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NU student seeking reality show for ‘Incinerator’ startup

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Updated: January 30, 2013 6:05AM

Chicago-area entrepreneurs eager to get their 15 minutes of fame on television may have a new outlet if Northwestern University student Colton Dillion succeeds in his own entrepreneurial pitch.

Dillion, founder and CEO of Startup Incinerator, aims to get backing from producers for a reality TV show or docu-drama TV series where judges and crowdfunding donors decide which entrepreneurial ideas get “incinerated.”

The judging panel, including engineers, angel investors and other professionals, would grade the ideas based on whether they could be done and make money. Fans would vote with their wallets via the TV show’s crowdfunding website.

Of 100 ideas to start the show, 10 would remain.

The would-be entrepreneurs never get kicked off the show. They remain, regroup into new teams and work on the good ideas.

Dillion’s idea for the TV show is based on his school-thesis contest, Startup Incinerator, which brought 90 entrepreneurs with 50 ideas to the Northwestern University campus in October.

“Other contests focus on inviting entrepreneurs for a weekend, ending up with people working on useless ideas or ideas they aren’t passionate about,” said Dillion, 22, who will earn his master’s degree at year’s end in engineering design and innovation. “They would work for 18 hours and give up, or work for 50 hours only to have judges pan their ideas.”

Dillion’s mentor and Northwestern University Professor Walter Herbst sees the Startup Incinerator as a unique way to separate an innovator or inventor from his or her biggest hindrance: Falling in love with his own idea to the exclusion of one that could be more successful.

Dillion’s idea met the hallmarks of a good one: Acceptability, a team-building approach and defensible intellectual property, said Herbst, director of Northwestern’s master’s program in product design and development.

“(Dillion) is on his way to knocking it out of the ballpark,” Herbst said.

Herbst, founder of one of the largest product-design firms at the time, Herbst LaZar Bell, and now co-founder of Silicon Valley design and innovation firm Herbst Produkt, said the best ideas emerge from and are produced by these kinds of teams.

“It might be romantic to hire an inventor sitting alone in a cave in Bali, but it’s not a good idea,” he said.

Barry Krause, founder and CEO of Chicago-based LiveLab Network, whose River North studio videotapes and live-streams web-TV events to boost companies’ social-media presence, said he likes the TV-show concept, but is leery of asking judges to rank the concepts.

“The experts agree on ideas that tend to be the most normal and the least inventive,” Krause said. “It’s a person’s own passion that drives an idea through (to fruition).” Dillion aims for the entrepreneurs’ crowdfunding efforts to help counteract such an effect.

Krause’s LiveLab Network will launch an interactive Web TV show, “Inventing the Future with Robert Tercek,” on Jan. 8 at the New Media Expo in Las Vegas.

The news show,, will run for eight weeks and showcase emerging trends in science, medicine, entertainment and technology.

“It’s about what’s next after what’s next,” and will involve corporate sponsors explaining their futuristic work on the show, said Krause, CEO of Suite Partners, who previously ran J. Walter Thompson Chicago, Hal Riney & Partners Heartland, started the Invention Marketing Group at Leo Burnett, created the Jared campaign for Subway and is one of five CEOs that Wiley Press is tracking for a book on leadership in the 21st century.

The show also will feature its own band improvising throughout the program in what Krause calls “live composition sound design.” The band, “Paul Wertico and What’s Next,” is led by the seven-time Grammy winning drummer and composer.

Dillion sees his Startup Incinerator competition as the answer to shortcomings at accelerators and incubators that leave teams and ideas intact without market validation, and crowdfunding and crowdsourcing sites whose idea winners often fail to deliver their products on time.

The goal is to create viable businesses that can meet production timetables and sustain their intellectual property, Dillion said.

Indeed, Xconomy chief correspondent Wade Rouse has pointed to Xconomy’s growing yearly Guide to Venture Incubators to question whether today’s many incubators can themselves survive, and whether they may even hurt the prospects of the businesses they launch from gaining attention in such a crowded field. A separate study by University of Pennsylvania Wharton School professor Ethan Mollick showed more than 75 percent of the startups with successful crowdfunded ideas were late in delivering their products. Mollick examined 47,000 projects with $197 million in collective funding.

Dillion intends to continue his Startup Incinerator contest locally, but may extend it throughout several weekends because of the time restrictions of the busy sponsors — entrepreneurs and professionals from companies ranging from graphic-design firm 99designs to Edwards Wilman law firm to home-security-monitoring company SafeMart.

The companies that emerged from this fall’s contest ( included Mercy Cards (, a concept of providing prepaid gift cards for restricted uses to the homeless and first-place winner License Buddy (, a site that aims to remind professionals it’s time to update certifications.

“The end game of the (TV show) competition is to bring in potential investors of Series A funding and representatives of companies that may want to buy or sell the competitors’ products,” Dillion said. “In that episode, it’s not about the scores but entirely about the money.”

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