VentureCat 2018: Meet the Semifinalists

VentureCat, Northwestern’s annual student startup competition, is an event and showcase celebrating Northwestern’s most promising student-founded startups, and we couldn’t be more excited about this year’s lineup. We have 29 incredibly impressive, talented student teams competing for a spot on the Finals stage.

VentureCat culminates with the VentureCat Finals on May 23, 2018, where $100,000 in prize money is given away (and yes, we have giant checks).

The 29 semifinalist teams compete in six industry tracks. First place from each track will take the Finals stage. And don’t forget to RSVP to grab your seat at Northwestern’s biggest startup competition of the year. Previous VentureCat competitors have gone on to have their startups funded, acquired, and more. Who are you rooting for?


CoCo Health: CoCo Health provides on-site mental wellness support for employers and employees by bringing counselors and providers to the workplace.

Facilikey: Facilikey is an app for property managers to organize maintenance requests and connect them with the right vendors for the job.

Hilltop Health: Business solutions for vets to create tech enabled, world class pet care.

Queralyze, LLC: Queralyze is a cost effective teaching enhancement tool focusing on critical thinking and writing.

RideLink: RideLink provides amusement park operators with a predictive machine learning platform to make smarter maintenance decisions and reduce annual unplanned maintenance costs.


Cariset: Because the key to feeling like you’re on top of the world starts with your bag.

Commit: Commit is a platform that creates and guarantees demand for events and trips to make sure they’re full… or don’t happen.

LOUD Enterprises LLC: LOUD’s mission is to use artwork and apparel to inspire, challenge and enable others to pursue their passions and to live out their dreams.

SkimmyLabs: Skimmy is a wearable device that alerts credit card holders to detected skimmers.

Unruled.: Unruled. is empowering visual thinkers through environmentally responsible design.


Instago: Instago is a community centric carpooling app that matches people going in the same direction at similar times and thereby allows them to split the cost of the ride while reducing emissions.

NUMiX Materials: NUMiX Materials manufactures and supplies Northwestern University-patented materials to remove heavy metals from aqueous streams at ten times the efficiency of competing materials on a per-volume basis.

PedalCell: PedalCell creates novel bike-powered phone chargers for the bike share industry.

Walla: Walla helps utilities meet state-mandated energy savings targets by incentivizing consumers to reduce their individual electricity demands through micro-investing and cloud-based smart appliance automation.


2nd Kitchen: 2ndKitchen is a platform that enables bars without kitchens to serve food seamlessly using a network of popular restaurants around them.

BrewBike: BrewBike fuels college students with cold brew coffee.

HotPlate: HotPlate is an app that enables diners to discover the best dishes at restaurants through individual dish ratings and reviews.

Jora Beverage Company: Mindful mixers, conscious crafters, and innovative partiers who refuse to settle for alcoholic beverages that continuously fail to acknowledge our lifestyles.

reBLEND: reBLEND sources misshapen produce and crafts delicious smoothies that help customers better win their day.


BackWave Technologies: BackWave is developing a noninvasive device that measures cardiac output to detect and prevent acute exacerbations of heart failure.

BioTrellis, LLC: BioTrellis, LLC is an innovative pre-clinical nanomaterial product which can dramatically improve healing post surgery for cartilage repair patient.

Jabiru Medical: Jabiru provides real-time biometric feedback for new moms to facilitate expedited labor and avoid undesirable, costly surgical interventions.

Jetter: Jetter is an easy-to-use, child-friendly device that improves the pediatric injection experience.

Rheos: Rheos has developed a noninvasive, wearable biosensor capable of diagnosing ventricular shunt malfunction.


BOSSY: BOSSY is a platform that celebrates female business owners and helps them grow their businesses by motivating female consumers to buy women-owned.

Brave Initiatives: Brave Initiatives is on a mission to empower high school girls to be brave leaders of change in their communities using technology.

LineShift: LineShift provides solutions and tools that enable the manufacturing workforce to analyze and deploy their skills as AI and automation disrupt the industry.

Poppy: Poppy is the first online support system designed to help communities provide long-term and meaningful help for the grievers in their lives.

Sidekick Education: Students partner with organizations to solve real problems using core class content. Sidekick partners with teachers to help them pull it off.

The Garage Goes to San Francisco

The rumors are true! We recently packed our bags, jumped on a plane, and took a group of student founders to the city where it all started: San Francisco.

