Pitch competition VentureCat awards over $300,000 to student startups


Courtesy of VentureCat/YouTube

The evening’s YouTube livestream played the six finalists’ pitches. Gearflow won big at the first-ever virtual VentureCat.

Stephen Council, Reporter

Two Zoom pitches and one YouTube livestream later, student startup Gearflow is $160,000 richer.

The construction marketplace company won Wednesday’s online VentureCat pitch competition, beating out 24 other Northwestern student startups. In total, $302,000 in prizes were awarded across the companies, each of which has at least one co-founder currently enrolled at the University.

The winning company, represented by part-time Kellogg student Ben Preston, won over the judges with his Zoom pitch and then secured the audience vote, all announced at the end of the evening livestream. Gearflow provides a place for construction suppliers and buyers to connect for parts and equipment sales and renting.

“We’re operating in a huge untapped market that is asking for a solution like ours, especially given the times with this pandemic and economy that we’re in right now,” Preston said at the end of his pitch. “We truly believe that it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when this opportunity is captured, and we believe that Gearflow is the one to do it in.”

Preston said the company would use the prize money to add team members, who will help build up its technology to help meet demand. In his pitch, Preston said the company has what amounts to half a million dollars in monthly revenue waiting in a queue of customers.

The winners were announced at the end of a long day for the competitors. Twenty-five teams entered as semifinalists, divided into five general categories, called tracks. Each of the tracks pitched to judges on Zoom separately in the morning, after which six teams — the five track winners and one “wildcard” second place team — moved on to the finals.

The finals were in the afternoon, with a new round of judges to watch the pitches and grill the founders with questions. Melissa Kaufman, The Garage’s director and the host of the event, then played those pitches on the evening’s livestream and announced the winners at the end.

Before the stream, $75,000 was awarded — each track winner won $8,000, each track runner-up $4,000 and the remaining teams $1,000 each. The evening’s overall prizes were larger: Financial college planner Tilt took $25,000 for third place, video game wagering app Qade took $50,000 for second. Gearflow won the grand prize, $150,000, alongside the audience bonus of $2,000.

Three companies rounded out the finalist group: Blip, working on an energy storage device; B-Vitals, aimed at helping children with behavioral health problems; and WareIQ, an India-based shipping fulfillment company.

Sam Shank (Kellogg ‘04), Head of Hotels at Airbnb and CEO of HotelTonight, delivered a keynote address during the stream. The entrepreneur, speaking from his home office in California, discussed various aspects of business leadership before ending with a motivational plea.

“We need more creators, people that are coming up with great ideas, new products, new approaches, new solutions,” he said. “I hope you all build wonderful things, and I look forward to being a customer.”

Entrepreneurship programs from across the University organized the event — as in past years, the Farley Center, Kellogg, the Entrepreneurship Law Center and The Garage were all involved.

The $302,000 awarded is almost three times the size of last year’s funds, Kaufman said, made possible because of corporate sponsorships as well as large gifts from The Levy Institute and Northwestern donors J. Landis and Sharon Martin. J. Landis Martin (Kellogg ‘68, JD ‘73) is the chair of the Northwestern Board of Trustees.

When the University moved to remote classes for the duration of Spring Quarter, the planners had to completely rethink the typical pitch day, Kaufman said. They pivoted from a showcase in Kellogg Global Hub to the Zoom pitches and livestream. She said the organizers feel fortunate that they were able to continue with the event — pitches, judges, prizes and all.

“I think, just given the pandemic, that the environment for fundraising and the uncertainty around launching a startup is a lot more challenging now,” Kaufman said. “So by being able to support our students and being able to get them these prize gifts, we hope that that will help them be successful.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @stephencouncil

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