Mike Raab on The Garage at Northwestern

An interview with Mike Raab, the Executive Director of The Garage, on how they support student entrepreneurship at Northwestern.
February 18, 2024
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Background

Mike Raab is the Executive Director of The Garage at Northwestern. Before returning to his alma mater, Mike was a Principal at Sinai Ventures. The Garage is Northwestern’s base for student entrepreneurs and home to 1,500+ startups. I talked with Mike about the space, how they design their programming, and what students are working on at The Garage.

Highlights

  • The Garage serves Northwestern students of all schools and levels of study, whether you are in one of their formal programs or not.

  • The Garage’s space at Northwestern is an 11,000 sq. feet facility on the north end of campus. The space includes an AR/VR media lab, a prototyping lab for physical products, desk space and meeting rooms, and a physical cafe with drinks.

  • The space skews towards students working on technology startups, but they also have students building small businesses, media companies, nonprofits, and participating in other forms of entrepreneurship.

  • 95% of students who pass through The Garage share that it meaningfully enhanced their Northwestern experience.

Interview Transcription

Kieran: Thanks, Mike, for joining me today. Do you want to introduce yourself?

Mike: My name is Mike Raab. I am the Executive Director of The Garage at Northwestern University, home of student entrepreneurship. We serve students of all schools and levels of study, whoever is interested in startups, technology, and entrepreneurship. You are welcome to bring your ideas to The Garage.

Kieran: You joined The Garage as the Founding Director in San Francisco. What’s the story behind that? What got you excited to work with Northwestern?

Mike: At the time, I was working in venture capital in the Bay Area. So, investing primarily in Seed and Series A companies. I’m an alum of Northwestern, and The Garage did not exist when I was a student here. So, I had heard about it while working in venture in the Bay Area and reached out to offer myself as a resource. It turned out they were hiring a role based in the Bay Area to build a community of Northwestern founders, operators, and investors to connect and support each other so that they could be more successful and then, when relevant, build a bridge back to students here at the University when they needed relevant mentors, advisors, customers, etc. So, I initially got involved because it’s my alma mater and the exciting stuff they were working on, but I focused more on the alumni in the Bay Area. Then, I transitioned to more student-focused work.

Kieran: You gave a quick overview of The Garage. I wanted to share more background information before we dive into the interview. The Garage is an entrepreneurial hub for Northwestern students. It’s home to 1,500+ startups. The Garage has three spaces: one on campus at Northwestern, a space in San Francisco, and one in Chicago in partnership with 1871 and mHUB. The Garage runs several programs around startup incubation, student development, and funding opportunities out of these spaces. Is The Garage structured as a nonprofit? How is The Garage funded?

Mike: So, we are funded through a combination of the University, and some of our programs are donor-funded, which I can get into. As I mentioned, we serve students from all schools at all levels of study at Northwestern. So, undergraduate, graduate, Kellogg MBAs, PhDs, JDs, MDs. Any student is welcome to bring their ideas here at The Garage. We do not take any equity in any of the startups that are incubated at The Garage. The students own everything, even if they get funding from our programs. As you mentioned, we run ten formal programs throughout the year, depending on where students are in their entrepreneurial journey. So everything from, I have an idea, and I’m just starting, or I don’t even have an idea, but I know I’m interested in startups, all the way to during the summer we run a 10-week pre-accelerator program called Jumpstart where we give teams $10,000 and programming to help them make a ton of progress on their ventures. That culminates in a Demo Day. We also have an annual student startup competition called VentureCat, where we award more than $300,000, all in non-dilutive prize money to the top teams. So, that runs the gamut. Some of our donor-funded programs include The Opportunity Fund, which gives up to $1,000 in funding for low-income students. We found that even getting a domain name and hosting your first website to test out ideas can be prohibitively expensive for some students.

Kieran: How does a student get access to The Garage?

