Summer Wildfire 2017, In Memoriam (Part III)

Sounds like a great summer, what did you learn?

Well, that’s a fantastic question. A s*&t ton. About how to run a program like this. How to inspire and motivate. And what intrinsically motivates me. It started well before June. Throughout the winter and spring of 2017, I worked with the rest of our team along with folks across Northwestern and the Chicago entrepreneurial community to redesign Wildfire. Basing my redesign efforts on my experiences running the first batch, I made my first mistake…

Sample size is important. Last year was the first iteration of Wildfire. It was brand new. So most students had no idea that it even existed until late February. For many, they had already committed to summer internships. For those of us who dared to jump in the water, it was a learning experiment (to say the least). Frankly, I was as lost as many of the teams throughout that summer, ad libbing at every twist and turn.

For that first batch, I felt that many of the teams spent too much time thinking and not enough doing. In addition, we gave everyone their stipend early so I didn’t have the means to drive action. So, I redesigned the program to be more of a sprint. I created and assigned deliverables. Every week, they had to earn a portion of their stipend by showing up, getting s%&t done, and handing in their deliverables. Mission accomplished, right?

…well, this year’s batch was different. They hit the ground running and never stopped. By week three, I realized two things. First. They didn’t need more work. They needed me to remove obstacles. Second, even if they handed in their deliverables, I couldn’t keep up with running the program, making connections, AND trying to review “homework.” By the third week, I shut that down.

Lesson Learned – No weekly deliverables next year. Instead, I will pack more into Bootcamp Week to provide a better jumping off point into the rest of the program. But, I will keep a portion of the stipend held back and make the teams earn it every week. Energy flags. Priorities shift. This still needs to be treated like a job and I need a tool to hold the teams accountable week in, week out.

Less content, more mentorship. Last year, virtually everyone told me I would have too much content. I did my best to listen. And yet, there was still way too much content. So, this past summer, I cut a third of it and added more office hours – mainly focused on sales and branding (again, based on my experience from the previous summer). And it was still too much…

Lesson Learned – I will cut another third out of the content and continue to shift to more experiential, hands-on workshops. When possible, I will have those content providers stick around for the rest of the day to meet one-on-one with the teams. It is too hard to do it in a workshop. Teams get a few minutes and the rest of the group gets bored quickly. With that said, I will also require that students close their laptops and put away their phones. When we do have workshops, I expect them to be present and engaged.

On the Office Hours front, I learned that I will need to bring in more technical support. While we had a strong focus on selling over the summer, as the teams informed me, you only need to meet with a few folks from the marketing and branding universe before you get a pretty clear idea for what you need to do. How to actually implement…well, that’s where we need to bring in additional resources next summer. And I’m not the technical guy. I used to make fun of my grandfather when he couldn’t program the VCR (turns out, nobody could). Now I’m that guy. HTML is a cheap, fashionable clothing store, right?

Adam Hokin, team member of PedalCell

It takes a village. Wildfire is not an individual endeavor. I rely on the staff, alumni, faculty, and a host of others to provide content, Office Hours, and program support.

Lesson Learned – get help. Neal Sales-Griffin was awesome, but I only had him Monday afternoons plus his workshop. Trish Thomas was also awesome, but I will need more of them both next summer. Next summer, I could find an assistant with accelerator experience that can support the program and the teams. Finally, having Melissa back next summer will be most welcome. Her insights, knowledge, and help during pitch practice was sorely missed this summer.

Oh, and next summer, mental note to self. Let’s try to keep this the only thing on my plate. It takes everything I’ve got – as evidenced by my bloodshot eyes in the Wildfire video. I had a number of other tasks that got piled on to the summer including refinancing our house and selling a company. Yes, more help is needed to support the teams, but making sure my plate does not runneth over will be paramount next summer. I put every ounce of my emotional, mental, and physical being into the program. The students deserve that. Minimizing all other responsibilities – besides my family, of course – will be my number one focus heading into June next year.

Parting thoughts. The one area where I will continue to double down is the nebulous soft skills that we call entrepreneurial character. Having difficult conversations – whether that is with cofounders or simply asking others for help – is a critical tool that will build confidence and resilience. In addition, I will use the space freed up to provide more opportunities for self-actualization. Through personality assessments, teaching the students how to build and sustain good habits, and more one-on-one coaching with the founders, I am convinced that through Wildfire, we will not only build great companies, but more importantly, we will build great people. And if our future is dependent on the ideas and passions of these men and women, I know I will sleep soundly tonight.

