Skip to main content

VentureCat Official Rules & Guidelines


VentureCat is Northwestern’s annual student startup competition to celebrate and support student founders.


Northwestern Student Involvement

Teams must consist of at least one currently enrolled degree-seeking Northwestern University student. The Northwestern student must be a co-founder and substantial equity holder in the business.

The Northwestern student must act as the Team Lead, which includes completing the application, serving as the main point of contact and presenting during competition. Only current Northwestern students are allowed to present at semifinals and finals. Other team members may attend all activities and assist with Q&A during semifinals and finals.

Business Entity and Company Requirements

If awarded any prize money from VentureCat, the student founder must have a U.S. based registered business entity and provide the program with a completed W-9 form by July 1, 2024, that includes the business's IRS Employer Identification Number (EIN), in order to to receive payments. Payments cannot be made to foreign entities. All VentureCat prize payments are made to companies, not individuals.

Businesses that have raised more than $250,000 in equity capital are ineligible to compete, unless the funding was raised while the current Northwestern student team member was an active student at Northwestern. Government or university grants are excluded, but SAFEs, convertible debt or similar instruments are included.

Businesses that were started more than four years prior to the VentureCat application deadline are ineligible to compete. If you have taken an older entity in a new direction and have used Northwestern resources to advance your business, you may email and petition for eligibility to apply.

All applicants will be required to attest that their team, including all founders and other equity holders, has or will have a signed agreement that outlines the equity ownership of the company (for example, a Founders’ Agreement, LLC Operating Agreement or Shareholders’ Agreement) by the VentureCat competition date, and understand that (i) Northwestern University may ask to see the agreement at its discretion, and (ii) in the event Northwestern University makes such a request, Northwestern University will not review such agreements for substance and will not be responsible for any issues or disputes that may arise in connection with such agreements.

All semifinalist teams will be required to meet with the VentureCat program lead to discuss the status of any University-owned IP if applicable, and the origins of the team and business.

Previous VentureCat Participation

Teams or companies that have previously won the 1st, 2nd or 3rd place finals prizes at VentureCat finals are ineligible to compete in VentureCat in future years. Teams or companies that previously won prize money at semifinals or teams that made it to finals, but did not win a main prize (1st, 2nd or 3rd), are eligible to apply.

Business Industry & Team

Teams can be of any size and businesses can cover any industry in one of the five competition tracks.

Business Products and Services (B to B)
Consumer Products and Services (B to C)
Energy and Sustainability
Life Sciences and Medical Innovations
Social Impact

Participation in Pitch Prep Program

Teams chosen as semifinalists must be fully committed to participating in the four to five week Pitch Prep Program prior to competition day, which includes pitch coaching, business advisor mentorship and professional graphic design support.

Teams will be required to complete a brief application, a 60-second video pitch, and a 10-slide pitch deck. Each team’s venture should be the original idea of the team. The venture should have potential for viability as Feasibility is a factor considered by judges.


Applications will be reviewed by Northwestern University entrepreneurship faculty and staff, industry experts and venture capital professionals. Five or six teams will be selected for each track. The tracks are:

Business products & services (B to B)
Consumer products & services (B to C)
Energy & Sustainability
Life Sciences & Medical Innovations
Social Impact

The 1st place team from each track will advance to finals to compete for the finals prizes, and organizers may select one additional semifinalist team to compete in finals as a wildcard team.

A currently enrolled degree-seeking Northwestern student must act as the Team Lead, which includes completing the application, serving as the main point of contact and presenting during competition. Only current Northwestern students are allowed to present at semifinals and finals. Other team members may attend all activities and assist with Q&A during semifinals and finals.

Evaluation Criteria  

The evaluation criteria for all stages of the application and competition include:


  • Significant problem/need identified
  • Validated by primary or secondary research
  • Customer groups sized and identified

PROPOSITION (Value Prop & Business Model)

  • Compelling solution with path to scalability or growth
  • Differentiated customer value
  • Demonstrated understanding of the competitive marketplace
  • Business model outlined with realistic revenue sources
PROGRESS (Progress & Traction)
  • Progress beyond idea stage (e.g., proof of concept, customer research, customer outreach, testing, product development, patent or trademark application, sales)
  • Proposal for additional funding to accelerate progress


  • Presentation materials and responses to questions demonstrate expertise, commitment, coachability, and a thoughtful approach
  • Immediate term and near-term team needs and skills identified
  • Commitment to continue developing the business beyond VentureCat


Cash prizes totaling at least $100,000, along with any additional goods and services, will be distributed to teams for prizes awarded during the finals.

Finalist award winners must provide a completed W-9 form for U.S. based entities, that includes the IRS Employer Identification Number (EIN), in order to to receive prize payments. Prize payments will only be made to U.S. based registered business entities. Funds not claimed by Spring Break of the academic year following the competition are permanently forfeited. Payments to the winning teams will be made to the company and not to students individually.

