Northwestern Startup Aerospec Wins $50,000 Cleantech Award From Clean Energy Trust and US Department of Energy

Eight university teams from all over the Midwest competed at Switched On: Student Innovations in Cleantech.

Yesterday, Clean Energy Trust, held its annual business plan competition for student cleantech startups. Eight university teams with innovative technologies and business ideas in solar, wind, biofuels, energy storage, and pollution control pitched in front of a live audience and a panel of expert judges.

The student startups were finalists for the Cleantech University Prize, a $50,000 grant provided by the U.S. Department of Energy. The Cleantech University Prize aims to inspire and equip the next generation of clean energy entrepreneurs by providing them with competiative funding for business development and commercialization training.

Clean Energy Trust is one of eight particpating institutions around the country that administers this prize on a regional level. The winner of the grant, plus two runner up teams, will go on to compete against the other regional winners in a national competition in June.

A panel of expert judges made up of professionals in VC, energy, and corporate venture determined that Aerospec Technologies, a company out of Northwestern University, would win the grand prize. Aerospec impressed with their patented infrared imaging solar inspection technology and initial progress with their first customers.

Aelios Technology from University of Minnesota and Beltech from University of Chicago were also recognized as runner ups.

At the event Sonny Garg, Energy Solutions Lead, for Chicago-based unicorn Uptake Technologies gave a keynote address where he spoke about the immense importance of the challenge we are up against in figuring out solutions to address climate change. Ben Hernandez, the final speaker of the day, addressed his journey from winning this student grant in 2012 to now leading a successful, internationally-operating startup today.

“All of the teams who participated yesterday are to be commended for their ingenuity and dedication to addressing some of society’s most gripping challenges with entrepreneurial zeal,” noted Clean Energy Trust CEO Erik Birkerts.

Northwestern startup to compete as finalist at clean energy competition

Aerospec Technologies — a company that was launched at Northwestern’s startup incubator The Garage — will represent Northwestern as one of eight finalists in the Cleantech University Prize competition this week.

According to its website, the company “provides a turnkey solution using drone technology and big data analytics to efficiently manage solar and wind assets.” The company’s analytics platform processes data and pinpoints issues within minutes — as compared to the hours or days taken by other available technologies.

The competition is run by Clean Energy Trust, a nonprofit that works to assist in the creation and growth of clean energy businesses in the Midwest. Its mission aligns with Aerospec’s visions for clean energy.

“The purpose of this Department of Energy-sponsored program is to engage students who are working on clean energy ideas in the classroom and encourage them to continue shaping their ideas into real businesses,” said Emily Achler, director of marketing and communications for Clean Energy Trust.

Aerospec provides services that include preventative maintenance, solar panel inspection and wind turbine blade inspection.

“The purpose that Aerospec has in terms of clean energy is very important,” Weinberg senior and Aerospec intern Yunil Seo said. “We’re definitely making great progress.”

Founder Lance Li, (Kellogg, ’17) said Aerospec received strong backing as a University-supported company. Li said he feels NU fostered a great environment for him to execute his ideas about clean energy and gave him a good space to create a legitimate company.

“Being at the school is the best time to test it out,” Li said. “You have the safety net, you have the supporting network, you have professors.”

Li said through his work with The Garage and various Kellogg faculty members, he was able to recruit interns like Seo, attend the startup fair, increase exposure for his company and receive backing from professors, who he said “never failed” to respond to emails or provide assistance when he reached out.

Placing as one of the eight finalists may afford companies opportunities such as monetary grants, chances to participate in other competitions or the potential for their technology to be picked for use by the U.S. Department of Defense, Achler said.

While Li said the other competitors were “very capable,” he believes Aerospec is “further along.” Regardless of placement or prize, though, Li said the competition has proven to be an important testament to the success and viability of the company as a whole.

“(Being a finalist is) a validation of how far we’ve come,” Li said.

SnapClips and ChangEd Score Investments on Shark Tank

Two Chicago startups appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank Sunday, Jan. 28, and both secured capital from the show’s investors.

