There’s no age requirement in entrepreneurship. And as Chicago’s tech ecosystem heats up, its youngest residents are taking advantage of startup resources and their own gumption to launch ventures.
From an artificial intelligence platform that improves breast cancer diagnosis to a line of affordable aquaponics kits, we found some of the top local teens who are hustling to get everything from apps, clothing brands and mentorship organizations off the ground.
Their work is also indicative of a growing network of local organizations that give young entrepreneurs the training and resources needed to get a venture off the ground. Future Founders, The Gray Matter Experience and IncubatorEDU provide teenagers lessons in business development, while pitch competitions at the high school level such as the Illinois Math and Science Academy (IMSA) Power Pitch and the Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge give students initial funding. City-wide clubs, such as the Junior Economics Club, are building networks of entrepreneurship-minded students and organizations, such as Girls Who Code, are helping students learn tech skills to build their own products.
Here’s a look at some local young entrepreneurs already making waves in the tech and startup world.
Abu Qader, GliaLab
School: Lane Tech High School
Qader wants to improve breast cancer diagnosis using artificial intelligence. His startup, GliaLab, uses machine learning and big data to improve the accuracy of existing diagnostic devices, and says the software is between 93 and 99 percent accurate. He came up with the idea creating an early version of the program for a class project at Lane Tech High School, where he’s a rising senior. He launched GliaLab with cofounder Vedad Mešanovi? last year. Next up they’re beta testing their product with hospitals, bringing on additional team members and raising funding.
Trisha Prabhu, ReThink
School: Neuqua Valley High School
Prabhu (pictured above) believes that cyberbullying could be stopped if teens stopped and thought about what they were about to say. That’s why she’s created ReThink, an app that uses patent-pending, sophisticated context sensitive algorithms to sense when a hurtful message is about to be sent, and send an alert asking students to pause and think before sending. In a study, Prabhu found that over 93 percent of the time, adolescents change their minds and decide not to post a hurtful message when using ReThink. She launched the tech in 2014, and it is now used in over 1,000 schools worldwide, the app been downloaded thousands of times on Google Play and the App store, and has been introduced to over 1.3 million students in Michigan as a part of their OK2SAY cyberbullying awareness program. In addition, Prabhu has received a variety of awards and honors for her work, including Google Science Fair Global Finalist award, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Aristotle award, and Prudential spirit of community award, and her work was selected to exhibit at the White House Science Fair.
Raven Smith, Straight from the Go
School: University of Missouri-Columbia (incoming freshman and recent grad of Morgan Park High School)
Smith hopes to create a new image for Chicago through her apparel startup. She designed a line of t-shirts that feature the phrase “Straight from the Go,” to dispel stereotypes of the city, particularly around violence and crime, and inspire a sense of pride and community. Plus, a portion of all t-shirt proceeds go toward anti-violence efforts. Since launching last year Smith has sold over 1,600 t-shirts and gave away an additional 400. Next up, the shirts will be sold in Love From Chicago boutiques at Woodfield Mall, O’Hare Airport, Water Tower Mall and on Michigan Avenue, as well as in Belle Up boutiques in Beverly and on Michigan Avenue.
Steven Li, Technology Engineering League
School: Jones College Prep
Li aims to get more high school students involved with engineering and technology in Chicago through the Technology Engineering League. Just launched in May, Li hopes to connect high school students with local tech companies and startups to create experiential learning opportunities and internships. So far he’s working with University of Chicago Collegiate Scholars to onboard students, and has been contacting local companies to work out opportunities for students, and he anticipates 25 to 30 students will initially participate. After gaining ground in Chicago, he hopes to expand to other tech centers such as New York City and Silicon Valley.
Genevieve Liu, SLAP’D
School: University of Chicago Lab School
Liu was only 13 when her father drowned saving two boys who had fallen out of a boat on Lake Michigan. She struggled to deal with the experience at such a young age, until she connected with another teen who had also lost a parent. The experience inspired her to launch SLAP’D (Surviving Life After a Parent Dies), an online community for young people who have lost a parent. The website offers tribute pages, interviews with bereavement experts and forums for “awkward” questions (such as “Asking dad to buy tampons”). The site has grown to over 1,300 monthly visits. SLAP’D is now raising funds on Indiegogo to redesign their website and add a six-member teen board (they’ve already raised over $18,000).
Natalie Wexler, Thoughtswap
School: The Latin School
Wexler ran into a problem that a lot of teens in the digital age face: her parents wouldn’t let her use social media, because they felt it created an unhealthy need for social validation and they worried she would post something that she would later regret. With this in mind, Wexler decided to build her own social media app that addressed these issues. Her app, Thoughtswap, is an anonymous chat app that allows users to have conversations with people who share similar interest, from politics to fashion to finance. Unlike other social media apps, it doesn’t involve “social validation” such as likes or upvotes. Wexler has been working on the app since last October (she learned to code through Girls Who Code), has completed several beta tests and she recently submitted Thoughtswap to the App Store.