Colin Pham, Sarah Ahmad, and Vishaal Mali (try to) recreate The Garage logo.

While many of our student founders have definitely made the trek to the land of tech before, we wanted to offer a small group the opportunity of a lifetime to see San Francisco from our eyes, and most importantly, help them to build important networks and bridges with Northwestern alumni working and living in San Francisco. Our roster included students from Weinberg, McCormick, SESP, and School of Comms working on entrepreneurial ventures ranging from the most comfortable men’s suit ever to a bicycle powered cell phone charger, from cold brew coffee on wheels to an app giving you the best dish recommendations at local restaurants. Needless to say, this batch of 11 students is impressive. Check out all of our fellow travelers below.


The day after we arrived, we got right down to business with office tours. Using some Northwestern connections, we were given exclusive VIP access to the impressive Airbnb office, a peek inside the Northwestern founded company, Apartment List, and a chat with some recent alumni at their offices at Uber. Shoutout to everyone who was kind enough to open their doors to us. We even caught a lucky break, and got to have a chat with Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky. His advice? Don’t listen to your parents and get out there.


Vishaal Mali, Sam Kim, and Lloyd Yates hear from Airbnb co-founder and CEO, Brian Chesky at Airbnb HQ.

On day two, we welcomed alumni, founders, and VCs to the Northwestern San Francisco space for one on one coffee chats with our students.

Vishaal Mali and Jacob Morgan at Northwestern San Francisco.

And after sending students on a mission to make sure San Francisco remembers us, we all hung out with alumni at Spark Social to watch the sunset and make memories. 

Lloyd Yates made a mark on the Golden Gate Bridge!



Sarah Ahmad, Sam Letscher, and Colin Pham at Spark Social.

But don’t take it from us–here’s just a tidbit of the feedback we got from a few students.

“Thank you SO much for planning SF and attending. The networking/office tours were great and I feel closer than ever to The Garage community.” -Lucas Philips, SESP ‘19

“I just wanted to thank you all for your hard work in putting on the trip to San Francisco this weekend. I had a wonderful time and learned so much.” -Evan Taylor, WCAS ‘19

“The trip has helped me process all the post-graduation options I have, and now I’m super excited for life after Northwestern.” Bennett Hensey, McCormick ‘19

Stay tuned to see where we go next. With us, you never know.


Founder Spotlight: Bennett Hensey, McCormick ’19

Who: Bennett Hensey, McCormick School of Engineering ‘19 + Co-Founder of Unruled.

Major: Design Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Bennett has become a familiar face at The Garage as an integral member of Resident Team Unruled. Unruled. recently participated in The Garage’s summer pre-accelerator program, Wildfire, and took home third place at Demo Day and a check for $2,000 after impressing a panel of judges with their pitch to empower visual thinkers through environmentally responsible design. But The Garage wanted to get to know Bennett a little bit better, and learn more about his entrepreneurial and academic path at Northwestern.

Tell us about your major.

“I was always interested in engineering, and I really thought the Ford building on campus was a cool place to work from. I also participated in an engineering program called Murphy Scholars, which gave me the opportunity and funding to pursue a research project alongside 17 other motivated and passionate students at McCormick.

I started as a Materials Science major as a freshman. Within the first two years, I switched my major two more times to both Mechanical Engineering and then Manufacturing and Design Engineering. By my sophomore year though, I learned that my real passion was beyond basic science and I wanted to get my hands dirty dealing with real products and real people, so now I’m working toward a degree in a major I’m creating called Design and Innovation Entrepreneurship. It’s really letting me pursue what I’m passionate about: making things and seeing how people react to them. I’m learning so many valuable skills.”

How did you become interested in entrepreneurship?

“I always thought that entrepreneurship would be a good fit for me, but before Northwestern, I had never had an opportunity to really verify that. During my first summer here, I did a lot of personal projects using what I had learned in classes, but I never intended to turn them into businesses. I took my first entrepreneurship class (ENTREP 225), and I’ve been working on Unruled. ever since. I had the idea for the unlined notebook long before I took the course. I had a lot of other ideas too, but the blank notebook is the one my whole group went with for a project.”

What’s it like being a student founder?

“I really like ‘doing.’ So for me, entrepreneurship has given me a way to go out and execute what I’m learning in the classroom. Entrepreneurship gives what I’m learning in the classroom real world meaning. Without entrepreneurship, I don’t think I would excel as much as I have in academics because I’d have less direction. It gives me the motivation, and lets me challenge myself both inside and outside of the classroom.

