When most people think of universities that breed innovation, Stanford, Harvard, and MIT tend to come to mind first. Outside of Chicago, Northwestern is not particularly known for tech entrepreneurship. But when you take a closer look, Northwestern innovates with the best of them.
The Rice University Business Plan Competition held annually is the largest and most prestigious business plan competition in the world. The competition receives applications from student-run businesses around the world looking to win cash prizes and gain public exposure. This year the competition awarded nearly $3 million in prizes. And which university has had the most prominent presence at the competition in recent years? That’s right, Northwestern.
At this year’s competition in April, Northwestern sent their fourth team since 2012 to the final four—the only school with more than two finalists in that span. Innoblative Design, a medical device startup focused on noninvasive breast-cancer treatment, took home fourth place and $15,000. The Innoblative team consisting of graduate students from four of Northwestern’s schools have won about $75,000 of “free capital” to date on the competition circuit. Last year Northwestern claimed both first and second place. In first place was SiNode Systems, a startup intending to improve lithium-ion batteries, which took home over $910,000. Coming in second was a medical device startup BriteSeed, which walked away $273,000. And in 2012 a Northwestern team also came away with first place and $874,000 for a gas storage company, NuMat.
What explains this new culture of innovation at Northwestern? It can likely be attributed to recent university initiatives to promote entrepreneurship. While Northwestern is no Stanford, where about 25% of courses are geared toward entrepreneurship, recently there has been a university-wide effort to spark a startup culture in Evanston. The core of this initiative is Northwestern’s NUvention class series. The course series welcomes students from all schools in the university to develop new businesses. The NUvention classes provide a crash course in building a startup, divided into the fields of nanotechnology, medicine, energy, the Internet, and social enterprise. Most of the Northwestern startups that found success at the Rice Business Plan Competition originated from NUvention.
Though Northwestern University is still not considered to have the startup incubator status of Stanford, they are certainly on the right track. PandoDaily, a publication focused on startups around the country, recently ranked Northwestern first in the country in tech entrepreneurship over recent years. The metric took the median investment per founder of university-born startups to build their list. While it didn’t consider the number of founding alumni in their metric (as Stanford had over 6 times as many successful entrepreneurs), the ranking utilized average investment to try to measure the quality of the businesses that warranted funding. Northwestern garnered $10.4 million per founding alumnus to top the list whereas Stanford came in fourth with a total of $9.8 million. Although this metric doesn’t convince anyone that Northwestern is the most innovative university in the country, it does show that some great companies are being created by Northwestern students and alumni. Nobody expects the next Silicon Valley to spring up in Evanston, but Northwestern is showing that when you surround intelligent students with the right startup culture, great things can happen.