Wildfire 2018 Demo Day Wrap Up

On Thursday, August 30, more than 100 Northwestern staff and faculty, community members, and interested investors came to The Garage for our annual Demo Day, the culmination of the Wildfire Accelerator program, and one of our favorite days of the year.

For the last 10 weeks, while much of the Northwestern campus is quiet, The Garage has been bustling with 10 Wildfire teams. Whether it’s pitch practice in The Workspace, laughing during an improv workshop, or weekly Family Dinners, it’s been nothing short of a blast to hang with these bright student entrepreneurs all summer long. We even went to a Cubs game together! Not to mention, many of the teams made some pretty big progress during the summer. No matter what the students were up to all summer, each of them spent the last week of Wildfire perfecting their pitches in preparation for Demo Day, where we gave away $10,000 – big checks included! 

This year, we split Demo Day into two days. On day one, August 29, we were excited to welcome six esteemed judges, all experienced entrepreneurs and startup superstars, to hear 10 pitches behind closed doors, allowing our teams the opportunity to get plenty of expert feedback. Judges included Yvonne Cheng, Ty Findley, Jackson Jhin, Gerri Kahnweiler, Glenn Krevlin, and Kristi Ross.

By splitting Demo Day into two days, that meant our public event was fast paced and fun for the audience.

In total, we had 10 teams pitch at Demo Day.

CoCo Health: CoCo Health provides on-site mental wellness support for employers and employees by bringing counselors and providers to the workplace, breaking down barriers for stressed employees to manage stress effectively, and to help reduce the costs of absenteeism and burnout.

Crafthome: Crafthome is a platform that guides homeowners through the renovation process by empowering them with the tools needed to turn their house into their home.

FanHome: FanHome is a platform for Twitch-viewing parties, connecting gaming enthusiasts who want to host in-home watch parties with others who are looking for a couch with fellow fans.

Globe Talk: Globe Talk is a nonprofit that provides a free, virtual international exchange program that connects high school students in technology-driven pen pal relationships to explore different cultures and expand their horizons.

Jora: Jora puts electrolytes in their alcoholic cocktails to make you feel less bad the next day.

Lineshift: LineShift brings modern manufacturing tools to small and medium sized manufacturers. Through a detailed production process and workforce analysis, we identify and implement high ROI manufacturing technology and provide opportunities to maximize workforce potential.

PAL: Empowering the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) community through wearable technology to detect, notify, and reduce the frequency of meltdowns.

People6: People6 creates connection by engaging and growing university students’ talents, skills and experience while helping businesses tell their story and articulate their brand.

Lens (formerly) SEV7N: Lens enables high schools to empower their students with the skills they need to meaningfully discuss current events without creating controversy.

Wingding: Wingding designs and builds formal suits that appeal to college and young professional men: flexible, stylish, lightweight, and machine washable.

After 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 People6. Judges were impressed with the way Kristen, the founder, has figured something out and is willing to give other students the keys to success. 

Next, taking second place and a check for $3,000 was PAL. The judges all agreed that this team has come up with a practical and usable product in a very hard space. 

Finally, taking first place and a check for $4,000 was FanHome, and according to the judges, this pitch made them want to be fans.

Next, we handed out the check for $1,000 to the audience favorite: LineShift!

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

Wildfire 2018: SEV7N

SEV7N is news for a new generation. Founded by two freshmen at Northwestern, the startup wants to change the way college students engage with their communities — local and national — by providing them with quick, relevant, and unbiased news.

The Garage sat down with SEV7N founders Olivia Hernandez (School of Communication ‘21) and Aishwarya Jois (McCormick ‘21), to learn more about SEV7N and the startup’s future goals.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is SEV7N news and what was the inspiration for you startup?

Aishwarya: Even though we go to a school like Northwestern — one with incredibly engaged, talented people — a problem that we’ve noticed here on campus is that students don’t keep up with current events or local affairs, they don’t know what’s going on in the world, and they don’t vote. In short? They’re extraordinarily disengaged. Why? Students see that the news is inaccessible to citizens like us: there’s this incredibly insurmountable barrier to entry. For example, the New York Times is geared towards people who have been political from a very early age, who are very well educated about the political system already, and who really want to know the ins and outs of the process, as opposed to just the raw facts. Most political outlets are intended for those who already have some background in the subjects discussed. And then there’s the whole issue of bias- a lot of people who are moderate or conservative leaning as opposed to very liberal leaning feel like the media nowadays isn’t really reliable whatsoever for them. And so there’s no moderate outlet that’s out there that people can go to, to get the bare minimum facts as opposed to the sort of fluff and higher level political understanding surrounding it. And that is why we started SEV7N news!