I think real growth comes from both learning in the classroom and then having real world experiences. Academics and entrepreneurship are more together than they are separate. And at Northwestern, there’s a lot of initiatives to combine the two. There’s tons of support and ways to integrate what I’m doing at The Garage with what I’m doing in class.”

What’s your focus this year?

“This year, Junior year, I think participating in an internship is important. It’s pivotal to potentially getting a return offer, and I haven’t had the chance to do an internship yet. Junior year, for me, is about deciding what my path will be after college. I think whether I end up pursuing my own projects or working in a large company, my experience as a student founder has given me a lot of the foundational knowledge of what it means to have a business and interact with people and customers. I’ve learned how a company culture is formed, and I have a better understanding of why it’s such an important part of a fulfilling job.”

This post is part of a series highlighting student founders working at The Garage, and how it has enhanced their experience as a student as Northwestern. 

Founder Spotlight: Vishaal Mali, Co-Founder and CEO of PedalCell

Who: Vishaal Mali, McCormick School of Engineering ‘20 + Co-Founder of PedalCell

Major: Computer Engineering

Tell us about your major and how you ended up at Northwestern.

I was picking between a few different places and the biggest thing that lead me to Northwestern was how interdisciplinary it was. The Garage is a prime example of that. I didn’t want to be stuck doing one thing or one field of engineering. Northwestern introduces you to so many things at once and teaches you how disciplines can blend together and how powerful that can be. The Garage was also a big reason I wanted to attend Northwestern. I reached out personally to the Executive Director, Melissa Kaufman, about my project and the concept of PedalCell, and came to visit during the admitted students weekend. I met a team participating in Wildfire and it just felt like a place I could do so much in during my four years of college. I felt like Northwestern would be a place for me to thrive both academically and as a person.

I was really impressed by the initiative that The Garage and Northwestern are doing to promote entrepreneurship activities because other schools deter from that and Northwestern does the opposite. I was accepted into other good schools, including Harvard and Johns Hopkins. I liked Northwestern the best because of the atmosphere. It felt inviting, and everyone I reached out to was willing to sit down and talk to me as a freshman. The Garage and the campus felt so welcoming.

I chose to major in Computer Engineering because I’m passionate about the interplay between hardware and software, and how it plays into sustainability. Northwestern also has a great program that invites you to play around in different disciplines and combine technology with the environment.

What’s it like being a student founder?

It can be difficult to manage time, running a startup and staying on top of classes. But it’s turned out to be for the better because it forced me to learn a lot of new and interesting things I needed for my startup. Most importantly, every class has changed my perspective. I don’t just sit and take notes and exams, but I think about how what I’m learning can be applied to the real world and to PedalCell. That perspective really changes the way you go through class. It changes your academic experience. I’m constantly thinking about how I can take what I’m learning in class and apply it to my advantage, build better technology, or be a better entrepreneur. It’s lead me to be very involved in the classroom, but not in the way I might expect to be.

I don’t want to just go through school and land a job. I wanted to make the most of my college experience which meant doing what I’m passionate about which is using technology to make a difference, whether it’s in alternative energy or raising awareness for climate change and sustainability. That lead me to PedalCell.  

What’s your focus this year?

After wrapping up Wildfire, I have a much clearer picture of what I want to do with PedalCell and where I see it going. I think it will make be even more successful in the classroom because I know what I need to learn and to be exposed to in order to improve my company. Northwestern gives me a lot of freedom in picking classes, so I’m picking a lot of things that are of interest to me or are also important in the industry I’m working in. The way it’s going now, I hope to pursue PedalCell as a full time interest after college.

This post is part of a series highlighting student founders working at The Garage, and how it has enhanced their experience as a student as Northwestern. 

5 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Working on HotPlate

A little over a year ago, I was sitting in my engineering entrepreneurship class preparing to pitch the idea of HotPlate for the first time.

“Why isn’t there anything out there that can tell me about the best dishes at restaurants?”

The one-minute elevator pitch ended up winning the most votes in the class and moved on to become one of the projects for the quarter. From there, we self-assembled our initial team and spent the next few months validating our idea. Knowing we were onto something really cool, by the end of the course, I was itching to start developing our product. I thought that as soon as we could ship the app for diners to use, we will start scaling exponentially. Boy, was I naive. Little did I know that the journey would be much more complicated than that.

