Launching a Startup That Makes a Difference

MEM students reflect on winning Northwestern’s VentureCat competition.

The NUMiX team took home first place at Northwestern University's VentureCat competition.The NUMiX team took home first place at Northwestern University's VentureCat competition.

By Katie Kollhoff and Matt Heise

Global water quality has become a highly publicized topic in recent years. Crises in Flint, Mich., water scarcity in Cape Town, South Africa, and harmful algal blooms in the Great Lakes have fueled a public outcry for new innovation in water treatment technologies that can keep our water supplies safe while also protecting the environment.

This year (2018) marks the beginning of the United Nations' Decade of Water, an emphasis program that acknowledges how crucial safe water is for, among other things, sustainable development. If not properly managed, contaminated water represents one of the biggest risks to our global society, and we are passionate about doing our part to mitigate that risk.

That is why we, along with three other Northwestern students, launched NUMiX. The five of us came together this past January on the first day of our NUVention: Energy course with the goal of finding a way to help improve water quality. And we think we’ve found a solution.

Through naturally occurring and industrial processes, trace amounts of heavy metals become dissolved in water, making the metals challenging to remove. We are leveraging a Northwestern-patented solution: a water purification product that works by solidifying dissolved toxic and precious metals out of water. By making them solid, they are easily filtered and removed so they can be disposed or recovered, leaving clean water behind.

Given that shortages of clean water are leading to crises and conflicts across the globe, the value of water is ever increasing, meaning that water used for industrial manufacturing needs more than ever to be decontaminated before being discharged back into the environment.

Just a few months after we launched NUMiX, we were honored to receive the $50,000 U.S. Department of Energy Clean Energy Prize at the Rice Business Plan Competition. Then, last month, we were thrilled to receive the top prize at Northwestern University’s VentureCat, an annual competition that saw 29 different student-run startups compete for the $30,000 grand prize.

At VentureCat, we had the pleasure of competing against some of the most passionate, thoughtful, and interesting new business leaders at the university. The winnings enabled us to have one co-founder working full time on NUMiX. We are also in the process of purchasing raw materials and production and testing equipment so that we can evaluate the material’s performance with potential early adopters of the technology.

We're looking to scale rapidly to support a pilot by the end of next year. In the meantime, we are preparing to compete in the Department of Energy Cleantech UP competition in late June.

VentureCat was great preparation for the Cleantech UP competition. In coaching sessions, we got the opportunity to work with lots of great people across the university who we hadn't met before — Carter Cast and Billy Banks and Melissa Kaufman, to name a few — who really helped us crystallize our ideas and vision into something people of different backgrounds can sink their teeth into. This momentum and continuous feedback allowed us to hear the perspectives of many different stakeholders and use that information to rapidly iterate and refine our business plan.

As students launching and running a startup, the biggest challenge we face is time. You begin to value your time so much differently than you ever did before. Activities that you passively engaged in to pass the time as a student suddenly become less relevant once you begin to value the opportunity cost of putting that time into the startup instead. It is critical to prioritize the activities and relationships that will foster, rather than serve as a distraction to, your success as an entrepreneur.

So, how do we get it all done? A little sleep, a lot of coffee, a whole lot of persistence.

We have to thank the Masters in Engineering Management (MEM) program for helping us get where we are today. Not only did we meet in the MEM gateway course as assigned teammates, but every subsequent course has given us the opportunity to learn a necessary tool or responsibility for some aspect of a business. Teaming together early and often, our work style has evolved so that we recognize each other’s strengths in a way that ultimately benefits our young enterprise.

MEM has equipped us with tools to creatively solve new and bigger problems. By providing the framework for not only business leadership growth, but also the opportunities to reflect on our past, present, and future, the MEM program has been a game changer. The top-notch faculty and students from diverse backgrounds continually presented interesting challenges and taught us new things. We’ve gotten amazing support from MEM and the network of classmates, alumni and faculty.

Beyond that, we’ve benefited from the incredible support of the Northwestern community. From VentureCat, we learned that we are definitely not in this alone, and we’re not in it for ourselves. We’re part of this amazing community, and we are working hard to give back to it.

Katie Kollhoff and Matt Heise are both current students in Northwestern Engineering's Master of Engineering Management program.