A few of the semifinalists that went head-to-head in VentureCat, Northwestern’s annual student startup competition, which concluded May 25: A browser extension that curates secondhand alternatives for fashion finds as you shop online; carbon footprinting software to help companies meet and communicate carbon neutrality goals; an AI platform to help patients better follow their prescribed healthcare programs. At stake: more than $325,000 in prize money.
The winner, by a non-business Northwestern student: InfernoGuard, a startup that provides prompt wildfire detection and notification to large-scale landowners. InfernoGuard’s founder Kevin Kaspar, an undergrad in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, took home a total of $160,000.
In all, 25 semifinalists pitched their startups to a panel of industry expert judges in one of the top university startup challenges in the country. They are competing in one five distinct tracks: Business Products and Services, Consumer Products and Services, Energy and Sustainability, Life Sciences and Medical Innovations, and Social Impact.
FIRST LIVE COMPETITION SINCE 2019
Finalists pitched their ideas in front of a panel of investors and founders as well as a live audience in the public showcase tonight at the Kellogg Global Hub in Evanston, Ill. It was the first live showcase in three years after pandemic restrictions moved the event online for the last two.
“One of the things that is most interesting about VentureCat is the diversity of startups that compete,” says Mike Raab, interim director of The Garage, Northwestern’s home for student entrepreneurs. “These aren’t startups that were created just to have a startup. They’re solving real problems that people are facing, and they have found traction because of that.”
“The VentureCat experience has been incredible,” said grand prize winner Kaspar, a second-year undergrad. “I was excited to share what I’ve been working on with everyone in the Northwestern community, and the prize money is extremely helpful for InfernoGuard. VentureCat gives away far more money than any other pitch competition that I’ve seen across the U.S., which is a huge attraction, but honestly, the resources and the mentorship were invaluable. One big thing that professional graphic designers come in and help us with our pitch deck, and that was a game-changer and helped me perfect our pitch.”
See a complete list of VentureCat winners on page 3.
A COLLABORATIVE STARTUP COMPETITION
Since 2014, more than $1.5 million has been awarded to VentureCat winners and more than $850 million has been raised by the student founders who pitched their ideas.
Unlike some other startup challenges covered in Poets&Quants, VentureCat isn’t solely a function of a business school. Kellogg School of Management students make up about half of the semi finalist teams, but there are also teams from the Feinberg School of Medicine, Pritzker School of Law, and multiple Northwestern undergrad schools, Raab says.
VentureCat is open to all Northwestern students, in all schools, at all levels of study–from undergraduate to EMBA. The collaborative competition is organized by Kellogg alongside The Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the Donald Pritzker Entrepreneurship Law Center and The Garage.
“Our philosophy is that entrepreneurship is for everyone, and it’s not isolated or siloed into a single school or institution,” Raab says. “That diversity is a strength and it brings out even more impactful startups. Our mission is to elevate those startups that have the potential to continue on after graduation from whatever Northwestern programs they’re a part of. I think it’s obviously a testament to the Northwestern entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
WHAT MAKES VENTURECAT DIFFERENT
VentureCat has a few other differentiating factors as well, Raab says. First, it offers one of the largest non-dilutive cash prize pools meaning neither Northwestern nor any of the investors takes equity in the startups or attach strings to the funding.
This year, more than $300,000 will be awarded in prizes. This includes $1,000 to each semi finalist, $9,000 to each track’s first-place winner and $6,000 to each second-place finisher. In the final round, $25,000 goes to the third-place overall winner, $50,000 to second place, and $150,000 to the grand prize winner. There’s also a $2,000 award for audience favorite during the showcase.
VentureCat’s second differentiator is its Pitch Prep Program, a four- to five-week intensive preparation course for all semi finalist teams to prepare for the competition. That itself is valued at $50,000, according to the school.
“Teams get one-on-one exposure to actual investors for blunt, ‘tough love’ style feedback. This is nearly impossible to get in the real world. For one thing, it is really hard to get any actual time with an investor. And, if you do, feedback is often pretty general, so it can be hard to take action from it,” says Karin O’Connor, assistant professor in entrepreneurship at Kellogg.
“Our goal is different–making sure that, whether they ‘win’ or not, these students will deliver a thorough and credible presentation on the day of the competition, and post-Kellogg when they’re trying to secure funding on their own.”
Pitch Prep includes one-on-one access to graphic design and presentation specialists as well as individual coaching sessions with subject matter experts, other entrepreneurs, and investors. Teams learn what investors will want to know while making their pitch exciting enough to capture investors’ attention.
PREVIEW OF KELLOGG SEMIFINALISTS
In case you can’t make it to the Kellogg Global Hub or tune into tonight’s showcase, P&Q reached out to a few of the semi-finalist teams from the Kellogg School of Management to learn more about their startups. You can see the full list of semi finalists here, or read about where past VentureCat winners are now here.
Elevator pitch: CarbonGraph is SaaS that automates the process of carbon footprinting so that companies can communicate sustainable advantages and capture the ROI of being more carbon neutral.
Q&A with Nicola Craig, ’22
What is your pitch? CarbonGraph is SaaS for companies to figure out the carbon footprint of their products – so that carbon labels can be as common as nutritional labels are on food.
74% of the population thinks they personally need to make changes to their everyday life in order to combat climate change. However, climate doom is paralyzing consumers and they don’t know where they need to start to make sustainable choices. We are told many ways to reduce our carbon footprint but we have no idea which are most impactful.
More than 50% of the Fortune 500 have carbon neutrality goals, however there isn’t a way to measure and report on progress towards those goals without hiring expensive, manual consultants.
How did the idea come to you? My co-founder Sam Anderson worked as a carbon footprint consultant and saw firsthand how to build carbon footprints and how current solutions were not scalable enough to do the world’s carbon accounting. I teamed up with him and Nick Sheahan, our technical co-founder, to help build out the idea. My consulting background and MBA experience was helpful in building out the business model and go-to market strategy. Through Kellogg I have received over $40k+ in funding for entrepreneurship which has been monumental in developing the businesses.
How valuable was the Pitch Prep Program? We are currently kick starting our seed fund raising, so these resources have not just been helpful in preparing us for VentureCat but have been critical in creating a pitch that we will use to secure future investors.
Why did you decide to enter the VentureCat, and what has the process taught you? We entered with the hopes of winning $150k, but we have learned so much about crafting our story and taking our pitch to a whole other level. The help from the pitch coaches has been instrumental in helping us figure out how to best communicate our problem and make our deck into a VC quality pitch.
NEXT PAGE: Startups Beni, MyCareGiver, and Green Grahi
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