused kid. I was a classic example of “I’m interested in what I’m good at” but he really changed my perception. And I started to realize how much I loved writing. He was a teacher who was very big into bringing out your voice, and I developed an almost snarky, sarcastic tone in my writing.

A big joke with him was that I would always get B+s on my essays because I would always do them the night before and hardly ever answer the prompt, but he would always say “I couldn’t give you a bad grade because your voice was so damn good”. I even took that to other classes – in Chemistry, I wrote these hilarious introductions to my titration labs because I wanted to stand out from the mass of other reports my chemistry teacher had to read. David, my English teacher has been a huge inspiration and I still email him for advice.

 

Can you give me a six word tagline for PowderBlueMedia?

We just wanna create dope shit.



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

Wildfire 2019: City Health Tech

“My dream and my passion is to develop a sustainable and scalable model for cities.” 

Ibraheem Alinur, the founder of City Health Tech, leads 20 people on this mission starting with an educational platform and a patent-pending device to track and encourage longer hand washing times. In grades K-12 alone, 164 million students miss school each year due to preventable illness. The Garage sat down with Ibraheem and two other members of his team to find out more about them and the story behind their startup. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What problem are you trying to solve?

Ibraheem: We’re trying to make people less sick. A study performed by Northwestern in a second grade classroom actually showed that education alone can actually decrease rates of infection and increase attendance. If you wash your hands for 8-10 seconds, in 2 hours, it will actually be as if you never washed your hands at all. Washing them for 20 seconds is twice as effective, and we’re trying to get people to that mark.

What is your solution to this problem?

Ibraheem: We’ve built the first-of-its-kind data capture technology. Nobody is currently able to capture hand washing data anonymously – you can’t put cameras in public restrooms and you can’t have someone standing there to time how long someone washes their hands. This is the first time that anyone can get that rich data set. And from there, we can figure out what actually encourages longer hand washing times. It’s hard to show a change of behavior if we have no baseline to go off of. Broadly speaking, our device attaches to a sink and can detect whether someone is at a sink and whether they are washing their hands. This will then trigger a display with an animation designed to encourage people to wash their hands. Education is also important. Different posters will have different effects. The same thing taught in a different way can have a drastic impact.

After handwashing, what’s the next problem space for City Health Tech?

Ibraheem: We want to invest what we’ve learned into other technologies working to improve cities. There’s energy, emergency response, transportation, housing, and a bunch of other things that affect cities, so I’d probably jump into one of these. I’d also like to scale educational curriculum to make kids more aware of their communities. If we’re already teaching kids to wash their hands, what other things can we teach kids that are small and impactful to their communities?

What’s been your biggest challenge so far?

Ibraheem: Engineering  is really tough. It’s a long cycle and you have a lot of bugs and things that pop up that you can’t even predict. It’s really hard to plan when you don’t know how long things will take. Over the course of two years, we’ve tested over 25 different sensors. In engineering, it’s just difficult making good design. It’s hard.

Why did you join the team?

Anya: I really like Ibraheem’s energy and vision. I like how long-term he’s thinking and his goal of turning cities smart. The most valuable experience for me so far has just been talking to Ibraheem and hearing more about his background. He knows so much – this is his third startup.

Imran: I heard about the company through Segal, and I thought it would be fun to get involved in because I knew Ibraheem beforehand. When he talked about the device, he explained how much progress had been made, and that showed me that it was more than just a hypothetical  idea and really has the potential to make an impact.

What has stood out to you as an “Ah-ha” moment during this entire experience?

Ibraheem: This last spring felt for the first time like running a real company. It was the first time managing both a large business and engineering team. Every week I was meeting four to five people to get our ideas in front of as many interesting people as possible to help scale and get feedback. My “ah-ha” moment was that I like this work. I think that I could be a CEO. But I don’t think that being a CEO is for everyone. I didn’t know if it would be for me. But I like having this  experience telling me ‘you know what, I think that this is the type of work I do like, I’m good at it. I thrive in building, selling, and managing teams.


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 2019: The Results

Another year, another VentureCat!

This year, VentureCat, Northwestern’s annual student startup competition, took place on May 22, 2019 at the Kellogg Global Hub. We changed up the format this year to make sure the public Showcase is fun and fast paced, centering on what matters most: the student founders.