Olivia: And although there are different sites that try to combat this issue, none have really perfected it in a way that actually works. Personally, I get an email in my mailbox every day. But do I really read it? No, I just delete because it’s way too long. It’s not short and concise. And then there’s the issue of news outlets either hyper feminising things or completely trivializing it. So we are trying to find a new way to engage the community with what is happening around the world.

What kind of news will you cover and how do tread the path of being a moderate news outlet?

Aishwarya: We will cover political, local and national affairs, for now. We want to stay away from all that information that’s already more factual, like financial news.

We want our outlet to be more of a compiling and condensing platform versus being a brand new news source. We don’t want to be another CNN, because we don’t have those political or anonymous sources that big outlets have. So we want to take news from outlets that span across the spectrum and compile all of that into one article that’s a lot more factually objective. And we would only go to sites that we know are reliable; they might be biased, but they should be completely correct on the facts that they are recording. So we wouldn’t go to small time blogs, we will just stick to the bigger outlets. Eventually, we are considering making this software based and having a program look at all of these different articles on the same topic and compile them into one. Ultimately, it will be much harder for a computer to be biased.

How did you choose the name SEV7N?

Aishwarya: I was briefly contemplating transferring into Medill, and in the introductory journalism class, the first thing that we were taught about writing an article is that you have to include seven different components- the who, what, when, where, how, why, and so what. And these seven things should be included in every single journalistic article, except sometimes they get mired in fluff. So our goal was to boil the news down to just these seven components, and to bring out the facts above everything else.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned so far?

Aishwarya: The most important lesson that we’ve learned is to not neglect your own vision in the process of trying to accommodate all of your users. Something that they teach you in entrepreneurship is to put your user above everything else, and go towards their perspective, not necessarily yours. And in doing so, we got so many perspectives that our own vision got diluted. And that made it so much harder to find a starting point to create and test out a product. So I think it’s really important to make sure that while user input is your primary driver, your vision should be underlying everything that you do.

How has The Garage helped you?

Olivia: Firstly, The Garage is a great community of like minded people who are all trying to do incredibly unique and challenging things. The space here is extremely helpful because it gets you into a certain mindset, which is hard to find in a dorm or library. We have also been fortunate to meet with inspiring mentors and advisors. I can’t imagine what it would be like to start a company without the space or community here. You’re so much more inclined to just jump in and start something with all the backing and support that you recieve.

Aishwarya: Billy and Melissa have been extremely helpful and are so responsive to our questions. And having that sort of fall back for us to rely on is really important. And the community here is so inspiring as well. I went to VentureCat last week, and watching everyone pitch, be so passionate about their startup, and be so good at what they are doing, is extremely inspiring. The attitude here towards failure has increase my confidence as well. If we didn’t have this community around us, we would have been very afraid of failure and not have embraced it.

Which entrepreneur do you admire and why?

Aishwarya: Sam Letscher, founder of Bossy, is someone I really look up to. Watching her run her company as a senior in college, and being able to manage a much larger group of people, inspired me to start my own company. It’s been great to be a part of her team, and watch the company’s vision being shaped by everyone running it, not just the founders.

Olivia: I am part of the NEST summit team that brings entrepreneurs to speak on campus, and we brought in Sima Sistani, who is the founder of a video chatting app called Houseparty. I loved hearing her speak about her journey of being a founder. She had this great idea for an app, but a lot of people didn’t believe in the product and how she was going to make money. However, she strongly believed that she was going to change the way people communicate and was very passionate about the issue on hand. I recently reached out to her over email to give her feedback on Houseparty’s new Mac interface. She was so kind to me, and even sent me a t-shirt for giving her feedback. I really like founders who take the time out to show appreciation towards people who reach out to them, and Sima is the perfect example of this.

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

ThinkChicago + Lollapalooza 2018

What happens when you’re in an incredible metropolitan city with a vibrant tech community, but no one pays you much attention? According to the ThinkChicago program, it’s to dispel that narrative by bringing 200 college students straight to the source.

