'Keurig for Food' Tops NVC

Published on May 29, 2015

Maestro, a start-up with a smart countertop appliance that automates healthy cooking, nabbed first place in the 2015 Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge (NVC). Maestro was among 10 finalists vying for cash and professional services.

Maestro won $50,000 from the NVC and another $20,000 from Pritzker Group Venture Capital. It is developing a countertop cooker that enables customers to insert fresh grains, vegetables, and proteins into custom pods that coordinate timing and temperature to produce a consistent result (think Keurig—but for healthy meals).

The NVC concluded Chicago Innovation Week, a weeklong celebration of entrepreneurship, innovation, and collaboration across the University of Chicago community. The NVC is the signature program of the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation—a business plan competition that helps students turn entrepreneurial ideas into viable businesses. Students with start-ups or start-up ideas sign up for the spring course, which begins in February. Once enrolled, students meet with coaches, receive rigorous mentorship, and conduct audience and consumer research. After several elimination rounds, the 10 surviving teams presented their business plans to judges on May 28.

There were two second-place winners: ExplORer, a workflow management system for surgical teams that won $30,000 from the Challenge and $20,000 from Pritzker; and NETenergy, a thermal energy storage company that won $30,000 from the challenge and another prize.

Alameda, an online furniture and decor marketplace targeting Mexico; and TaskPath, a mobile and cloud-based workforce platform, tied for third place, and each won $25,000 from the challenge.

Among the other finalists: Ascent, a compliance software service for financial firms; VirtualKey, a provider of smart locks for short-term renters; and Weelio, a ride-sharing platform, each received $10,000. Aluminate, an app for alumni engagement; and Glace, a funeral services boutique, each won $5,000.

Excitement, nervousness, and adrenaline ran high at the daylong competition, beginning at 8:45 a.m. and culminating in the 5 p.m. announcement of the winners by Steven Kaplan, Neubauer Family Distinguished Service Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance and faculty director of the Polsky Center Center, and Ellen Rudnick, clinical professor of entrepreneurship and executive director of the Polsky Center.

In the end, judges were most impressed with Maestro’s tactile, hands-on presentation—which included a product-demonstration, complete with servings of Maestro’s food for the audience. Maestro founder David Rabie credited faculty coach Waverly Deutsch with helping his team anticipate their market and audience. “Waverly’s class helped us forecast and shape what our business plan might look like going forward,” Rabie said. Booth’s extensive network also didn’t hurt their chances. “The network that Booth opened up gave me and my team lots of credibility. Even in advance of us having a project, being part of Booth and the NVC lent us that credibility.”

Ultimately, Maestro’s idea was solid, timely, and well-executed. “No one really denies that we’re trying to solve a big problem that no one’s solved,” Rabie said, “not GrubHub or even the prepared foods section of the supermarket.”

The NVC will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2016, and over the past several years, entrepreneurship has become the largest single concentration at Booth. Forbes recently ranked the NVC fourth of the top 20 accelerator programs in the United States, and the first of only four academic programs named.

Launched in 1996, the NVC has expanded to include four tracks; Traditional, Social, Global, and College, all which offer customized programming to meet diverse student needs. The original track of the NVC has helped launch many successful, high-growth companies including Braintree, GrubHub, Bump Technologies, and AllTuition. —Gretchen Kalwinski