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.  

Summer Wildfire 2017: Half Way Home

We can’t believe it’s already the end of July, and that we’ve officially got six weeks of Wildfire awesomeness under our belts at The Garage.

Twelve teams were accepted into this summer’s pre-accelerator cohort, and it’s an understatement to say that we’ve all grown pretty close in the last month and a half. These dedicated students are here bright and early each morning with the staff, setting up their workspaces and brewing their coffees. Whether it’s a workshop, all-team check in, or pitch practice going down in our Workspace, we are seriously digging the summer vibes at The Garage and think it’s about time we share what we’ve been up to.

During week one of Wildfire, the excitement was palpable. Students were here early, ready, waiting. After rushing through some housekeeping, we got right down to business and welcomed Dotank to spend the day with us, teaching how to use the Business Model Canvas to capture a hypothesis to test with potential customers. After tweaking one liners, teams had the chance to use them during a few rounds of “speed dating” with more than 40 mentors. Then, in (what is now) Wildfire tradition, The Garage took on downtown Chicago stopping by the DPELC for a visit and of course, Millennium Park and The Bean.

And the momentum hasn’t stopped. We’ve held meditation and improvisation workshops, had breakthrough sessions and learnings with mentors of The Garage like Trish Thomas and Neal Sales-Griffin, and took a sales journey with Craig Wortmann on entrepreneurial selling.

Not to mention, we are still hosting Family Dinner every Wednesday night for our Wildfire wonderfuls and even caught a little bit of B-roll footage of them in action for an upcoming project at The Garage.

Since day one of Wildfire, lots of exciting things have happened for our teams.

MyVillage has been rebranded to Bundles of Health. After conducting more than 200 interviews, the team has drilled their mission down to four important words: they offer products and services that help a new mom better eat, rest, recover and feed.

Bossy Chicago launched their directory two weeks ago, and has since had more than 1,500 unique visitors. They’ve also had over 100 submissions to their map and started up a newsletter which already has more than 120 subscribers. You can keep up with Bossy and subscribe, too!

Unruled has shifted their focus to sales and customer relationship management. When Unruled started in Wildfire, they were wrapping up a successful Kickstarter campaign and busy mailing out their unlined notebooks to backers. Since then, they’ve learned retail and wholesale is complicated decided to shift their focus to the importance of just making sales before anything else.

Team Local relaunched a newly designed website, has turned a profit, and has accepted their first online automatic payment.

HotPlate launched their app in the App Store, and has a fun marketing challenge in the works launching soon. Stay tuned!

OriHD keeps growing. Now with a robust global team of 16, including an intern in Beijing, this startup is working on filing their patent and has a prototype version of their app developed.

At this point in the Wildfire program, we’re taking off the training wheels a bit and letting our teams push forward while supporting them in any way we are able to by removing obstacles and opening doors. There are less workshops and more one-on-one strategy sessions, pitch practices, office hours, and getting out into the world to talk to customers.

Want to find out the the rest of our teams have accomplished in Wildfire? RSVP for Demo Day on August 24 and see all twelve teams pitch in front of a panel of judges for a prize pool of $10,000!

Want to get in the conversation? Follow us on Twitter and be sure to use the hashtag #SummerWildfire2017!

Being a Student Founder: Ben Weiss of Zcruit

Formerly a student founder and now working on his startup full time as co-founder and CEO  post-graduation, Ben Weiss sat down to talk all things entrepreneurial learning with the Northwestern Alumni Association. While a student, Ben and his team were Residents at The Garage, and although most of the team just graduated, they are working on Zcruit full time this summer in The Garage’s co-working space.

But the entrepreneurial journey wasn’t always easy. Ben started his predictive analytics website with barely any tech experience and next to no money, and has since grown the company into a product currently used by multiple Division 1 football programs. Zcruit allows university football programs to recruit smarter, reducing time spent in the field and the expensive resources poured into the travel and the time required, increasing efficiency. Zcruit was named one of 10 Illinois Student Startups Set to Make Moves in 2017 by Chicago Inno and was also recognized as one of the five most outstanding student startups at the 2017 EntrepreneurshipU Awards. Zcruit also took home cash after competing in the B2B track at VentureCat, Northwestern’s annual student startup competition.

The Zcruit team after their win at VentureCat

What are some of the most valuable lessons learned along the way? Ben says his time as a student founder added to his overall learning experience at Northwestern (something we at The Garage are especially excited to hear). Ben became friends with other student founders, learned to perfect his pitch (whether it’s a ten minute or a 90 second presentation) discovered how hard selling actually is, and how to run an efficient company producing contracts, invoices, and handling accounting. He also told us that people are more important than numbers, and the perfect formula for building a team can be hard to find but hiring a group with complementary skills and different backgrounds can equal success.

But being a true entrepreneur requires some serious grit and the ability to deal with the rollercoaster of ups and downs. Ben says he learned to be “politely persistent,” while being empathetic and understanding of others’ time. But most importantly, a company can look like it’s on the verge of the end, nearing the end of the runway, and with that persistence and grit can take a turn for the better. Want to learn more about what the Zcruit team is up to this summer? Check out their feature in The Daily Northwestern here.

The Garage is super proud of Ben and the entire Zcruit team and all of their hard work and accomplishments during their time in The Residency Program. We can’t wait to see what’s next. But in the meantime, check out the recording of Ben’s webinar with the Northwestern Alumni Association here.

Something Educational This Way Comes

This article was originally published on the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovations News website is shared on The Magazine with permission. 
 Screenshot of Something Wicked.

Screenshot of Something Wicked.

