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By Rose Jordan

Meeting with newly admitted students to help decide if a Kellogg MBA is right for them is one of my all-time favorite extracurricular activities. Those conversations reveal so much about incoming classes, and a common theme has emerged: a lot of prospective students are interested in startups.

Am I surprised? No! After all, I was exactly the same two years ago when I was researching MBA programs. The surprising part came when I experienced how low the barriers are to getting immersive, hands-on entrepreneurial experience while at Kellogg. In my case, it was as easy as grabbing Margaritas with a friend-of-a-friend; a drink and a half into the conversation with serial entrepreneur Ada Kussainova, I was hooked, and shortly thereafter I formally joined INjoo Networks as a contracted CMO.

The last seven months have been times of accelerated growth as I seek to apply everything I’m learning at school to help launch a company. Around every turn, there is a new hurdle or opportunity waiting. As I write this, our team is staring down our biggest opportunity yet. We just made it to the finals of the largest single-day pitch competition for energy startups in the United States, the Clean Energy Trust Challenge (more on that below).

But first, what is INjoo?

Glad you asked! INjoo is a smart resource management software developed for the commercial real estate market based on breakthrough research at Northwestern University. Our key insight is that across industries, commercial buildings pay too much to condition unoccupied spaces, but all solutions to date have relied on expensive, inconvenient sensors that commercial building owners don’t want to install. INjoo’s self-learning software completely eliminates the needs for sensors and other hardware; instead we use robust, real-time data to automatically optimize commercial buildings’ HVAC system, cutting each energy bill by 5-30 percent. Thus, INjoo helps building managers realize the full potential of their existing building automation system, delivering simplicity, occupant comfort and dramatic savings. Our mission? To transform ordinary buildings into smart buildings of the future.

Where did the idea come from?

This solution would not have been possible without the convergence of some key regulatory and technological advances (for anyone interested, we’re happy to meet over drinks to talk about the critical roles of the BACnet communication protocol and recent advances in machine learning research at Northwestern), but the spark that truly ignited INjoo was a NUvention Energy course. The class brought together our incredibly diverse founder team that who saw the potential for a breakthrough solution like INjoo. Here’s some more info about our founders:

  • Ardak (Ada) Kussainova (CEO) built two successful startups in Kazakhstan prior to coming to the U.S. to earn her Kellogg MBA with concentrations in managerial analytics and entrepreneurship/innovation.
  • Shashwat Adhikari (CTO) is a software and robotics engineer pursuing his masters in Mechanical Engineering, focusing in Energy and Sustainability at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering.
  • Arturo Hernandez (CIO) brings critical supply-side energy efficiency perspective through his work as an energy efficiency engineer at ComEd; he is currently completing his Master’s degree in Engineering Management at McCormick.

So what’s that you said about a pitch?

Well, the Clean Energy Trust Challenge is a BIG deal for us. It’s a nationally recognized accelerator program that has jumpstarted more than 80 startups in the Midwest to date … and as a matter of fact, its alumni include AMPY, started by Northwestern engineering PhDs Tejas Shastry, Mike Geier, and Alex Smith — they who won the Challenge in 2014 and went on to launch a national Kickstarter campaign (that raised more than $300,000). So no pressure INJoo team, but Northwestern already has a legacy of success to maintain.

On April 12, we’ll have the chance to pitch our business plan in front of more than 400 entrepreneurs, investors, business executives, students, and university faculty and have our crack at $1 Million in prizes. We’re up against an incredible group of competitors (three other student-led startups and ten early phase startups).

How do you get ready for something like this?

The past few weeks at INjoo have been a flurry of hardcore preparation. We’ve been soliciting candid feedback about our pitch from advisors and past winners, tweaking and fine tuning, and practicing, practicing, practicing. When I run into mental resistance, I just remember this amazing post about doing a Ted Talk by Tim Urban and get back to work. On April 12, even if we do not take home one of the biggest prizes, the connections we build and investors we meet will fundamentally shift INjoo’s trajectory. As I write this, I can’t get the image of a roller coaster out of my mind; we’re all feeling some heart palpitations as we slowly crest the biggest hill, and on April 12, gravity is going to take over and off we go!

What’s your biggest insight for other Kellogg startups?

Candidly, an unexpected but powerful source of energy for our team is the positive feedback cycle between our team’s efforts and Northwestern’s investment in us: the harder we work, the more Northwestern throws its support behind us, and the more motivated we are to live up to their expectations. I recently asked our co-founders what their biggest high-five moments were to date, and we realized that a faculty or alum instigated and enabled each great moment to date. For example, there was the game-changing instant when the team’s NUvention professor announced that Sonny Garg, the then CIO of ComEd, would mentor the new INJoo team. Or the moment when the team was busy interviewing Kellogg alumni in real estate (our target market), and word traveled up the food chain at GGP (the second largest Real Estate Investment Trust in the country) about our product, and suddenly the team was invited to meet GGP executives who signed a letter of intent to work with us. In a word: mind-blowing.

Just a few of the many incredible Northwestern faculty names that we want all budding entrepreneurs at Kellogg to know about include:

  • Melissa Crounse, the executive director of The Garage, has brought our startup to a new level, introduced us to Y Combinator, and some of the most talented entrepreneurs in Chicago.
  • Mark Werwath, director of McCormick’s Master of Engineering Management Program, and co-director of Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, has served as INjoo’s faculty mentor and provided unbelievable support.
  • Linda Darragh, The Larry Levy Executive Director of the Kellogg Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative, has thrown her support and mentorship behind us from the beginning.

We want to say a huge thank you to these individuals and everyone who has helped propel us to this point, and we’ll share the outcomes with everyone the week following the pitch. Wish us luck!

Rose Jordan feeds her desire to advance urban sustainability with a marketer’s tool belt as a program manager at Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, She is pursuing marketing management and strategy majors in Kellogg’s Evening & Weekend MBA Program and serves on the leadership team of the Net Impact Club.

Ardak (Ada) Kussainova ’15, CEO of INjoo Networks, graduated from Kellogg’s Full-Time Two-Year MBA Program this past year.