At this year’s Northwestern University Venture Challenge (NUVC), three entrepreneurial Northwestern Law students and alumni successfully pitched their startups and earned seed funding to help bring their enterprises to market.
Drawing students from across disciplines and campuses at Northwestern together for an entrepreneurial competition is at the heart of NUVC. Conceived eight years ago, the competition has grown into a vital network of Northwestern-affiliated innovators and leaders.
This year, Opticent Health, launched by Kieren Patel (JD-MBA ’16) won first prize at the NUVC competition on June 4, earning $45,000 in startup capital. Opticent Health is one of three participating startups, including MDAR Technologies and Hazel Technologies, with Law School students or alumni as part of their company leadership. NUVC is divided into five competitive tracks: business products; consumer products; green energy and sustainability; life sciences and medical; and social enterprise. This year, the competition began with 86 applicants and over the course of two rounds they were winnowed down to five, the strongest in each category. In the final round teams give presentations in front of venture capitalists and entrepreneurs from around the country.
Patel’s startup designs and manufactures optical medical devices, specifically creating non-invasive tests for eye disease. In addition to winning first prize across the whole competition, Opticent Health also won first prize in the life sciences and medical track of the competition. Patel, the president and CEO of Opticent, has a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley in Molecular and Cell Biology and has distinguished himself at Northwestern as an Innovation to Commercialization Fellow (I2C), which gives graduate students first-hand experience in handling intellectual property for innovations developed at Northwestern University.
Patel says the idea behind Opticent Health was born from talking to his father, an ophthalmologist of 35 years, who had recently attended a seminar in Los Angeles where Northwestern biomedical engineering professor Hao Zhang outlined an imaging technique that would produce richer optical scans by delving into tissue health. During Patel’s I2C Fellowship he worked with Zhang to “translate the technology from bench to bedside.” Zhang is now Opticent’s chief science officer.
Patel believes NUVC helped shape the final product: “NUVC was a terrific opportunity to pressure test our company’s business case and commercialization plan with seasoned and knowledgeable judges.”
Jesse Chang (JD-MBA ’16) is also an I2C Fellow and the leader behind MDAR Technologies, which pioneered a new form of motion-contrast 3D scanning that helps autonomous vehicles respond more accurately in difficult driving conditions. MDAR Technologies won third prize in the overall competition and first in the business products track.
Amy Garber (MSL ’15) started Hazel Technologies, LLC this year with classmates from her NUvention Energy course. Their product, FruitBrite, seeks to slow down the fruit ripening process, so that produce lasts longer and generates less waste. During the market research phase of the course Garber and her team discovered the retail sector loses billions of dollars annually in lost produce, so they set on a path to focus on retail and distribution as their core markets.
Hazel Tech won second place in the green energy and sustainability track, and Garber serves as the chief intellectual property officer. That role has proven instrumental in both evaluating patented technology and structuring financial deals. Garber describes herself as a “liaison between law and technology.” Garber is a member of the first class of Master of Science in Law graduates at Northwestern Law, a program designed to bring together leaders with science backgrounds and provide business-centered legal training.