Here are 5 things I wish I knew before I started working on HotPlate:

1. Fall in love with the problem, not the solution

In the early days, we were very solution driven. Instead of focusing on “let’s figure out the best way for diners to discover the best dishes at restaurants” we focused on “creating a menu-rating system.”

Little did we know that building technology is hard. It always takes longer than you initially expect. With an app like HotPlate, you have to figure out the backend database structure, user experience, interface design, feature-set, and most importantly, how it all comes together to offer one seamless experience. Of course, to add to the mix, through the midst of it all, countless dreaded bugs will pop up.

There are a lot of ways to test the concept of your idea without actually ‘building’ anything. Zappos started by just taking pictures of shoes at stores and selling them while Dropbox went viral with a simple concept video.

If I were to redo this, I would first focus on building a community that also loves the problem and then supplementing it with technology to organize content.

2. What people say they want and what people actually want are very different

There have been countless times that I have described HotPlate to someone and heard expressions like “Wow, this something I would use all the time!” or “I went to this restaurant the other day and ordered a terrible dish, I wish I could have used HotPlate.”

This kind of feedback is validating. It is exciting. It is also very dangerous.

It gave us the impression that people wanted to see the ratings of individual dish items in order to easily find the best dishes. Which is true…but to an extent. While people want to have confidence in the meal they are ordering, we quickly learned that it doesn’t translate into users actively rating dishes and engaging with the app regularly. On a platform that relies on user content and data, we had to figure out what would drive interaction. Evanston was a great learning process and all of our findings will directly help strategize our Chicago launch.

3. Take your time in working out the UI/UX design of the app before coding anything

When you do decide to start building out the technology, you need to focus on the design in the early stages. Our team had a general idea of a few things that were important to gather feedback on. We did a lot of user research, paper prototyped the flow of the entire app, tested with potential users and created wireframes that guided the front-end code, but it still wasn’t enough. The first version of our app had a lot of usability issues.

There are a lot of little details that good design takes into account that we barely notice. If it is your first time creating a major product, like it was for us, it is important to be mindful of all of these different actions and states. Which rating system is most intuitive? How does a user edit a rating? What will the rating system look like if you haven’t rated the dish yet? What if you have rated it? All of these questions and more need to be answered and accounted for in the final design.

4. You spend so many hours on emails. So many hours.

Once upon a time I barely checked my inbox. Then I began working on a startup and suddenly, my email app was used more then text.

Email became the medium through which people in my network started introducing me to prominent leaders in my industry, investors, marketing experts and anyone else that could help in some way or another. I quickly learned that email threads will explode setting up a time to chat and that it is much easier to send a list of potential days and times that I am available to chat.

In general, learning how to craft a great email is more important now than ever before. I quickly learnt that I needed to focus on communicating well, being professional, responding within 48 hours and always saying thank you!

5. There will be many ups and downs but that is what makes the journey worthwhile.

I always knew being an entrepreneur had many ups and downs but I don’t think I actually internalized that feeling until recently. There will be days that I feel unbelievably motivated and like the team can conquer any challenge that comes our way. Then there are other days that I feel like I am at the bottom and things do not seem to be working. Being an entrepreneur will test your resilience in a way you never thought possible. From your ‘big idea’ crashing and burning to app store rejections and not to forget, a variety of awkward conversations, days and nights will feel like a never ending battle.

There is a reason you decided you fight this battle though, there was a problem you fell in love with. I find myself constantly going back to the problem I began with and falling in love with it even more.

I wouldn’t have it any other way and it is all part of the journey. I can look back and confidently say that the last year has been my biggest educational roller coaster and I have learnt much more than any class or project could’ve taught me.

Sarah Ahmad (McCormick + Weinberg, ’18) is currently the CEO and founder of HotPlate, a platform that allows users to discover the best dishes at restaurants through individual dish ratings, reviews, and recommendations. She was previously the Co-President of the Northwestern University Chapter of Society of Women Engineers (SWE). 

HotPlate is a Resident Team at The Garage and former Wildfire participant. This article was originally posted on HotPlate’s blog, and shared with Sarah’s permission. Keep up with all things HotPlate on their website and Instagram

Founder Spotlight: Isabel Benatar, Co-Founder of BOSSY Chicago

Who: Isabel Benatar, School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) ‘18 + Co-Founder of BOSSY Chicago

Major: Learning and Organizational Change, Minor in BIP

Tell us about your major and how you ended up at Northwestern.

