Before the Garage opened on North Campus in the summer of 2015, McCormick senior Ahren Alexander was sleeping in the sawdust of his prototypes.
Alexander is the founder of the startup venture Audiovert. He and his partners are aiming to redesign speakers as customizable pieces of art instead of as simple black boxes. Although Alexander developed his whole startup in his studio apartment, the Garage, an innovation incubator, has given him a new space to work.
“There is a mess in the very back corner [of the Garage] that’s got a lot of wood stacked up, a tool chest, lots of sticky notes on the wall – that’s my mess,” Alexander says. “The Garage has given me a home for all my mess, and I’ve never had that before.”
While students can develop their ideas at the Garage, making them into realities poses a unique hurdle. That’s where the Northwestern University Venture Challenge comes in. Each year, NUVC raises $25,000 to $30,000 to fund Northwestern students’ startup dreams. The competition works a lot like the TV show Shark Tank: young entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to venture capitalists who decide whether they want to invest. The contest has five categories: business products and software, consumer products and software, healthcare and medical, green energy and sustainability, and social enterprise and nonprofit.
The challenge comes in three rounds: screening, semifinals and finals, and has multiple winners per category.
The idea for Audiovert sprung out of Alexander’s love for music. He says that he has had similar ideas since high school.
“There’s a much more meaningful way to design audio speakers, and that’s through customizing them and injecting your personality into the speaker system,” Alexander says.
HearYe, an app that creates a centralized platform for events on campus, has also found a home at the Garage. Anyone with a Northwestern email can create an event, and users can either scroll through a general feed or fine-tune their search to find events by interest.
Founders Max Weidell, Weinberg sophomore, and Drake Mumford, SESP sophomore, developed the idea during Winter Quarter last year after seeing the A&O Productions Interstellar screening. Weidell and Mumford believe that having one interface for all events on campus will drastically change the way Northwestern socializes.
“What it allows everyone to do is experience events they would normally not be able to,” Weidell says.
HearYe did not advance in the competition. For Weidell and Mumford, the loss means that a big marketing push they’d been planning will be tough to fund. However, Audiovert did move on, and was the top undergraduate team in the semifinals. Alexander feels prepared going into the finals on June 2.
“Winning is the goal,” Alexander says. “We were semifinalists last year and we did not make it to the finals, so this year we’re really going at it.”
Alexander plans on working part-time to further develop Audiovert after he graduates. If he wins the Venture Challenge, he hopes to use the money to expand his production to meet increasing demand.
“Ultimately, this is definitely not the end-all,” he says. “But if it happens it’s gonna relieve a lot of stress off of our shoulders.”