This year, 26 of Northwestern’s best and brightest students from across the entire university were part of VentureCat. Represented in the semifinalist lineup this year is Kellogg, SESP, Weinberg, McCormick, Medill, Pritzker, and the School of Communications. Following the closed semifinals and closed finals, where teams pitched to panels of esteemed judges (and grilled for 18 minutes of Q&A), five teams took the Showcase stage for the public. They pitched in White Auditorium to an audience of hundreds, including special guest and keynote speaker, Jon McNeill ’89.

Jon McNeill’s experience as an entrepreneur earned him a reputation as both an innovator and implementer. He is the 2012 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and in 2013 he was named “Most Admired CEO” in the midsize company category in Boston. Jon has founded eight companies, led teams creating more than 3,000 jobs and over a half-billion dollars of value for investors. He co-founded Enservio in 2006, a leading SaaS (software as a service) platform for insurers, employing over 400 people. McNeill is a graduate of Northwestern University. He was the President of Global Sales & Services at Tesla Motors before becoming the COO at Lyft in February, 2018. We were thrilled to have him as our guest of honor at VentureCat this year! During Jon’s keynote, he shared his memories of discovering entrepreneurship at Northwestern through a class as an undergraduate!

VentureCat is a collaborative effort, not only in planning, but also in a diverse set of startup teams. To ensure there’s room for all types of ventures, we have five industry tracks that students startups compete within at the semifinals and finals.

Business to Business

Business to Consumer

Energy and Sustainability

Life Sciences and Medical Innovation

Social Impact and Nonprofit

The 26 semifinalist teams this year were nothing short of impressive and included members of The Garage family like PedalCell, PAL, People6, Scoots, Slate and many many more. The Kellogg School of Management was also well represented with teams like Red + Blue, Maziwa, and the dose co. turning out for the semifinals.

After semifinals pitches took place behind closed doors, first and second place in each track were awarded non-dilutive prize money at our VIP reception. First place in each track took home $5,500 and second place in each track took home $3,500.

Business to Business

First Place: Dindin

Second Place: LoudChat

 

Business to Consumer

First Place: Slate

Second Place: Scoots

 

Energy and Sustainability

First Place: LimeLight

Second Place: PedalCell

 

Life Sciences and Medical Innovations

First Place: PreSight

Second Place: Readox

 

Social Impact and Nonprofit

First Place: Maziwa

Second Place: FutureMap

 

This year, prior to the public Showcase, finals teams pitched behind closed doors to a panel of judges, including Rob Chesney of Trunk Club, Kristi Ross of tastytrade and Sonia Nagar of Pritzker Group Venture Capital.

After a short break for the teams, the first place winner from each track took the finals stage to pitch again for a live audience. All of the pitches were polished and impressive, as they’ve been every year!

We asked the VentureCat audience who their favorite was just like we did last year. Hundreds of text votes were tallied by our team behind the scenes and Maziwa took home the audience vote prize of $2,000.

Then, we hauled out some very big checks (we mean really big!) for the top three pitches of the night. Because we had the judges deliberate prior to the public showcase, we were able to hand over cash right away!

Third place, and an additional $10,000 was awarded to LimeLight, led by Phil O’Brien (Kellogg ’20), an Energy and Sustainability  startup that is advancing data to power the indoor agriculture revolution.

Second place, and $15,000, went to Business Products and Services competitor Dindin: Dindin is changing the access to essential financial services in Brazil by facilitating financial inclusion of the unbanked and underbanked population through its B2B2C solutions. Dindin is led by Brunna Seabra (Kellogg ’20).

And first place, and the grand prize of $30,000 went to PreSight (previously known as HappyTears). Presight, led by Simon Yin (Kellogg ’19), is the first screening tool for retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) based on VEGF levels in the tears of premature infants.

Thank you to all of the VentureCat sponsors, including both general and track sponsors. Without your help and support, we wouldn’t have the ability to help Northwestern founders turn their ideas into reality. You’re a truly vital part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem at Northwestern.

And a big thank you to all of the Northwestern units that are vital in the execution and success of VentureCat every year: The Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, The Donald Pritzker Entrepreneurship Law Center, The Kellogg School of Management, and all of your best friends here at The Garage. See you next year!