Finally, I am excited to see where all of the teams from Wildfire Summer 2017 end up by this time next year. From the first two batches of Wildfire in 2016, 7 of the 16 teams are still operating. They have collectively raised more than $5 million. Together, through those three batches, we are building family and community. We are building Wildfire alumni who will be able to support the next batch and all of the ones that follow. We are building something special for everyone involved. I know that I have grown and matured each summer. And this is just the beginning…

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.

#WinterWildfire2017 Demo Day: Results

The Garage, Northwestern’s hub for student entrepreneurship and innovation, was a packed house on Thursday, April 13 for our first ever Winter edition of Wildfire Demo Day. Wildfire, The Garage’s Pre-Accelerator Program, incubated five teams during the winter quarter alongside a course offered in partnership with the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, ENTREP 395: Radical Entrepreneurship.

Demo Day kicked off with some pizza and networking with the five Wildfire teams (read more about our teams here). Then, after remarks from our corporate sponsor, Exelon, each time had five minute pitches, with three minutes of questions from our judges panel, that included Suzanna Cohodes, a 30 year veteran of the each industry and mentor at The Garage; Eric Ong, senior assiciate at Lightbank; Mike Marasco, experienced entrepreneur and intrapreneur and faculty at Northwestern; and Chris Steiner, co-founder of Aisle50, NYT bestselling author, and EIR at The Garage.

$10,000 was up for grabs, handed out Shark Tank style by the judges and included a $1,000 audience choice award! First to take center stage was Team HearYe–an app to make meetings with friends a whole lot easier. HearYe is a mobile application that’s designed to organize casual group outings in an efficient way by allowing users to create, share, and communicate outing details on a central platform.

Next up, HotPlate shared why their new app would revolutionize the way you eat. HotPlate is designed to help you decide what to order at restaurants. Users can rate individual menu items, so that it is quick and easy to see the best dishes. HotPlate also allows users to see friends’ ratings, search by specific dish item, and receive tailored recommendations. HotPlate took home $1,000 in prize money!

Third, NewMoon Chicago pitched their Spectacle Services that pair performance art, mechanical contraptions, and the fundamental elements of an event —from serving food to musical performance— to create new elements that redefine ultra-premium, cutting-edge aesthetics and transform perceptions. From Drones flying guests appetizers to Aerialists pouring champagne, NewMoon provides the fantastical experience guests are seeking and creates memories they never forget. NewMoon Chicago was awarded $1,250 by our panel of judges. 

Verto has developed a retinal-imaging medical device that rapidly helps an ER physician differentiate between a diagnosis of a non-life threatening issue and brainstorm stroke. Diagnosing this issue quickly will lead to tremendously better health outcomes for the patient while saving hospitals nearly a billion dollars annually. VertigoMetric Dx is led by an accomplished physician, a bioengineer, and a Kellogg MBA student. Verto’s idea really impressed our judges, and was awarded $3,500! 

Finishing things off for the night was Zcruit. Zcruit optimizes the college football recruiting process through predictive analytics, saving college football programs time and improving the quality of recruiting classes. Zcruit was the audience favorite, and took home the $1,000 Audience Choice prize along with $3,250!


Now that Winter Wildfire is behind us, we’re gearing up for some of our upcoming events, like VentureCat–Northwestern’s annual student startup competition. Be sure to head to our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter to stay in the loop!


Nanotechnology’s Identity Crisis

This article was written for The Magazine by Samir Mayekar, Cary Hayner, Joshua Lau, and James McKinney.

Nanotechnology is in the midst of an identity crisis. While researchers believe moving to the nano-scale can help solve challenges previously thought unsolvable, from energy storage to drug delivery, for startups and venture capitalists, the word “nanotechnology” evokes commercial failure. Although large corporations in the business of physical and life sciences continue investing in nanotechnology research and development, most venture-backed nanotechnology companies, plagued by long development cycles, high capital intensity and unproven business models, fail to surpass traditional VC hurdle rates (or even bring their innovations to market). Put simply, the return on investment is far outweighed by the risk born by investors.

After 20 years of nanotechnology hype, we are entering a trough of investment. Over $1B of venture capital was invested in startups developing nanotechnology innovations in 2012—by 2015 that figure has dropped by more than half. A prominent exchange traded nanotech fund, the PowerShares Lux Nanotech ETF, was liquidated in 2014 after underperforming the S&P 500 for seven out of the previous eight years.

What caused this disconnect between the scientific promise of nanotechnology and its sobering commercial reality?

