Startup weekend inspires Midwestern student entrepreneurs


Ethan Simmons

A group of Midwestern students listen to a panel of venture capitalists at the Forge Startup Weekend. Mark Van den Avont, junior in Engineering, received first prize at the event.

By Ethan Simmons, Senior Reporter

On March 23, 2017, Mark Van den Avont, junior in Engineering, broke his spine in a gymnastics accident. It was his parents’ anniversary.

The mat he landed on was not sufficient to break his fall. Seven months later, Van den Avont founded HexNest, a startup aiming to create sports mats far safer than the foam standard.

“It was a nightmare for other people around me, and the big thing was that foam didn’t keep me safe and doesn’t keep other people safe,” Van den Avont said during his presentation.

Last month, Van den Avont walked up to accept the $1,500 first prize at Forge Startup Weekend.

Student entrepreneurs from 18 midwestern Universities attended the student-run Forge Startup Weekend, put together by Illinois entrepreneurship organization Founders.

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    Held Nov. 9 and 10 at TechNexus in Chicago, 47 student startup teams pitched their businesses to six venture capitalist judges, after two days of mentorship sessions and guest speaker panels.

    Brad Schnitzer, program manager at Chicago startup accelerator Techstar, served on the judge panel for Forge.

    Through the evaluation process, Schnitzer emphasized the idea of finding the customer’s “pain point.” Schnitzer said HexNest had it down pat.

    “He is going to solve this problem regardless if this is a million-dollar, multi-million-dollar business because he has this pain and he doesn’t want it to happen again to somebody else,” Schnitzer said. “If there’s a big enough pain, people are going to pay for it.”

    Despite his recent string of success, HexNest’s founder is fixed on the future.

    “This has been a great weekend for us and is really energizing for what we’re doing,” Von den Avont said. “But we have a lot of goals for engineering right now — very ambitious goals — and we are recruiting for an underclassman to fill out our market research team.”

    Forge isn’t HexNest’s first go-around. HexNest won second place at last year’s Cozad New Venture Challenge, receiving $10,000 to jump-start their business. HexNest also made the 2018-19 cohort for iVenture Accelerator, a Gies Business function that gives consultation and resources to rising student startups.

    Ian Huntley handles the marketing side of HexNest. Huntley, who earned his MBA from the University in May, said the HexNest team’s presentation skills have polished with time.

    “This time we wanted to come out the gate with a fresh new look, fresh new branding,” Huntley said. “Part of it was presenting ourselves to show that we’re evolving and we’re ready for that next step of growing.”

    HexNest impressed Schnitzer with their attention to detail. HexNest has headquarters in the basement of an Urbana office building and has done a great deal of customer discovery already, Schnitzer said.

    “He’s doing those things that don’t scale, which as an early-stage entrepreneur is really important,” Schnitzer said.

    Sarah Brincks, junior in Business, co-directed Forge 2019. The diversity of industries from the seven finalists stood out to her.

    “You had software, you had hardware, you had social innovation; it was interesting to see judges pick such a diverse group,” Brincks said.

    Two other finalists won prizes. PuriPods, a startup centered around menstrual cup cleaning devices, won a $1,000 microgrant from the 1517 Fund, which accelerates businesses headed by young founders. Glimpse, a product placement company targeting Airbnb, received a free three-month membership at mHUB, a Chicago product development center.

    Forge allowed individual entrants for the first time this year. Of 143 entrants, 34 students came unattached to any startup.

    One of them was Becky Button, freshman in Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University. At over 450 miles away, Button was the farthest-traveled Forge attendee.

    “Four months ago I was in a car accident. I should’ve died. I’ve been learning to walk this semester and dealing with accessibility issues and feeling weird feelings I’ve never felt before,” Button said.

    Button had the idea for some kind of positive messaging business, to paste into various outerwear. Mentoring sessions helped her direct it into a supportive online network.

    “I’m coming here with an idea, not necessarily a vision or ways to manifest it. Coming here to network with other people to turn the idea into a reality,” Button said.

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