SnapClips, which makes a weight collar designed to secure free weights to a barbell, received $150,000 in exchange for a 30 percent stake in the company from Mark Cuban, Alex Rodriguez and Lori Greiner.

SnapClips was founded by Martin Dimitrov when he was 16 years old and still in high school. He is now a full-time business student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he’s refining and growing the company, according to the company. He generated more than $23,000 in a 2015 Kickstarter campaign and won first place in the National U. Pitch Competition, hosted by Future Founders, a youth startup accelerator based out of 1871.

To date, the startup says it has delivered more than 800 pairs of SnapClips to over 15 countries.

ChangEd, a mobile app that helps users pay off their student loans with spare change from everyday purchases, secured a $250,000 investment for a 25 percent stake in the company from Cuban.

ChangEd, founded in 2016 by brothers Dan Stelmach and Nick Sky, has been used to pay down more than $100,000 in student loans. They operate out of 1871 and the University of Chicago’s Polsky Incubator.

During the episode, the founders said they have about 1,000 users, which all pay a $1 monthly fee. ChangEd plans to launch a feature later this year that will allow parents and spouses to link their accounts and contribute their spare change. Additionally, an Android version of the app is expected to launch later this year as well.

“The idea for this company came from our own personal pain paying down student loans,” Sky said in a statement. “So, it’s gratifying to have this national audience, given student loan debt now totals over $1.4 trillion and affects over 44 million Americans.”

Several Chicago-based startups have appeared on Shark Tank before, including Pearachute,Packback and LuminAID. Even if startups don’t receive investments from the show, the exposure they receive can have other effects that ultimately boost a startup’s bottom line.

News Out of Northwestern: Student sports analytics startup Zcruit acquired

Deal with Reigning Champs marks first acquisition of a company incubated at The Garage

Zcruit, a sports analytics company started by Northwestern University undergraduate students, has been acquired by Reigning Champs, a California-based digital network for student athletes, parents, coaches and colleges.

The deal marks the first acquisition of a company incubated at The Garage, Northwestern’s hub for student entrepreneurship and innovation. Zcruit, which will become a wholly owned subsidiary of Reigning Champs, will retain its name and operate out of a Chicago-based office.

Zcruit team photo summer 2017From left: Danny Baker (Weinberg ‘17), Gautier Dagan (Weinberg ‘17), Dino Mujkic (Weinberg ‘17), Alex Cohen (McCormick ‘18), Yannick Mamudo (McCormick ‘18) and Ben Weiss (SESP ’17) pose for a photo at The Garage during summer quarter, 2017.

“The Zcruit team demonstrates what can happen when you combine passion and grit with all of the support Northwestern can bring from the athletics department, the Farley Center, The Garage, the Northwestern alumni network and on and on,” said Billy Banks, associate director of The Garage.

Tweet this quoteThe Zcruit team members followed their passion … taking advantage of resources and mentorship offered across campus and hustled their way from idea to acquisition.”
Billy Banks
Associate director, The Garage

Zcruit uses predictive analytics to optimize the recruiting process for college football programs, saving universities time and money. A group of four undergraduate students founded the company with no funding and very little experience in the technology industry. With the support of Northwestern’s alumni network and mentors at The Garage, in just a few years, they have grown the company into a platform that serves multiple Division I football programs at universities around the country.

“Our whole team learned a lot from this experience, and it took a village to get Zcruit to where it is today. While we worked hard to build and sell the product, the number of Northwestern students, faculty and alumni who helped Zcruit get off the ground in the first place is immense,” said Ben Weiss, student co-founder of Zcruit and a 2017 graduate of Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy.

Weiss will continue to oversee Zcruit’s products and operations as a full-time employee of Reigning Champs.

From the idea lab to the field: the story of Zcruit’s founding

As undergraduate students, Ben Weiss, Danny Baker, Dino Mujkic and Gautier Dagan started Zcruit in the fall of 2015. In January 2017, Alex Cohen, Yannick Mamudo and Nick Karzmer joined the team.

According to Banks, that was when things exploded for Zcruit.

