When Austen Higgins-Cassidy and a friend were trying to find a place to eat lunch at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, they had to follow signs until they found what they were looking for.
“It was not straightforward. I thought that there had to be a better way,” Higgins-Cassidy, a fifth-year Northeastern student studying engineering, recalls. “Then I looked up and saw a wi-fi router. I remembered the principles of radar, and realized that wi-fi is similar to low-powered radar. Why couldn’t it be used like GPS?”
Months later, when Higgins-Cassidy went to InnoWeekend, a 48-hour hackathon-meets-business plan competition sponsored by the Northeastern’s Entrepreneurs Club, he and friend Jennifer Gould, a fifth-year biology and health science student, saw an opportunity to form a team and build a product called WiMap.
The team’s idea uses wi-fi access points to triangulate the location of patrons in a large building—like a museum, shopping mall, or conference center—guiding them to their destination. “Think GPS, radar, and the cell phone network on a smaller scale—if a place has a lot of wi-fi coverage, you can use it to map out the area.”
The WiMap team was among the many student ventures formed at InnoWeekend, which brought together cross-disciplinary students across Northeastern University to prototype and pitch innovative new business ideas.
InnoWeekend’s co-directors Ariel Winton and Scott Goldberg were impressed by the caliber of students, products, and presentations that came from InnoWeekend. “Students worked long, hard hours. Fifteen teams kicked off the weekend on Friday, and fifteen teams presented on Sunday evening,” Winton said.
Winton, a second-year computer science and business student, said that students came with the ideas and talent, and the InnoWeekend team provided numerous resources to the budding entrepreneurs. “We provided attendees with highly knowledgeable speakers and mentors from the startup community, a curriculum to guide participants through the process of turning an idea into a business, and free access to 3D printers and CAD software.”
Not to mention free meals all weekend long and $1000 in cash prizes, of which WiMap won $500 for being the first-place team.
When the participants arrived on Friday evening, they formed teams based on passions and complementary skills. On Saturday, mentors guided the students through the process of market and customer research, and creating minimum-viable products.On Sunday, the teams presented their ideas to other participants and a panel of five judges, all entrepreneurs in the Boston startup community, including Northeastern alums. “We provided the judges with a rubric based off of the various activities teams were expected to complete,” Goldberg said, “but ultimately, the judges wanted to be sold on the product.”
Not all of the teams worked on software projects like WiMap. Two participants presented a business plan for a gourmet mayonnaise startup called GourMayo. Another team prototyped Coffenient, a thermos that brews coffee on the go. Numerous teams presented social entrepreneurship solutions to world problems that they care deeply about. There were hardware products too—one team built a robotic arm, another a wireless phone or tablet extension screen.
And these solutions weren’t just for practice and prizes—many of the students were legitimately interested in seeing their ideas succeed far beyond the 48-hour bounds of InnoWeekend.
“I think we are aiming to get WiMap into some place like the Museum of Fine Arts,” Higgins-Cassidy said. “We’ve got a list of potential customers, but we really want a awesome proof of concept before we show up at their doorsteps.” WiMap thinks that one potential business model would be to sell aggregate location analytics to locations like the MFA and others who want to optimize their routes and location maps.
While Higgins-Cassidy was focused on the software development, his teammate Gould was focused on the business side of the project. “Austen worked on coding the app for most of the weekend, while I worked with the business development resources provided to us to formulate our pitch and final presentation. Now, we are working on testing the initial prototype with additional wireless routers we bought with some of the prize money.”
Should students choose to take their idea to the next step like Higgins-Cassidy and Gould, they can get involved with another Northeastern Entrepreneurs Club program, Husky Startup Challenge, where students spend an entire semester taking their idea from concept to implementation alongside industry mentors.
In fact, Goldberg says that’s the point of the weekend. “The Husky Startup Challenge is a more in-depth extension of what teams did during InnoWeekend. I hope the ventures continue their work—there is no better way to learn about entrepreneurship than to just hit the ground running and do it.”