Resident Spotlight: NpowerU

When Lilliana de Souza transferred to Northwestern, she said she was surprised by the lack of safety training during orientation. As the ImproveNU competition rolled around, de Souza decided to take matters into her own hands. She founded the safety initiative NPowerU and won first place in the competition.

The Garage sat down with de Souza to learn how and why she’s preparing to kick off NPowerU this fall.

On Founding

My first year on campus I went to orientation, and there was no programming about safety. That really surprised me because at my old school, we had a bunch of programming about safety and all the resources available to us.

And then September through December we had [several] police reports. As it got super cold, it kind of stopped. Once we got into February, when ImproveNU was, people had kind of forgotten about it.

On ImproveNU

Over Christmas break, my mom bought my little sister and I personal safety alarms. We learned how to use them. I’ve been having mine on my coat all of winter. So when the [ImproveNU] competition came, I was thinking, what would I improve at this school? That’s what I [decided I] want to do.

[The judges] really wanted to listen. [They] were telling me they wanted to help in any way they can.

When you win, you get to be a part of The Garage for the quarter while you implement [your idea]. Now, I’m one of the Little Joe Ventures fellows. That happened a month after ImproveNU, so now I’m super integrated in The Garage.

On de Souza’s Plan

We’re going to order a bunch [of personal safety alarms], enough for the incoming freshmen class and new transfers. They’re going [to get] them at Wildcat Welcome.

Hopefully, the plan is [new students] have to go through [an] hour-long session for NPowerU at Wildcat Welcome. I’d make a presentation for them of everything that they would need to know to take safety seriously. Our hope is that it’s a symbol: you’re in charge of your own safety. It’s empowering you to take safety into your own hands.

The Associate Dean of Students as well as the Chief Commander of Police have been nothing but supportive as I have begun to navigate the required channels to get our initiative up and running.

The Garage, students and school have been so supportive, and people who go to other schools that I’m friends with are like, ‘oh, that should be on my campus.’ Hopefully I’m inspiring other people, which would be super cool.

On The Garage

It has served as a hub to find passionate people. Also, the residency program is amazing. You get a mentor. I asked the Dean of Student Conduct to be my mentor. He’s really helped me. He was one of the judges at ImproveNU.

All the people who work at The Garage are also my mentors. I feel not scared or overwhelmed because there’s all these people here to help me.


Megan Lebowitz is a freshman majoring in journalism. She is a reporter for Northwestern News Network and loves storytelling in all forms. She is from Cleveland, Ohio.

Resident Spotlight: Maziwa

Founded in June 2018, Maziwa aims to provide middle-income working mothers with an efficient and convenient breast-pumping option. Founder Sahar Jamal said she hopes Maziwa will be on the market in 2020, starting in Kenya before broadening to other countries. The Garage sat down with Sahar to learn how and why Maziwa prioritizes expanding discreet, hygienic and affordable breast-pumping solutions to more women.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What inspired Maziwa?

I was working in Nairobi, Kenya over the summer for my internship through Kellogg. [I was] working with a lot of pregnant and new moms and doing research around the importance of breastfeeding in the first six months of a child’s life.

Unlike in the US, maternity policies [in Nairobi] aren’t really respected. There aren’t lactation rooms at office spaces. Many American-made breast pumps rely on electricity of a certain voltage. They assume that the mom has somewhere to put the milk after she pumped it, and they assume that there’s a lactation room where a big, bulky, electric breast pump would be able to fit. In reality, if [mothers in Kenya were using a breast pump], they’re most likely doing this on the toilet seat or somewhere public in their workspace.

As a result, we decided to develop Maziwa, which is a tailored breast pump for low-resource settings in developing markets. We’re really addressing key feature challenges such as discreetness, efficiency, hygiene and affordability in our design.

How does Maziwa hope to fix these problems?

The first main differentiator that we hope to rely on is our in-market partnership. Because I worked in Kenya over the summer, I have a lot of contacts there, and I’ve established strong partnerships with maternity clinics, early childhood care centers, employers and government bodies like The Kenya Association for Breastfeeding.

From a product feature point of view, we’re building out three packages that set three of our key assumptions, which are that moms care about storage, efficiency and discreetness.

What are the steps you’re taking before 2020?

