Chicago Booth entrepreneurs tap medicine, law, engineering for startup success

When it comes to startups, having the resources of a major university at your disposal can make a big difference.

Entrepreneurs who recently graduated from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business shared their experiences during a May 17 lunchtime panel discussion at the Harper Center in Hyde Park as part of the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s month-long UChicago Innovation Fest. The wide-ranging discussion was moderated by Mark Wilson, a senior writer for Fast Company.

“There were so many cross-disciplinary programs our company took advantage of while we were in school,” said Jennifer Fried, MBA’15, and co-founder and CEO of ExplORer Surgical, a digital playbook for operating room personnel. “I think that is very unique to the University of Chicago.”

Fried’s co-founder was a surgeon at the University of Chicago Medicine, and he also led a research laboratory within the Department of Surgery. Her startup team worked with the Polsky Center and the UChicago Startup Investment Program, an initiative in which the university invests alongside established venture funds in startups led by UChicago faculty, students, staff and alumni.

Brian Clark, MBA’17, co-founder of Ascent Technologies, a technology firm that helps companies build and manage regulation compliance programs, agreed. The opportunity to access programs and faculty from different disciplines “creates a sense of collectivism and community,” he said, that allows new ventures “not only to start, but to thrive and grow.”

For his part, David Rabie, MBA’15, co-founder of Tovala, a food technology company that pairs a steam-based oven with a meal-kit subscription service, hired his first product engineer thanks to a collaboration between UChicago and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s College of Engineering. The partnership unites Chicago Booth students and entrepreneurs with top-tier engineering talent.

“Investors look to check certain boxes,” said Rabie. “Being able to say that one of our founders had experience building products from an R&D level to large scale production was really important.”

All three companies—Tovala, Ascent Technologies and ExplORer Surgical—competed in the Edward L. Kaplan, '71, New Venture Challenge, a daylong event where students present their ideas for new companies to a panel of investors and entrepreneurs and compete for over $1 million in cash prizes and in-kind services, in 2015 when their founders were Booth students. Tovala won first prize, ExplORer Surgical placed second and Ascent Technologies was a finalist. They were also among the first companies to receive funding from the UChicago Startup Investment Program, a $25 million investment fund created by the University in 2016 to invest in startups in the early round of fundraising, known as a Series A.

All three panelists said that they believe the NVC competition was integral to their later success in securing financing.

“The NVC conferred legitimacy and gave us commercial and personal credibility,” said Clark. “The NVC and Chicago Booth were big reasons why individuals felt comfortable investing in us.”

Rabie added, “As part of the NVC, you’re constantly being put on the hot seat in front of potential investors and forced to answer a wide range of questions about your business. A lot of fundraising comes down to your ability to do this well, and I feel like the training I received from the NVC gave me a strong advantage.”

The panel discussion touched on a number of issues common to startups, most notably financing as well as product development, marketing and personal growth.

On getting an investor to write that first check:

All three entrepreneurs agreed that getting the first check is the hardest. “Once the first domino falls, it gets a lot easier,” said Rabie. “Money follows money,” said Clark. “It’s the nature of the game.”

On the challenges of bringing a new product to market:

“We’re trying to fundamentally change the way people think about eating at home,” Rabie said. “We have customers as young as 20 and as old as 85, but our real target is young families. It’s a massive market and we’re still trying to figure out the best way to reach these customers. We haven’t cracked that nut yet.”

On the importance of knowing your limitations and empowering employees:

“You can’t really develop and empower other people if you don’t know what your own strengths and weaknesses are,” Clark said. “You have to be honest about that. And you also have to have to be supportive of your people. It’s about listening and trusting the process and ultimately creating a culture that allows people to succeed.”

On what advice you would give your younger self about surviving as a startup:

“I would tell myself, ‘Hey, this is going to be a crazy ride so just try and take it one day at a time,’” Fried said. “Because every day is a fire drill, every day there’s a crisis of some kind. You have to be able to prioritize what needs to be done right away, get it done and then move on. Knowing that would have saved me a lot of sleepless nights.”