Northwestern Startups Claim Over $1 Million at Rice Business Plan Competition

Carlin Sack

SiNode and BriteSeed, startups both stemmed from Northwestern University, took first and second place respectively at the Rice Business Plan Competition last weekend, claiming over $1 million in cash and investments between them.

Teams representing Chicago universities dominated the competition (which had 400 original applicants): 43 teams were chosen to compete, five of which are from Chicago. The most impressive stat, though? Teams from Chicago comprised 50 percent of the competition’s six finalists: SiNode, BriteSeed, as well as University of Chicago’s lab mice management app MouseHouse.

“If you want to have a startup, you don’t need to move to San Francisco or Boston or New York,” Samir Mayekar, SiNode Executive Director, said. “We pretty much prove that Chicago truly is an innovation hub and that Northwestern is becoming dominant in these competitions.” (Last year, Northwestern’s NuMat Technologies took first prize at RBPC.)File 23915

           BriteSeed and SiNode team members line up with their prizes, which total over $1 million.

RBPC is the largest business plan competition in the world for graduate students and is otherwise known among students as the “combined Super Bowl and World Series of business plan competitions,” Mayekar, a Kellogg School of Management student, said.

SiNode, which is commercializing anode technology for lithium-ion batteries, and BriteSeed, the developer of SafeSnips, a blood vessel-detecting technology for existing surgical tools, both were part of Farley Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation’s interdisciplinary NUvention program at Northwestern in 2012.

The competition consisted of working with a pre-assigned mentor before the weekend even started to prepare for a one-minute elevator pitch in front of every judge and participant on the first day. Then, on second day, selected teams gave a 15-minute pitch then answered 20 minutes worth of questions from the 30 to 50 judges in the room.

Although the BriteSeed team said there was not a question asked that they were unprepared for, the most resistance came from judge’s concern about the possibility of conducting medical trials for FDA approval, BriteSeed Co-founder Paul Fehrenbacher, a Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine student, said.

Obviously, tough questions from judges did not alter the strong performances of BriteSeed or SiNode, despite “some pretty pointed questions at Cary [Hayner, SiNode’s CTO], especially from the judges who had investments in the battery industry and had very highly technical questions.”

“This was the first time I’d been to a business plan competition,” Hayner, a PhD candidate at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, said. “When we were announced as winners, the first prize we went up to get was probably one of the sweetest prizes and it was for the best overall pitch and best presentation, which we really took to heart because we had practiced so hard. The feeling was absolutely euphoric, it was surreal.”

With the total winnings of $911,400, SiNode moved to a new lab facility in Evanston and the team is accelerating development of their scalable technology, which allows faster-charging longer-lasting batteries, as quickly as possible, Mayekar said.

BriteSeed’s winnings of $273,000 is already propelling the company into the second phase of their development plan, which is to develop an animal prototype over the next nine months to use in pig studies, before moving into the third development phase of scaling the prototype to the size of microscopic surgical devices.

The prizes were not the only results of the team’s performance last weekend though: Fehrenbacher said other good things are already happening to BriteSeed, like increased investment from one of the company’s Chicago-based angel investors.

The triumphs just seem to keep coming for both BriteSeed and SiNode, and Fehrenbacher said he attributes much of this good fortune to Northwestern.

“The first set of stars that aligned was getting paired up with a fantastic team and [our VP] Dr. David Mahvi through NUvention Medical Innovation,” Fehrenbacher said. “We met Insight Product Development [within which we are now located] through Northwestern and were able to find some of our advisory board through NU. I could go on and on: our affiliation with Northwestern has been a tremendous asset.”

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Imran Ahmad
Congrats to the Sinode and BriteSeed teams on a great competition. Great team and great guys as well. The team was honored to present alongside these guys.

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