The biggest milestone that’s upcoming is our trip to Nairobi at the end of March. We’re doing quite a bit of research there. Once the research is complete, we’re working with our engineers to develop a product and build in some of those features we’ve heard moms prioritize. By the end of the year we should have a working prototype. I hope to go back into the market after I graduate to see whether there is interest in the product we’ve developed. Based on that, we can go into our final design process and start working on the process for FDA approval and manufacturing contracts.

Tell me about the name.

‘Maziwa’ is the Swahili word for milk, and ‘ziwa’ actually also means breast. I thought it was quite interesting, and I decided [to use a] play on words and make that my business name.

How has The Garage helped you?

The Garage has been extremely helpful. I just joined in January. It’s been an amazing community. The family dinners are awesome. It’s a good checkpoint to see how people are doing [and] the challenges they’re facing. You don’t feel as alone when you hear people are going through the same things as you.

Northwestern and Kellogg have both been extremely helpful in this process. [Maziwa] is kind of the trifecta of challenges: It’s global health, it’s in Kenya [and] it’s a medical device. The support in the community has really given me the courage to keep going and the resources I need to do so effectively.


Megan Lebowitz is a freshman majoring in journalism. She is a reporter for Northwestern News Network and loves storytelling in all forms. She is from Cleveland, Ohio.

Recap: Hubly at NVC

When I think about Portland, a couple of things come to mind – rainy days, craft coffee, and eccentric people. An intense 3 day pitch competition would definitely not have been on that list, but after competing in the University of Oregon’s New Venture Championship (NVC) I can confidently say that the entrepreneurial spirit runs through the heart of the University of Oregon and the city of Portland, Oregon.

My name is Nisar and I am a co-founder for Hubly. A medical device startup developing a neurosurgical drill designed to improve accuracy and safety, while also decreasing costs and complications, associated with performing one of the most common neurosurgical procedures, the Ventriculostomy. The Hubly team has been traveling around the country to various pitch competitions to raise funding and incorporate feedback from judges and potential investors. Most recently we travelled to Portland, joining graduate students from around the world to compete in the New Venture Championship (NVC). The NVC experience was a journey unlike any other—the chance to pitch our venture and compete for cash prizes, receive one-on-one feedback from world class business professionals, and gain attention from angel investors.

The NVC schedule included a 1 minute elevator pitch, a trade show, 30 minute running clock pitch with interruptions for judge questions, and a “lightning round”, which consisted of a 1 hour discussion of the business without any props or presentations. The event was very well coordinated by The University of Oregon’s Lundquist Center for Entrepreneurship.

The first day consisted of practice pitches with judge feedback, followed by the trade show. We received great feedback from the judges on updating our business plan, reworking some of our presentation, and changing our pricing models. Hubly was then given a booth where we presented our initial proof of concept prototype, as well as a scaled down 3D printed version of our drill. This was an excellent opportunity to showcase the progress we have made on our device while also networking and getting to see the various innovations of the other competitors. The other ventures at the event ranged from bone tape to mend fractures, an algae-based air purifier, beehive monitoring technology, coordination of supply chain operations for local grocers, load bearing stabilization for rescue operations, and many more.

The second day of NVC consisted of the reworked presentation to panel of expert judges. After incorporating much of the feedback we received from the practice pitch, we were able to more concisely present the problems associated with the Ventriculostomy and how our product is the solution to these challenges. Ultimately, Hubly came in second place in our track as we were beaten by BoneTape, the team that ultimately won the competition. This meant that we would be competing in a consolidation “lightning round” the following day.

On the final day, Hubly presented our company to a panel of executives in a casual, lunch-like setting. We were not allowed to use any props or presentations other than the pens and napkins provided on the table. The hour long conversation consisted of a 10 minute initial pitch with 5 minutes for Q&A and feedback, followed by 15 minutes to rework the pitch, then we had another 15 minutes to re-present to the judges incorporating the feedback we received, finally the judges spent the last 15 minutes for final Q&A and feedback. Hubly won our lightning round track, receiving a consolation prize of $1500.

