Wildfire 2019: Demo Day Wrap Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CurtoTech: CurtoTech makes endoscopic procedures safer and more efficient.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The CurtoTech team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wildfire Spotlight: CurtoTech

How are you doing today?

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


What does CurtoTech do?

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


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

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


Why do you call yourself CurtoTech?

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


How did you come into this project? 

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

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


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

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

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


What is strange about your prototype?

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Wildfire Spotlight: Tilt


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

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What is Tilt?

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


How was the college application process for each of you?

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

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


Who is Tilt for?

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


What is Tilt right now?

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

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


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

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

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


How did you choose Tilt for your name?

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


Who has been Tilt’s greatest mentor?

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


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

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

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

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

Wildfire Spotlight: Clavè

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

How are you guys doing today?

Brad: Superb.

Nissim: We were just outside for a while

Brad: It was a nice little escape

Nissim: I feel like a flower. We photosynthesized


What is Listen?

Nissim: Funny thing about that.

Brad: We’re no longer Listen.


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

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

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


When did each of you get involved with The Garage?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nissim: I can help with that.

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What is your brainstorming process?

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

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

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

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


What has been the best part of Wildfire for you?

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

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


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

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


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

Wildfire Spotlight: Ribbon

Introduce yourself!

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


How are you doing today?

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


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

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


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

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


What inspired you to create Ribbon?

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

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


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

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


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

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


How have you been testing your product?

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


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

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


Have you had any really impactful mentors during this process?

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


How has Wildfire helped you succeed?

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


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

Wildfire Spotlight: Lux

What is Lux?

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

What made you interested in this problem space?

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

How far along in the product development cycle are you?

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

How has The Garage helped you?

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

Which entrepreneur do you admire most and why?

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

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

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: eo

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Why did you found eo?

Sophomore year, since I knew that I would be living on campus and I wanted to get around quickly, I wanted to buy a bike. My friends were going to Wal-Mart that day and I went along with them and bought the cheapest bike that I could find. But within a couple of months, that bike was basically completely broken down, and as the winter was approaching, I didn’t really have the time or money to deal with it, so I’m pretty sure I left it.

But I had stumbled upon a real problem, and as I was doing user interviews with other students as part of an entrepreneurship class, it turns out that it was common to other students. There’s a big hassle with owning a bike, from storing to maintaining it. Not to mention that you don’t have the ability to do one-way rides. If you want to go to class, and then head to lunch, if you’re walking with other people you might have to bring your bike with you. It’s just less flexible. And after we started to identify those specific pains we started talking to the University and eventually decided that we wanted to create this dockless bikeshare specifically for universities. I would say that it was about more than a year from idea to implementation. But we were able to run a 40 bike pilot this past spring quarter.


How many are on the team?

There’s six of us now, including an intern. Having an intern is a big learning experience; due to the fast-paced nature of the startup, we’re constantly catching our intern Utkarsh up on the fly and trying to explain our reasoning behind the decisions we’ve made. We’re telling him our values, how we’re trying to do them, and who this guy is that we’re meeting with and how we know them. Utkarsh has been involved in a little bit of everything because it’s just us this summer and we’re talking through every big decision together. Even though he hasn’t been with us forever, he’s in on the big decisions and helping with a wide variety of things.


Have there been times in eo’s journey that you thought that you weren’t going to make it to the next day?

There’s at least one distinct moment. Afterwards, we had to sit down in the bean bag room and ask ourselves “Now what?” We called it our rebound meeting. This was right before we had approval to launch our bikes, we met with the now former administrator at Northwestern. And we were telling them about the research we had done, and the mini pilots we had worked on. And they basically told us that it wasn’t going to happen; it wasn’t possible, and the University would never let it happen. It was really hard to hear. We were thinking “are we done?” and we eventually fought and got past that.


Who is the biggest role model in your life?

A big one is my older brother. He was born with some physical disabilities and some developmental issues. He’s had to persevere through a ton of stuff. And it’s a really unique perspective being the younger one and having to see him go through challenges. And while he taught me how to do a bunch of things, seeing him struggle with certain things that I was able to do was a really formative experience for me. He’s my role model because he keeps working and keeps trying to just become better.


What’s been your biggest success so far?

It was within the first week of operation when I saw someone that I had never seen before riding our bikes. Obviously I envisioned it doing well and people adopting it, but I honestly only knew for sure that my friends would at least use it. When I was able to see with my own eyes someone organically finding out about the system and giving it a try, that was a big moment. It felt like a dream honestly.

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!