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NUvention:Web Students Create New App for Downtown Evanston

Jun 22, 2011 9:00 AM
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Leave those coupons at home: downtown Evanston is now wired for virtual saving.

SweetPerk, a new smartphone shopping application available on Android and iPhone platforms, helps residents and visitors discover great perks at more than 75 participating downtown Evanston businesses.

The product of a partnership between students in Northwestern’s NUvention: Web course and the business association Downtown Evanston, the app also provides a downtown business listing complete with maps, store and restaurant information, and phone numbers.

“We want to make hyper-local shopping more digital,” said Austin Asamoa-Tutu, a Kellogg School of Management student and part of the six-member team who developed the app. “Bigger companies like Google don’t offer that, so we saw the need and wanted to bring the benefit of technology to local businesses.”

Launched May 26 with more than 450 downloads in its first 12 days, the app is the latest success story from NUvention: Web, a two-quarter, interdisciplinary course developed by the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation for both undergraduate and graduate students from across the University. In the class, students are put into interdisciplinary teams and asked not only to develop an idea for a software company but to see that idea through to a business launch.

But first teams must come up with an original idea, which is often the hardest part. The SweetPerk team knew they wanted to do something local, something that would appeal to the Northwestern student base. Perhaps a shopping app, they thought, or a dating app.

“We had 30 or 40 ideas on a list,” Asamoa-Tutu said. “We just kept going at it, going back and forth. “

“One day we just picked one,” said Kalan Kircher, a biomedical engineering undergraduate student. They would create an app that would benefit local businesses. But what did those businesses need? The team walked around downtown Evanston and talked to shop-owners: What problems did they face? What sort of technology could help them?

Eventually the team approached Downtown Evanston, the local merchants’ association, which recently began selling gift cards that came with a coupon book called “Passport to Evanston.”

That, the team thought, could be an excellent starting point for their app – virtual coupons. Downtown Evanston agreed, and the team got down to work.

Getting the app to the marketplace took most of the two quarters: team member Christopher Francis, a computer science graduate student, spent several hours learning how to program an Android app, and the group spent much of its time brainstorming how to track coupon usage. They eventually settled on QR codes (short for quick response code), specially designed codes that smartphone users can scan for information (in this case, a coupon.) Each business would have a QR code at their register, and when a customer redeemed their coupon, they could just scan the code, and the program would keep track of usage.

The idea was a little rougher in practice – some stores have several cashiers, and each cashier would have to be trained – but ultimately, the idea worked. Team member Phil Dziedzic, a graduate student in engineering design and innovation, designed the app, which gives users a list of business in different categories (shopping, restaurants, etc.). Once a user chooses a business, they receive a page with the business’s name, information, map, phone number, and a “redeem” button, which activates the code scanner.

Over the summer, the group hopes to add more features to its app – including more benefits for loyal customers – and hopes to eventually expand their idea to shopping malls and other downtown districts. They are currently looking for seed money to help them turn their idea into full-time jobs.

“It’s fun,” Kircher said. “You’re personally invested in every single move your company makes. The decisions you make each day affect whether you succeed or fail. I found there were times when I knew I should be doing my dynamics homework, but I really just wanted to work on the business. It’s great to be excited about something like that.”

“It’s so much more fast-paced and exciting,” Dziedzic said. “That’s great for me, because I get bored easily.”

Asamoa-Tutu, who worked for eight years as a software manager before enrolling in Kellogg, said his professors have stressed the idea that entrepreneurs have the opportunity and responsibility to create new businesses and jobs in tough economic times.

“That merged really, really well with why I came to school,” he said. “Especially in a recession, being part of creating jobs has so much meaning for me.”

The group has big plans for SweetPerk, but for now, they are proud of coming up with an idea and putting that idea into practice within two short quarters.

“It was a monumental effort,” Asamoa-Tutu said. “It’s really exciting. I think we all buy into the same vision.”

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