I’m originally from Palo Alto, and I was really interested in Journalism in high school, so I was initially looking at Medill. Even though I thought that’s what I wanted to study, I really liked that Northwestern was strong in so many different disciplines, so not being sure, that was a good thing.

I arrived at Northwestern and was originally at Weinberg during freshman year. By word of mouth, someone suggested I look at SESP majors, so I did that during sophomore year. I looked at Learning and Organizational Change (LOC), and knew that’s what I wanted to do. I added BIP during my junior year because it’s a really common minor to pair with LOC. Whether that’s for yourself or for others, LOC can be a little broad, and combining in with business gives it more of a direction.

Isabel Benatar and Sam Letscher

My dad has started a couple of companies. The fact that he did that and was successful made the whole entrepreneurship thing seem realistic to me. It was an actual option of something I could do. I could create something myself from scratch. But there’s no way I would’ve actually done it during college if it weren’t for The Garage. Having a physical space to work in instead of my own apartment and people to guide you made it a real option for something I could pursue now versus after college.

I took ENTREP 225 with my co-founder, Sam. We were on the same team so we knew we liked working together, but neither of us were really passionate about the product the team we were assigned to was making. We didn’t have our own idea, but we knew we worked well together. So we came up with the idea for BOSSY and applied for Residency at The Garage in the Spring of 2017.

Entrepreneurship is a different kind of learning. You learn by doing. I learned so much this summer. I learned how to go out and talk to real people and actively network and meet for coffee just for the connection, and just creating something out of nothing. In class, you get so much guidance because there’s a prompt or instructions and with a startup, you’re just doing it because you’re really passionate about it. I think the most important thing I’ve gained as a student entrepreneur is a valuable network of professors and mentors. I know I can ask the professor who taught my marketing class for advice as I’m working on BOSSY. BOSSY is a really big part of my Northwestern experience now, and looking back on the years that I didn’t have it, it feels like something was missing. I can’t believe I’ve only been working out of The Garage since the Spring.

Isabel Benatar and Sam Letscher

What’s your focus this year?

I’m just taking everything as it comes for BOSSY. We’re going to keep working in it and hope to get it into a place where it’s something we can continue, but we’re also going to keep an open mind and understand realistically that we want some security after graduation. Neither of us are going to let this disappear, but we don’t want to force it to continue if it seems like something that might be better as a side project.




This post is part of a series highlighting student founders working at The Garage, and how it has enhanced their experience as a student as Northwestern. 

Alumni Spotlight: Stevie Wiegel, McCormick, ’17

Stevie is a biomedical engineer and rock climbing instructor. Her master’s degree training in biophotonics as well as her professional outdoor background were applied to design the FIRE&LIGHT Multi-Tool. Stevie is an alum of Northwestern University, and graduated from McCormick with her Master’s of Science in Biotechnology in 2017. She is also an alum of The Garage, and founder of Xolo Outdoor, currently based out of Chicago at mHUB. 

A common misconception about outdoor recreation is that people go outside as an escape from technology or as a reprieve back to simpler times. Even those who spend time outside themselves might believe that misconception. But if that were really true, then why do 80% of people who go camping use their smartphone, tablet, or laptop on camping trips? People who spend time outside embrace technology: In their phones, solar panels, bike computers, and in their $600 tech-wear jackets. If anything, they’re lead users of technology, not luddites.

Xolo Outdoor founder, Stevie Wiegel, testing a company prototype in the Redwoods.

Nature and Technology are not opposites. This is the secret Xolo Outdoor was built on. The company’s mission is to inspire the next generation of explorers by providing future-forward outdoor products, vision, and resources at the nexus of technology and nature.  Xolo Outdoor Founder, Stevie Wiegel, is an Alumni of The Garage who received her MS in Biotechnology from Northwestern in 2017.  Stevie, along with two co-founders, are building Xolo Outdoor’s brand and working to bring the company’s first two products to market in 2018.