ThinkChicago is an annual event hosted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, World Business Chicago, and the University of Illinois System that brings 200 students to Chicago and Lollapalooza for a few days to explore the city’s exciting tech scene and pitch the city as one to work in after graduation.

I, along with a few other students from The Garage, had the opportunity to attend the exciting event, and except for photos and a brief video of the prior year, we weren’t exactly sure what to expect. One thing in particular I was curious of was whether the program would directly make a push to live in Chicago, or quietly try to flex themselves. The answer: both. But rightfully so.

Excluding a free 4-day pass to Lollapalooza, ThinkChicago lasted only two and a half days, but they were action-packed with company visits, “tech talks,” panels on civic tech and diversity and inclusion in tech, and a team project/pitch on, you guessed it, civic tech: improving the city of Chicago through technology.

I arrived a night early, spending time in the program’s optional housing in the University of Illinois Chicago dorms. Of the 200 students, about 40 stayed together downtown, and we made the most of our first night with a group outing to a Chicago-classic—Portillo’s. I think their cake shakes and chocolate cake sold some students right off the bat.

The first day, our cohort met up for breakfast in 1871, Chicago’s world-renowned tech accelerator, and heard from civic tech leaders, including the CEO of 1871 Betsy Ziegler and even Mayor Rahm Emanuel himself. Following that, the group split into smaller sets of about 20, and my group went to Microsoft’s Chicago office to learn more about AI. My favorite takeaway: it’s anyone’s guess as to when we’ll move from capabilities of machine learning to “machine consciousness,” but when it happens, we’ll know. Right away.

In the afternoon, everyone met back up at JPMorgan Chase’s offices in the loop. After an introduction and a design-thinking workshop from IDEO’s Justin Massa (I came in thinking design thinking was not in my realm, but realized with the right process, anyone can do it), we got into our civic tech challenge teams and started brainstorming away. Our night ended at the creative and entrepreneurial space of Blue Lacuna, where we enjoyed a game night with the employees of Jackbox before everyone dispersed.

Our second day began with a warm welcoming from Uptake, followed by a panel on diversity and inclusion in tech. Afterward, our teams had a couple hours to finalize our civic tech proposals, and then we split up again and went on site visits to Chicago tech companies including Sprout Social, CCC Information Services, tastytrade, Relativity, and Raise. I visited Sprout Social, and I’ll always remember three things: their incredible culture, the iconic cafeteria art of the McRib’s ingredients because of the CEO’s love for McDonald’s, and all 20 of us getting trapped in the elevator.

A couple hours later, we all met up on the 32ndfloor of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Tower, where we received a brief introduction from the organization and members like CIO Steve Betts. This was the prelude to a Chicago-tech themed career fair, which had a gorgeous view of the city, especially of Lollapalooza, which the entire group was excited to momentarily attend.

After receiving our wristbands, people went out to the festival and had a good time, but we silently were aware we had to wake up nice and early the next day at 8AM. The final part of ThinkChicago was upon us: a private tour of the Lollapalooza grounds from the executive team that plans the festival itself, and then final presentations to a panel of Chicago all-star judges. The winner was team Soldier Field, headed by recent Garage and NU graduate Justin Fleischmann. They encouraged environmentally-sustainable transportation by providing free CTA and Divvy passes embedded into Lollapalooza wristbands.

At the end of the program, I came out with a newfound respect of Chicago and an excitement for all the great efforts the city is pursuing. Regardless of a participant’s decisions to consider living in Chicago after graduation, the experience was a great time to learn more about tech in Chicago, make new friends, and have a great time! A free 4-day pass to Lolla doesn’t hurt, either.

This article was written by Matthew Price, Weinberg ’21.

Wildfire 2018: LineShift

LineShift is focused on helping manufacturers prepare for the future of work and maximize the potential of their people and processes. With technology rapidly disrupting the manufacturing industry, LineShift wants to make sure that the people currently working in this industry are prepared to tackle the changing environment, and that companies are making the most of innovations in the industry.

The Garage sat down with the LineShift team- Don Meier (Kellogg ‘19), Kristen Johnson (Kellogg ‘19), and Brian Griffith (Kellogg ‘19)- to learn more about LineShift and the startup’s future goals.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is LineShift and what sparked the motivation for your startup?

Don: LineShift is a company that helps manufacturers and most importantly, the people in the manufacturing workforce to prepare for the future. This is especially important as technology, such as AI and automation is disrupting the manufacturing industry. We help companies and the people in them to assess their processes, consider investing in innovative new technologies and empower their workforce to take on high value roles.

