This year's VentureCat winners. Photo courtesy of Sarah Stein

Two years ago, Kevin Kaspar, then a second-year McCormick student, anxiously awaited the announcement of the winner of the 2022 VentureCat competition, a Northwestern program in which student-run start-up companies vie for a $100,000 grand prize. The program, which was first held in 2014, has helped several current and past Northwestern students build successful businesses. On that fateful morning, the 25 semifinalists had pitched their companies to a panel of judges. After a lunch break, the six finalists pitched again. After pitching one more time in the public showcase segment of the competition, the judges geared up to announce the winner.

Kaspar believed he had pitched well and answered questions to the best of his ability – and his hard work paid off when his wildfire detection and notification company, InfernoGuard, was announced as the winner of the grand prize.

“It’s my greatest accomplishment to date,” Kaspar said. “It’s something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

This year’s VentureCat competition was over the course of the day on May 22 with TurboLearn AI winning the $100,000 grand prize.

The Garage, a space at Northwestern that aims to foster student innovation and entrepreneurship, partners with the university’s Donald Pritzker Entrepreneurship Law Center, the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the Kellogg School of Management to organize VentureCat. The competition evolved from the Northwestern University Venture Challenge, which began in 2007. Since 2014, VentureCat has awarded over two million dollars to student-run businesses, according to its website.

Teams must have at least one Northwestern student as a co-founder and must have a U.S.-based registered business entity. Companies are divided into five tracks based on the focus of their company, and one finalist is chosen from each track along with one wildcard team from any of the tracks. In addition to the grand prize of $100,000, the second place team wins $50,000 and the third place team wins $25,000.

This year’s winner, Turbolearn AI, produces notes, quizzes and flashcards from uploaded material. SteadyScrib, which designed a writing implement for people with Parkinson’s disease, won second place. Olympus, a platform for coaches and athletes to manage athletes’ workouts, won third.

Sarah Stein, the project administrator at The Garage, is in charge of VentureCat and said what makes the competition stand out from similar programs at other universities is that Northwestern does not expect anything in return from the winning company.

“That, to me, really underscores that Northwestern is a true champion of its student entrepreneurs for the sake of just promoting and supporting entrepreneurs without any sort of ulterior motive,” Stein said.

Semifinalists participate in a month-long prep program after they are selected, which Stein said is the most valuable part of VentureCat. The program brings in professionals to give the competitors feedback on their pitches and graphic design assistance on their slideshows.

“It's not just helping with the pitch,” said Weinberg second-year Gannon Schram, whose company Meta Frazo qualified for the semifinals this year. “It's helping with the general direction of the business as well, acting as mentors and advisers along the way.”

Winning the competition also means increased publicity, according to Schram, who said he anticipated going on podcasts and appearing in newspapers if he had won. Jaime Tabachnik (Kellogg ‘22), whose company Solvento won the 2021 VentureCat competition, said the visibility from the competition led to Solvento securing crucial investments.

Emily Harburg, who earned a doctorate from Northwestern in 2018, co-founded the company PairUp. PairUp secured an investment from NUseeds, the university’s investment fund for companies founded by Northwestern students who have participated in a program at The Garage. Before that, she won the Social Impact track of the VentureCat competition and said her VentureCat experience gave her the confidence to keep pursuing entrepreneurship.

“It helped make that path more normal and helped to show that it’s a legitimate thing you can do and a risk you should take,” Harburg said.

Schram also said VentureCat helps to validate the career choice of founding a start-up while students are usually told to pursue corporate jobs.

“There’s not a large enough emphasis in most schools on entrepreneurship and creativity,” he said. “So, seeing that Northwestern puts a monetary value on that – I see it as incredibly valuable, and I think every school should have something like this.”

Tabachnik said that while winning VentureCat is helpful, participants in the competition should have goals beyond that. The mentor he was connected with during the competition told him from the beginning that his company had potential beyond VentureCat.

“If they're building something they're passionate about and has real-world scale and potential market-fit in the real world, then they should nail the competition,” Tabachnik said. “That would be my focus – not to worry a lot about the competition.”

Stein also said the program has far-reaching benefits even for the participants in the program who do not win a monetary prize because they develop entrepreneurial skills in the pitch prep program and hone the focus of their companies.

“Our goal isn’t necessarily to be finding the next Mark Zuckerberg,” Stein said. “Our goal is to be arming students with skills they can utilize to be innovative.”