New Venture Challenge awards record $1.6 million in 25th annual competition

Andes STR wins top prize of $660,000; SNVC winner SAEF Legal wins $75,000 for social impact

The Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Chicago has announced a record-breaking investment of $1.6 million in the winners of the 2021 Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge (NVC), a pioneering student startup accelerator marking its 25th anniversary.

The $1.6 million investment pool is by far the most in the history of the program, founded in 1996 at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and is the largest in the nation for business school student startup competitions.

This prize pool, which does not include additional in-kind contributions for teams, is expected to grow this week when the Polsky Center debuts a Second Look for other investors who requested an opportunity to invest in the 12 finalist teams.

“Thursday’s NVC finals were thrilling, with 12 incredibly diverse and competitive teams ranging from a crypto trading platform to makeup, from a vaccine to cure peanut allergies to an algorithm to fit clothes,” said NVC co-founder Steven Kaplan, the Neubauer Family Distinguished Service Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance at Chicago Booth and Kessenich E.P. Faculty Director of the Polsky Center. “It was an extremely difficult decision for the judges and amazing to see the investment pool swell as a result of so much excitement about all the teams.”

The NVC, whose alumni companies include Grubhub, Simple Mills and Braintree/Venmo, just five years ago had a total investment pool of $285,000 and a top prize of $90,000.

This year, the winner of the Rattan L. Khosa, ’79, First Place Prize received more than $660,000. It went to Andes STR, which helps people invest in short-term rental properties by taking on the hassle of buying, furnishing and managing the properties.

Second place was awarded to phlaxis, a startup developing a vaccine to prevent and treat peanut allergies and other food sensitivities. Phlaxis received nearly $280,000 in investment, including the Moonshot Prize, a $40,000 award that recognizes unique technologies to solve global challenges.

The University of Chicago has been encouraging researchers in its world-class labs to take advantage of the school’s entrepreneurship programs to get their innovations to market. Phlaxis is helmed by Jeff Hubbell, the Eugene Bell Professor in Tissue Engineering and deputy dean for development at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering. Hubbell formed a team with students from Chicago Booth and the College.

“We are immensely proud of how much the NVC has grown, both in terms of investment and the sophistication of the teams participating,” said Mark Tebbe, an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Chicago Booth and a professor of the NVC. “It is another prime example of why Booth is the premier business school for entrepreneurship.”

For the first time, one team was an awarded a $5,000 People’s Choice award, as selected by the audience. It went to third-place winner Vetted, a subscription service for pet parents to help them cut back on vet bills, whose investment totaled nearly $200,000.

The judges who selected this year’s winners after the all-day business plan competition June 3 included several notable alumni of the NVC who became successful entrepreneurs or venture capitalists. Grubhub co-founder Matt Maloney, Simple Mills founder Katlin Smith and Medspeed founder Jake Crampton served as judges for the first time.

The 2021 winners are:

  • First Place ($666,250): Andes STR is a modern property management company that offers people a turnkey solution to buy, furnish and manage properties in the short-term rental market, providing customers with more flexibility and higher returns. Its investment includes the $180,000 Rattan L. Khosa, ’79, First Place Prize. (Team: Sebastian Rivas, Kristina Flathers, Matias Duhart, and Jiamin Yan).
  • Second Place ($278,750): phlaxis is a biotech platform that aims to fundamentally change the landscape of food allergies with a novel approach – a patented technology called “inverse vaccine” to cure and prevent peanut and other food allergies. The investment includes the $40,000 Moonshot Prize. (Team: Jeffrey A. Hubbell, Shijie Cao, Hikaru Ihara, and Josette Chang)
  • Third Place ($198,750): Vetted is an annual membership service that empowers pet parents to take control of their pets’ health, guiding them through pet parenthood at home, on the go, and in the vet’s office. The prize includes the contest’s first $5,000 People’s Choice award. (Team: Maya Shaposhnik Cadena, Ashley Brooks, Dr. Shelby Smyly, Geva Bidner, Greg Weiss, Delaney Wing, Seamus Naughton, Kealy Fitzsimmons, and Lindsey Whitlock)
  • Fourth Place ($96,250): Resette custom blends makeup and skincare into one product to simplify routines and offer personalized skinwear with benefits. (Team: Whitney McElwain, Veena Krishnan, Anna Simmons, Sicely Mireri, and Alana Giedraitis)
  • Fifth Place ($95,000): Aina lets shoppers virtually try on clothes directly from a retailer’s website using augmented reality (AR) technology with features like real-time view, size-level accuracy, and interactive garment rendering.(Team: Nisha Saboo, Pritesh Kanani, Tess Glassman-Kaufman, and Shazia Ijaz)
  • Sixth Place ($77,500): ML Tech is a high-frequency trading (HFT) platform that connects crypto investors with top researchers worldwide. The platform leverages cutting-edge AI solutions and allows researchers to produce new strategies at an industry-leading pace. (Team: Leo Mindyuk, Markus Leballeux, Aniruddha Deshpande, Ying Xu, John Wismer, Haoyang Wang, Ivan Khurudzhi, Amrutha Sivakumar, Mathew Kapela, Chloe Fu, Qi He, and Yalin Yang)
  • Seventh Place ($50,000): Annuity Risk provides risk management solutions for indexed annuities, which represent a fast-growing market. The platform intends to empower annuity providers with advanced tool sets for hedging, derivative valuation and machine learning for customer data analytics. (Team: Gaurav Singhal, Brian Klein, Charles Chong, Soo Jin Jeong, Paulo Andrade Blanc, and Manik Pasricha)
  • Eighth Place ($45,000): StoryEasel is a memory preservation platform that empowers users to create, share, and preserve precious family stories and memories together with friends and family. (Team: Niso Moyo, Tendaaishe Chitima, Manish Rahatkar, Mike Mokodanski, Chinzo Davaatseren, Mqondisi Ndlovu, Stephanie Regimbal, Sneha Vasudevan, Rayna Palsule, Simone Haradence, and Ben Rachman)
  • Ninth Place ($32,500): PainNavigator is an evidence-based pain management app that provides a customized, holistic program to help those struggling with chronic pain. The program includes exercise therapy, yoga, wellness strategies, and pain management education. (Team: Dr. Ankur Dave, Dr. Konstantinos Kostas, Kelly McKay, Priya Shah, Austin Bostock, Gandhi Bhakthavachalam, and Elanda Goduni)