The motivation to start LineShift was sparked by friends and family who work in the manufacturing industry. In fact, there are multiple people on this team who have personal connections to family members who have had careers in the manufacturing space, and have seen first-hand how the industry is being disrupted.

How do you assess workers’ skill-sets?

Don: Instead of looking at workforce from an aggregate perspective, we look at it on a person-by-person basis. We do everything from a soft skills assessment, where we conduct a questionnaire designed to test mechanical and mathematical skills. That is the core skills based assessment part, but we also individually interview everyone to understand what their achievement motivation is and what their goals are. We think the interview is a critical part of the assessment as it gives us a holistic view of how this person can succeed, and how we can continue to grow their career and do what is right for them. So the questionnaire and interview are part of the assessment portion, and then the next step is understanding what the company’s processes and growth constraints are, and helping the company optimize its resources and workforce.

What has been your biggest challenge so far?

Kristen: The biggest challenge that we are facing right now is getting the problem right. The problem that we are trying to tackle is extremely complicated and multifaceted, so we really need to simplify it and identify what is going to resonate best with our customers. One of the other things that we struggled with was trying to find the right customer for the pilot program- somebody who we could learn from and who could in turn learn from us as well. Recently, we have also refocused our efforts to better qualify our leads and make sure that the customers that we are going after are in the right stage of their business for this kind of solution, and are the right size as well. We want to make sure that we have a strong initial push and then build momentum from there.

How has The Garage helped you and what are your plans for Wildfire?

Don: The Garage has given us access to mentors and connections that we would not have otherwise been able to connect with. This place has a great culture of entrepreneurship and encapsulates what every co-working space tries to achieve. Everyone is always helping each other out and constantly learning from one other. The Garage has created this culture of giving back and not being afraid to take risks or fail, and it has been tremendously helpful to be a part of this community.

For Wildfire, we want to spend time building out our new solution and then move into customer acquisition and further study how we can add value to customers. Our first pilot showed that there is definitely interest in this field, but there are a lot of problems that many companies are trying to solve. So we want to attract the right customers for our second pilot, to prove that this is a viable business to go after. Ultimately, we want to build a combination of a product and service that is going to solve a problem in a repeatable way and constantly add value.

Which entrepreneur do you admire and why?

Kristen: While working for a member of Congress, I got the opportunity to meet with a group of people who were working to build furniture from reclaimed wood. What made their company, Purposeful Design, different though, was that they specifically employed men who were coming out of recovery houses in Indianapolis. This included men who may have been homeless, may have struggled with some kind of addiction, may had gone to jail, or had some challenge in their background that prevented them from getting another job. This company trained these men to make absolutely beautiful furniture. I think there is an important lesson to learn from this: often times people are extremely undervalued. The core missions of LineShift is to prepare people in the manufacturing workforce for the future and give them the opportunity to best use and maximize their skills. And if we do so, we can make really incredible things happen, not only for these undervalued people, but also for the world. I think that there is a lot to be said for companies and entrepreneurs who look at people as a solution rather than something that they need to work around.

Brian: All the founders I admire are extremely humble about what they have accomplished. When someone asks them what they are most proud of, I rarely hear them speak about the valuation of their company. They proudly speak about being able to give their team an opportunity to create a successful product and live comfortable lives. For one of my Kellogg classes, the co-founder of a company called Andela came to talk. Andela is a company that is training engineers in Africa to become coders for the biggest technology companies in the world. The premise of their business is that talent is evenly distributed across the world, but access and opportunity is not. I think that this sentiment really resonates with me as well, and is the premise of LineShift. We truly believe that there is a lot of talent and potential out there, it’s just a matter of unlocking it and giving it the tools to succeed.

You can learn more about LineShift on their website or say hi on Twitter.

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

Wildfire 2018: Jora

Many of us have experienced it. We have a great night out on the town with friends, but find ourselves sluggish, run down, and well…hung over the next morning, slowing down our entire day. Jora, co-founded by Jonas Weitzman (Weinberg ’18) and Raghav Narula (Weinberg ’18), is on a mission to help people sip smarter. Together, they are working to develop an electrolyte enhanced alcoholic beverage to help drinkers feel better the next day.

The Garage sat down with Jonas and Raghav to get to know them and the story behind their startup.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the inspiration behind Jora?

