Northwestern sees increasing trend of student startups

Audrey Cheng and Audrey Cheng

The number of Northwestern student startups has doubled in the past year, according to Michael Marasco, director of NU’s Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which offers a series of entrepreneurial courses for NU students.

“We have students wondering if they should have done (entrepreneurship programs) rather than go to college,” Marasco said. “On one level, everyone talks about how difficult it is to get into a top-tier school like Northwestern. But on the other hand, some of our most talented people are being funneled away from institutions of higher learning and pursuing entrepreneurship opportunities earlier.”

Marasco said the center is effective for startups because while it promotes learning in the traditional classroom atmosphere, the curriculum also emphasizes learning outside the classroom. To encourage hands-on experience, the Farley Center created the Innovations and New Ventures Office, Marasco said. Called the “business incubator,” it manages the “invention disclosure, assessment, patenting and marketing processes” of 15 NU startups, according to the INVO website.

Besides providing entrepreneurial classes to students, the Farley Center also supports campus-wide groups, such as Northwestern Student Holdings and InNUvation, which encourage students to create startup businesses.

NSH is a student-run company that funds and manages portfolios of businesses on the NU campus. The company hosts a business idea contest every year, in which students pitch ideas to a board made up of professors and business professionals. The board then decides if it wants to fund the business idea.

NSH CEO Alex Onsager said the company, founded in 2007, currently supports six businesses, and will be launching the seventh next week.

The Weinberg junior said the NSH board looks for two requirements when they review business proposals.

“The startups need to be businesses that can contribute to funding new businesses in the future,” Onsager said. “The second thing is that we want businesses that are Northwestern-focused. All of our businesses are focused on either selling a product to Northwestern students or utilizing the skills of Northwestern students to offer a product to the Evanston or Chicago area.”

In the last two years, NSH has brought in six figures in revenue per year, because it requires every company to give 40 percent of its revenue back to NSH.

“The money goes directly to funding new businesses,” Onsager said.

Last year, four business plans were proposed to the NSH board, which ultimately decided to fund two: CouponCat and Project Cookie.

CouponCat co-founder Andrew Lim said after gaining experience as a member of NSH, he decided he wanted to start a company himself.

“The good thing about NSH is that we all mentor each other,” the Communication sophomore said. Lim attributed the increase in student startups at NU to the encouragement and support of Farley Center professors, many of whom serve on NSH’s board of directors.

Marasco said although he aided the undergraduate team during the CouponCat’s creation, he has also mentored graduate school students in their execution of business plans. Tabrez Ebrahim, an NU graduate student in the Law and Business program, said Marasco provided “good mentorship” for Ebhram’s startup, NuMat Technologies. The company won the grand prize at the 2012 Rice Business Plan Competition and took home $874,300 in prize money.

Ebrahim said although Farley Center professors helped his team during the company’s initial startup, he attributes the rising number of NU businesses to the University’s culture.

“I think there’s a crop of students on campus that are really excited about startups,” Ebrahim said. “I think it’s just the nature of the students who are here.”

Marasco said he sees the amount of interest in entrepreneurship increasing because students are beginning to realize “the rules of the game have changed.”

“You don’t need five years of experience to become an entrepreneur,” Marasco said. “If you’re in college today, you should consider doing this. I think it’s more about being passionate. If you’ve got a great idea, you should pursue it.”

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