Xolo Outdoor’s first product: The Photon-Multi-tool

Xolo Outdoor’s first patent pending product is The Photon Multi-tool. It might be called a multi-tool, but it’s nothing like your standard Leatherman. The Photon’s purpose is all about light manipulation, so you won’t find a pair of plyers in this tool. The Photon Multi-tool has four main functions: 1. Ultra-lightweight Lantern  2. Emergency Firestarter  3. Pocket/ Signal Mirror  4. Magnifying Glass. The tool compacts down to the size of iPhone and weights only 43 grams. It solves the problem of needing to bring a big, heavy lantern out camping while providing other useful functions for users.

Xolo Outdoor’s first two products are getting sent to test-users and influencers.

Xolo Outdoor completed pilot manufacturing of 40 units of The Photon Multi-tool at mHUB and are in the process of shipping them out. These 40 prototypes are being used to test the design, and to help build an online following. Every participant, including Instagram influences, a Nat Geo photographer, and a member of the Explorers Club have agreed to post about the product on their social media pages. This pilot run is the final step before releasing the product for E-commerce in this year.

Space Camp Cord (shown coiled here) can be strung around a campsite for functional or decorative lighting.

Xolo Outdoor’s second product in the pipeline is their Space Camp Cord. These futuristic string lights can be hung outside a tent to mark your campsite, hung inside a tent for ambient light, or used to decorate a campsite in place of traditional string lighting. When it’s not being used on camping trips, Xolo’s focus groups have expressed interest in using it to decorate their plants inside their home.  Space Camp Cord will also be available for sale on their website in 2018.

The Photon Multi-tool (Center) and Space Camp Cord (Background) pictured here.

Xolo Outdoor plans to expand beyond camp lighting and into other products like, tents, and apparel to become an outdoor lifestyle brand.  Eventually, they plan to make gear for the next era of exploration (Hint: It’s not on earth).  But that goal is a long way off for this seed-stage company.  Xolo Outdoor will be raising money in spring/ summer 2018 to make these big plans a reality. Check out the Xolo Zine on their website or follow them Instagram to stay updated.

Founder Spotlight: Sarah Ahmad, McCormick + Weinberg ’18

Who: Sarah Ahmad, McCormick School of Engineering + Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences ‘18 + Co-Founder of HotPlate

Major: Entrepreneurial Design and Chemical Technologies + Economics

Sarah has made a major splash since becoming a Resident at The Garage, participating in both Winter Wildfire and Summer Wildfire and has made some serious progress on her startup, HotPlate. She took home a check for $1,000 back at our Winter Demo Day, and we loved watching her pitch again at Wildfire: The Showdown in September. It’s Sarah’s last year at Northwestern, so we wanted to make sure we got the scoop on her experience before she goes. 

Tell us about your major and how you ended up at Northwestern.

“Northwestern wasn’t actually even on my list of potential colleges. I happened to be in the area the summer before my senior year of high school to look at a bunch of other universities in the midwest. Our hotel was near Northwestern, so on a whim, we decided to visit the campus. On our way back from Notre Dame, we stayed in Evanston and it really became a top choice for me because of how much they center on the community aspect of college. I was also interested in the Engineering program, and how they stress not just studying engineering, but combining it with a social science or other interests.

I chose to study Mechanical Engineering because I like physics and knew it was a broad discipline. I like building things to solve a problem, but after getting to college, I found out working in the shop just wasn’t for me. Because I was also interested in the business aspect of engineering, I switched to Industrial Engineering for one quarter. I had an internship at a paint company, and I didn’t enjoy it. The chemical industry just wasn’t something I saw myself going into after college. When I found out that I could make my own major and propose my own curriculum through McCormick, I opted to go for a combination of chemical engineering, industrial engineering, and entrepreneurship courses and a second major in Economics.

I always enjoyed the business aspect of any problem, and I like thinking about things in different ways so social science and its implications in technology is important to me.”

How did you become interested in entrepreneurship?

“Back in 5th or 6th grade, I started teaching myself Photoshop and selling templates to MySpace users. I always had an entrepreneurial mindset. I thought it would be great to start or own a business one day. I did an entrepreneurial summer camp before 9th grade, and I was always involved in business organizations and participated in business plan competitions in high school.

I had the idea for HotPlate last summer. I was in a class called Engineering Entrepreneurship (ENTREP 325) with Neal Sales-Griffin and HotPlate received the most votes for a project the class would work on. So the initial team was built from there. Without the guidance and skills I took away from that class, HotPlate wouldn’t be where it is.”

Sarah Ahmad pitching HotPlate at The Showdown in Fall 2017

What’s it like being a student founder?