Jonas: Jora is an alcoholic beverage that’s ready to drink; it’s cocktail in a can, saturated with electrolytes.

Raghav: Jonas and I studied abroad together in Madrid, and we had so much fun going out together all the time. There, clubs are open all night long. We’ve known each other since freshman year, and have lived together the last few years. We started drinking Pedialyte, an electrolyte water that’s meant for children, to stay hydrated when we drank alcohol, and when we didn’t have any in Madrid, we realized how much worse we felt. We realized we should’ve been drinking Pedialyte all night to stay hydrated and wake up the next day feeling great. That was the beginning of the quest to launch.

Jonas: We’ve become so reliant on supplements and we realized they often aren’t much more than electrolytes and some vitamins, but it’s a huge industry. We’ve made it our quest to infuse alcohol with those things. Alcohol strips the body of electrolytes  and it’s very dehydrating. People think you drink water and you’re fine, but it’s a matter of cellular balance and maintaining water balance and what contributes to that is the electrolytes themselves.

How did you come up with the name Jora?

Raghav: We had at least five different names before we came up with Jora! We had Ish, Vice Versa, Loophole and Bright Side. None of them were sticking and it was actually really stalling our progress. Jonas stayed up all night once freaking out about names. It’s JO from Jonas and RA from Raghav. That’s how the name started.

What has been your biggest challenge so far?

Raghav: I think just generally being in the alcohol industry is really tough in terms of regulations. It’s a two step thing. We can’t just sell directly to people or stores. We have to sell to distributors who sell to retailers. We can’t just launch a Kickstarter or crowdfunding campaign. And the way that we have to produce the product, it’s really hard to produce just a small amount or sample to have our friends taste it.

Jonas: If you think about how we’re taught to do this in our classes and Wildfire, it’s all about testing to see if people will actually buy your most valuable product, your MVP. If you’re selling say, a couch, you could make one unit and try to sell it and see if someone will buy it. Find out if there’s even a customer for your product. There are so many legal steps that are added for us because we are dealing with alcohol that we can’t do something like that. We couldn’t even just sell it to a retailer ourselves. Selling and production has been tough.

How has The Garage helped Jora?

Jonas: First off just having a space that we can come to and know that when we’re here, we’re grinding on what we care about has been so important during the year when we had academic obligations, too. Being in the community and getting in touch with people that we wouldn’t have otherwise met has also been a big help for us. For example, Raghav met Brad Falkof at a mentor speed dating event, and it ended up being a really helpful relationship.

Raghav: Brad has helped us out so much. Even just some of the easy, basic questions, but things we needed answers to that we didn’t understand, he was always excited to help. Our concept in some senses is simple but is also sort of crazy. People tend to laugh and I think having people believe in it here at The Garage and take it seriously is really encouraging for us to keep going.

What’s in the future for Jora?

Jonas: Biggest drink in the world.

Raghav: I think originally we wanted to launch out of Evanston and Chicago, and get it really big in this area and potentially launch at other colleges and just slowly spread all over the place. That kind of a business model might change, though, because we both might be based out of New York next year.

Jonas: This might be tacky but I want it to be big enough that it changes people’s’ perception about not just alcohol but a ton of different products. Alcohol has been stuck in this same place for so long, along with other products, and applying this imaginative forward thinking lens to it, and creating the perception that alcohol can be different is exciting. People have just come to accept that drinking has to make you feel bad the next day, and I want our drink to inspire a change in that mindset and in how people approach this product.

What are you hoping to achieve during Wildfire?

Raghav: We want to be ready to launch. Product design, licenses, all that kind of stuff, and then we can really just focus on marketing and creating our brand.

Jonas: We know our product way more than anyone else does yet, and we can’t wait until it’s at a point where it really exists and it’s at it’s best, and we can communicate that with our customers.

Keep up with all of Jora’s progress on their Instagram and website or drop them an email at drinkjora@gmail.com.

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

Wildfire 2018: Globe Talk

Globe Talk is one of the latest startups coming out of The Garage that is focused on increasing cultural awareness. The startup has a cultural exchange program for high school students to interact with their peers from around the world, with the goal of facilitating cross-cultural learning.

The Garage sat down with the Globe Talk team: Tazim Merchant (Weinberg ‘18), Felicity Yuan (Weinberg ‘21), Chris Gustanto (McCormick ‘19) and Alex Li (McCormick ‘21) to learn more about Globe Talk and the startup’s future goals.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is Globe Talk?

