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Entrepreneurship Course Spawns Three Companies

Interdisciplinary program focuses on Web-based businesses, medical innovations and energy

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October 28, 2011 | by Megan Fellman
A group of current Northwestern students and recent graduates this year founded SweetPerk, which builds custom, branded apps for local shopping districts for iPhone and Android platforms. The business launched in Evanston and now is expanding to other Chicagoland areas. Photo by Sally Ryan

EVANSTON, Ill. --- A popular entrepreneurship course at Northwestern University has spawned three promising companies in its first two years: the first personalized music magazine for the iPad, custom apps offering “sweet” deals from retailers and an easy method for buying ads across social media.

NUvention: Web is one of three courses that illustrate how Northwestern is leading the way with truly interdisciplinary team learning that exposes students to the process of innovation, design and entrepreneurship. In the course, teams design and build software-based businesses. Another option in the “NUvention” portfolio focuses on medical innovations, and the third on energy. A prominent industry leader and Northwestern alumnus leads each course.

The three courses, which have seen considerable growth since the program was initiated four years ago, draw both undergraduate and graduate students from across Northwestern’s two Chicago-area campuses, involving varying combinations of schools and colleges (medical, law, engineering, business, arts and sciences, education).

All students gain knowledge of the process of building a product and a company. Teams start by evaluating product ideas and end with a viable business plan in two intense quarters (one quarter for energy). Finance, a business model and plan, marketing, legal issues, design and prototypes, and a final presentation to the course’s advisory board are all part of the package. If a start-up company results, that’s icing on the cake.

The Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science offers the NUvention program, which is run by center director Michael Marasco. He ensures the courses stay dynamic, evolving to accommodate increasing interest from students, alumni and industry partners.

Inc. Magazine has noticed, too. In April, the monthly magazine for entrepreneurs and business owners named the NUvention series “one of the 10 Best Entrepreneurship Courses of 2011.”

All three NUvention courses -- Web, medical innovation and energy -- offer budding entrepreneurs invaluable opportunities to unleash their talents as they embark on careers that will make a difference.

NUvention: Web

One success story, Northwestern alumnus Nikhil Sethi, a student in the first NUvention: Web course and now CEO of Adaptly, a company that offers the “easiest way to advertise across the social Web,” recently was named one of Forbes magazine’s “All-Star Student Entrepreneurs.”

Students from the second Web course could very well follow Sethi’s lead. One group recently launched Groovebug, a free app that scans an iPad user’s music library and delivers relevant content to the screen. It debuted in the App Store in September. Another group launched SweetPerk, which is bringing digital coupons from 80 Evanston businesses to residents and visiting shoppers and is expanding to other Chicagoland areas. Will one of them be the next big thing in the hot area of application software?

“Unlike any other entrepreneurship course in the country, teams build a product and get real customers, not just pitch a business plan,” said Northwestern alumnus and trustee Todd Warren, who helped hatch the idea for NUvention: Web. “Students from business, engineering and other disciplines have the unique experience of working together to build and launch a Web-based business in two academic quarters.”

Warren, who was responsible for the Windows Mobile operating system at Microsoft from 2005 to 2009, is one of the high-powered instructors of the NUvention: Web course. He flies in once a week to Chicago from his home in Seattle to teach and advise students.

Alumnus Kalan Kircher easily transitioned from project manager of SweetPerk during the course to director of business development for the newly formed company. “For those of us who aim to be successful entrepreneurs, the class is an amazing opportunity to develop a concept, build a product and work to get customers,” he said.

Live since May, SweetPerk builds custom, branded apps for local shopping districts for iPhone and Android platforms. It has more than 2,600 downloads and 875 redemptions in Evanston.

“We were taught a framework and process for building a lean startup company, and then we had to figure everything else out, with a little guidance -- design, computer coding, marketing, financing and the like,” said graduate student Jeremiah Seraphine, CEO of Groovebug, named for an old jazz song.

He and the other founders of Groovebug, located in Northwestern’s business incubator in downtown Evanston, just ended their coursework in June.

Groovebug users can connect with their favorite artists and discover new music when the app delivers to the iPad screen musician bios, music available in iTunes, concert videos, interviews, suggestions of similar artists and more.

Serpahine said Groovebug will provide users with an experience akin to browsing record covers in the days of LPs. That experience is merged with the magazine concept. Bands and artists will pay to add material to Groovebug.

“In raising money for Groovebug, most of our connections have come through Northwestern alumni,” added Seraphine, who co-owns a record label, called Revolutionary Music. “It’s been an amazing experience.”

NUvention: Medical Innovation

Todd Warren follows in the footsteps of Ed Voboril, former CEO of Greatbatch, the company that invented the pacemaker. Voboril is program chair and teacher in NUvention: Medical Innovation, in which students create novel medical technology that they bring to patients. Each team has at least three medical students from Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

NUvention: Medical Innovation also involves a number of prominent surgeons from Northwestern Memorial Hospital, who also are faculty members at the Feinberg School. They include Patrick McCarthy, M.D., director of the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute and chief of cardiac surgery, and David Mahvi, M.D., chief of gastrointestinal and oncologic surgery. Both physicians have personal experience in medical device innovation, having several inventions under their belts.

Alumni of this course have used their innovations to start medical device companies, based at Northwestern’s business incubator. Nine health care companies, such as Baxter and Abbott, believe so strongly in the medical innovation course that they donate $25,000 a year to support it. (The four-year-old course was NUvention’s first.)

NuCurrent, created in NUvention: Medical Innovation, is a company focused on the development of wireless power systems for medical devices. Another student team has helped create a tunneling device that has been licensed to Lake Regions Medical of Minnesota and is going into production this year.

NUvention: Energy

Tim Stojka chairs the NUvention: Energy advisory board and has been a mentor to student teams. He is a successful entrepreneur in the energy space, as founder and CEO of Agentis Energy, which uses proprietary technology to create an energy-efficiency management system that utilities can deliver to customers.

The energy course has expanded rapidly, more than doubling in size from the first to second year. The Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) is a key partner on the course, helping to recruit advisory board members and source projects.

During the winter 2012 quarter, students will have the opportunity to explore commercializing several technologies from Northwestern labs, Argonne National Laboratory and local partners. A proposal for one such project involves Argonne’s patent-pending process to convert plastic grocery bags into carbon nanotubes, a material that has many potential commercial uses, including as a component in advanced batteries. Plastic bags are made of polyethylene, which is non-biodegradable and can take hundreds of years to decompose in landfills. If NUvention students can translate the Argonne process into a commercially viable venture, the technology could become an important way to make nanotube production cheap and environmentally friendly.

Based on demand, NUvention: Energy students will have the opportunity this academic year to enroll in a second quarter of independent study to continue work on promising projects, under the guidance of Marasco and key advisors, mirroring the second-quarter already afforded NUvention: Web and NUvention: Medical Innovation students.

For more information on NUvention, go online.

Topics: University