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Student Startups Tie for First in Entrepreneurial Challenge

The Graide Network and SurgiNet impress judges to both win $20,000

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Two Northwestern University student startups, The Graide Network and SurgiNet, tied for first place at the eighth annual Northwestern University Venture Challenge (NUVC) finals held June 2. Each winner went home with $20,000.

The Graide Network is an online marketplace connecting teachers with qualified teaching assistants to grade and provide individualized feedback on student assignments. SurgiNet is a medical device company that produces bioabsorbable scaffolds for use in general and plastic surgery.

Third place went to Pak’d, which received a $10,000 prize. The company creates fresh, custom lunches for children and adults, delivered directly to their homes.

The three winning companies were among 11 finalists -- all Northwestern student startups -- at the University’s premier business pitch competition. At the event, each finalist team pitched their startups to venture capitalists and business executives, competing for $50,000 in grand prize money. Northwestern alumna Kat Mañalac, a partner at Y Combinator, delivered the keynote address right before the winners were announced.

“Placing first at NUVC was a tremendous honor and recognition of The Graide Network’s mission and progress as a company over the past year,” said Blair M. Pircon, co-founder of The Graide Network and an MBA student at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.

“The Northwestern community -- the Kellogg Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative and The Garage in particular -- has been instrumental in our success from the very beginning,” she said. “The NUVC award will help us hire our first full-time employee and also fund the next stage of our product’s development. Both are critical to our success as we expand to serve more teachers and students across the country.”

Each startup competed in one of five categories: green energy and sustainability; consumer products and software; social enterprise and nonprofit; business products and software; and health care and medical.

“NUVC not only showcases the tremendous talent of Northwestern students but also the diversity of entrepreneurial endeavors on campus,” said Melissa Crounse, executive director of The Garage, the University’s new innovation incubator.

Six of the finalist startups worked at The Garage this year as part of The Garage Residency Program. The Graide Network and Pak’d teams are both in the program, Crounse said.

The category and team members for the three winners are:

  • The Graide Network (Social Enterprise + Nonprofit category). Team members: Blair Pircon, Kellogg ‘16; Amanda McCarthy, Kellogg ‘16; and Liz Nell.
  • SurgiNet (Life Services + Medical category). Team members: Alexei Mlodinow, Feinberg School of Medicine/Kellogg ‘17; Todd Cruikshank, Kellogg ‘17; and Sega Moges, Kellogg ‘16.
  • Pak’d (Consumer Products + Services category). Team members: Nate Cooper, Kellogg ‘17; Rebecca Sholiton, Kellogg ‘16; and Kara O’Dempsey.

In total, NUVC awarded more than $200,000 in prize money during the finals and semi-finals. Teams representing more than 80 interdisciplinary startups in different stages of development submitted their ideas to NUVC in April; that number was winnowed down to the 11 finalists.

Many of the startups have come out of a variety of entrepreneurial courses taught at Northwestern, including NUvention, and others incorporate technologies coming out of Northwestern labs. As the young entrepreneurs continue to develop their business ventures at the University and beyond, the only requirement to compete in NUVC is that at least one team member be a current Northwestern undergraduate or graduate student.

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