Students, faculty and alumni gathered at the Kellogg Global Hub on Wednesday for the 11th annual VentureCat competition. Six companies founded by current Northwestern students competed for $56,000 in seed funding and the chance to network with partners in some of Chicago’s most prestigious venture capital firms.
The grand prize of $30,000 was awarded to a firm called NUMiX Materials, which seeks to bring Northwestern-patented nanochemical processes to industry. The second-place $15,000 prize was awarded to NU’s ever-popular BrewBike, and the third-place prize of $10,000 went to an electronic-diagnostics firm called Rhaeos.
Also competing in VentureCat 2018 was Cariset Backpacks, a manufacturer of high-end utility backpacks for female young professionals; FaciliKey, an AirBnB-like app for landlord-tenant relations; and BraveCamp, a program to help girls develop a passion for coding.
This year’s VentureCat differed from those of previous years in numerous ways. New this year was an audience-selected additional prize of $1,000, which, perhaps surprisingly, went not to BrewBike, but to Rhaeos Diagnostics. In addition, nearly all of the judges stressed a marked uptick in the quality of the competing startups, which made the deliberation process difficult.
BrewBike’s success may come as a surprise to those who know it primarily as a vendor of cold brew coffee to NU students exclusively. However, its executives played up its plans for expansion to other campuses, beginning with Arizona State University later this year.
“We’re going to build a strong brand at the new campus and [be profitable by] keeping our operations really efficient,” said Chief of Operations Eli Goldstein, a Weinberg senior.
Nonetheless, Goldstein stressed that BrewBike would “a hundred percent” retain its connection to Northwestern, even as it scales nationally.
VentureCat is just one manifestation of NU’s growing entrepreneurial culture. The past few years, for instance, have seen the founding of programs like The Garage, the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the Kellogg Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative.
Nonetheless, Marc Gyongyosi, the CEO of last year’s grand prize winner Intelligent Flying Machines, told the audience that at its core, entrepreneurship isn’t about winning contests or participating in prestigious programs. It’s about creating value in the world through innovation, be that innovation technological or ideological, and that innovation was precisely what was featured at this year’s VentureCat.