“I’ve really come to value what I learn in class. I’ve come to appreciate project-based classes the most, because I refer to what I learned in them all the time as I work on HotPlate. When the professor allows us to think creatively and independently on a problem, and lets the students figure out a way to solve it and lead us through that process with it culminating with a final paper or presentation, is when I’ve learned the most.

Being a student founder has really enhanced my Northwestern experience, too. Sometimes it’s a game of time management and prioritization, but it’s been a really valuable experience. I’ve learned a lot of soft skills like how to lead a team, how to deal with conflict, how to handle failure. Each day is a new challenge and it’s in those challenges that you learn the most.”

What’s your focus this year?

“I really want to continue with HotPlate full time after graduation, so I’m focusing on wrapping up my classes and keeping up the momentum in the company, too. I really loved working on it during the summer in Wildfire. I’m still thinking about recruiting for jobs, but that’s something I’ll focus on more in the Winter quarter. I’m considering some product manager roles, because no matter what, I want to be involved in the design and development of an app.”

This post is part of a series highlighting student founders working at The Garage, and how it has enhanced their experience as a student as Northwestern. 

Summer Wildfire 2017, In Memoriam (Part I)

Wildfire, Summer 2017. And like that, poof, it was gone…

What began as an idea two years ago has now come full circle in its second iteration.

For the first year, it was an experiment. To create it, I strapped on my best and only pair of running shoes and ran all over town meeting with folks who had run accelerators or similar programs. Many miles and several pairs of shoes later, I had enough feedback and insights to take a stab at designing a program. Armed with pen, paper and lots of whiteboard space, I designed a program for students from scratch. A few weeks later, we ran with it. It was a success even as we were building the wings as we flew the plane.

For the second year, building on what we started and incorporating key lessons learned, I endeavored to find the right balance between delivering content and providing plenty of space to get shit done.

Many of the tweaks and changes to the program were based on a sample size of one. The year prior. That group needed a lot of prodding. They were great at thinking. Not so much at doing.

So, one of the major program changes was to build in more accountability and check points in order to drive the teams forward. To do so, teams would have to earn a portion of their stipend each week and complete weekly deliverables.

I overcorrected. This batch was unlike the first. They hit the ground running and frankly, they ran me over and never looked back. By the third week of the program, I realized my role was not to assign more work, it was to remove obstacles and give them more room to run.

Moreover, at the start of the program, all but one team was pre-revenue. By the end of summer, all of the teams either earned revenue or had a clear path for doing so. This was remarkable. How did we do it? Each week, we pushed the teams to simplify. To narrow their focus. To find a paying customer.

Too often teams would dream about scaling to hundreds or thousands of users. Neal Sales-Griffin and I would grab their floating legs and yank them back to Earth – do what doesn’t scale first. We would constantly remind them, find the first market or customer segment that you can win and go conquer that. Nail the problem. Then, and only then, worry about nailing the solution.

Caraline Pham and Collin Pham, Co-Founders of Local Technologies

So, what exactly is Wildfire?

Wildfire is a 10-week “pre-accelerator.” Up to twelve teams are accepted into the summer program. Each is given $10,000 to help accelerate their respective venture. We accept teams in March, thereby enabling us to use the Spring quarter to get the teams ready to hit the ground running come June.

Wildfire is built on three pillars which are woven into every aspect of the programming. First, we teach the Entrepreneurial Toolkit. The ABC’s of entrepreneurship. This content is delivered primarily through workshops and one-on-one meetings. We believe that learning this way of thinking and doing will best prepare our students for the world in which they are going to inherit – one in which agility, creativity, and the ability to learn and iterate quickly are the skills that will propel careers regardless of whether that is at a startup or at a Fortune 500 company.

Next, we spend a lot of time pitching. Every Friday, plus a concentrated dose the week leading up to Demo Day. The art of pitching is the art of storytelling. It helps to refine thinking and find new and novel ways to connect with your customers, your potential investors, and your future employees. The lessons learned change each week and therefore, so do the stories. In addition, we often do pitch practice as a group. Seeing how another team plans to go to market can influence how another team does. Thus, we share and grow together. Finally, like the toolkit, we believe that the students who learn how to tell their story, to persuade, to sell, will go further, faster in their careers for these skills are critical in the creative economy of the future.

