Mission + profit = 8 of Chicago’s freshest startups

by Maura Gaughan
January 22, 2014

Last week eight startups gathered below ground at Untitled, the River North speakeasy, to present their world-changing business plans to community leaders and investors. Each company had just run through Impact Engine, a 16-week accelerator program designed  to support “for-profit businesses addressing today’s societal and environmental challenges.”

Chuck Templeton, founder and managing director of The Impact Engine, kicked off the “Impact Engine Pitch Day” with statistics on the rise of “impact investing” and why he thinks “caring solely about profits is just not rational anymore.”


Templeton moved on to discuss the success of the Impact Engine 1 accelerator program. Of the eight companies from cohort 1, five moved forward, creating 45 jobs and raising a combined $3.4million in seed funding. Three of those companies, Piece & Co., ThinkCERCA and Portapure then came on stage for a panel discussion about Impact Engine and their successes since graduating.

“We are so lucky to have an incredible network of successful entrepreneurs mentoring us through the biggest challenges of startup. Not only did the network help us find the right angel funders and attract great talent, but the seasoned entrepreneurs helped us stay focused,” said Eileen Murphy Buckley, founder of ThinkCERCA.

Both Buckley and Kathleen Wright, founder of Piece & Co., called Impact Engine 1 a “game-changer” when it came to scaling their businesses and looking for funding. Wright said that over the past year the company doubled its revenue and are now headed into Series A to fundraise.

George Page, founder of Portapure noted the company’s growth into South American markets since graduating Impact Engine 1. Page also mentioned that Portapure won the “Up and Comer” Award at the 2013 Chicago Innovation Awards.

Then, it was pitch time. Each company took their presentation decks to the stage - but not before noteworthy introductions from individuals like Andres Schabelman of AirBnB and Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart. The pitch was followed by interactive roundtable discussions and networking.

Here’s an overview of the eight Impact Engine 2 companies:

Civic Artworks

Think an empty lot in your neighborhood should become a dog park? Civic Artworks is a platform where community-generated ideas go to find life and investment. Using crowdfunding technology, great ideas are vetted to the top and get noticed by an established network of community of architects, politicians and developers. The Civic Artworks model was proven in private beta when they launched a project to revitalize Division Street in Plainfield, Illinois. Since going public, they’ve grown their user base to 13,000 people and launched an initiative with the Chicago Loop Alliance to transform Wabash Avenue.

Meal Sharing


Travelers, neighbors, tourists and strangers have an opportunity to exchange culture and a home cooked meal on Meal Sharing’s platform. Dedicated to creating authentic, affordable and local experiences, Meal Sharing found their main user base to be Millennials - the group pushing the collaborative-consumption business into a billion dollar industry. The company started in January 2013 and within the year expanded to 425 cities. While in Impact Engine, the company created a payment platform and saw more Meal Shares happen in one month than in the entire year prior.

Jail Education Solutions

Each year, $74 billion is spent on correctional facilities where 10 million Americans shuffle in and out and back in to. Jail Education Solutions strives to improve inmate outcomes by renting tablets for $2.50/day (that falls in between a Snickers bar and an apple danish) that are programmed with educational television and learning resources. Thus far, the company has raised $500,000 in non-dilutive capital from organizations liked MacArthur Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust.


Learnmetrics is an application-based platform that streamlines all of the datasets teachers juggle day-to-day. The program, which currently runs in 13 schools, syncs data like attendance, grades and participation in one place, giving teachers and administrators the opportunity to identify trends and discover patterns about individual student learning. Thus far the company has earned $75,000 in revenue.


Three hundred thousand cell phones find a new home in a landfill every day - most of which are worth money. ShelfFlip is where volumes of trashed or forgotten electronics and textbooks go get sold for at the highest resale value. Using patent-pending technology, ShelfFlip catalogues products, determines market value and streamlines selling process for the user. After entering the Impact Engine, ShelfFlip began testing its first target group: university students. In the past 14 days alone, the company has had sales of more than $10,000.

Smart Gardener


According to the Wall Street Journal, the home gardening industry is a fertile $250 billion market. Smart Gardener has, quite literally, digitally dug into that. The online platform serves as a vegetable garden planner, giving their 170,000 users a place to learn, grow and accelerate their food production. As the company moves out of the Impact Engine they move on to work with 400,000 nationwide landscape companies that want to expand into the organic food service market.

Zero Percent

It is estimated that $22 billion of consumable food is thrown away in the United States each year. Zero Percent’s mission is to reduce this waste and feed more mouths by connecting businesses with excess, consumable food to non profits and food banks willing to pick up. The company launched their beta product in Champaign, IL with Einstein’s Bagels to much success. Since, Zero Percent has partnered with the University of Illinois’ dining hall, Sopraffina, Goddess and Grocer, Au Bon Pain and Hannah’s Bretzel. In total, Zero Percent has created roughly 160,000 meals.


Every 26 seconds in the United States a student drops out of high school - a rate that adds up to 1 million students a year. Youtopia takes an innovative approach to engaging students early with a gamification platform that educators are able to customize. The company recently won a $150,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and MacArthur Foundation to implement “Badge Earning” in Philadelphia. They have also been awarded a Google Grant to bring the program into five Chicago Public Schools.

On Wednesday, January 22, from 6 p.m. - 9 p.m., Impact Engine will host it’s “Community Demo Day” in the auditorium of 1871. It is open to the public and costs $25.


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