Husky Startup Challenge is designed for teams like WiMap. “I’m testing this in my apartment with a triangle of wi-fi routers at the moment. I’m confident we’ll get a deployment before I graduate,” Higgins-Cassidy said.
Overall, co-directors Winton and Goldberg, and the entire Entrepreneurs Club board were thrilled by the success and growth of this semester’s InnoWeekend. “I was really pleased with the number of teams formed this semester,” Goldberg said. “There were almost twice as many as the last InnoWeekend, and the caliber of presentations seems to increase every time.
“I was told by mentors, judges, and Entrepreneurs Club board members that the quality of ideas and presentations was unprecedented this year,” Winton added.
When Reddit co-founders Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman applied to Y-Combinator during YC’s first ever batch of funding, they were turned away. “We applied, gave a great interview, and the next morning we got called back—work on something else,” Ohanian said.
The Y-Combinator team didn’t like the pair’s original idea—an application that allowed hungry customers to order food on their phones called My Mobile Menu—and wanted them to come up with something totally new.
So instead, they built Reddit.
And when Ohanian was invited to visit Yahoo during Reddit’s early days, an executive called Reddit’s visitor count “a rounding error” compared to Yahoo’s web traffic. Ohanian used the experience constructively and hung a poster on his wall, reminding himself to prove the executive wrong. “I made this wall of negative reinforcement. Do not let your haters get you down,” Ohanian said.
Ohanian’s narrative during his January 14th campus visit to Northeastern’s Entrepreneurs Club in Blackman Auditorium was a story of both early failure and current success. The fundamental message: don’t get discouraged.
Today, in addition to his investing activity, the man behind Reddit is also behind other successful startups such as Hipmunk and Breadpig. He also advises numerous other startups, and travels the world evangelizing entrepreneurship and net neutrality.
Ohanian also just published a book, Without Their Permission, which he is currently promoting through a national book tour. He’s visited almost 100 universities nationwide to talk to budding entrepreneurs and share his stories.
To the audience, Ohanian encouraged students to take full advantage of the internet—“the greatest library and stage the world has ever seen”—and build something that will change the world. He reminded students to be risky and step outside of their comfort zones. “We are all perpetually in a state of figuring it out. You should never let ‘I don’t know’ stop you,” Ohanian said.
Ohanian also spoke to a Northeastern alumnus, Michael Norman, on stage about his crowdfunding angel investment platform, WeFunder. The site allows regular people to invest as little as $100 in startups they care about. The founders of the platform had to work to petition the government to circumvent laws prohibiting raising funds from non-accredited investors.
While at Northeastern, Norman was involved in community organizing and specific initiatives to improve the world around him, but noted that that he now opts to spend time building platforms on “the most powerful force in the universe”—the internet—rather than focusing on specific organizations or programs, so his efforts can scale. “In order to make the impact I wanted, I realized needed to be focused on infrastructure.”
Norman echoed Ohanian’s message that a life of entrepreneurship is a risky lifestyle, and that being involved in new things is a catalyst for personal and professional growth. “We all have dark times, and I think those are the times that shape you. Entrepreneurship is the same way,” Norman said.
And yet, for some people like Norman, a life of entrepreneurship is the most rewarding and only lifestyle they would choose. “I’ve always liked getting new things off the ground. It’s by far the most gratifying experience.”
“Life doesn’t have a GPA. Life is going to be full of failures and setbacks, and that’s okay—especially if you’ve chosen a life of entrepreneurship,” Ohanian said.
On January 14th, we had Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit, come to campus to speak about his life of entrepreneurship – both successes and failures. Reddit started as a Y-Combinator startup. Since then, Ohanian has gone on to found, advise, and invest in numerous other companies, like Hipmunk and Breadpig.
Ohanian also spoke to Northeastern alumnus Michael Norman, founder of WeFunder, a site that allows non-accredited investors to make small investments in new business ventures.
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