Shane Davis, Andrew Luckenbaugh, Megell Strayhorn of MOGO

Finally, in addition to the tools and pitching, we also teach the entrepreneurial mindset. We do this through the Breakthrough workshops and by using the Founders Agreement as a tool to have difficult conversations. As Tim Ferriss said, “You can judge the success of an individual by the number of difficult conversations they have had.” As such, we have a lot of them over the 10 weeks. Furthermore, learning the entrepreneurial mindset often entails undoing 15 years of academic learning. School teaches you to memorize and then be tested on what you can recall. You are rewarded for perfection, not for effort. As such, students spend their academic years getting perfect grades to get into the perfect school and to get the perfect internship or job. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. Not today and certainly not in the job market of tomorrow. Entrepreneurial thinking requires challenging assumptions, building the minimal product and testing to get feedback. And it entails being wrong. A lot. But that is how you learn. That is how you flex and grow your resiliency. That is how you grow and ultimately, how you live a fulfilling life.

This article is part of a three-part series highlighting the student founded startups and programming from Summer Wildfire 2017, The Garage’s pre-acceleration program. 

Billy Banks is the Associate Director of The Garage, and began his career in his family business—a diversified forest products and steel manufacturer. He launched his first startup, M-Tec Corporation, in 2003, and a second one, Reach360, in 2007 after leading the successful sale of his family business. Billy works with Design For America, advises numerous startups and was an adjunct professor at Northwestern prior to starting at The Garage. Billy received his BA in history and political science from Northwestern in 1998 and his MBA in finance and strategy from Indiana University in 2003.

Summer Wildfire 2017 Wrap Up: Demo Day

On Thursday, August 24, more than 175 Northwestern staff and faculty, community members, and interested investors stopped by The Garage for our annual Demo Day, the culmination of the Wildfire Accelerator program.

For the last 10 weeks, while so much of the Northwestern campus is quiet, The Garage has been bustling with our Wildfire teams. Whether it’s pitch practice in The Workspace, a meditation class, or weekly Family Dinner, it’s been nothing short of a blast to hang with these bright student entrepreneurs all summer long. Not to mention, many of the teams made some pretty big progress during the summer. Head to the recap of the halfway point here to find out more. No matter what the students were up to, all of them spent the last week of Wildfire perfecting their pitches in preparation for Demo Day.

Take a quick peek inside how this year’s Wildfire program went in the video below.

We were excited to welcome three esteemed judges, all experienced entrepreneurs and startup superstars:  Michael Alter, Claire Lew, and Noah Mishkin.

In total, we had 11 teams pitch at Demo Day. Here was the running order and a little more info about each of our teams:

BOSSY Chicago exists to celebrate women-owned businesses and help them grow.

Community Currency is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that fights for equal opportunity – for every child in every neighborhood – by collecting wasted foreign currency from international travelers.  

Bundles of Health offers bundles of products and experiences that help a new mom during the postpartum period.

ORI HD seeks to provide endless fresh air through a portable, wearable air purifier.

Eden is a gamified community and platform for indie music lovers to discover and share new music with others.

Unruled. empowers visual thinkers to challenge convention and achieve their best selves through environmentally responsible product design.

MOGO is a social network that enhances the world of viral video challenges by creating an interactive, competitive, and socially aware platform for users.

Local connects college students interesting in earning money with community members interested in getting tasks done.

HotPlate enables users to find the best dishes at restaurants through individual dish rating, reviews, and recommendations.

PedalCell addresses the alternative energy crisis through convenient and powerful measures, starting with the ubiquitous bicycle.

Pryde VR: Present yourself. Present VR.

After a short deliberation and a chance for the audience to go online and pick their favorite pitch, it was time to pass out the checks! Here’s how it went down.

Taking third place, and a check for $2,000 was Unruled. The judges loved their focus on mission, brand, and environmental responsibility.

Next, taking second place and a check for $3,000 was BOSSY Chicago. Judges noted their exciting  progress over the summer, alongside their dedication to their mission to celebrate women-owned businesses and hitting multiple major milestones.

Finally, taking first place and a check for $4,000 was Local. The judges pointed out their traction at a small scale, and their positive positioning to scale up.

Next, we handed out the check for $1,000 to the audience favorite! This went to the only nonprofit starutp in the summer cohort, Community Currency.

Congratulations to ALL the teams that pitched at Demo Day. We can’t wait to see what’s next.