Posted on May 20, 2020
This year, Northwestern’s annual student startup competition went virtual! While we missed celebrating together on campus, we were excited by the challenge of moving VentureCat to a completely remote format. We were inspired to move forward with a focus on what matters most: supporting student innovation and entrepreneurship. We whole-heartedly believe that the student entrepreneurs developing ideas across Northwestern’s vast interdisciplinary ecosystem today are the creative and insightful leaders of tomorrow, and we look forward to supporting them. You can check out the entire VentureCat 2020 Public Showcase Livestream below.
One of the biggest changes this year, aside from moving to a virtual format, was an increase in the non-dilutive prize money, distributed to competing student ventures. VentureCat’s prize pool tripled this year to more than $300,000, thanks to generous sponsor and donor support. Thank you to The Levy Institute and to Lanny and Sharon Martin for generous gifts this year and to Greg and Suzanne Besio for continued support. We thank Exelon for joining us again as a sponsor for our Energy & Sustainability Track.
VentureCat was held virtually on May 20, 2020 in collaboration with the Kellogg School of Management, the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship, the Donald Pritzker Entrepreneurship Law Center, and The Garage. Together, we worked to create our program in partnership with pitch coaches, track advisors, Semifinals and Finals judges, and students. You can learn more about all of the teams, track advisors, and judges in our online program here.
Northwestern’s best and brightest entrepreneurs from across the university were part of VentureCat. Represented in this year’s Semifinalist line up is the Kellogg School of Management, Weinberg, McCormick, Medill, Pritzker, the School of Education and Social Policy, the School of Communication, and Feinberg. All Semifinalist teams participated in a four week pitch prep program, offering ongoing support, office hours, pitch practice, and professional graphic design services.
Private Semifinals pitches were held via Zoom with our incredible panels of industry expert judges during the morning of May 20. You can check out the Semifinalist pitches in a YouTube playlist here. First and second place winners in each track were selected, and the first place winners of each track, in addition to one wildcard team chosen from second place teams, moved on to the closed Finals round via Zoom. This year, with the increased prize pool, first place winners of each track took home $8,000 and second place winners of each track won $4,000. Remaining teams received $1,000 in prize money.
Business Products & Services
First Place: Gearflow – Gearflow is the first marketplace for all things construction, providing easy access to reliable suppliers for all heavy equipment needs.
Second Place: WareIQ – WareIQ is an asset lite distributed fulfillment platform that enables online sellers to offer same-day and next-day delivery experience.
Consumer Products & Services
First Place: Qade – Qade is a platform that brings gamers together to easily keep track of video game wagers and statistics.
Second Place: Off Grid Inn – Off Grid Inn uses beautiful underutilized land in nature to combine comfort and seclusion by building modern sustainable tiny cabins.
Energy & Sustainability
First Place: Blip – Blip is a residential energy storage solution focused on saving renters money by leveraging price arbitrage and repurposed EV batteries.
Second Place: Recigases – Recigases helps companies better manage their refrigerant gas, save money, fulfill their legal obligations and be more sustainable through reclamation services.
Life Sciences & Medical Innovations
First Place: B-Vitals – B-Vitals is a digital health company that embeds a child’s behavioral health into the standard pediatrician visit.
Second Place: Clearstep – Clearstep’s digital front door to healthcare features a suite of SaaS products to enhance patient acquisition, retention, and routing, starting with symptom checking.
Social Impact & Nonprofit
First Place: Tilt – Tilt partners with high schools to scale their financial aid advising and help families plan for the costs of higher education.
Second Place: FinLit – FinLit bridges the opportunity gap by empowering individuals to take control of their financial lives.
In addition to the first place teams from each Track advancing to finals, there was one Wildcard pick that got another chance to pitch! This year’s Wildcard was WareIQ.
Finalist teams, and the Wildcard team, pitched in a private Zoom session with our panel of Finals judges, including Rob Chesney of Chicago Ventures, Anna Haghgooie of Sandbox Industries, Brian Hill of Edovo, Matt McCall of Pritzker Group Venture Capital, Bailey Moore of Wintrust Ventures, Kristi Ross of tastytrade and Betsy Ziegler of 1871. Each Finalist team was grilled during 20 minutes of Q&A after their pitch by our esteemed judges. As the Finals judges deliberated, we were busy behind the scenes prepping for the VentureCat livestream.
To kickoff our livestream, we welcomed emcee, Melissa Kaufman, to the virtual stage to share more about VentureCat and its generous sponsors. Then, we introduced Sam Shank, Kellogg ’04, Head of Hotels at Airbnb, CEO of HotelTonight, as our keynote speaker.
Sam Shank is Head of Hotels at Airbnb and CEO of HotelTonight, the mobile-first hotel booking platform he co-founded in 2010. As a travel-obsessed serial entrepreneur, Sam previously founded and was CEO of DealBase, a travel deals search engine, and was CEO of TravelPost, a hotel reviews site. SideStep acquired TravelPost and Sam worked there as VP of Business Development. Sam also worked in comparison shopping at Excite, CNET and NexTag. Sam attended the University of Virginia and received an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. Sam shared some clear and practical advice about entrepreneurship – including not only to build something better, something almost all entrepreneurs aspire to do, but also to build something different. Sam also discussed the importance of business distribution – getting a product or idea in front of people – and how it can truly inform how the business develops.
After hearing from Sam, it was time for Finalist pitches!
Just before announcing the Grand Prize winners, it was time to hear from our audience of more than 600 who their favorite was! Hundreds of text votes were tallied live by our team! Gearflow took home the $2,000 Audience Vote Prize!
Next, it was time to announce the top three pitches of the night. Although we didn’t have our giant checks like we have in past years, we still had some other fun ways to celebrate like virtual confetti and personal phone calls to the winners.
Third place, and an additional $25,000 was awarded to Tilt, led by Sinthuja Nagalingam, Kellogg ’20, a Social Impact & Nonprofit startup that partners with high schools to scale their financial aid advising and help families plan for the costs of higher education.
Second place, and $50,000, went to Consumer Products & Services competitor Qade. Qade is a platform that brings gamers together to easily keep track of video game wagers and statistics. Qade is led by Spencer Levitt, Weinberg ’22 and Austin Pager, SESP ’22.
First place, and the grand prize of $150,000 went to Gearflow, led by Ben Preston, Kellogg ’21. Gearflow is the first marketplace for all things construction, providing easy access to reliable suppliers for all heavy equipment needs.
Congratulations to all of the VentureCat Finalists and Semifinalists. Again, because of generous sponsorship, we were thrilled to be able to hand every competitor a check through this program. Thank you, as well, to all of our track advisors, pitch coaches, Semifinals judges, and Finals judges for their time and expertise. It’s their involvement that allows Northwestern to continue to support student founders and their ideas.