Mike: A couple of different ways. So, we have an 11,000-square-foot facility on the north end of the campus at Northwestern. It’s open to any student, whether they’re in our formal programs or not —Monday through Friday from 9 am to 9 pm. Some students in our more advanced programs have 24/7 access and have dedicated desk space. But any student can show up during the week. They can work out of here, have team meetings, and get ingrained with different teams. One of the most common ways we find students get involved early on in their academic careers is through a quarterly event called Startup Matchmaking. So, this is when resident teams of The Garage who are looking for new team members to join them will pitch. They will pitch what they’re working on and what type of help they seek. It still takes place over Zoom. We found that works best. So, for instance, this fall, we have 32 teams pitching that are looking for new team members to join them, and over 300 students attend who are looking to join one of those teams. Then, they can have conversations with each of the teams. One of the most common ways students get involved initially at The Garage is by joining an existing startup team. Then, a year from now, they may develop their own idea and go through our programs.

Kieran: Can you talk about the spaces? I watched one of the videos, and it looks like you have 3D printers, laser cutters, and meeting rooms. I know your LinkedIn says you try to manufacture serendipity. Is that the goal of the spaces? How would you describe it?

Mike: Absolutely, the 11,000 sq. feet is broken into four zones. So, up in the front is a public cafe with coffee and Bevi machines where students can make flavored soda waters. That is open to any student. Anyone can come in and hang out. It’s first come, first serve. It also has a bunch of privacy booths for students to take calls or Zoom meetings, which are entirely soundproof. We have a workspace that kind of doubles — although all of our programs are extracurriculars at The Garage — we do have some professors at the University, notably the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, that like to teach classes here at The Garage, just because it is a different space on campus. It’s interdisciplinary. So we use the workspace for that and fireside chats, panelists, speaker events, etc. Then, we have our AR/VR media lab. We have the latest headsets, camera equipment, podcast equipment, and anything students need to create from a media perspective. They can use green screens. As you mentioned, we have a prototyping lab with 3D printers, CNC mills, laser cutters, embroidery machines, sewing machines, and anything students need to create physical products, even if it’s not for their business. They can make swag, so when they’re doing a Demo Day, they have their startup logo on their shirt. Then, we have a co-working space for our resident teams that you have to apply to each quarter, and they get dedicated desk space. They can keep personal items, inventory, and that type of stuff. They have 24/7 access. They can book meeting rooms. So, it’s a lot packed into a space. When it comes to manufacturing serendipity, this is a personal mission I came up with when I was based in the Bay Area working for The Garage. We talked a bit about this before we started recording, but the idea is that all of the information about starting a startup is on the internet, but that’s not how people get things done and build companies. It’s through people, connections, and introductions. We want to create this leverage for our students at The Garage. In this trusted community, people are willing to help each other out, be vulnerable, honest, and transparent, and make introductions because they’re a step ahead or behind you. How can you combine these pieces so that something good can happen? That is part of what the physical space is about, but also the broader Garage mission since we started eight years ago. We have folks who have raised tens of millions of dollars and are still mentors of The Garage. That makes it so much more accessible for current students because they can see that person was where I was a couple of years ago, and now they’ve done X, Y, and Z. I can tap into their knowledge and expertise to make it easier for me to do that as well.

Kieran: You mentioned earlier you have 10 programs. What do you consider when designing and launching a new program? 

