NUvention:Web Helps Students Create and Launch Web Businesses

Read a North by Northwestern article about the class here.

Over the last 10 years, the stories of successful web businesses that began in college dorm rooms have grown to mythic proportions — from the turn-of-the-millennium file-sharing site Napster, which briefly made Shawn Fanning a household name, to mega social networking site Facebook, which was started in 2004 by Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg and which now boasts more than 400 million users worldwide.

So it's no surprise that the new McCormick course NUvention: Web, in which students design, build, and run software-based businesses in multi-disciplinary teams, was oversubscribed — 65 students applied. Only 45 were accepted.

"We knew we'd have strong interest from students," says Mike Marasco, director of the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and co-instructor of the course. "We'll have iPhone apps, Android apps, and Facebook apps that will be coming out of this class. I'm excited to see what our students come up with."

NUvention:Web is the second NUvention class to come out of the Farley Center — the first, Medical Innovation, galvanized graduate and undergraduate students from across Northwestern to observe hospital practices and see what they could improve. That class spawned several medical device companies.

NUvention:Web takes the same concept — students come from McCormick, the Kellogg School of Management, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Feinberg School of Medicine, School of Education and Social Policy, though this time the class includes mostly undergraduates — and applies it to the Internet. Successful software companies are created to address current or future needs; NUvention was designed to simulate how needs become innovations — and how those innovations become real-world businesses.

"Students get to see how you go from product concept to interviewing the customers to designing the user interface to understanding the architecture," says Todd Warren, a Northwestern alumnus who teaches the course with Marasco. And Warren should know: he spent 21 years at Microsoft in management and product development roles. He served as corporate vice president from 2004 to 2008 and was responsible for the development and technical product strategy for Microsoft's Windows Mobile operating system and related products.

After retiring in 2008, Warren, who also serves as a Northwestern trustee and on the McCormick Advisory Council, came back to the school to teach a software engineering course at McCormick. After talking with Marasco about Nuvention: Medical Innovation, they realized Warren could create a similar course using his experience. Warren, who is based in Seattle, flies in to give lectures and advise teams.

"It brings together two areas that have established themselves at McCormick: entrepreneurship, and product design and development," Marasco says. "You can learn about these areas through traditional academic approaches, but there's always another level of learning associated with actually doing it. We're doing everything we can to simulate real-world experiences."

Now, midway through the first-quarter of the two-quarter course, after hearing lectures from top McCormick and Kellogg professors like former Kellogg dean Dipak Jain, students are beginning to develop ideas for possible businesses. Some groups were given broad topic areas — social networking, new media — while other teams were given specific tasks, like develop an application for a Sonim Mobile phone used by extreme sports enthusiasts. (Sonim Mobile is headed by Northwestern alumnus and advisory board member Bob Plaschke.)

Says mechanical engineering senior Jonathan Drake: "It's a rare opportunity to learn from a broad array of veteran entrepreneurs from across the industry, then directly apply classroom knowledge to the launch of a brand-new venture."

The teams have posted their ideas on Northwestern's alumni LinkedIn group. There, alumni have given feedback on the proposals.

"We're bringing alums into the actual classroom electronically, which is exciting," Marasco says.

At the end of the quarter they'll pitch their ideas to the advisory board — made up of Northwestern trustees, alumni, and friends who have achieved success in the field in the space and volunteer their time to help the students — and have a prototype of their user interface to show them. During the second quarter, they'll launch their products so they can "hit the ground running," Warren says.

"They'll leave the class with knowledge of the underlying economics around forming a business," Warren says. "The goal is that each of these teams really goes through the whole process a business would go through of building something that someone would want to pay money for."

Along the way, they'll have built cross-disciplinary networks that will help them translate their knowledge in their careers, Warren says. And even those who aren't interested in becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg will leave with the knowledge of how web-based businesses actually work.

"Some of the students say, I'm here to launch a web business," Marasco says. "Others say, I just want to learn. Sometimes they change their minds. You see an evolution, and it's fun to see the students every week, how their thinking changes."

- Emily Ayshford