Working at The Garage
 Alex Cohen (left) and Yannick Mamudo (right) work on Zcruit’s platform at The Garage.

“USA Today wrote an article, and suddenly schools like Notre Dame were calling The Garage looking to talk with Zcruit,” Banks said, referring to a profile of the company published by USA Today in January 2017. “I would meet with the students periodically to provide guidance and feedback, but mostly just to watch as they continued to gain confidence and altitude.”

Drawing from strategies that university admissions offices use to predict which students are most likely to accept offers of admission, Zcruit developed an algorithm to identify which high school football players would be most likely to commit to a given college football program.

The analytical approach to a field often driven by gut instinct was so innovative, it caught the attention of Northwestern Football’s director of player personnel Chris Bowers, who gave Zcruit an opportunity to test their algorithms during Northwestern’s 2016 recruiting season. Ninety-four percent of the time, Zcruit’s algorithms successfully predicted whether or not the recruit would accept Northwestern’s offer to play.

From Wildcat Football to a national stage: mentors who helped Zcruit grow

Zcruit’s founders were part of the first cohort of The Garage’s residency program, which provides student entrepreneurs an opportunity to take their ventures to the next level with access to co-working space, mentorship and community support.

Melissa Kaufman, executive director of The Garage, says Weiss reached out to her in the fall of 2015 when The Garage was just getting started.

“From that first interaction onward, Ben has eagerly taken advantage of all the resources The Garage has to offer,” she said. “We’ve enjoyed watching him grow an idea into a business and now an acquisition. We couldn’t be prouder of Ben and his team.”

Zcruit team photo winter 2018From left: Alex Cohen (McCormick ‘18), Nicholas Karzmer (Weinberg ‘17), Ben Weiss (SESP ’17),  Dino Mujkic (Weinberg ‘17), Gautier Dagan (Weinberg ‘17) and Danny Baker (Weinberg ‘17) pose for a photo at The Garage during winter quarter, 2017. 

Hunter Hillenmeyer, former linebacker for the Chicago Bears and a graduate of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, worked closely with Zcruit as a mentor.

“Ben and the Zcruit team are a success story in many ways. They saw a market need and built technology around it. As they gained traction, they used the support of Northwestern, especially unique programs like The Garage, to springboard them to success,” Hillenmeyer said. “Ben has proven to be a great entrepreneur, and I think his best days are ahead of him.”

Zcruit’s success is a result of a dynamic, hard-working team and also a byproduct of Northwestern’s thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem.

The founders benefited from connections with Northwestern Football staff members including Chris Bowers, director of player personnel, and Cory Nicol, former assistant director of player personnel. Former Northwestern football players including Chris Malleo, CJ Bachér and Dan Persa also served as mentors and advisors.

Tweet this quoteBen is another great example of how Northwestern continues to produce talented and forward-thinking entrepreneurs.”
Dan Persa
Northwestern alumnus and Zcruit mentor

“I think Reigning Champs is a great growth partner for Ben and Zcruit because they have the resources to take Zcruit to the next level,” Persa said. “As an alumnus, I am proud to say Ben and his team trusted me enough to ask for advice along the way. It is extremely gratifying to help Northwestern students and alumni find ways to be successful in their professional careers. Ben is another great example of how Northwestern continues to produce talented and forward-thinking entrepreneurs.”

Weiss said he grew up watching players like Persa and Bachér on TV and was thrilled to have their support as he and the other founders developed Zcruit’s platform.

Bachér said after his first meeting with the team, he knew they had a great idea “with the potential to revolutionize the unpredictable and highly volatile world of college football recruiting.”

Through The Garage and Northwestern, Zcruit was able to tap into the powerful alumni network to connect with Michael McRoberts, founder and vice president ofChampionship Analytics, and Brian Baker, co-founder and executive vice president of Championship Analytics, a company that uses analytics for game-day decision-making.

McRoberts said of Weiss, “He has the entrepreneur in him — in his perspective, enthusiasm and business acumen. He knows how to ask the right questions, and it’s really impressive how quickly he’s been able to judge the landscape of this particular area and be able to acquire customers so quickly, which is a challenging thing to do. He put together an excellent product that people liked and got it out there quickly.”

