VentureCat: 25 Startup Teams, $325K In Prize Money

Pitch team members for Beni include Sarah Pinner, Kate Sanner, Sarah Leonard,  Sarah Rogers,  Hunter Zhang, Jacqueline Hong, Danielle Ma, Ashkaan Khatakhotan, and Catherine Sullivan. Courtesy photo

Startup: Beni

Elevator pitch: The Beni browser extension finds the best secondhand clothing swaps while shopping your favorite brands.

Kellogg students: Sarah Pinner, ‘23, Master’s in Management and Manufacturing (MMM); Kate Sanner, ’22; Sarah Leonard, ’23; Sarah Rogers, 23; Hunter Zhang, Northwestern ’23; Jacqueline Hong, ’22; Danielle Ma, ’22; Ashkaan Khatakhotan, ’22; and Catherine Sullivan, ’23.

Q&A with Sarah Pinner, MMM, ‘23

What is your pitch? At Beni we’ve built a browser extension that curates the alternatives from 14+ different second hand marketplaces in the click of a button. It’s like Honey meets Expedia for recommerce. For example, a shopper finds a product on a retail website (i.e. Gap) and Beni surfaces similar secondhand items aggregated from recommerce platforms (Tradesy, eBay, etc). Download our latest version of the extension here.

How did the idea come to you? We kept having conversations with friends where they would say, “Ugh I know I should buy second hand, but I just don’t.” From user research we found that this gap between intention and action was due in large part because the experience of shopping secondhand sucks. Shoppers don’t want to spend hours scrolling on resale sites and generally just don’t want to learn a new way of shopping. With the Beni browser extension, you can buy second hand without changing how you shop.

What has the Pitch Prep Program been like for your startup? Beni is lucky to have been involved in the broader Northwestern entrepreneurship community over the past year and have gained wonderful support including access to office space, financial support, and access to experts. Specifically for VentureCat, we’ve had the opportunity to refine our pitch with coaches which has been very helpful.

I’ve been grateful to practice my pitch with Mike Raab, Executive Director of The Garage. Since he has seen Beni grow over the past year, he provided excellent feedback on how to highlight our traction to date.

Why did you decide to enter the VentureCat, and what has the process taught you? I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to start Beni during my time at Kellogg and competing in VentureCat seemed like an incredible opportunity to cap off my time here and share with the community the progress we have made.

It is a great opportunity to share our business with the broader Northwestern communities and the judges involved in the program. The financial award is also the largest of any competition I have been involved in and having these resources will help us take Beni to the next level. ‘

Startup: MyCareGiver

Elevator pitch: MyCareGiver provides a personable conversational AI caregiving experience, improving health outcomes by motivating patients to comprehensively and consistently follow their care program.

Students: Tom Riley, ’23; Paul Heyse, MBA + MMM ’23, Abhinav Mahata, McCormick MEM ’22.

Q&A with Paul Heyse, MBA + MMM ’23

What is your pitch? 20% of American adults operate in some capacity as a long-term, informal caregiver for an ill loved one. As caregivers render care and as their loved one’s condition changes over time, they have questions about how they should be giving care, what support services they can access, how they should modify the home environment, etc.

Paul Heyse

However, it is exceedingly difficult for informal caregivers to find the answers to those questions. Information on what they need to take care of their family members is scattered amongst numerous sources. Information sources vary in quality, depth, and breadth and even if a rich source of care insights is in hand, it can be difficult to find the exact insight needed. Doctors and nurses could answer caregivers’ questions, but healthcare human resources are too limited to have the existing healthcare system operate in that capacity.

This is where our company comes in. Modern document cognitive processing and conversational AI technology means that AI can extract the context and meaning from disparate information sources and create an organized, easily queried knowledge library. End-users can type their questions into a chat bot, and get tailored answers fit to the context they are inquiring about. Through such technology, we hope to transform the search for reliable caregiving tips from a long slog through a multitude of web sources, to a fast, easy search in one source with vetted material.

How did the idea come to you? My co-founders, Tom Riley and Abhinav Mahata, and I were ideating around healthcare startup ideas and wanted to better understand the care process for major diseases. When we attempted to look up what sort of care one has to give to a loved one with Parkinson’s, we were dismayed at how difficult it was to get a clear picture. Internet searches yielded mostly clinical data on the pathology of the illness. There was lots of information on managing the emotional ups and downs, and even where there were concrete insights on giving care, but no source was comprehensive. What was mentioned in detail was highly variable amongst sources. Our own pain point in understanding caregiving was confirmed by end-user interviews to be an actual pain point in caregiving, and so at that point we really latched onto the idea of better aggregating the information that is already out there, but not well organized or readily accessed.

What kind of Pitch Prep help did you receive: We have received design support from a professional design firm. This spans slide design, color scheme, company naming, the whole nine yards. That in particular has been more helpful than I imagined; our story and image to the world feel so much clearer now.

Besides that, we’ve also had the opportunity to pitch to numerous advisors with extensive entrepreneurial experience from a wide range of backgrounds. Their feedback drawing from deep experience in backgrounds varying from consumer goods to health devices has exposed numerous weak points in our pitch. By exposing these weak points we are arriving at a pitch that in a much more universally understandable way explains the pain point and how we are addressing it while still explaining in full the solution and context.