Three finalist teams—deetzPing and SHEVOLVEeach received a $20,000 investment.

Social impact innovation

A justice-tech nonprofit led by students from the College and Chicago Booth has won this year’s John Edwardson, ’72, Social New Venture Challenge (SNVC), the social impact track of the New Venture Challenge.

SAEF Legal Aid (Support, Advocacy, Education for Families)which builds tools and services to help low-income parents and families in Chicago access free and affordable legal solutions—will receive $75,000 in venture funding.

The SNVC is run by Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation in partnership with the Polsky Center. Along with the NVC, the SNVC is one of five distinct tracks of the University of Chicago’s nationally ranked business launch program. The three others are: the College New Venture Challenge (CNVC) for UChicago undergraduates; the Global New Venture Challenge (GNVC), for executive MBA students at Chicago Booth’s Hong Kong and London campuses as well as Chicago; the Alumni New Venture Challenge (ANVC), open to all UChicago alumni.

Winners of the 11th annual SNVC, which launches enterprises with a social impact mission and a plan for financial sustainability, received a total of $150,000 in venture funding.

Two other companies tied for second place, winning $37,500 each:

  • LadderUp Housing is closing the wealth gap by removing barriers to home ownership for working people living in low-income communities. (Booth)
  • Southside Market is a neighborhood fresh market and cafe on a mission to increase healthy food access and business ownership opportunities to communities on the South Side of Chicago and beyond. (Booth; Harris; Crown Family School)

Other finalists were AxoNelu Diversified Consulting Solutions and SpotCheck Sensing.

New this year, viewers of the virtual finals event selected Axo as the audience choice award winner, earning a $5,000 cash prize. Axo aims to connect brands that want to source sustainable ingredients with farmers that are taking climate-smart approaches on their farms. The award was open to all 14 SNVC teams who advanced to Phase II of the competition.

Competed for six spots in the SNVC finals, the teams included students representing Booth; the College; the Harris School of Public Policy; the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice; and the Division of the Humanities.

"Year after year, students continue to come up with innovative ideas for startups that are zeroing in some of the pressing social challenges of our time. This year’s teams tackled inequities and access to legal counsel, effective diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, healthy foods, affordable housing, and more,” said Robert H. Gertner, Joel F. Gemunder Professor of Strategy and Finance at Chicago Booth and John Edwardson Faculty Director of the Rustandy Center. “We’re proud to support these budding entrepreneurs and can’t wait to see what they do next.” 

SNVC program judges included Rachel Kohler, MBA’89, founding principal of Kohop Ventures; Unmi Song, AB’82, MBA’86, president of the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation; Jim Casselberry, MBA’01, chief investment officer at 4S Bay Partners; and David Wells, MBA’98, MPP’98, former CFO at Netflix and current economic development advisor. A full list of judges can be found on the SNVC website.

The SNVC is the cornerstone of the Rustandy Center’s Edwardson Social Entrepreneurship Program at the University of Chicago, which is an initiative named in recognition of a 2016 gift by John Edwardson, MBA’72, retired chairman and CEO of CDW, a leading provider of technology solutions, and co-chair of Advance Illinois, an independent statewide education organization. All 2021 SNVC sponsors can be found here.

“The SNVC is one of the highlights of my year,” Edwardson said. “The passion, creativity, and desire to change the world exhibited by our participating teams give me confidence that we can change our world and for the better.”

—Adapted from stories first published by Chicago Booth and the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.