As entrepreneurs who founded a materials science company that relies on innovations in nanotechnology, we have a unique perspective. Our company, SiNode Systems, (Samir Mayekar, Co-Founder, NU ’06, KSM ’13, pictured below) develops advanced materials that improve the performance of lithium-ion batteries. In a world where everything is mobile, the innovations from our lab have the potential to shape a wide range of industries, from smartphones to drones to electric vehicles. Nanotechnology offers significant value in the battery industry—the electrochemical reactions that fuel batteries can be altered at the nano-scale, allowing researchers to manipulate key variables that may not be tunable at the macro-scale. This allows us to achieve greater performance, such as increased energy density or rate capabilities.

We compete with a wide range of companies. The large multinational corporations in our industry can support research and development efforts that may not pay off for 10+ years.  The small businesses, however, must generate cash sooner to be self-sustaining.

Battery technology startups tend to follow a singular path—they raise millions in venture capital (typically over $10M), progress technology over 5-8 years but ultimately fall short of commercializing their product(s), and then either become insolvent or quietly sell assets for a fraction of the capital invested in the business. Along the way, most startups have a vision that involves core invention of the nanomaterials platform, manufacturing scale-up and sales & marketing efforts. While this vision is feasible for companies in less capital intense industries (e.g. software), we argue that nanotechnology companies are more similar in nature to early-stage biotech companies.

Very few biotech companies move from inventing a revolutionary molecule to bringing it through regulatory stage-gates to manufacturing and sales/marketing. Most biotech startups mitigate core scientific risk and then partner or exit through acquisition or licensing by a larger biotech company that has the excess capacity and resources to bring new technologies to market. So why do nanotechnology companies that face similar scientific and scale-up challenges face this identity crisis?

By adopting a stage-gated framework similar to the FDA system, nanotechnology companies can mitigate scientific risk and increase the likelihood of commercial success via strategic partnerships with larger corporations. At SiNode Systems, we refuse to have an identity crisis—instead, we partner with Fortune 500 companies to co-develop our technology and strictly define value-inflection milestones (e.g. FDA-like gates) for our products. We are prudent in our capitalization, relying on small amounts of angel/VC funding and larger volumes of non-dilutive funding from customers. This strategy recognizes the longer incubation period of nanotechnology innovations and charts a path for commercial success similar to many successful predecessors in the biotech industry.

Samir Mayekar co-founded SiNode Systems, Inc. in 2012 and serves as its CEO. As a student at Northwestern, he won the Rice Business Plan competition and raised over $1M. Prior to Sinode, he served in the Obama Administration at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the White House. Samir is also the President of the Northwestern Alumni Association and met his wife at NU. 

The Garage 2016 Gift Guide

The holidays are just around the corner. Haven’t stocked up on gifts for your friends + family yet? The Garage has you covered. Check out our top ten picks for gifting in 2016 – featuring some of The Garage’s student-founded startups and our a few of our favorite things brought to you by alumni of Northwestern.

1. Eat Pak’d

Wholesome, ready-to-pack lunches delivered to your door.

(The Garage)

2. Ink Tank

Fast custom apparel @ Northwestern.

(The Garage)


3. Maven

Creating a better bra fitting & shopping experience for women.

(The Garage)

4. Trashy

Sustainability Startup – promoting recycling through innovative design.

(The Garage)

5. Viet Nom Nom

Fresh, fast, delicious food built on the philosophy fast food can be good food.

(Founded by Noah Bleicher, Kellogg School of Management)

6. Ullo

Wine made pure.

(Founded by James Kornacki, Northwestern)

7. Baubax

The jacket you always needed, but never existed.

(Founded by Hiral Sanghavi, Kellogg School of Management)

8. Bigelow Tea

Warm up your holidays.

(Cindi Bigelow, CEO, Kellogg School of Management)

9. Bucketfeet

Discover unique designs perfect for gifting.

(Founded by Raaja Nemani, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Northwestern)


Strives to attract, cultivate, and feature the industry’s top sitters and nannies.

(Founded by Genevieve Thiers, Bienen School of Music) 



The Garage Visits Bucketfeet

Residents at The Garage recently had the opportunity to stop by Bucketfeet Headquarters, home to the Chicago-based e-commerce and retail company that collaborates with artists from around the world to create artist-designed footwear. Bucketfeet is on a mission to connect people through art by tapping into the diversity and creativity that surrounds us and tells our stories, and believes “art is for everyone.” Students participated in a table discussion with Bucketfeet co-founder and Northwestern alum, (WCAS ‘04), Raaja Nemani. Raaja founded Bucketfeet in 2011, after meeting his Bucketfeet co-founder in Argentina.

Raaja shared his journey with The Garage students, and talked about his realization that one’s tracks in life are never limited and your next idea or opportunity is just one conversation or interaction away. Students were able to ask Raaja thoughtful questions before a tour of one of Chicago’s coolest offices.