Weiss and his team were named one of 10 Illinois Student Startups Set to Make Moves in 2017 by Chicago Inno, and Zcruit was recognized as one of the five most outstanding student startups at the 2017 EntrepreneurshipU Awards.

In addition to The Garage’s Residency Program, Zcruit was a part of The Garage’s inaugural Wildfire pre-accelerator program in the summer of 2016 and Winter Wildfire in the winter of 2017. In May 2017, Zcruit took home prize money in the B2B track ofVentureCat, Northwestern’s annual student startup competition.

“The Zcruit team members followed their passion, built Zcruit from scratch, taking advantage of resources and mentorship offered across campus and hustled their way from idea to acquisition,” Banks said. “I am proud to be a part of the large army of individuals who helped them along that journey.”

News Out of SIU: Two students named University Innovation Fellows

December 19, 2016

Two students named University Innovation Fellows

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Two Southern Illinois University Carbondale students are participating in a national leadership program that provides essential information, tools and training that will enable them to help foster innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship and design thinking among their fellow students.

The Salukis named as the newest University Innovation Fellows (UIF) are:

  • Mary McGee, a sophomore English literature and psychology major from Naperville
  • Robert Caswelch, a junior industrial design major from Indianapolis

They participated in six weeks of online training and will attend the University Innovation Fellows Silicon Valley Meetup, an intense training experience set for March 2017. The fall 2016 selectees will also take part in business and innovation immersion experiences at Google and at Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (

Throughout the year, the fellows will join in events and conferences designed to help them learn, grow and share. They will explore topics such as innovation spaces, movement building and learning experience designs as well as innovative models for change in higher education.

“Mary, Robert and the other SIU University Innovation Fellows exemplify the problem-solving skills and innovative solution implementation of so many Salukis,” Lynn Andersen Lindberg, managing director of SIU’s Center for Innovation, said. “As each fellow works on his or her project, they have the opportunity to not only have an impact on a campus or regional challenge, but also to interact with so many other students, faculty, staff and community members who have similar interests, thus being able to immediately put their training to use in real-world situations.”

McGee and Caswelch are among a group of 169 students from 49 institutions of higher learning in four countries named University Innovation Fellows this fall. Faculty and administrators sponsor the fellows and applications are accepted twice annually. The fellows in turn work with administrators, faculty, staff and their fellow students to create and foster research, innovation and creative opportunities and to seek solutions to real-world problems.

McGee and Caswelch have identified social change as their priority. They propose creating a social justice training program on campus to increase understanding and inclusivity and address any prejudices or oppression. The goal is to help students become more culturally aware, more understanding and supportive of diversity, and to foster leadership. They also want to address the issue of homelessness in the region, suggesting that the campus community and its resources can play a role in addressing the problem.

During the coming months, they will focus on their concerns, working with other students, faculty and staff to study the problems, formulate plans for action, and move forward to implement their concepts. Find out more about their innovation fellowship “pitch” by watching their video at

The fellows program was created by the National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation (Epicenter) in conjunction with a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation. Previously directed by Stanford University and VentureWell and now still affiliated with Stanford University, the program has provided specialized entrepreneurship training to a total of 776 students from 164 institutions since its inception. That includes 11 students from SIU.

The innovation fellows program provides guidance, information and support to help students analyze their campus environments and seek ways to develop technology and innovation that will meet needs and solve problems, benefitting their schools, the economy and other people and involving their fellow students in their efforts.

Learn more about the University Innovation Fellows program at

McGee, Caswelch and other SIU students with an interest in entrepreneurship and innovation network and exchange information during activities held at the Dunn-Richmond Economic Development Center, located at 1740 Innovation Drive in Carbondale. Undergraduate and graduate students are welcome to participate in all activities.

For additional information about the University Innovation Fellows or other innovation and entrepreneurship activities and initiatives at SIU, email, call 618/453-2083 or visit