Ellen Rudnick
Ellen A. Rudnick, ’73, clinical professor of entrepreneurship and executive director of the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, speaks at West Coast Demo Day. Photograph by Randall Spriggs.

Something Ventured

At the bicoastal Demo Days, Booth entrepreneurs make their pitch to investors.

Two thousand miles from the Charles M. Harper Center, two Booth-bred entrepreneurs take turns stating their cases. Hands fly up from the crowd, and rapt listeners grill these innovators with questions about their businesses. Poised and prepared, the presenters answer without breaking a sweat. After all, they’ve already weathered the pressure cooker of the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s New Venture Challenge finals. The presenting skills forged in that crucible are on display in their confident approach to a new challenge: Polsky Center’s West Coast Demo Day.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge (NVC), the center hosted Demo Day events in the Bay Area and New York. Beyond the typical industry confab connecting entrepreneurs to potential investors, Demo Days aim to broaden Booth’s reach in start-up hotspots such as Silicon Valley and the East Coast. So on February 25, at Google’s Mountain View, California, headquarters, operating room software company ExplORer Surgical and thermal energy storage solution NETenergy—two second-place winners from the 2015 NVC—present to alumni and VCs looking for the next big thing.

“We’re trying to bring all of these wonderful people—alumni, investors, the Bay Area and New York communities—into the NVC family,” said Starr Marcello, AM ’04, Polsky Center director and COO. “That’s a family that we’ve been growing more than 20 years, and it is filled with all of these amazing people who are really serious about innovation.”

David Lieb, whose company Bump Technologies won first place at the 2009 NVC and was later acquired by Google, facilitated the Mountain View gathering. “When I went to Booth I had no idea about start-ups or entrepreneurship,” Lieb said. “We [my cofounders and I] definitely got a lot of inspiration and camaraderie and information from the Polsky Center. I bet if it didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be here today.”

A few weeks later, NETenergy and Lumii Health—an employee benefit management platform which participated in the NVC as well as the Polsky Accelerator program—pitched their companies at the New York Demo Day, held at WeWork’s coworking space in Bryant Park. Both Demo Day agendas included an overview of the Polsky Center’s initiatives as a lifelong resource for alumni interested in tapping into their entrepreneurial spirit.

The center is hoping the connection among recent NVC winners, alumni, and the broader entrepreneurship community will benefit all three groups. “It’s a great opportunity for our leading entrepreneurs who have done well at whatever competition they happened to be in to meet real investors and potentially find someone to help fund them,” said adjunct professor of entrepreneurship and Polsky Entrepreneur-in-Residence Mark Tebbe. “It’s good for the students to get real-world exposure to what’s going on, and it’s good for the alumni to say, ‘Wow, there’s great stuff being done at Booth.’”

The Takeaways

Jennifer Fried, ’15, Demo Day presenter and cofounder and COO of ExplORer

“Our company is just pure UChicago. It’s incredible what the university has done for us,” Fried said. “I had this incredible breadth of experiences. It’s more than I could have possibly dreamed of, and Polsky was really at the center of everything that made it happen for me.”

Current student Mike Pintar, Demo Day presenter and COO of NETenergy

“The continuing engagement makes it worthwhile,” Pintar said. “There’s potential to make great connections and meet various investors who are interested in technology and clean tech, so it’s an excellent opportunity.”

—By LeeAnn Shelton