A student founder with a foreign business entity who do not wish to create a U.S. based entity are eligible to participate in VentureCat. The student would receive program benefits such as mentorship and pitching experience but would forfeit any awarded prize money.

Checks will be mailed to the address provided on your company W-9.

Any finals prize money over $25,000 will be paid out in increments not to exceed $25,000 (unless an exception is requested in writing and granted at the discretion of the University) and certain team milestones will have to be met in order to receive each installment. If the University determines, in its sole discretion, that one or more milestones are not met, the corresponding prize money may be forfeited.

Northwestern University reserves the right to withhold or deny prize money for any reason, including without limitation, conduct determined by the University to be detrimental to the University or University students and/or violations of the Northwestern University Student Code of Conduct or other University policies.

For example, in the event Northwestern or any of its agents is made aware of any founder or other dispute which calls into question the equity ownership or capitalization table of the company, or ownership of any of the company’s intellectual property, funds will not be awarded until the company has demonstrated to Northwestern’s satisfaction that such issues have been fully and finally resolved. Funds not claimed by Spring Break of the academic year following the competition, whether for reasons described above or otherwise (including without limitation due to Northwestern’s determination that a founder or intellectual property dispute remains unresolved), are permanently forfeited. To collect funds by Spring Break, a completed W-9 form for the business entity must be submitted at least 30 days before Spring Break. All Northwestern decisions in respect of the foregoing matters shall be final, and neither Northwestern, nor any of its faculty members or agents, shall be liable to the company or any student or team member in connection with any forfeited award.


VentureCat reserves the right to disqualify any participant, team or submission if Northwestern University has determined in its sole discretion if there has been a violation of rules and guidelines or if Northwestern determines that an entry does not meet all eligibility requirements.


Northwestern University respects the Intellectual Properties of others. Please do not disclose or include without permission the Intellectual Property of third parties in your application or pitch. In the event your pitch includes IP or concepts from other contributors, even if they are no longer involved in your company or participating in your pitch, you must acknowledge their contributions and involvement.

Please note that your pitch and ideas will be in front of the general public audience. The disclosure (and protection) of the ideas, intellectual property rights, and other information and materials in your application, pitch and other materials are the ultimate responsibility of each Contestant. Contestants are urged to mark as CONFIDENTIAL (and take other reasonably prudent steps as necessary) any portion of their entries, which they consider to be proprietary, or of a sensitive nature. Contestants should be aware that disclosure of certain “patentable” concepts of their own or others that have not been protected in their entries may result in loss of patentability in many countries. Northwestern shall not be responsible for any disclosure, confidentiality or intellectual property issues or other matters. 


Participation in VentureCat is voluntary. By participating, Contestants irrevocably and unconditionally release and covenant not to sue Northwestern University and/or any related entities, their successors, licensees, assigns, and/or their respective trustees, officers, faculty, employees, agents and representatives (collectively “Releasees”) from any and all claims, actions, damages, liabilities, losses, costs and expenses of any kind (including, without limitation, attorneys’ fees) (collectively “Claims”) arising out of, resulting from, or by reason of any application for and/or participation in or in connection with VentureCat, including, without limitation, any exhibition, advertising and/or promotion of VentureCat or any Contestant’s appearance in VentureCat, any disclosure of any idea, product, invention, service or business, the failure of University to select any Contestant as a participant, and/or the cancellation of VentureCat, on any legal theory whatsoever (including without limitation violation of privacy and publicity rights, false light, defamation, breach of express or implied contract, breach of any statutory or other duty of care owed under applicable laws, infringement of copyright, trademark or patent, loss, limitation or reduction of any intellectual property rights and loss of earnings or potential earnings). Each Contestant hereby agrees to defend and indemnify Northwestern University, together with each of the other Releasees, from and against any Claims and/or any third party claims initiated by any team members, former team members or other third parties relating to the team, its business idea, participation in VentureCat and/or any awards or decisions made by Northwestern University related to any of the foregoing.

Northwestern shall not be responsible or liable for any adverse impacts of forming a US based entity and participating in VentureCat or otherwise, including related to tax, immigration, visas, etc., and by applying and participating in VentureCat the applicant hereby waives, and releases Northwestern from, all such claims on behalf of itself and its company and co-founders.


Disputes or claims among students arising out of VentureCat activities will be submitted exclusively first to mandatory mediation before JAMS in Illinois and, if not successfully resolved in mediation, then subsequently submitted to binding arbitration in Illinois, administered by JAMS under its Streamlined Arbitration Rules and Procedures (without the participation of the University or any faculty member in any such proceeding).


Northwestern University is entitled to modify or amend these Official Rules & Guidelines at any time in its sole discretion, all of which modifications and/or amendments will become effective and binding immediately upon making the updated Rules & Guidelines available to the Contestants.

As of 2/14/2024