Mike: The main consideration is student need. When The Garage started in 2015, it was one program. It was just The Residency Program, the physical space and mentorship. We built out nine additional programs based on the students’ needs, as well as different events like Startup Matchmaking and funding opportunities. We found that The Residency Program required teams to be at least two team members and beyond the idea stage. So, they have to demonstrate they started to make something and get it in front of users or customers and get feedback. They don’t have to have revenue or sales but need to show they have done some work and are starting to learn. We developed our entry-level program, The Tinker Program, to be something that’s not an application but just a signup. We wanted to make it more accessible to come to The Garage. You don’t have to show up with progress, an idea, and traction. You can show up just to learn and get involved in the community. So, with The Tinker Program, it’s just a signup, not an application. You get a 10-week drip campaign about the fundamentals of starting a startup, and you get put into our student Slack channel and newsletter with upcoming events, resources, and office hours. So, you get access to some of the resources before you get to the stage for those later programs. When The Garage first opened, predominately white male engineers showed up at the space, so we had to be intentional about increasing access. The Garage doesn’t sit under the business or engineering school. We serve students from all schools, so we’ve had to be intentional to ensure that the students involved in our programming reflect the greater student body here at the University. So, a couple of programs we’ve developed include Propel, a quarterly cohort program for women entrepreneurs. They meet weekly with a mentor who is a woman in the industry and receive up to $1,000 for their initial expenses. Last year, we launched a program called Luminate for first-generation and low-income students. Again, a cohort program to help them get involved at the top of the funnel.

Kieran: How does The Garage measure success for its programs? You mentioned it needs to reflect the greater student body. What other factors do you consider when deciding whether to continue a program or experiment with a new one?

Mike: Yeah, it’s one of my favorite questions because no one seems to have a pinned-down answer if you talk with university entrepreneurship centers nationwide. Like, what is it? I want to be clear, The Garage is an educational experience. So, the goal is not to turn out as many venture-backable technology startups as possible. That does happen, but it’s a side effect of our work. All ideas are welcome here at The Garage, from nonprofits to more media-based things to small businesses. I think a lot of students learn that being a founder and entrepreneur is not for them, but that’s just as valuable of an experience for them to have while they’re here at The Garage as students where there is lower risk instead of being five years out of school, quitting their job, trying it out, and figuring out it’s not for them. So, the education is a huge component. One of the metrics that I’m most proud of is that 95% of the students who pass through The Garage tell us that it meaningfully enhanced their Northwestern experience. So, whether or not their venture succeeded or failed, they’re glad they did it, learned something, and gained skills. They’re more confident and know they have agency in the world. So, when they’re going to do their next venture, whether that is a startup they’re leading, joining a technology company, or an existing startup in the real world, they’re more confident. They have a more considerable skillset than they would have if this entity did not exist. Of course, we love to brag about the undergraduate student who created Hubly Surgical, a safer cranial drill that got FDA approval, raised millions of dollars, and is being used to drill into real humans in hospitals. That’s a remarkable success story, but just as successful are all the students who came, tried something out, and figured out what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives or at least what they wanted to do immediately after school. So, it’s a mix of qualitative and quantitative regarding what we’re optimizing for here.

Kieran: You mentioned The Garage is open to any business — startup, small business, nonprofit. What is the current breakdown between the types of companies being built at The Garage?

Mike: It is a majority tech startups. I will say, having worked in Silicon Valley and venture, it was not uncommon to meet founders who you would get the sense that they were starting a startup to say they were a founder or to raise capital. They didn’t necessarily care what they were building or working on; they just wanted to be a founder, so I’m going to find something to fundraise for. What I find inspiring is an overwhelming majority of students are trying to solve problems they see in the world. They have a more profound mission and vision of wanting to solve these problems and feel they have the agency to do so. So, for some, that means creating a startup that can scale and push towards creating a significant impact. But for others, it may look like a nonprofit working with the Evanston community. So, it’s definitely skewed towards technology startups, but I think the overwhelming theme is the problems they’re trying to solve.

Kieran: What percentage of student founders you work with continue on their businesses after graduation?

Mike: About 10% will continue with the ventures they started as students at The Garage. Even more will get a job in tech, consulting, investment banking, or something and return to the startup ecosystem a few years after graduation. But 10% graduate and continue working on their venture either because they won something like VentureCat and have $150,000 of runway or they get into a program like Y Combinator and Techstars or continue it as a side hustle.

Kieran: You work very closely with student founders. What are their biggest challenges when considering this as a career path? Is it access to funding, good mentorship, or something else?

