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Northwestern entrepreneurs celebrate UN World Creativity and Innovation Day

From startup matchmaking events to international competitions, creatives across campus make big moves

It’s been a busy few weeks for entrepreneurs across the Northwestern University campus. Tight teams of undergraduate and business school students at various phases of ideation and fundraising came together virtually at a variety of events to highlight creative inventions in time for the United Nations’ World Creativity and Innovation Day.

In light of a year of pandemic-induced lockdowns, the U.N. marked 2021 as the International Year of the Creative Economy for Sustainable Development, with April 21, 2021, designated as the first annual World Creativity and Innovation Day.

The entrepreneurial ecosystem at Northwestern has been thriving for some time. With infrastructure spanning from undergraduate curriculum to startup incubation to graduate support on existing ventures, the wrap-around support is anchored by strong leadership from women with backgrounds in business.

Contrary to preconceptions around entrepreneurship, each of Northwestern’s various entrepreneurial units is headed by a woman – working to model the real ways that innovators of all genders, races and socioeconomic backgrounds can succeed at the University.

Hayes Ferguson, a former journalist and startup COO, is the director of the McCormick School of Engineering Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation; Melissa Kaufman leads the community entrepreneurial hub The Garage; and Alicia Löffler used her Ph.D. and background in profit and nonprofit advising to found the Innovations and New Ventures Office (INVO). At the Kellogg School of Management, Linda Darragh serves as the Larry Levy Executive Director of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative, and Esther Barron is the director of the Donald Pritzker Entrepreneurship Law Center and the Pritzker School of Law.

Farley startup Blue Comet Medical Solutions wins $25,000 prize at Rice University Business Plan Competition

During the week of April 6, three Northwestern teams competed in the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship’s Rice Business Plan Competition, “the world’s largest and richest grad student startup competition.”

While both blip energy and Hubly Surgical made it to the semifinal round that included the top six teams from three different “flights,” only the Blue Comet Medical Solutions team took home any prize money.

In addition to receiving $25,000 from the Southwest National Pediatric Device Prize, the team also earned an additional $500 for the Mercury Fund Elevator Pitch Competition.

Blue Comet offers an at-home diagnostic solution that tests for strep throat and may eventually use similar technology to breathalyzer tests used for drunk drivers. The now-one-year-old venture was conceived in an interdisciplinary Farley course called NUvention: Medical by Rashmi Babtiwale and Sara Jandeska, both soon-to-graduate MBA students.

“Sara is medical director of pediatric nephrology director at Rush University’s Children Hospital, so she sees a lot of kids with strep throat,” co-founder Babtiwale said. “Especially outside the U.S., strep can lead to kidney diseases. The prize money will go toward pre-seed funding that will enable us to optimize the technology of our test to bring it to parents and schools.”

blip also began in a Farley NUvention course specific to energy last winter out of a need to allow renters to buy into the green energy economy by storing energy in team-designed equipment when it is cheap. Though they didn’t win this competition, Sophia Wennstedt, a second-year MBA student and blip CEO, said with the support of “individual angels on Zoom calls” and centers like The Garage, they’re over halfway to their pre-seed.

Casey Grage graduated from Weinberg in 2019 with a degree in neuroscience and a new startup called Hubly Surgical. Wanting to “get closer to directly impacting patient outcomes,” Grage founded the medical device company with Dr. Amit Ayer, an MBA recipient and at the time, the chief resident in the department of neurological surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. As a brain surgeon, Ayer identified a problem in the tool doctors have used for decades to drill into skulls – a hand-operated drill that cranks through bone. Together, he and Grage designed the first prototype for an improved cranial drill.

Hubly incorporated in May of 2019, but virtual pitch competitions have added a new layer of accessibility to each competition. Once the team meets its $1 million pre-seed, it will be able to apply for clearance from the Food and Drug Administration early next year.

“We’ve been going to a lot more competitions since things went virtual because you can just log onto your computer, pitch and log off without the financial or temporal burdens traveling can pose,” Grage said.

“A hallmark of Farley classes is the opportunity to connect with the real world and learn by doing,” Ferguson said. “Blue Comet is a great example of the positive outcome of arming students with entrepreneurial skills and encouraging them to be creative problem-solvers, instead of just teaching them theory.”

Eighty students participate in first live-streamed Startup Matchmaking event

A couple weeks later, on April 15, 26 student-founded startups presented 60-second pitches to nearly 80 students on Zoom including via livestream of the event for admitted students at The Garage’s Startup Matchmaking event.

In addition to sharing pitches and more background on ventures, students advertised open roles on their team. Many sought app or website development, and others were looking for help with marketing and social media. Fifty students eager to join a new venture tuned in to watch the pitches and then connect directly with teams they were interested in joining via Zoom breakout rooms.

The pitch teams included startups across industries, ranging from a high-tech neural device company called Neu App to an incubator for chefs to test new restaurant concepts called Pivot.

“Wow, Northwestern students can hustle,” said Catherine Lamb, a Kellogg first-year student. “I came in hoping to hear from one or two cool interesting startups and was pleasantly surprised to find that I was interested in the majority of companies that pitched. It’s great to see the Kellogg/Northwestern entrepreneurial ecosystem is so energized!”

Even virtually, it seems startups across the scene are alive and well. Adaptability and creative problem-solving are core to entrepreneurship, and leaders and students have risen to the challenge.

“Startup Matchmaking allowed Litterbox to connect with 15 students from across the country who were eager to get involved with a startup at The Garage,” said McCormick senior Peter Doward, who founded the storage company his freshman year. “Through these connections, we were able to expand our team with passionate individuals who will contribute to the future growth and success of our company.”