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Student Startups Featured At Opening Of The Garage

Companies to benefit from resources and space offered by new idea incubator

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Northwestern Opens Doors to Innovation Incubator
The Garage brings students together across disciplines 24/7 to develop bold business ideas

EVANSTON, Ill. --- As he walked across campus during his freshman year, scanning and stepping on the usual assortment of weather-beaten sidewalk fliers, Northwestern University’s Eric Brownrout knew there must be a better way to spread the word about events.

Last fall, Brownrout and a team of like-minded colleagues unveiled their solution: a website and app called Pvmnt (pronounced “pavement”), which allows users to upload digital fliers and provides a centralized location for listing events.

“The fliers were already being built,” Brownrout said. “Why not cross-reference them online and create a database so people can find them?”

On Tuesday, the entrepreneurial spirit that sparked Pvmnt was celebrated during the opening of The Garage, the new idea incubator for Northwestern student startups housed in a campus parking structure. One of four student-led projects highlighted during the event, Pvmnt illustrates the kind of effort that can benefit from The Garage’s programming, resources and physical space.

“You’ll see students here not because of a class project but because they are passionate about what they’re doing and want to build cool things,” said Brownrout, a junior who arrived at Northwestern as a film major and plans to graduate in computer science. “It’s bringing like-minded people together to network and brainstorm and will create a lot of new opportunities.”

In addition to Pvmnt, the event featured several award-winning startups created by Northwestern students, including sharEd, which works to make high-quality resources and teacher training available to needy preschool students; Luna Lights, an automated lighting system aimed at reducing falls among older people; and MDAR Technologies, a system that helps robots function in adverse conditions.

Here’s a closer look at the company, the problem and the Northwestern innovation:

Pvmnt

The problem: Sidewalk fliers are inefficient, messy and often ineffective. The Northwestern Associated Student Government has recommended using alternate public relations methods.

The innovation: Acting as a “digital sidewalk,” Pvmnt is a platform on mobile devices and the Web that helps students find and discover activities on campus. The app, like the website, is divided into 10 categories and has the option of organizing events by day.

Key players: Brownrout developed the website. Sophomore Philip Meyers IV, majoring in engineering and mathematics, created the mobile app. Art history major Olivia Lim, a junior who is also enrolled in the Segal Design Institute certificate program, contributed her graphic design skills.

Noted: “People in majors other than computer science need to see there’s lots of room and space for innovation,” Brownrout said. “We need new voices -- music majors and anthropologists -- and The Garage is the place to bring those people together. It’s a very, very rewarding experience to have a product to show after years of work and to see people actually using it and benefiting.”

What’s next: With the support of The Garage, the eight-member Pvmnt team plans to keep building out the product, perhaps expanding to other schools across the country.

sharEd

The problem: Children in developing countries lack access to early childhood education materials and high-quality teachers.

The innovation: shareEd works to make early childhood education curricula and resources affordable by pooling resources and sharing them among schools. For $5 per month, a school will have access to $1,000 worth of supplies. Teachers are offered monthly training sessions to network and trade materials. “Instead of paying thousands of dollars, they rent from us,” co-founder Bobby Powers said. “Sharing across schools brings down the total cost of materials.”

Key players: Co-founded by Northwestern graduate students Bobby Powers, Nihar Shah, Kate Geremia and Derrick Wolbert, the team has combined experience in tech consulting, marketing strategy, finance management and product development, as well as experience in education and child care in developing countries.

Noted: “With product development, it’s very important to have a physical space like The Garage to help visualize and prototype your product, to have the walls to just put pictures up or to meet to brainstorm,” Powers said. “We’re excited about the potential mentorship as well. Besides developing the product, we need to learn how to make this a scalable business solution.”

What’s next: shareEd is in the early stage of development; the team will work on product development over the summer at The Garage and target the first pilot program by fall.

MDAR

The problem: Everyday environmental challenges, including sunlight, reflections, motion, and rain, snow or fog can cause conventional imaging systems to fail. 

The innovation: MDAR is a 3-D laser scanner that fills the gap between existing technologies and allows robotic and autonomous systems to work in challenging conditions. It’s billed as a “3-D sensing technology that allows autonomous systems to see in the wild.”

Key players: The scanner technology is based on two years of research by Nathan Matsuda, a Ph.D. student at Northwestern. Matsuda’s advisor is Oliver Cossairt, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. MDAR co-founder Jesse Chang is a J.D.-MBA candidate at Northwestern’s School of Law and Kellogg School of Management.

Noted: “The availability of the space and close proximity remove some of the basic hurdles that startups face,” Matsuda said. “The core idea of an incubator is that you are putting together people who are going through the same challenges at the same time. It’s hugely valuable to have the shared experience, both in terms of moving people forward and creating opportunities.”

What’s next: “We’re pushing a relatively aggressive timeline, because the underlying component can be produced in large quantities,” said Matsuda, adding that MDAR’s advancement is funding-dependent.

Luna Lights

The problem: Falls in the elderly population often happen at night. But seniors don’t necessarily want to leave the lights on all night; wearable technology is often uncomfortable.

The innovation: Luna Lights is an automated lighting system that uses data analytics to reduce the risk of falling. A thin pressure sensor placed underneath individual sheets can detect when someone leaves the bed at night to use the restroom or grab a drink of water. “The system notes a change in pressure; this triggers a series of low-lying battery-powered lights that assist them to their destination,” co-founder Donovan Morrison said. It can also collect data and shoot out a text alert to a caregiver or family member to let them know their loved one is out of bed, when they’re getting up at night and how many times. 

Key players: Co-founder Matt Wilcox graduated from Northwestern last year with a degree in mechanical engineering; co-founder Donovan Morrison also graduated in 2014 with a degree in biomedical engineering. Both had experiences with grandparents who had fallen.

Noted: “Though we’re based in the West Loop, we’ll be up here a lot to take advantage of the programming,” Morrison said. “The Garage will be great in cultivating a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation at Northwestern. (Incubators) are becoming more prevalent at different universities, and it’s fantastic that a world-class university like Northwestern is getting into the game.”

What’s next: Luna Lights completed its first pilot at Mather LifeWays in Evanston in March; a second pilot is planned in July at Presbyterian Homes’ Lake Forest Place. The company expects to reach 200 individuals through five paid installations by the end of the year. 

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