Mike: It’s harder to get funding in the market today than two years ago, but I don’t think that’s unique to students. I think kind of perennially unique to students is what used to be more of a barrier for students at Northwestern and the Midwest was getting funding as a student or as a recent graduate — I think COVID and the pandemic did a huge favor to founders not in Silicon Valley because all of a sudden you had Bay Area investors who were willing to invest across the country by taking meetings via Zoom. It made local VCs in Chicago and other places compete and have to invest earlier. So, I think the Chicago ecosystem has gotten stronger and been willing to invest earlier and riskier. Capital is kind of the continuous theme for students, but you see different programs like Dorm Room Fund, Contrary Capital, and others that are focused on solving this. We do our best to get the funding for those teams that have the potential to reach escape velocity and give them the runway to make it to a point where they can raise from institutional investors. 

Kieran: What are the biggest opportunities to improve The Garage?

Mike: I think of The Garage as two things. One is this community of students. One of the most underrated things is that a space like The Garage could be competitive when you have students who’ve been successful and raised millions of dollars and come in with ideas, traction, and revenue. But it’s actually this really supportive community where students a couple of steps ahead are helping those behind. They share their wins and fails, and basically crowd-source problem solve for each other. The second entity is our network. We’re a team of nine at The Garage. Students are building in medical devices, food and beverage, enterprise software, consumer, marketplaces, nonprofits, media, etc. So, I think of us as a network catalyst. We’re connecting students to mentors, advisors, experts, and individuals in the industry who can guide them. I think what’s really cool is The Garage is kind of like a flywheel. So, we have a bunch of alums who graduated, they’re still working on their startups and raised a bunch of money, but they had such a great time at The Garage and got so much out of it that they want to give back. They serve as mentors, come back as judges, and make it more accessible for current students to have the success that they’ve had. I just rehired for the role that I originally started in working with The Garage, primarily working with alumni founders, operators, and investors to build this community to support them and plug them back into helping students at The Garage. When I think about the biggest levers we have to help people succeed in entrepreneurship and startups, it all comes down to people. So, having a network catalyst focus on pulling in more folks that we can connect to current students, I think, gives us the most leverage.

Kieran: You have a full time staff and some student help. You mentioned some professors teach classes out of The Garage. Can you talk more about the faculty involvement? 

Mike: Yeah, so to be clear, The Garage doesn’t teach any classes. We don’t have any faculty. We’re all extracurricular. There are other entrepreneurship entities at Northwestern, like the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which is the engineering school, or entrepreneurship at Kellogg, which has a bunch of courses for MBA students. So, they use the space to teach out of, and occasionally, we have faculty who will do a session on some subject like AI or something in their expertise as a talk, but there is no official linkage between the faculty and The Garage.

 

Kieran: Is there anything I didn’t ask about that is important for a student considering The Garage?

Mike: Yeah, we touched on it a bit, and we talked about this before we pressed record, but all the knowledge and information is out there about entrepreneurship and startups. The real important thing is the people. We had our first alumni startup summit back in August. We flew in 30 alumni who are still running the companies they started at The Garage back here for a one-day summit and workshop. So much good has come from that because you have this trusted community where they’re willing to talk about fundraising tactics and what’s not going great in their business. So, I think especially for first-time founders, student founders, and earlier founders, finding your tribe and community where you can have these conversations with folks both at your stage and at your level, but also a step or two up is going to be the most significant difference maker for you in getting the knowledge, feedback, and connections to help you be successful. The second thing I will shamelessly plug behind me is that I co-authored this book, Founded: The No B.S. Guide for Student Entrepreneurs. It’s available on Amazon. It’s all the knowledge from the first five years of starting and running The Garage and what we tell students in a quick, easy-to-read book. So, I would recommend picking that up. It’s used in about a dozen universities and high schools across the country right now, and that’s constantly expanding.