NU Declassified: From game plan to grant: Student entrepreneurs hope to win ImproveNU

Ilana Arougheti and Dan Hu

DAN HU: Welcome to NU Declassified, a look into how Wildcats thrive and survive on Northwestern’s campus. I’m Dan Hu. Even though Northwestern doesn’t have an undergraduate business major, there are plenty of students with entrepreneurial dreams to build new infrastructure, give students more support and improve campus life, while also building their own brands. To this end, Northwestern’s Associated Student Government – now working in conjunction with The Garage, Northwestern’s campus makerspace for startups – is in their third year of sponsorship for the ImproveNU design competition. It will take place this Saturday, Feb. 29.

SIDDHANT AHUJA: So, ImproveNU is a pitch competition that gives students an opportunity to work in teams and pitch their ideas for improving Northwestern to the top-most administrators across campus.

DAN HU: This is McCormick senior Sid Ahuja, the founder of ImproveNU. After spending three months planning to lead a similar competition at the University of Texas at Austin, Ahuja transferred to Northwestern at the beginning of his sophomore year and brought the plans along with him.

SID AHUJA: I’ve probably made the statement, “I wish there was this on campus. I wish we didn’t have this.” That’s the one I think every student has made probably hundreds of times without realizing it. When I came here, I noticed that students here constantly had ways and great ideas to improve the campus, but they lacked that connection and ability to execute. So the idea came from, let’s empower students all across, and give them the ability to actually take control of the campus in some form and improve it how they deem fit. This year, I’m really trying to be a mentor, where I talk to the director Christian on a week-to-week basis to see how things are going.

DAN HU: Christian Wade is the director of this year’s ImproveNU. Last year, Sid brought him on to help volunteer day-of.

CHRISTIAN WADE: My name is Christian Wade. He asked me if I wanted to volunteer on the day of, and just help out. I was pretty free so I said sure, why not?. I was just in one of the rooms helping to time the pitches — I think I had five or six presentations in my room and they were relating to health and wellness, I’m pretty sure. It was just really inspiring to me to be like, ‘Oh, there’s people out here actually doing stuff like this on campus.’ Seeing that in action last year really made me want to try to do it this year, and take a bigger role. Every student has these types of ideas every once in a while, but just to see a platform dedicated for allowing those ideas to grow is just something that I think every student should be familiar with on campus.

DAN HU: Although his own experience working with startups was limited before the event last year, Christian was impressed with his peers’ commitment to their ideas and wanted to continue helping their grind.

CHRISTIAN WADE: Over winter break this year, Sid reached out to me – he said, ‘Hey, we’re looking for someone to lead ImproveNU this year.’ I instantly said, ‘Yes, why not?’ We’re definitely entering that grind period where we gotta make sure everything’s perfect, everything’s set up right. But I’m feeling really good. We’re going into its third year now, and there’s a lot of stuff from the past two years that we are able to repurpose and reuse.

A big change is going to be last year it was in two different buildings. This year, it’s just going to be held in one building, the McCormick Foundation Center. We’ll probably end up having a student judge for the first time. Other than that, a lot of stuff is going to stay the same, which is fine because it worked so well last year, so why fix what’s not broken?

DAN HU: Previous success stories from ImproveNU include ResilientNU, a student cohort dedicated to establishing more comprehensive mental health resources on campus. Last year’s winners included NPowerU which provided personal safety alarms for the incoming class of freshmen and transfers, and eo, Northwestern’s student-run bikeshare company. This year, about fifty teams will be pitching at ImproveNU. We caught up with three of them.

WES JIAO: My name is Wes. I was getting a haircut, and my barber and I were just chatting about normal stuff. He asked me, “Oh, how did you get here,” and I was like “I rode my skateboard, and it was really cold outside.” And then somehow this conversation transitioned into, “Okay, I’m someone who comes to Northwestern. And every time I have to get to campus, I have to fly in, obviously, from the airport. And when I fly in, I realize that Northwestern was really far away from the airport itself. And I would either have to call a Lyft or Uber. That would be like $30 to $50. Or I’d have to take the bus or train — that would take a really long time, and it was really inconvenient with my suitcase.” And he basically told me that he had the same issue. He had to take the subway line all the way into the city, and then take another subway line all the way to the airport. And he was really confused that the University didn’t offer any other way for students to get to campus. He thought that Northwestern had a lot of resources and, being an international institution, a good portion of students have to fly in. And then we talked about it, and he gave me some ideas. Maybe they should offer some kind of shuttle service to help students get to and from campus, especially during long breaks.

What I would propose is – I don’t think it would take a lot of resources, but especially major breaks like winter break, spring break – to offer a semi-shuttle service. Students could submit a time that they need to get to the airport by, or the time they’re going to arrive at the airport by, and Northwestern could provide some form of transportation to help get students to and from campus. This would save people a lot of money and headaches; it would provide parents with a much safer way of knowing where their kids are, knowing that they’re in Northwestern’s hands.

DAN HU: While Wes is working to improve transportation for Northwestern students, Reza Lotfi is focusing on the environment, in particular the health of the lake enclosed by the Lakefill near Norris.