Although Hubly didn’t make it to the finals, we came out of NVC with a much better understanding of how to effectively present a medical device company to investors who may not be as knowledgeable about the space. I would like to leave you with a list of general tips for any future garage teams that make the trek out to Portland to compete at NVC…

  1. The elevator pitch should really be about the “sizzle” of the company. Try to make the business sound as sexy as possible and keep it high-level.
  2. This is above all else an amazing networking opportunity, make sure to talk to as many people as possible. We were able to connect with a Med Tech VC randomly in the hotel lobby.
  3. In the 30 minute pitches, you should leave at least 10 minutes for the judges to interrupt and their questions.
  4. Use as many napkins as possible in the lightning round, just because you can’t use outside props doesn’t mean you can’t show visuals of your product.
  5. Don’t try to incorporate every single piece of feedback you receive. Everyone has a different viewpoint and ultimately you are the one that has to present the information. We were criticized for some of the changes we made that were a direct result of prior feedback we received.
  6. Bring as much to the trade show as possible. Posters, printouts, goodie-bags, food, or anything else that will attract people to come talk to you. There was a prize for best trade show booth that was a literal popularity contest.
  7. Make sure your business plan can be understood by judges and investors that are not in your field.
  8. Bring business cards! You will be constantly exchanging contact information to set up future networking opportunities.
  9. There is a decent amount of free time between events over the 3 day period so explore Portland. The coffee really is amazing!
  10. Have fun!

My Experience Founding a Company at The Garage

I founded a company while at Northwestern, and it failed after a year and a half.

My co-founders and I dedicated a significant amount of our time over a year and a half working on a startup called Backlight. We had big dreams – we were going to use artificial intelligence to streamline resume (and hopefully, other text) optimization and make it accessible and affordable to anyone looking for a job. The career services industry had been stagnant for years: you need a one-on-one with an HR expert which will cost you $200 or more, otherwise you’re out of luck. It seemed like the perfect combination of a human touch with our great customer service and cutting-edge technology with our complex algorithm. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that simple and we shut down Backlight’s operations in April 2018.

Luckily for me, at The Garage failure is not only emphasized, but encouraged – for the right reasons. It is, after all, one of the best ways to learn. I failed on multiple occasions not only with Backlight, where I failed to properly manage my team and failed to do the right market research before diving in to this endeavor, but I also failed multiple times before founding Backlight.

But enough with the sob story, and on to some of the good stuff. Getting accepted as a Resident of The Garage was actually one of my biggest successes at Northwestern. My time working with the students, staff, mentors – basically everyone –  at The Garage was overwhelmingly positive and one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had in the last four years.

First off, I’d like to start with our mentors. Through The Garage, I’ve met dozens of fascinating people who are professionals, entrepreneurs, and students alike. The professionals who took the time out of their days to sit on our board of advisors and our mentors were all incredible people who taught our entire team a lot about life, what it means to be an entrepreneur, and how to find our own definitions of success. I’d like to specifically recognize the man who ran the fellowship program we were a part of, Billy Banks. Not only did he keep us accountable and help us grow as people and entrepreneurs, but he made a real, personal connection with every single student he interacted with. It is few and far between that you’ll find someone as honest, compassionate, and full of sage wisdom as Billy and this seems like a good time to thank him.

Building off that, the network of mentors, students, and people I’ve developed through The Garage is worth its weight in gold. I’ve met professionals who are successful entrepreneurs, lawyers, in the finance industry, and everything in between. Most of them have had a genuine interest in building relationships and offering their personal networks and advice for everyone at The Garage. The weekly Family Dinners give Garage Residents the opportunity to poke the brains of people in a wide variety of industries with a wide variety of insights.

Not only that, but working with the rest of the Backlight team taught me an incredible amount about handling interpersonal relationships, managing a team, business strategy, and also a lot about myself. I’ve made close friends, built my network, and gained priceless experience along the way. Even though my venture didn’t pan out as I wanted it to, I am a better person, leader, and teammate today due to my experience with Backlight in The Garage.

So with all that taken into account, if I had to go back do my Northwestern experience over again, I’d go back, start Backlight and work with The Garage every single time because failing might not be so bad after all.


Daniel was a Resident of The Garage, and is a graduate of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern. After graduating in 2018, Daniel took a job as an Analyst at Tyree & D’Angelo Partners in the Chicago area. 

Resident Spotlight: Track Trainer

Anthony Kang, project manager of Track Trainer, is lending a hand to help stroke survivors use theirs. Track Trainer is a stroke rehabilitation device that focuses on improving strength and mobility in stroke survivors’ upper limbs. It is in the prototype phase.

