Hatching innovative ideas through CS NEST

Professor Patel with NEST contestants

These days, the business pages are filled with young tech moguls selling startup companies—from WhatsApp to Instagram—for previously unheard-of sums.  But there's much more to success than coming up with a great idea and having the technical skills to build the next gotta-have-it app.  Aspiring entrepreneurs must learn how to move from concept to working prototype.  They need to pitch ideas in a clear and compelling way.  Time management, presentation skills and a grasp of how one's product differs from the competition all come into play.

Professor Jignesh Patel knows these lessons well.  When he speaks to students about startups and entrepreneurship, it's not an abstract topic for him.  On the contrary:  Locomatix, Patel's own startup, was acquired by Twitter in 2013.  Developed just before the first iPhone release, Locomatix analyzes tweets and other data by location to harness the power of big data for mobile use.  Patel and his cofounders smartly anticipated the mobile boom by watching trends in Asia and Europe.

Last fall, Patel shared his experience with students in "Starting a Software Company," a course taught by fellow computer sciences professors Remzi Arpaci-Dusseau and Paul Barford.  The course is part of a wider effort within the department and across the university to nurture the entrepreneurial spirit.

"I'm grateful for the supportive climate at UW towards startups," Patel told the class.  The willingness to tackle big challenges and the broad thinking that one finds in academia transfer well to startup culture, he says. 

Patel's own effort to help students chase their creative dreams is the CS NEST contest (NEST for Emerging Software Technologies), which he has organized each academic year since 2009-10.

Now, with NEST’s fifth year concluded, Patel can look back on a program that has produced not just innovative ideas, but also real-world businesses like EatStreet.  In its infancy, EatStreet (then known as BadgerBites.com) won third place in the 2010-11 competition.  Now, people in over 50 markets nationwide can order food through its website or mobile app, and the company is growing rapidly.

What separates NEST from an ordinary contest is Patel’s devoted mentoring and the chance for students to be judged by experts who share a genuine interest in the success of fellow Badgers.  Students also compete for cash prizes.

Abhinav Gupta (RocketFuel), Pavan Nigam (Inspovation Ventures, Badger Entrepreneurship Forum) and Greg Tracy (Propeller Health), all UW computer sciences alumni, made up this year’s trio of judges. 

"With the dramatic increase in innovative ideas and startups emerging out of college campuses, it is impressive to see UW-Madison encourage this trend," said Nigam, who is instrumental in the Silicon Valley tech scene.  "NEST is a fine example of that.  I was truly inspired by the entrepreneurial zeal of the participating teams, as well as the practical quality of their ideas.”

This year's NEST contestants offered up a smorgasboard of concepts, from the light-hearted (a fantasy football app and a houseplant that sends its owner snarky tweets) to business tools that could help brands analyze customer perceptions on Twitter or help companies rank and evaluate job applicants.  Microsoft and Intuit sponsored this year's contest.

Redbird, created by James Hadar and Christopher Stiles, claimed the top prize.  Redbird uses sensors to monitor the atmospheric conditions of an enclosed space.  The device sends text messages to the user when predetermined limits for temperature and humidity have been breached.  Users can also determine how often they want readings to be taken.  Relatively inexpensive to make, this device could be used by consumers in a wide range of settings, such as wine cellars or humidors, greenhouses or grain silos.

The judges praised Redbird's easy-to-use  interface and variety of potential applications.  Hadar and Stiles graduated in May 2014 with degrees in sociology and civil engineering, respectively.

Second prize went to Horton, the plant with an attitude, created by Nick Heindl and Mitchell Lutzke.  Third place went to WordAffects, a Twitter sentiment analysis tool designed by brothers Justin and Nathan Moeller and fellow teammate Nick Ackerman.

A special prize was also given for the project best reflecting the "Wisconsin Idea," the conviction that UW discoveries should have wider benefit to society.  That went to Interactive Dance Environment (IDE) by Nick Heindl, Emanuel Rosu and Liang Zheng Gooi.  IDE uses a Kinect device and Python to enable gesture-based programming.  Kids, with their ample physical energy, are one potential audience for this approach.  The judges dubbed it a "neat integration of gaming with learning to program."

Patel urges students to challenge themselves through the competition—and learn practical lessons.  "What I really hope students take away from the NEST experience is that there are no limits to what you can do if you are willing to let your imagination fly and be bold enough to pursue a dream," he says.  "The possibilities are endless if you can imagine, then execute, then listen, and finally adapt."

Pictured above:  Professor Patel (front-row center, kneeling) poses with student competitors at the conclusion of the NEST competition on April 4, 2014.