REZA LOTFI: I’m Reza. I study Master’s of Project Management here in Northwestern and I have a Bachelor’s of Mechanical Engineering and also Master of Civil Environmental Engineering. During my studies before, I had a thesis about constructed wetlands and I have some ideas to improve lakes and protect them from eutrophication.

DAN HU: What is eutrophication?

REZA LOTFI: There are some nutrients in the water, for example, nitrogen and phosphorus. When the density is not much, it’s not harmful to water bodies. If there are more than a certain density, the plants would grow more than expected or that body of water could tolerate. So they deplete all the oxygen in the water, and the fish or other species can’t live any longer in that water body. So, you see a green layer in the surface of the lake and it smells bad. And you could say that the lake would die, and it is not a healthy lake. So if we find a way to decrease those nutrients, including nitrogen and phosphorus, it will recover the lake and fish and birds and other species will come back, and also it can build some nest or place for fish or birds, it would be great for them. They need somewhere to have the place, especially immigrating birds, they need somewhere to have their niche or nest. We can use conventional treatments or something else, but something should be done. Either for beauty of that lake, and the wild animals that live in that place because we control this part of nature. So it is our duty. It is on us to do something about it.

DAN HU: So this, you believe, will get worse in the warmer months?

REZA LOTFI: Yes. When it gets warmer, the reactions there will increase. So in hot water we anticipate less oxygen. The recovery of that lake takes longer. You can’t just change the water; it is a very long process for nature to recover. It’s better to do something little now instead of doing a very serious thing after the crisis.

DAN HU: Could you try to explain your solution in one sentence?

REZA LOTFI: It’s treating water in floating constructed wetlands. It is technical so I need to explain. We just put those little islands in the lake and they do their job, which is treating water. Water comes from one side, and exits from other side, and the quality of the water got better. Plants receive nutrients, or get nutrients, from water, and the density of pollutants in water decrease. It is ideal places for other species like birds, like turtles, many species find that a very good place to have their nest. It provides food for them, and we can enjoy the beauty and clean water around that island.

DAN HU: One project completely different from Wes or Reza’s projects comes from junior Rahul Shukla.

RAHUL SHUKLA: Since the beginning of winter quarter I’ve been working, and I started our project. It’s called the Northwestern Open Data Society. I was drawn to this idea of open data: making data accessible for everybody and making it clean and easily downloadable, so that anybody can create their own visualizations, or further their analyses on different institutions and different organizations that exist. Because the more data you have access to, the more questions you can start asking about institutions. I started looking into whether Northwestern had an open data portal, and we didn’t. And so through Professor Hammond – Kristian Hammond, he is a computer science professor here – through his independent study 399 class, I proposed this to him. And I assembled a team of six people. And we’ve been working really hard since then.

DAN HU: So what is your vision for Northwestern’s open data?

RAHUL SHUKLA: So it’s kind of a two-pronged vision. So, the first is creating the Northwestern open data portal. And that is basically a web application that will store and make available all of Northwestern’s public data resources. The second step is really creating a community around this data portal. So whether it be creating hackathons or data-thons for Northwestern students to come together and build cool applications that can serve the community with Northwestern’s data, or have interesting conversations as it relates to our open data, or integrating this in the classroom so that when classes need to use data sets, they can use Northwestern data to actually generate topical and unique analyses for students and mentors.

We’ve talked to a lot of people. And what we found is that, a), Northwestern public data is very disparate. So it’s hard to find across Northwestern’s ecosystem. b) is that – and this is kind of the key point – it’s locked up in PDFs. So if you were to ever do any analysis on the data, you would literally have to manually input each data point into an Excel spreadsheet so that you could do that further analysis. And I think that by freeing up this data, we can kind of empower students and inspire students to engage with the Northwestern community, and build really cool products that could serve the community in a plethora of ways.

DAN HU: So you mentioned earlier you started this winter quarter.

RAHUL SHUKLA: Literally January 6th or 7th, I went to Professor Hammond’s office. I proposed to him the idea. I think we’ve made a lot of progress from when it was just an idea in my head. We’ve started to build the technical infrastructure. We finished the back end, all the procedures that help store data set on the cloud, and making sure that you can either upload or download a data set. We’re now working on the front end. So what you would see as the user, all the design aspects.

The amount of hard work this team has put into where we are right now is truly extraordinary. Literally eight weeks ago, this was just some idea in my head. And now we’re at a stage where we’re really close to being done with the technical infrastructure. That kind of speaks just to the power of the hard work the team has put in, and the passion that the team has for this idea, this idea of open data.

DAN HU: As the big day draws closer, our reporters will follow up with Wes, Reza, and Rahul’s teams to see how their projects fare in front of a panel of judges this Saturday, February 29th. Check back next week for NU Declassified’s backstage look at ImproveNU 2020.

This episode was reported and produced by me, Dan Hu, and Ilana Arougheti. The audio editor is Kalen Luciano, the digital managing editor is Heena Srivastava, and the editor in chief of The Daily Northwestern is Troy Closson.

Email: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected]
Twitter: @thisisdanhu, @neyachalam

Previous ImproveNU winners reflect on progress as this year’s contest approaches
Proposal for personal security alarms wins second annual Improve NU competition
Student wins Improve NU Challenge with pitch for mental health resilience programming