“Once more unto the breach…”

Northwestern student entrepreneur E. B. Hunter isn’t new to the process of channeling her passion for theater into productive initiatives. Before starting her doctoral studies in Theater and Drama at Northwestern, Hunter transformed a restored blast furnace factory in Birmingham, Alabama into a stage. The furnace’s surrounding locations were used for scenery, while the rusted-out core of the blast furnace became the theater company’s unusual backdrop. Hunter explains that this dynamic venue gave audience members a sense of immediacy to her plays, and allowed them to feel like they were a part of her unfolding dramas.

Hunter recalls one moment of her blast furnace plays that she particularly relishes: During Henry V’s famous monolog before the gates of Harfleur, the titular King Henry calls on his troops to follow him into deadly battle. At the same time, in real life, a freight train was roaring by the theater. Overcome by the energy of the moment, two children in the blast furnace staging broke from the audience pack to pursue “King Henry” into “battle,” shouting and laughing as they ran. Afterwards, Hunter recalls, several audience members approached her to tell her how surprised they were to feel so captivated by Shakespeare.

“They felt that they were somehow in it, that they were enacting what was going on.” Hunter says of the episode.

From that charged moment, Hunter knew that she wanted to replicate the same dynamic of the blast furnace plays in her future work.

“But only vaulting ambition…”

Something Wicked, Hunter’s ambitious repackaging of the 400-year-old Macbeth text as a video game, is her digital attempt to make Shakespeare approachable for modern audiences. Named in a nod to a famous line from the classic tragedy and modeled after the same tragedy’s violent events, Something Wicked aims to balance its role as an immersive, entertaining game with its role as an educational tool for school-age audiences -—while maximizing players’ comprehension of the source material. In order to beat Something Wicked, players must know the text and carefully guide the game’s sequence of events according to that knowledge. Hunter hopes that through this specific process of becoming familiar with Macbeth’s plot and characters during gameplay, players will discover a newfound level of intimacy with an Elizabethan-era manuscript that often daunts and alienates modern readers.

“It will have blood, they say”

Though the play features excessive violence and a ruthless main character, Hunter notes that diluting the violence and emotionally mature themes in Macbeth would compromise the game’s faithfulness to its origins. Something Wicked’s simple, yet refined 2D side-scroller design, meets demands to be faithful to Shakespeare’s text and visually appealing for school-age audiences — players advance from artful level to level (and from plot point to plot point), by commanding a Macbeth avatar through scenes filled with a palatable, stylized violence. Visually, Something Wicked is an homage to the Bayeux Tapestry, the famously gore-free embroidery that depicts the bloody 1066 Battle of Hastings.

Bayeux Tapestry detail of soldiers on horseback during battle.

Bayeux Tapestry detail of soldiers on horseback during battle.

Hunter says the design of her game “creates a distance between the player and the depiction of blood,” while effectively mirroring the actions of Macbeth.

“The very firstlings of my heart shall be… The firstlings of my hand.”

Something Wicked began as a final project for Serious Games, a seminar Hunter took during the first quarter of her graduate studies in the fall of 2013 that focused on developing games that had a primary purpose other than entertainment. Having found success in the classroom, Hunter sought to bring her idea to a wider audience. During the winter of 2015, Hunter applied for and received a Segal Design Cluster Fellowship, an interdisciplinary doctoral cluster program jointly sponsored by Segal, the McCormick School of Engineering, and The Graduate School at Northwestern. This fellowship allowed Hunter to prototype Something Wicked. Shortly thereafter, Hunter enrolled in the spring quarter of NUvention: Arts, taught by veteran music industry entrepreneur and successful investor, Gregg Latterman. The following summer, Hunter started a successful crowdfunding campaign to supplement financial resources and accelerate project development.

“When shall we three meet…”

Driven entrepreneurs like Hunter know that funds alone are not enough to make ventures viable. Building a supportive and technically adept team became the next vital step for ensuring Something Wicked’s success. By connecting with Chicago’s robust independent game development community, Hunter received support from its tight-knit group of women in design and eventually met DePaul University researcher and game designer Doris Rusch. Rusch, in turn, introduced Hunter to her Play for Change lab at DePaul. Eager to help Hunter realize her concept, the Play for Change team began collaborating with Hunter to produce a working demonstration of Something Wicked immediately.

“Something wicked this way comes.”

Progress on Something Wicked has been swift and steady — the game is currently slated for a beta release for July 2017. Hunter’s ambitions to bring the appeal of literature and theater to a world engrossed by digital technology will not end there. Something Wicked is just the beginning of her digital ideas — a proof of concept — Hunter says. Recently awarded a grant by CIRA (Center for Interdisciplinary Research in the Arts), Hunter already has her sights set on her next digital project; Bitter Wind, a retelling of the Greek tragedy, Agamemnon. Hunter says Bitter Wind will adapt Aeschylus’ tragedy for the Microsoft HoloLens, a mixed reality headset, and will utilize the full extent of modern gaming technology to further immerse players in the world of classical literature.

“Whole as the marble, founded as the rock…”

At Northwestern, Hunter’s enthusiasm has been transformed into tangible products. “The kind of facilities, the kind of connectivity, the people that I am able to engage with here, the strong alumni base here, were requisite to the creation of Something Wicked,” Hunter says.

Ph.D. Student Elizabeth Bradley Hunter.

Ph.D. Student Elizabeth Bradley Hunter.

Taking full advantage of the facilities available at Northwestern like The Garage and tapping into the resources made accessible by The Farley Center, Hunter has been able to turn one of her visions into reality. Now, Hunter is more motivated than ever to do so again.

“Support from places like The Garage and initiatives like Farley are necessary for the continuation of the arts, and the arts are necessary to a functioning society. That’s why I’m here.”

Additional Resources:

• View a short video of Something Wicked gameplay

• View a video of E.B. Hunter discussing her Something Wicked project