Deandre Allen, Profs Academy
School: Chicago Tech Academy
Profs Academy is a collaborative platform that allows teachers to share and submit quality assured courses and lessons, as well as have access to relevant teacher training resources. The startup also connects teachers to external organizations that can assist in professional development and in the classroom. They’ve created partnerships with several charter schools already, and they’re looking to connect with more organizations moving forward. Allen won first place in NFTE’s Chicago Metro Regional Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge in May, receiving $2,000 to jumpstart his business, and will compete in the national finals in New York City this coming fall. He also received the 2016 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Youth Award.
Sabah Hussain, Link Scholars
School: Lane Tech High School
Getting into a top-tier public high school in Chicago, known as selective enrollment schools, is nearly as hard as getting into a top-tier college. Hussain, a student at Lane Tech high school who immigrated to the US from Pakistan when she was 8, experienced the admissions process first-hand. That’s why, along with New York teen Maesha Shonar, is launching Link Scholars, a nonprofit that connects high school mentors with middle school students to help them navigate the high school admissions process. Link Scholars is launching October 1, and Hussain hopes to mentor 15 to 30 middle school students (she’s had over 40 high school students apply to mentor). The team is currently raising funds for the startup on GoFundMe.
Ahana Narayanan, RemindMe
School: Fischer Middle School
Narayanan is currently developing RemindMe, a smart phone app that uses proven techniques in memory research to help users retain information longer and retrieve it faster. She was inspired to develop the app to help kids her age remember information more effectively for school. Narayanan won the $2,500 first prize at IMSA’s 2016 Power Pitch, which convinced her to move forward on the venture. This summer she’s coding the app and aims to complete development and submit to the App Store within the next few months.
Katie Zervas, The Basic Duo
School: Kenyon College (incoming freshman and recent grad of UIC College Prep)
Choker necklaces are a trendy jewelry choice for teens these days, but Zervas sees the accessory as a vehicle for good. That’s the idea behind The Basic Duo, a line of handmade choker necklaces that cost $6 to $8. Proceeds go to a variety of charities that support self-esteem among girls, education in third-world countries, fighting homelessness, and global environmental issues. Zervas runs the company with Riya Matel, a high school senior from California she met at a summer program at Stanford. So far the duo have made 50 sales from their online store, and sell the chokers at flea markets. Next up, they’re working on a line of t-shirts.
Erol Ikiz, AquaFood
School: Alan B. Shepard High School
Ikiz aims to make aquaponics, a system that grows both fish and plants, more accessible. His startup, AquaFood, creates affordable and productive aquaponic kits for food banks, schools, libraries, supermarkets and individuals. He was inspired to launch the startup because of urbanization and climate change, which threaten the food supply, in hopes of encouraging a more sustainable way of growing food. He’s currently working on his MVP and website, and is in talks to work with the Northern Illinois Food Bank. Next month he has plans to install an educational system in the Children’s Department of the Alsip-Merrionette Park Public Library. Ikiz won second place at the 2016 IMSA Power Pitch competition.
Drake Roberts, DeoTech
School: Harper College (incoming freshman, recent grad of Palatine High School)
Roberts and friends Kosta Plevritis and Anthony Tamras are all avid gym-goers which means they are acutely aware stinky workout equipment. With that in mind, they developed DeoTech, a portable and eco-friendly deodorizer for gym bags, cars and lockers. The deodorizer is made of aluminum and can be refilled with different scent cartridges. Gyms will be able to customize their product through color and logo to use the deodorizers as marketing. The DeoTech team won a $25,000 investment in a local pitch competition this spring, so the trio deferred four year college plans (they were headed to Indiana, UIC and UIUC respectively) to attend a local community college and focus on the business. They’re finalizing their product design with plans to order inventory soon, and four local gyms have verbally committed to purchasing or giving out the deodorizers as samples to test sales.
Steven Schwartz, Sole Robots
School: The Latin School
The hype around special-edition sneakers can make it nearly impossible for collectors to get their hands on the latest products. That’s why Schwartz is working on Sole Robots, an add-to-cart service that uses automation to ensure customers get their latest sneakers, while having the freedom to change color and size at the last minute. Customers, mostly resellers looking to buy multiple pairs, pay for purchase slots on the day of a new release, and Sole Robots ensures they get their orders placed. Schwartz has previously developed add-to-cart site SoleSniper (now a part of SoleSnatcher) and predicts $50,000 per month in sales based off previous sneaker releases. Currently he has 50 beta testers on the site with 75 buyers interested in purchasing at least 10 slots per month.
Abinaya Ramakrishnan, The Muzic Academy
School: Illinois Math and Science Academy
This nonprofit offers affordable private music lessons to low-income students, taught by student volunteers. Ramakrishnan was inspired to launch the nonprofit to expand access to music education to more members of her community, after realizing her private violin lessons cost $120—out of reach for many families. Since launching last year, the Muzic Academy works with over 70 students and has expanded to five school districts. Ramakrishnan was awarded the 2016 Celebrating Innovators Award from UIUC, and won the $2,500 first prize at IMSA’s 2016 Power Pitch competition.