A look at 3 student startups competing in this year's New Venture Challenge

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Published on Apr. 29, 2014
A look at 3 student startups competing in this year's New Venture Challenge

GrubHub, Bump Technologies, BenchPrep, Base, Zipfit. Having launched these companies and more than 80 others since the program began in 1996, the New Venture Challenge at Chicago Booth is looking to vet another 55 promising teams this year.

Teams are just now advancing on to the second round of pitches for competing teams, after having completed initial pitches to a panel of judges including Booth alumni and other entrepreneurial affiliates. Each pitch is followed up with Shark Tank-like questions tempered by classroom-style feedback. Teams that were still in the initial conceptual stages presented alongside more seasoned companies. Many were pushed to do more market research, but for all teams, the message was: the most important thing in the competition is to go out and run your startup.

Here's a few teams formed thus far in the New Venture Challenge that will be competing for a spot in the final presentation round (finalists announced May 29):



Autobike’s market power lies not just in the product itself – the bikes with gears that shift automatically – but also in the tech. Kevin Smith came up for the idea for Autobike with his co-founder in 2011 as a way to change how people thought about bikes.

"We wanted to put the adventure back into riding your bicycle, and after thinking a lot about why we no longer ride bikes we started developing prototypes for the automatic gear shifting system," Smith said.

They have had one summer season of business to great success in Michigan, and with the days warming up, they’re anticipating another round of ridership. What the team so far has been pushed towards is in finding their prime ridership base. They are currently targeting casual bikers, but see immense potential for expanding towards different demographics with the different trends in bike culture. Though the though of funding is still an early question, they are confident in finding manufacturing-oriented investors in having a Midwest home base. 



Jason Goldman and Ben Blaiszik founded Inscites after they met as Ph.D. students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign "to bring that old 'water cooler' kind of collaboration back to academic research today,” Goldman said.

Instead of the disparate world of individual grants, their goal is to bring a kind of “lean startup approach” to the research process by reducing the time for feedback within a group, and storing acquired knowledge directly with the research data. The site allows easy upload and instant real-time collaborative feedback using a tagging and comment style use of graphs, images, and figures: "This also allows for easy, searchable access to research data after publication," Goldman said.

This gives the site two functions: as a pre-publication collaboration tool and as a post-publication tool to maintain knowledge on science and engineering research data. With demand already high, they are now beginning to pilot the program with a variety of professors in engineering and chemistry at UIUC. The two spent a year developing the early versions of their site, which they are ready to deploy using the SaaS model. After the two presented at the Polsky Center, they gained the interest of Ezeibe Anosike, a second year at Chicago Booth, who brought in his background in cloud-based content management systems and entrepreneurship. After applying to NVC, they added two more team members from Chicago Booth to work on sales, finance,  and market development (Shayan Palit and David Louie).

Though they've had several academics request the platform now, Inscites is looking to release the full version of their site by the end of the year.



Norm’s Farms:

Booth student Erin Lenhardt's grandfather Norman owned a farm in Missouri. “When he passed on, he wanted us to ensure that his land was preserved and put to good use,” Erin, co-founder of Norm's Farms, said. In 2011, the University of Missouri began a study on the remedial properties of Elderberries, and Lenhardt's family farm began collaboration with researchers. Their company has since taken to market, with a recent deal with Whole Foods finalized for the North Carolina area, near their headquarters in Pittsboro.

Lenhardt took on additional team members after entering the NVC competition to increase line extensions, business development in the Chicago area, and the online shopping experience, with 35 percent of sales coming from their web store. The feedback that she received from the judges encouraged her to focus more on market expansion, having previously been trying to perfect the product line.

One of the challenges, she said, has been in dealing with different design teams they finalize their brand image prior to hitting the shelves. Another difficulty encountered, as with Autobike, is in introducing consumers to a brand new taste. They hired a company to help distribute samples within stores that actually goes a long way to familiarizing department employees into selling Norm’s Farms products: “One of our worries going in was in helping our competitors too much,” said Lenhardt. "But one of the judges assured us that there was plenty of market to go around,” and if they play their cards right, they would likely have the first-mover advantage.

Right now, Norm's Farms product include: Elderberry Wellness Syrup, Elderberry Extract, as well as three jams and jellies. Within the competition, Norm's Farms will be competing with another food-based competitor, Simple Mills.

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