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In the Mix - A Q&A with NU Startup NUMiX

Newly-formed Northwestern University water-purification startup, NUMiX, formed in Farley Center/ISEN's Winter 2018 NUvention: Energy course, and in a short, ten-week period evolved enough to make a successful bid at the 2018 Rice Business Plan Competition (RBCP). NUMiX advanced to RBPC's semi-final round and eventually took home the $50,000 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Clean Energy Prize. Farley Center's Nathan Xu sat down with NUMix to learn about their team, which consists of NU students, Katie Kollhoff (NU '18, MEM), Matt Heise (NU '18, MEM), Olivia Lugar (NU '18, Law), Laurelle Banta (NU '18, Law), and Jonathan Pfluger (NU ‘19, Ph.D. Materials Science and Engineering), and about the team dynamics that led to their early success and continues to drive them forward.

How did you form your NUMiX team?

Katie Kollhoff: Matt Heise, one of my team members, and I met through the Masters of Engineering program at Northwestern University. About 18 months ago, we enrolled in what was our gateway course for MEM. Matt and I were randomly assigned to a team, which tends to not always work out. Fortunately, in our case, we loved working together and were pretty successful so we decided to continue.

Our full NUMiX team was formed on the first day of our NUvention: Energy (ENTREP/ISEN 430) class at the start of January 2018. There was a workshop before the winter quarter started where Mark Werwath, Director of the MEM (Master of Engineering Management) Program and Co-Director of the Farley Center, and Jeff Henderson, ISEN (Institute for Sustainability and Energy) Associate Director, gave a presentation about the class. At that time, Matt and I met Olivia, and we joined forces. She knew Jonathan Pfluger from a previous class, and they had wanted to work together, so he quickly came on board. Laurelle Banta joined our team on the first day of class. We had an introduction session where everyone shared what they would like to work on. We learned that Laurelle was interested in pursuing the same kinds of ideas as we were, so she joined us and completed our team.

What is the story behind your company name, NUMiX?

Katie K.: Our product is a metal-ion exchange sorbent, which can be neatly abbreviated as MiX. Additionally, it’s a product that is mixed into wastewater to collect metals from it. Of course, many Northwestern startup’s names begin with NU, but the prefix has another meaning for us. Nu (V) is the greek symbol for volume, and since our sorbent binds on a volumetric basis, it was extremely fitting to include. We like that the name of our product has a lot of different layers to it just like our product itself does. It was the result of rapid iteration among the whole group after rebranding about six or seven times.

Did anyone on the team have prior experience going into RBPC?

Katie K.: Although there were several teams at the competition who participate in similar events on a regular basis, no one on our team had any prior experience with business competitions before RBPC. In fact, when we submitted our application, each one of us had had only 3 weeks of experience doing anything remotely related to entrepreneurship. It was extremely fast paced and a lot to undertake but it was, without doubt, an amazing first experience.

How did you prepare for the 2018 RBPC competition?

Katie K.One of the really awesome things about NUVention is business pitching on a weekly basis. Despite our lack of experience with business competitions, we made up for that by getting in a ton of practice. Leading up to RBPC, we set a number of public pitch opportunities to gain feedback from people who weren’t already familiar with our idea. We quickly developed the skill of being able to rapidly integrate feedback and used that to iterate new versions of our pitch. Up to 10 minutes before it was our turn to present at RBPC, we were still finalizing the details of how we were going to pitch. It was really fast-paced.

What was your experience at the 2018 Rice Business Plan Competition?

Katie K.: We arrived on Wednesday, April 4th, and met with someone who had previously participated in the competition for advice going in. From there on out, it was straight into pitching, listening to feedback, and iterating. Thursday afternoon marked our first chance at presenting. At RBPC, you are given one practice round, where people who won’t be judging you in your final competition round listen to you and give you half an hour of feedback. That was our first experience giving a pitch there. Afterward, following an elevator pitch, we worked to perfect our presentation for the following day, on which the teams that made the semifinals would be announced. That night, we incorporated all the feedback we got from the judges and the people from other teams who watched us present. It was a lot to handle, but NUvention prepared us for it. We had developed the muscle memory for rapidly integrating feedback. In fact, while a lot of people were scrambling and working on their pitches, we called it a night at 11 pm.

The semifinals announcements took place Friday night, April 6th. The semifinal round was on Saturday morning (April 7th). We were announced as semifinalists, which was super exciting and one of the best outcomes we could have hoped for.

RBPC was an amazing experience overall. In between rounds, we spoke with a lot of interesting people. We learned that some companies had even sent representatives specifically to talk to us. That was wild to hear!

What was the most memorable thing about the 2018 RPBC competition?

Jonathan Pfluger: The most memorable thing for me was getting to know the other teams. There were 42 unique teams at the competition. Although they were competing against us, the people on each of those teams were all awesome to talk to. While their backgrounds of expertise differed from ours, they nonetheless offered advice and perspectives that were valuable in helping us refine and come up with new business models, as well as different ways to monetize our product. I still stay in contact with many of them via email and text.

Katie K.: Everyone there was amazingly supportive. Investors, industry professionals, other competitors, advisors, Rice faculty -- everyone wanted to see our companies succeed. In fact, some of our biggest cheerleaders at the competition were other the teams. There were even teams that watched every pitch that we presented because they loved our idea so much. The entire atmosphere was very encouraging.

What are your plans for NUMiX?

Katie K.: Within the next 6 months, we will be moving to a dedicated lab space. We’ll be doing validation of our product by comparing our lab samples against samples collected from customers’ day-to-day usage. Once we move, we will be working on the design for our production process, as well as looking into various options for engineering designs related to the application of our product.

How has the Farley Center supported you throughout this process?

Katie K.: According to one of my mentors, the entrepreneurship program offered by the Farley Center is among the best programs for entrepreneurial training in the entire United States. Although I don’t really have a basis for comparison, based on how much we got out of just 10 weeks, I definitely agree that Farley provides valuable training, wonderful resources, and incredible mentorship.

We learned how to communicate our ideas to audiences of different backgrounds. Knowing how to deliver messages to different crowds is a valuable skill no matter what you do, and we worked on it a lot in our NUVention class.

Jonathan P.: Everyone was awesome. Mark was awesome. The advisory board, the staff members, the people the Farley Center connected us with, everyone we spoke to was helpful in one way or another. A few of them even came to our practice pitches. The whole atmosphere of support coming out of that center is just magnificent. I would highly recommend it to someone who is interested in pursuing entrepreneurship. 10 weeks is a miniscule amount of time in your educational journey, but the things that I learned during my time there and the people that I met is going to be undeniably invaluable in the future, probably in more ways than I can imagine right now. Even for someone not that interested in forming or joining a startup, business training can allow you to gain a number of practical skills. It teaches you to contextualize all the things that you learn throughout your academic career. I come from a science background. While science is great for science’s sake, understanding the world beyond an academic context and learning how to impact people with your knowledge is something that I think is invaluable.

Katie K.: The Farley Center has been an incredible resource, and we are thrilled that it allowed us to come together in this time and place.

Editor's Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

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