McCormick, Kellogg and Medill students pitch their startup ideas to investors, entrepreneurs

Investors and entrepreneurs gathered in the McCormick Foundation Center to evaluate final pitches for the NUvention Web+Media class

Eight teams of entrepreneurial Northwestern students bravely went before 30 critical judges to conclude the 2018 NUvention Web + Media class.

It’s not easy, but the 21-week course makes no illusion that starting a company is supposed to be easy. While there are assignments, it’s not about studying and passing tests. Real effort and hustle are required to meet the course goals.

In teams of three to six, these undergrad and graduate students must interview people to discover a problem, then collaboratively explore tech-enabled solutions. Then build, test and iterate every week as they take their products and services to market. And finally, in the spring quarter, figure out how to turn their product into a business.

There is a lot taught in the classroom. But you can’t teach experience, and this real-world startup course provides a safe opportunity to fail — and learn many lessons the hard way.

Seven of the eight teams included Medill School master’s students in the Media Innovation & Entrepreneurship specialization. Here are this year’s presentations, in the order they appeared on June 12 in the McCormick Foundation Center Forum in Evanston:

Kyte

Members: Charbel Bourjas, Corinne Osnos, Gabriel Rojas-Westall, and Maia Welbel.

“Only 10 percent of first-generation students graduate college within six years.” — Charbel Bourjas

This team of four wanted to improve outcomes for 10th graders who want to be the first in their family to go to college. But when they found that existing mentoring non-profits were struggling to maintain engagement between mentors and mentees, Kyte took two actions.

First, the team developed its own mentoring service, connecting high school students with young professionals. Then Kyte developed and tested a Slack-based chat platform to connect mentors and mentees. The Kyte chat plugin analyzes the activity of mentoring pairs and stimulates improved outcomes.

VerID

Members: Christopher Datsikas, Laura McJilton, David Momoh, Jorge Perez, Jishnu Pradeep, Shiqiang Zhang.

“What if the someone lying on their resume is your doctor or lawyer?” — Christopher Datsikas

Blockchain has a lot more potential than just cryptocurrency, the VerID team believes. What about for job verification? During their pitch, team members described several examples of people who lied on their resumes — and argued that if their employment history was verifiable, such problems could have been avoided.

VerID uses the Ethereum blockchain to add security and transparency to background checks conducted during the process of applying for jobs and professional schools. By storing previously verified jobs via blockchain, VerID will streamline the background check process. The product will reduce the turnaround time, and cost, of doing background checks, the students said.

Monarch

Members: Ruoyu Chen, Bryan Li, Andrew Parsons, Harriet White.

“LinkedIn doesn’t have the search functionality to find someone with both your same plan-A and plan-B careers” — Harriet White

There are a lot of social networks and community websites, but Monarch aims to help people whose careers are being disrupted. They focus on connecting people contemplating a career switch to those who have already made the same move they are considering.

The team’s first target is journalists looking to make a “Plan B” career change. But with four percent of the U.S. workforce changing careers annually, team members believe there is a large market for Monarch’s services.

MyApp.MBA

Members: Yufei Chen, Qingtong Guo, Nancy Kong, Jyotishman Nag, Daniel Nussbaum.

“MBA applicants make on average $70,000 a year before applying. And they are spending thousands on test prep and consultants.” — Daniel Nussbaum

Jyo Nag, a Kellogg MBA student, said getting into business school requires managing a lot of documents — often while working full-time.

MyApp.MBA seeks to be a one-stop web portal for applying to the top business schools in the United States. It manages your applications to multiple schools at once, uses algorithms to evaluate the essays, and allows applicants to get feedback (for a fee) from current MBA students and MBA consultants.

Perf

Members: SueSan Chen, Justin Fleischmann, Gu Hyun Jung, San Lee, Fallon Parfaite, Duanli Zhu.

“Fragrances define moments in our life.” — SueSan Chen

How do you help people find the right perfume when they shop online? The Perf team came up with an elegant solution and started selling to happy customers well before the final presentation.

Their insight was that you don’t help people find the right perfume. Instead, Perf custom produces “the perf scent for you” based on the outcome of a personality test that’s unique to Perf. Based on the test, every customer gets a fragrance based on a mix of three different scents, yielding thousands of possibilities.

Coinscious

Members: Brett Bergstrom, Jianyou Fang, Madeline Kaufman, Mayank Mathur, William Sutton, Shuqiang Wen.

“Each purchase is asking you a very simple question: Is this purchase money ‘Well spent’ or ‘Not well spent?’” — Bill Sutton

Coinscious isn’t your parents’ personal finance application. For the generation that knows to “swipe left” good choices and “swipe right” the rest, Coinscious lets users reflect on their spending without the complexity of budgeting. Targeting users who’ve rejected the complexity of apps such as Mint, Coinscious users are prompted to make better spending decisions.

“When Jane categorizes a Lyft as money not well spent, it’s because that Lyft purchase actually was the result of a bad time-management choice,” said team member Brett Bergstrom, a Medill MSJ. “So she’s not just seeing a bad transaction. She’s seeing a behavior that she can change.”

MealBook

Members: Abeer Barram, Simeon Charles, Varun Checker, Eli Cohen, Elena Plescan, Clare Varellas.

“Food is the best medicine for diabetics.” — Clare Varellas

A lot of people in my family have Type-2 diabetes, and I’ve seen my family struggle with repeating the same dishes over and over again because they don’t want to deviate from what they know to be safe. But it means no more variety, no more spice of life. Mealbook is trying to bring variety and safety to diabetics.

Their personalized meal service asks for your favorite foods, then syncs with blood sugar devices to track how your body reacts to their nutritionist-approved recipes. Instead of being stuck to the same boring meals, you can get ingredients delivered for lots of new recipes that will be safe for you to eat, without sacrificing the enjoyment of variety.

Pallergy

Members: Jordan Clark, Andrew Lapin, Alex Qi.

“I’ve seen how hard it can be to put your life into the hands of a kitchen you’ve never seen before, and can’t necessarily trust.” — Andrew Lapin

Maybe it’s not overall blood sugar, but a single ingredient you’re worried about. If you’ve got food allergies, every trip out to a new restaurant consists of asking for a list of ingredients, and hoping there’s no cross-contamination that could land you in the hospital or worse.

With Pallergy, you can select your food allergy, then navigate local restaurants’ menus with a breakdown of what dishes are off limits. This is possible because Pallergy goes beyond other restaurant-search sites and finds out what ingredients are in each meal, and what dishes are safe for whom.


At the June 12 pitch event, each of the eight teams faced a barrage of questions from the 30 judges. Some were challenged on the viability of their business plan. Others teams simply needed to clarify their product description or the value of their features. Mostly, students accepted the feedback and challenges with appreciation or succinct replies.

Whether these students decide to continue with their companies after the class is up to them. Some teams will apply their hard-earned lessons in post-graduation jobs. Others will keep trying to build their businesses over the coming summer.

If they continue, the real challenge begins — making a self-sustaining company.

I know how that goes. Last year, my team completed the class with a business idea focused on virtual reality. We built a product that solved a problem for VR developers, but never figured out a winning business model. This year, I was brought back as a TA for the class, to coach and grade this year’s teams. It was an honor to watch them develop their ideas.

While my NUvention company lasted only nine months after the end of last year’s class, there have been NUvention projects that turned into profitable companies, funded ventures, and successful exits.

Regardless of their success as young entrepreneurs, these 40 students had to collaborate and compromise as they built real-world applications, to help real people.

If they don’t start companies right after graduation, I hope there will be no shortage of employers who will recognize these students’ potential as engineers, designers, researchers, strategists and product managers.