Why did you decide to enter the VentureCat, and what has the process taught you? We are excited about implementing this idea and VentureCat is a clear accelerant to get it out in the world at scale, so the choice was obvious to us. The process has taught me that whatever feedback you are soliciting from others, it’s probably not enough. I am continuously surprised at the volume of insights we get from the support network we have from VentureCat, the broader Kellogg community, and our instructors in the Nuvention startup course.

What is the value of the VentureCat, do you think, for you and your startup? First and most obvious, the prize money and opportunity to get noticed by investors and leaders in the health tech space is highly valuable. It offers a clear opportunity to jump start our scaling. Second outside of the support listed above is the commitment to making our concept material to a broad audience. Passion for an idea only goes so far; you have to make commitments and put a healthy pressure on you and your teammates. As full time students with a plethora of extracurricular activities available that we are interested in, it takes concrete commitment to ourselves and others to ensure we are making enough time to bring a new business idea into fruition.

Startup: GreenGrahi

Elevator pitch: GreenGrahi is a circular economy company engaged in turning food waste from food processing companies into high quality and sustainable protein, fat, and fertilizer for animal and plant nutrition.

Q&A with founder Siddharth Sharma, MBA ’22

What is your pitch: The world would require 2 times the amount of protein it needs today by the year 2050; that’s because of rising population and improving standards of living. However, the majority of our land and oceans have already been exploited, so with the current production processes we won’t be able to feed the future generations. Ironically, 43% of the total food generated is wasted and the majority of it ends up in a landfill where it releases harmful GHG emissions, polluting our air, water, and soil.

GreenGrahi is a circular economy company turning food waste into high quality nutrients for animals and plants that feed us; thereby closing the loop between food waste to food. We use a magical insect called black soldier fly which can valorise almost any organic waste stream into a high-quality animal nutrition (insect meal, insect oil) and plant nutrition (frass as fertilizer). This process reduces the cost of disposal for food waste generators, encouraging them to recycle more; thereby, preventing food waste from going to landfills. On the other hand, it benefits livestock farmers for whom feed costs them 70% of their livestock production. With insect ingredients, they can get a nutritious and affordable alternative feed for animals throughout the year (unaffected by weather or market fluctuations)

From the food security perspective, with insect farming, we reduce the excess pressure on limited natural resources available for human food. A third of total farmlands and a third of total fish harvested is currently used to grow animal food for chicken, pig, fish, etc. If we could replace even 10% of this food with sustainably produced insect ingredients, we could feed millions of undernourished people and save more than 6 million tons of CO2 emissions going into the atmosphere every year.

How did the idea come to you? Growing up in a family of tech entrepreneurs in the foothills of the Himalayas, I’ve always been thrilled to work on projects that enable technology and businesses to make an impact on people’s lives and benefit nature. While working in my family business over the last 5 years, I was fortunate to spearhead many projects of national importance in the defense and education sectors but one problem which I relentlessly wanted to address was ‘environmental degradation of my city- Roorkee’. For the last 10 years, I was witnessing how green spaces in my city were turning into dumping sites and litter spots but nothing concrete was happening to address it. I initiated awareness-building projects for school students and households but quickly realized it was not sufficient to bring a tangible change.

Siddharth Sharma

In 2020, Shivali, my wife, and I decided to get married. With her 8 years of experience and networks from the waste management sector in India and Germany, we thought it would be great if we combine her technical experience with my business experience to work towards a common cause. We first started with a comprehensive survey to understand the complexity of the food waste challenge in 3 cities and finally established Greengrahi to address three key issues in the food waste industry in India– lack of Infrastructure, financial viability and scale. We tried different organic waste recycling solutions but were most intrigued by Insect farming when we learnt how it could tap 100% nutrition of food waste streams back into the nutrient and food cycle.

Tell us about the Pitch Prep you received: One of my primary reasons to apply to Kellogg was to accelerate my journey in the entrepreneurial and the social impact world, so I had planned out a clear roadmap for myself before the program even began. This included the New Venture classes for in depth strategies and frameworks, Zell Fellows Program to accelerate the startup and grow myself as a leader, and the social impact support to operate the startup and run our pilots in India. Because of these programs, I’ve been able to surround myself with an incredible cohort of entrepreneurs and professionals who have supported and motivated me from day one. VentureCat is the biggest opportunity for me to put my learnings to test, so there has been a lot of hard work that has went into preparation. With constant guidance from my mentors, I could test and validate market fit using business frameworks, develop clear financing and business plans, and improve our branding and marketing and customer outreach. With all this data at hand, we have specialized mentors who help us finalize the pitch deck and help with pitch preparation. I am positive that all this support will help us stand strong at the super-competitive VentureCat competition.

Why did you decide to enter VentureCat and what has the process taught you? GreenGrahi is currently raising money to open a pilot facility in India. A non-dilutive source of funding such as that from VentureCat is an excellent opportunity to fulfill our target. Second, it would also give us exposure to leading investors and mentors. Third, working to prepare VentureCat it is helping us think through our pitch in more detail.

What is the value of the VentureCat, do you think, for you and your startup? VentureCat is possibly the most prestigious platform for startups coming out of Northwestern. It not only prepares you to clearly articulate the problem and solution but also helps you answer the practical questions essential for a startup’s success, especially when you’re presenting it in front of some of the most accomplished investors and business leaders. We see Venture Cat as an ‘Agni Pariksha’ a Sanskrit word described in Hindu Epic books as trial by fire, which will help us rise up as a strong startup and blaze our path to success.

NEXT PAGE: Winners of the 2022 VentureCat Competition

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