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David Schonthal, clinical associate professor and director of the Zell Fellows Program, advises students in the Kellogg School Innovation Lab.

Kellogg startups aim to solve complex global problems

Kellogg startups aim to solve complex global problems

Experiential courses and individualized co-curricular programming provide the launch pad students need to tackle big issues

By Eva Saviano

3/14/2018 -

When Smit Naik ’17 enrolled at the Kellogg School of Management, he wanted to change the course of his career. “I enrolled with the hope and intention of starting a company,” said Naik, who admitted he had not fully decided which industry to tackle upon walking through the doors.

Without a distinct startup idea in mind, he turned to the Kellogg Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative (KIEI), which offers curricular and co-curricular programming designed to support students through the discovery, test, launch and scaling phases of new venture creation.

As a student in KIEI’s programming, Naik quickly learned the best way to navigate a startup’s launch is to first take stock of his areas of expertise, then identify industry challenges or areas for improvement. In this approach, Naik developed skills that not only helped him identify opportunities that led to his startup launch, but set him up for continued success as his company continues to scale.

This way of thinking is by design, shares Linda Darragh, executive director of the Kellogg Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative. “Innovation happens across the life-cycle of a business,” said Darragh, also a clinical professor of entrepreneurial practice, and who had the opportunity to refocus the structure of the innovation and entrepreneurship programing when she joined Kellogg in 2012. “Most startups introduce an innovative business model or product at the launch phase, but need to retain that innovative focus as they grow and scale. Additionally, established corporations must introduce new innovations to keep up with a continuously changing landscape.”

Focus on innovation at every stage of the business life cycle, as well as a balance of courses offering research frameworks and experiential learning opportunities for students to apply these frameworks directly, serves as basis for the startup ecosystem within the School. The program works closely with alumni, corporate partners, members of the startup and innovation community and other Northwestern schools to provide students access to resources at Kellogg and beyond.

Focusing on complex problems leads to innovative solutions

By design, the KIEI faculty bench includes research faculty, serial entrepreneurs and venture capitalists teaching experiential courses designed to provide students the opportunity to incubate a startup while completing their MBA.

“We want to help students that have entrepreneurial aspirations, who want to start and grow a business when they graduate from Kellogg,” said David Schonthal, clinical associate professor of innovation and entrepreneurship and director of the Zell Fellows Program. “We take a founder-based approach that is unlike other MBA programs, and we have four distinct tracks focused on distinct types of business creation: new ventures, acquisitions, healthcare-specific businesses and startups focused on emerging markets.”

These focus areas create opportunity for students to explore scenarios and ideate solutions for complex, universal problems that arise within industry verticals, or at various stages of a business life cycle.

With interdisciplinary and experiential focus, the Innovation and Entrepreneurship programming offers an environment to merge different fields. In some cases, courses provide opportunity for Kellogg students to launch a startup, or partner with faculty, scientists and other students from across Northwestern University to bring new technologies into market.

Commercializing Northwestern technologies to introduce new innovations

“Some faculty or researchers at the University want to focus on research, but may have an idea that could be commercialized. Having students who are good at analyzing market trends, selling and building relationships was a great partnership idea,” said Schonthal. To create SiNodeSystems, Kellogg students partnered with University faculty, researchers and students in NUvention Engineering, a class offered to students via the McCormick School of Engineering, to launch a startup focused on improving battery technology for the electric vehicle market, with a $4 million contract awarded from Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler, along with the U.S. Department of Energy.

Making the most of Northwestern’s startup ecosystem

For Naik, access to a team offering diversity of expertise was crucial as he focused on the healthcare industry. MBA students, physicians, law students and clinicians came together, and by the end, there was a business write-up. Naik discovered Intellicare, a suite of apps designed at Northwestern by Northwestern students and faculty to help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety, and began work toward his startup that would use it: Actualize Therapy. Actualize Therapy is a versatile mobile platform for accessing and tracking that wellness.

“I learned there was a real problem to solve, and I had a great team to do it,” said Naik. “We had a leader in digital health who knows his way around clinics and depression and anxiety, and with my hustle and drive and passion and his expertise… They did all the science, and I examined the competitive landscape: what’s our value, competition and model?” That launch-pad model the Innovation and Entrepreneurship program uses encourages this sort of disruptive thinking.

Leveraging data analytics to drive environmental protection

Thiago Carvalho Pinto and Luciana Oliveira both attended the Kellogg School of Management, and together founded New Hope Ecotech, a startup that develops software for compiling and sharing recycling data in Brazil, requiring companies that put consumer packaging into the market to invest in recycling.

“We were driven to this industry primarily for two reasons: an urge to create impact and build a positive future and the challenge to disrupt a multi-billion recycling industry through digital technology,” said Pinto. “The recycling sector activities in emerging countries are performed literally on the back of waste-pickers, urban scavengers that survive by collecting and sorting recyclables. We aim to bring resources to the sector to formalize their jobs and improve their working conditions. The industry operates in a low-tech environment and even with a simple tracking system we could identify multiple opportunities for improvement.”

Pinto added he believed there is no one formal path to a business idea that might help solve the problem, but the School provided their team with the tools, an ecosystem of staff and alumni, co-working space, design facilities, experienced professors, mentors and capital.

Harnessing new technologies to drive efficiency for the environment

“From creating a legal framework to hiring the right people to making the most effective sales tool kit to launching our product and services, I learned from passionate faculty with decades of experience in entrepreneurship,” said Lance Li, chief executive of Aerospec Technologies and class of 2018 student. Aerospec has a mission to accelerate the global adoption of renewable energy with data analytics, making solar maintenance more efficient, more cost-effective and smarter.

“Global warming and pollution has long plagued the world we live in,” said Li. “Fortunately, as countries such as China and the U.S. take lead to move away from fossil fueling, we are experiencing tremendous growth in the renewable energy industry in the past five years. But maintenance of renewable assets such as solar panels and wind turbines still rely on traditional man-on-the-ground method which is costly, dangerous and inefficient.”

Aerospec’s unmanned aircraft system technology identifies problems about ten times faster than a ground crew walking through an entire solar site.

Desire to save or better allocate time is a common thread in many new startups. The same was true for Blair Pircon, class of 2017, when she established The Graide Network, aiming to create more powerful educational moments for students.

“We thought, ‘Why can’t every teacher have ready access to a highly skilled teaching assistant in a way that’s super easy for the teacher, fast and fits with the way classrooms work?’” said Pircon. “Technology is the way we accomplish that—remote work and workflow tools blended with feedback and assessment best practices and automated quality control.” The very concept for The Graide Network was born at Kellogg, says Pircon, who was also a Zell Fellow.

“KIEI put so much force behind the content I could learn, the mentors and professors I could access and tactical support to make our early progress feasible. I was confident in the merits of my company from the start, and KIEI gave me confidence that I could find the resources to make it happen,” said Pircon.

David Schonthal lauded the Zell Fellows Program’s effect for students and recent graduates. “We are giving Zell fellows a massive leg up. We provide expense reimbursement for the cost of getting their business up and running, product development, legal services, design services, executive coaching and more,” said Schonthal. “Beyond money, we provide a ton of customized coaching and mentorship.”

When it comes to trying to address challenges facing the heavy-hitters of industry—education, energy, transit, economy, healthcare—it’s best to have a good team in your corner. That’s what the Kellogg Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute hopes to provide, with the goal of improving our world on a large scale.

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