Hundreds Attend Third Annual Northwestern Entrepreneurship Conference

Gary Kremen, Nikhil Sethi share business insights; student startup JiveHealth wins NU Venture Challenge founder Gary Kremen (McCormick '85) talks to Michael Marasco, director of the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

For a newbie, the idea of starting a company can be overwhelming — a confounding process of investors, business plans, and growth strategies.

But at its roots, entrepreneurship boils down to a simple concept, says founder Gary Kremen: find a problem and fix it.

“The best ideas are the ones where you understand the problem,” Kremen told attendees of Northwestern University’s Entrepreneur@NU conference. “I had a problem: Where do I find the right person to marry?”

Kremen (McCormick ’85) delivered a keynote address at the May 8 event, the third annual entrepreneurship conference hosted by Northwestern’s Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. The event featured insightful talks from successful entrepreneurs, panels on topics related to starting a business, and one-on-one advice for budding entrepreneurs.

Also highlighting the event was the NU Venture Challenge, Northwestern’s largest business pitch competition. Six teams from across the University presented their startups to a panel of judges in hopes of winning thousands of dollars in funding. 

Taking first place was JiveHealth, the maker of a smartphone game to help kids build healthier eating habits. License Buddy, an education technology platform to help licensed professionals comply with government requirements, took second place; Chisel, an intuitive note-taking app, and Centripid Medical, an app to help hospitals manage oxygen tank inventory, tied for third place.

Adaptly co-founder Nikhil Sethi (McCormick '10)In the morning, Kremen discussed the trajectory of his career, from selling gum to his childhood friends to registering thousands of lucrative domain names during the Internet boom of the ‘90s to founding the residential solar financing startup Clean Power Finance. 

Along the way, he imparted advice to the audience of hopeful entrepreneurs: learn to code, don’t be afraid to fail, and get to know your potential customers.

“There’s nothing like getting off the computer, putting it down, and going and talking to a potential customer and hearing what their problem is,” Kremen said.

The afternoon keynote address featured Nikhil Sethi (McCormick ’10), co-founder of Adaptly, a service described as a “social media advertising megaphone” that allows businesses to buy ads simultaneously on multiple social network ad platforms.

Sethi and his partner first conceived of the idea for Adaptly in Northwestern’s NUvention: Web course. In his talk, Sethi described how the Northwestern community helped him grow his business from an idea into a multi-million-dollar enterprise with 70 employees and customers like Kraft Foods, Showtime, and PepsiCo. 

He urged Northwestern students to take advantage of their University’s entrepreurship resources and strong alumni network. “There’s this amazing thing called the alumni directory,” Sethi said, adding that in Adaptly’s early days he reached out to a different alumnus every day. “These are people that are within the family who are willing to help.”

The morning began with a moving tribute to James Farley, a McCormick electrical engineering alumnus whose generous donation endowed the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

That 2008 donation provided the spark that ignited a “forest fire” of entrepreneurial activity at Northwestern, said McCormick Dean Julio M. Ottino. “The main thing he wanted to do was educate people, and that’s what this is all about,” Ottino said.

Farley’s daughter and fellow Northwestern alumna Sarah Farley Huskey said that while her father’s flame may be gone, the embers of his good work are still burning. 

“I challenge all of us, all of you at the Farley Center, to keep blowing,” she said. “Burn more fires.”