Felicity: Globe Talk is a nonprofit organization that promotes cultural exchange to reduce stereotypes and cultural misunderstandings. The program, called the Cultural Exploration module, is specifically for high school students and is a virtual exchange, sort of like a pen pal, for two high schoolers in two different countries to talk to each other and learn about each other’s culture without having to travel across the world. Recently however, we are pivoting to another program focusing on service learning, where we would partner with a local nonprofit, and pair up two students to do service work for that nonprofit organization. Essentially, we are adding another dimension to the interaction. We are still trying to figure out the details of this new program, and validate its model (the problem we seek to solve) via a needs assessment but we’re very excited to introduce it.

What sparked the motivation for your startup?

Tazim: When I was in high school, I went with a bunch of my friends on a service trip to Kenya. Since I went to a high school that was almost completely caucasian, and not very racially or ethnically diverse, I thought my high school would benefit from exposure to these kinds of individuals who were from very different cultures and societies. I ended up connecting with a girl named Sharon in Kenya, and we were going to try and start a pen pal exchange. Although that didn’t work out, I thought this could serve as a model to break down the small bubbles that we live in, and teach students that the world is far bigger than what we think it is.

How does the matching process work?

Tazim: What is unique about our model is that it is a chapter based model where we have chapter leadership at each school, and they are responsible for recruiting and matching participants. The participants fill out a survey, in which we ask fun things like what are their favorite Millennium Development goals, how many hours do they want to spend on Globe Talk, and other questions that are geared towards their personality. Then the chapter leaders come together and match students based on different factors.

We have a Globe Talk ambassador who is the point of contact in our organization and helps facilitate the matching process. This year, the chapter leaders decided to match students based on their personalities. We chose to match students with opposing personalities. For example, we matched someone who likes to listen with someone who likes to talk. Matching opposite personalities also helps students interact with people who think differently or have a different worldview than them. They don’t necessarily have to accept that view, but it opens their eyes to other opinions and ways of thinking. Currently, we have 56 students in two chapters, New York and Madrid.

Why did you decide to pivot?

Alex: About two months ago, we had a meeting with Billy Banks, one of the heads of The Garage and the Wildfire program. After just five minutes of our conversation, he told us that although what we were doing sounded very nice, in theory it could be boiled down to educated guesswork. We didn’t have a curriculum, and although we were building our network with schools and students, we didn’t have data to back up the existence of any sort of market. That is why we decided to take a step back and reevaluate our model. We want to use the 10 weeks of Wildfire to finalize the details of what our new model will be, but feedback from Billy has been encouraging.

What has been your biggest challenge?

Tazim: Our biggest challenge was that initially, we didn’t focus primarily on the problem-solution fit. There’s a mission that we have, and originally, it was different than the problem that students, teachers, and administrators wanted us to address. Pinpointing that was really the first step that we needed to take. In a way, the pivot brings everybody closer together, to make sure that we are solving a real problem that is out there.

What is the most important lesson that you have learned?

Felicity: We’re all very passionate about facilitating cultural understanding. But I think that entrepreneurs should know that their vision might be different from what will actually work in the real world. Customers might want a different thing and your vision might be too grand to be implemented at the current point in time. For example, we’re thinking global in the long term, which is a great way to promote cross-continental cultural understanding. But the best first step is to go local, not global. Initially, we need to narrow down our search. For example, we start with only the Chicago Public School area, then expand to other cities in the United States, and finally expand globally. So I think it’s really important to realize that initially, you may have to adjust your vision of your startup to make it feasible.

How has The Garage helped you?

Tazim: The Garage is a great space to work and conduct meetings. Weekly family dinners provide us with the opportunity to meet other student entrepreneurs and mentors, and learn from their experiences. The guidance that we have received has been invaluable, because we don’t necessarily have much experience in this field.

Chris: The Garage has also provided us with a wide array of resources, and one of our mentors, Suzanne Cohodes, has been an integral part of Globe Talk. She was the one who heavily advocated for the pivot, and she also adds a wealth of experience and expertise in dealing with information gathering and analyzing. She has had a lot of experience in conducting consumer surveys and interviews, and shared with us what works well and what we should avoid. She’s been a strong proponent of gathering data that is more qualitative than quantitative.

