Venture Cat kind of sounds like an old-time Saturday morning cartoon show.

You know, “The amazing tales of Venture Cat!”

Well, VentureCat is not a cartoon show, but it is still pretty amazing.

Some of the best business minds on Northwestern’s campus will compete for $325,000 in prize money, as they pitch startup concepts to industry experts next week.

“It gives me such hope for the future that there are so many young people who want to solve the world’s problems and build real businesses,” says Mike Raab, executive director of The Garage, Northwestern’s hub for student entrepreneurs.

Twenty-five semifinalists have made the cut out of more than 65 entries, in five different categories:

  • Business Products and Services.
  • Consumer Products and Services.
  • Energy and Sustainability.
  • Life Sciences and Medical Innovation.
  • Social Impact.

The semifinalists will be winnowed down to one finalist per category, plus a one “wild card” from any of the fields, for their final pitches on Wednesday.

The grand prize winner gets $150,000, with lower amounts for the others. All the money must be applied towards the startup businesses.

Jenna Kim, a McCormick Engineering junior from Glenview, is one of the co-founders of Inbound, a semi-finalist the Business Products and Services category.

Kim describes Inbound as a “talent marketplace platform which connects employers with student groups,” to make an internship or job search easier for the student, and more efficient for the employer.

Inbound already has a presence on 14 college campuses nationwide. Part of the goal is to link companies with diverse student organizaions, such as the Hispanic Finance Association.

Besides the 14 colleges, Kim says there are already 300 students signed up, and, perhaps equally as significant, about 25 employers such as Blackstone, Deloitte and PepsiCo.

“Students will never have to pay a dime” to use the service, Kim explains. The employers will pay varying amounts, depending on their needs (ranging from employee searches to data analysis).

For the employer, Kim says, by connecting with a student group, “the company can hire people of value.”

As for the students, she says Inbound is a lot more focused than bigger job search sites like Indeed, where you “throw your application into the abyss.”

With Inbound, she says, “You have a better chance of hearing back.”

VentureCat was originally called The Northwestern University Venture Challenge when it started in 2007.

In 2014, a student competition led to the name change, playing off the school’s “Wildcats” sports teams name, and since then more than $1.6 million has been awarded, to 165 student-founded businesses.

Those businesses have raised more than $1 billion, and have created more than 2,600 jobs, according to NU.

VentureCat winners often come back to campus, Raab says, and talk about “the impact that VentureCat had, and how it was the catalyst for their success.”

Raab says the VentureCat competition does not simply pitch ideas. The student entrepreneurs already have businesses which are underway in one form or another.

Kim expects to be nervous at the final pitch.

“We’re going to practice it to death,” she says, but there’s no telling what questions the judges will ask once the pitch is completed.

In addition to The Garage, VentureCat is a project of the Kellogg School of Management, The Donald Pritzker Entrepreneurship Law Center and the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the McCormick School of Engineering.

Sponsorship comes from the Levy Institute for Entrepreneurial Practices, Lanny and Sharon Martin and Exelon.

Larry Levy and Lanny Martin are former NU trustees.

While the finalist pitches are done before judges in private, and the winners are determined that way, the student entrepreneurs won’t know the judges’ decisions until after a public pitch presentation, Wednesday evening at 6 p.m, at the Kellogg Global Hub.

There will also be an audience favorite determined then, although that startup is not necessarily the first place favorite for the judges

Venture Cat admission is free, but signup is required at

Of course, developing a business also means coming up with a catchy name.

Some of this year’s semi-finalists are SoulStamps, Brokli, and Sandbox Carbon, among others.

As for Inbound, Kim says “we wated to pick the perfect name.”

“Opportunities,” she says, are “‘Inbound.'”

“They’re coming your way.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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