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Optical Health Startup Wins Entrepreneurial Challenge

Students compete over than $200,000 at Northwestern University Venture Challenge

  • More than 80 student-developed startups competed for cash prizes
  • Startups were comprised of undergraduate and graduate students from different schools
  • The winner, Opticent Health, seeks to improve technologies used to diagnose optical diseases

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Speaking in front of any audience can be nerve-racking. When you’re in front of 11 leading venture capitalists, startup executives and business innovators from Chicago and around the country, and you’re pitching them the idea you’ve been developing for years, it can be downright terrifying. 

Students from across Northwestern University’s campuses did just that at the seventh annual Northwestern University Venture Challenge (NUVC). In total, NUVC gave out more than $200,000 in prize money to 10 different student-created startups in the final competition at the all-day event June 4.

The grand-prize winner, Opticent Health, walked away with $45,000. The startup offers a noninvasive, affordable medical instrument for ophthalmologists to better assess retinal health and thereby improve treatment and monitoring of chronic, incurable diseases such as macular degeneration.

“I was shocked,” said Kieren Patel, president and CEO of Opticent Health, when his startup was named the overall winner. “I figured if we could come in third place, we’d be doing great.”

The event culminated in a final round of presentations in front of judges who raised questions regarding business strategies and raising capital, reminiscent of the ABC television show “Shark Tank.”

“This program has really done some fabulous things,” said Jack Pressman, chairman and executive managing director of EMP Grid Services and Cyber Innovation Labs. “Everyone here has been doing something special,” he said, noting how that entrepreneurial spirit has grown since he was a student at Northwestern three decades ago.  

The annual competition to perhaps find the next big startup brought together more than 80 teams of undergraduate and graduate students from all schools and different disciplines. Many of the ideas were developed in entrepreneurial courses taught at Northwestern as the University, guided by its strategic plan, continues to stress innovation and new technology in the classroom.

Each startup that competed fell into one of five categories: green energy and sustainability; consumer products; social enterprise; business products; and life sciences and medical. At least one team member had to be affiliated with the University. Each category winner was given $15,000 while the runner-up was awarded $10,000.

Previous winners of the venture challenge talked about how important NUVC was for their careers.

“Winning NUVC -- putting a plan together and presenting it to a board -- gave us the confidence and credibility we needed,” said Jacob Babcock, CEO of NuCurrent. The challenge helped launch his team’s startup, which has raised $4.5 million and been awarded 17 patents since Babcock won the venture challenge in 2009.

Last year’s winner Jeff Eschbach, CEO and founder of Page Vault, cited the value of the Northwestern network. “I don’t know where Page Vault would be if we didn’t have Northwestern,” he said.

NUVC was led by the Northwestern-wide student group EPIC, with the assistance of the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the Kellogg Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative, the Kellogg eClub and the Innovation and New Ventures Office (INVO).

This year's competition was bolstered by a $100,000 grant from the Wells Fargo Clean Technologies and Innovation Grant Program, intended to help jumpstart the students' ventures.

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