The Garage sat down with Kang to learn how Track Trainer gets survivors from point A to point B.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How does Track Trainer work?

It’s a box that looks like an arcade game. There’s a central track and a handle. The objective is really simple: You’re trying to push the handle through the track from point A to point B, and then back to point A, but along the track you have multiple gates. At each gate, you have to complete a task, for instance, turning a key or pressing a button.

It’s a really simple idea, but it’s actually a big step up compared to what’s currently on the market for affordable stroke rehabilitation devices for the upper limbs. If you’ve been to the doctor’s office and seen toddler toys like ring towers or bead mazes, that’s kind of what stroke survivors have to use right now. We’re trying to make it more engaging and keep it at an affordable price level.

How do you address the differences between stroke survivors with different skill levels?

With our last prototype we made the task boxes detachable. That was an accident, but it works surprisingly well. We’re making the parts interchangeable so you can switch out the handles for different stroke survivors, switch out the task boxes [and] change the number of task boxes that are plugged in. It’s really giving therapists an opportunity to customize the Track Trainer for different stroke patients’ needs.

How have stroke survivors reacted to Track Trainer?

There’s so much focus on regaining the ability to walk, so a lot of [the] time, the upper limb rehabilitation gets neglected. That’s why rehabilitation tends to be slower in the upper body. For a lot of stroke survivors, this is the first device they’ve seen that’s actually targeted toward upper limb rehabilitation, but in a more interesting way. Overall, I think the reception’s been really positive.

How has The Garage helped?

It’s been a great space to meet other people doing really interesting projects. Everyone’s working on something really cool, something that’s really personal to them. It’s been great being part of that community.

I think the biggest thing has been the network. Not only our peer residents, but also the entrepreneurs-in-residence [and] the mentors. We’ve had a lot of really great conversations with people here.

During our family dinners, a lot of the residents share their failures. I think it’s been reassuring that it’s not always an easy process, but there’s so many people going through that process with us.

How have setbacks been helpful?

You always learn something from failures. It’s always a really good benchmark for telling you that something’s not working. From that, well, what do we need to do to fix that?

Tell me about your team.

We are a three person team. We have myself, project manager, and we have someone on the marketing side and someone on the finance side. But we all do a little bit of the engineering. We have our own roles, but ultimately we’re all building together. And I think that’s really representative of what we like to see. We like to see the stroke survivor community come together to make this a better product.

Between the three of us, only one is formally trained as an engineer. We learn the ropes as we go. But I think that makes for some really cool opportunities: trying different things out, going out of our comfort zone to learn engineering techniques, learning different modeling tools, how software and hardware integrate together…It’s been a really interesting experience.

Want to learn more? Visit Track Trainer’s website or LinkedIn page.


Megan Lebowitz is a freshman majoring in journalism. She is a reporter for Northwestern News Network and loves storytelling in all forms. She is from Cleveland, Ohio.

Resident Spotlight: SustainED

In the fall of 2018, Ronni Hayden and Rebecca Fudge rolled the dice and started at The Garage to develop their board game, which aims to teach high school students about the 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

The Garage sat down with Ronni to learn how her SustainED work meets play.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What are your goals for SustainED?

Not a lot of US schools talk about climate change or the United Nations goals. We’re trying to find a way to incorporate the board game into the Next Generation Science Standards so we can get it into classrooms and get teens talking about the goals, thinking about the ways they can work in their community and be empowered to know that change is possible. Making big change by 2030 isn’t as impossible as it sounds.

How does the game work?

Each player is a made-up country, and they’re acting as the UN delegate. They’re trying to gain progress toward each of the 17 goals. You roll a dice and you move around the board, and different tiles code to different colored cards that you draw.

There’s solution cards, which will teach you about a real solution that’s been implemented toward that goal. You can trade with other countries, which really emphasizes the importance of collaboration in the real world. There’s disaster cards, which show how island nations or nations that are impoverished are more affected by climate change. There are cards where you can come up with your own rule that you want your country to implement, which helps students think critically about what each of the goals mean.

As you go around the board, you’re gaining progress towards the goals, learning about collaboration and disasters and working toward passing different checkpoints by the time you reach 2030, which is the end of the board.