You can keep up with Globe Talk on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

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

Wildfire 2018: Renovate

Renovate is a platform that facilitates the home remodeling process for first time homeowners and provides a steady-stream of workflow for small to midsize contractors.

The Garage sat down with Renovate founder, Charbel Bourjas (Weinberg ’19) to learn more about Renovate and the startup’s future goals.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the problem you’re working on and what is your solution?

Charbel: It’s difficult for first-time homeowners to find a reliable contractor to update some part of their home. Many times, they purchase their house and they want to either update their kitchen or their bathroom, something to turn it into their home. However, it’s not easy for first-time homeowners to go through the process of finding a good contractor, of knowing what kind of questions to ask and what price points are, especially operating on a tight budget. Our solution is to create a platform that connects these homeowners with contractors and allows contractors to bid on projects. Renovate guides the homeowner through the whole process of remodeling their home.

What sparked the motivation for your startup?

Charbel: I’ve had a lot of experience in home remodeling. I’ve spent plenty of time working with contractors, working on properties and on-site, buying material at Home Depot. Through this experience, I’ve realized that working with contractors is extremely difficult. It was even more true when we were doing whole home renovation, which is not the case anymore. I’ve talked to friends and family who are trying to renovate a smaller aspect of their home. They still see that it’s very difficult to work with reliable contractors. We know that contractors get a bad rap. We also know that there are plenty of great contractors out there. It’s just a matter of finding and empowering them with the resources to give them access to good homeowners. Renovate makes this match.

What has been your biggest failure so far? What did you learn from it?

Charbel: I’ve talked about how I’ve experienced working in remodeling entire homes. I thought that the assumptions I had from this experience would apply for smaller-sized projects. When I would speak to homeowners and try to get them to use our product, I would present them solutions based on those assumptions. But I realized very quickly that the solution that I had in mind wasn’t the ideal for my target market because it was founded on completely wrong assumptions. I’ve lost a few customers from not giving them the right solution. However, we quickly readjusted and did several interviews to validate our assumptions and backtracked on our initial ones.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned so far?

Charbel: I think it’s kind of cliché, but I’d say that the most important thing is to talk to everyone, literally everyone. We’ve been speaking with actual potential customers. We’ve been speaking with contractors. We’ve been speaking with contractors in the industry that would not be our customer. Even if they would do different kinds of projects, we would still speak to them to learn about their problems and see if there are any parallels. We also spoke to people who run companies in this industry and could be our competitors. We did it to learn from their mistakes. In short, the biggest thing is really just talking to everyone.

Pictured left to right, Charbel Bourjas, Barry Zhang, Aadit Kumar

How has The Garage helped you with your startup?

Charbel: I’ll have to talk about the sense of community. The Garage does Family Dinners where we get to meet everyone. It’s great for the actual people who work a lot at The Garage (the Residents). We hang out together all the time and we’ve become very good friends thanks to The Garage and our common passion for entrepreneurship. In my opinion, it has been one of the best resources. Even when we’re working late nights at The Garage, we’re with friends. We can make the workload a little bit less daunting because we have each other. It is an incredible support system and a solid base for us and our ideas. You can just talk it out. When you’re around like-minded people, even if you’re not working on the same ideas, it’s easy to understand one another and offer support and feedback. Also – The Garage’s network is extremely helpful. I have been able to connect with industry leaders by connections through The Garage and hop on calls with them.

Where do you see the future?

Charbel: I love to build products and solutions. If we are able to gain traction on Renovate, I think it’s something we could scale and continue to work on full time after school.

What do you hope to get out of Summer Wildfire accelerator?

Charbel: I think one of the biggest things that I hope to get is the mentorship, that is, working intensely with Billy, Melissa and the of the different Wildfire staff. I also hope to get to meet all the people who are coming in, work with them and learn from them. I spoke to several previous participants of the Wildfire program and they say that it’s a daunting 10 weeks. There is a huge amount of work. I’ve also heard that during Wildfire, you grow a lot as a person and I’m looking forward to it. I think it’ll be good personal development. I’ve been told that you grow with the other teams. So, I’m really excited to meet all of them and get to grow with them.

Is there a final thought you want to share?

Charbel: l’ve been in EPIC, Northwestern’s entrepreneurship club, since freshman year. I’ve also been in the greater NU entrepreneurship ecosystem for a while, but I’m excited to finally work on my own thing and grow it in Wildfire.

You can stay up to date with everything Renovate is up to on Twitter @getrenovate.

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

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.