What’s been the reaction from students who play the game?

This summer, we tested it with Northwestern undergrads on campus, as well as grad students. Of course we want [the game] to be educational, but we also want it to be fun. We were really excited to see how into the game people got. [When we play] with younger teens, initially they’re nervous, but as they progress and learn more, they become more empowered to come up with their own solutions. We’ve been really happy with how competitive people get in the game, and also how much it seems that they enjoy learning.

Why is this issue important to you?

These are really topical issues. We’re running out of time. Whether or not you’re interested in studying science or going into these fields, [climate change] is still going to affect us. It already has. We’re hopeful this [game] is one way for people to learn about these [UN] goals.

How has The Garage helped?

The Garage has been really helpful. Our mentor, Mark Desky, really keeps us accountable and working towards the things that we want to do every week. We wouldn’t have found him without The Garage.

Having so many students around working on entrepreneurship has been really great. It can be really overwhelming, but when you look around and see all of these other students who are also choosing to allot their time this way, it’s really inspiring.


Megan Lebowitz is a freshman majoring in journalism. She is a reporter for Northwestern News Network and loves storytelling in all forms. She is from Cleveland, Ohio.

Resident Spotlight: PAL

Approximately 1 in 59 children have autism spectrum disorder, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network.

Children on the autism spectrum may suffer from meltdowns. But Products for Autism Lifestyle (PAL), a subsidiary for Gaia Wearables, is creating smart clothes that monitor biometrics and transmit data to an app that alerts caregivers of early signs of meltdowns.

The Garage sat down with PAL co-founder Brent Chase to learn how PAL aims to change lives, one shirt at a time.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How does PAL work?

It’s pretty well documented that you can identify different states of [physiological] being. The most movie-esque version of this is the lie detection tests. There’s other ones that look more toward how you quantify people with depression or people with other nonverbal disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder.

The idea behind [PAL] is a smart shirt that measures all of these physiological data. It’s all connected to this core unit that’s on the shirt that can be detachable. Wash the shirt, you’re good to go. It gathers the data [and] sends it to a mobile app. So if you’re a parent, caregiver, therapist [or] teacher, [you] can see what the [child’s] emotional state is, and then help them develop to this more independent state.

What’s your inspiration?

[My brother] grew up for the past 22 years having autism spectrum disorder. It’s very hard for him. It was hard on the family.

So the real inspiration behind [PAL] was I saw how hard it was for my brother just to live day-to-day. He would wake up and potentially have a meltdown, which is harmful for him…harmful for everyone. It limits his ability to continuously develop into this more independent state. Right now he’s 22 and lives with our mother. He can’t necessarily pick up a job because of these meltdowns.

Me and my mother can [understand his states]. We have been living with him for years now, and we know the little triggers and what to do to either proactively avoid or stop them when they occur. If he can go to an employer and the employer has access to something that would let them know when he’s at risk of a meltdown, then they can better manage him or help him better control everything.

This was a common thing we were seeing. Everyone kept saying they wanted their child to be more independent. If you can give the people the technology, then they can end up developing it into what they need for that independence.

How has The Garage helped?

The name carries a lot of weight for us to get connected, not only within the institution, but also [within] the general community.

[The Garage] also helps us with getting more people on the team. The beauty of what we have is none of this would be possible without the commitment of all the team members.

What do you want to add?

I feel like a big thing in entrepreneurship is this rush to get something out there and start making money, but in reality, if we all just keep focusing on the money, then no one is going to create any real innovation or change any lives. So [PAL] spent more time in this incubation period focusing more on how can this solution actually benefit the people.

PAL’s product will be released in January 2020. Interested in getting involved? PAL is looking for people to join their human study. Participants wear a wristwatch that monitors biometrics for 20 minutes, and then they have the chance to win 50 dollars.

Here is the link to add yourself to the future studies list.

Here is the link to add your availability for user testing at Northwestern University’s Evanston campus.

Children on the autism spectrum and caretakers are also encouraged to reach out to PAL at gaiawearables@gmail.com. Anyone interested in getting involved can visit gaiawearables.com and click “Get Involved.”


Megan Lebowitz is a freshman majoring in journalism. She is a reporter for Northwestern News Network and loves storytelling in all forms. She is from Cleveland, Ohio.