Huskies at the Helm

By Colleen Leonard

Category: 2014 Fall Alumni

Entrepreneurs are a special breed. They have a keen eye for opportunity and the courage to seize it when it comes around. In the stories that follow, you’ll meet Huskies who have created opportunities for themselves and others as they blazed their own paths to career success.

The man behind global pharmas

Jeffrey Aronin

Jeffrey Aronin

Jeffrey Aronin saw a niche in the pharmaceutical field and took a leap of faith that he had the skills to develop his own company.

He joined the industry in sales and marketing after graduating from Northern Illinois University in 1989 with a bachelor’s degree in marketing. From there, he advanced into managing several pharmaceutical divisions.

While running one of the divisions, he noticed that financial and time constraints made it difficult for a large pharmaceutical company to develop drugs for rare diseases.

By age 32, Aronin founded Ovation Pharmaceuticals to focus on drugs for some of these rare diseases. Ovation quickly became one of the world’s fastest-growing pharmaceutical companies. Within nine years, he sold the company for $900 million to the Danish pharmaceutical giant H. Lundbeck A/S.

“It was an industry that I felt like I could not only do well as a career, but also was able to do something that was good,” Aronin says. “I was able to improve lives and make a difference in the world.”

In 2010, after serving as president of Lundbeck Inc. for less than a year, he formed Paragon Pharmaceuticals, an investment firm that establishes and manages life science companies and promising pharmaceutical businesses.

Paragon invested in Marathon Pharmaceuticals, which also specializes in rare diseases and is growing quickly like Ovation did. Aronin is the founder, chairman, and CEO of Marathon.

His success as an entrepreneur stems from identifying a need in the market, having the vision to bring it to fruition, and being able to sell that vision to recruit talented people, the 46-year-old says.

“The most important thing is to find a need in the market that you can solve,” he says, “that’s important enough that people are willing to pay you a lot to do it.”

One of Ovation’s successful drugs was ATryn, the first drug approved using a genetically modified product, he says. Goats are genetically modified to carry a protein that is used in the drug to help patients with a blood clotting disorder. The protein is extracted from a goat’s milk to make the drug.

Marathon, a global company, has eight drugs on the market and another 10 in development, Aronin says, which is a lot, considering that the industry average is more than $1 billion to get a drug approved and about $100 million to market it.

Although developing, manufacturing, and marketing drugs is a long and expensive process, Marathon reduces expenditures by acquiring products that have been shelved or have some research data.

Iprivask is one of its drugs on the market that was acquired from another company. The drug prevents patients undergoing hip replacement surgery from getting deep vein thrombosis, a type of clot. What’s interesting about this drug is that it is made from snail venom, Aronin says.

Marathon is developing drugs for cancer treatment, Huntington’s disease (an inherited disease that causes certain nerve cells in the brain to waste away), and Duchenne muscular dystrophy (a rare and fatal genetic muscle disease affecting boys).

While Aronin developed skills through experience to run divisions and companies, he credits Northern for giving him the fundamental skills that helped him become an entrepreneur, such as knowing how to work with people and build successful teams.

As an entrepreneur, there isn’t a good time to start a business, he says, adding that he had young children when he created Ovation.

“You have to, at some point, believe in yourself enough and believe in those skills to just go do it,” says Aronin, who earned a master’s degree in marketing management from DePaul University.

To spur economic development and entrepreneurships in Chicago, he has worked with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Pat Quinn to establish a new health technology startup center, called MATTER, which will be located at the Merchandise Mart. It is designed to create a collaborative work space for entrepreneurs, academics, and investors to grow new companies in health care information technology, medical devices, medical diagnostics, and biopharmaceuticals.

He has received numerous accolades as an entrepreneur, including induction into the Chicago Area Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame and awards from Crain’s Chicago Business and Ernst & Young.

Aronin is also involved in the community through board membership on Discover Financial Services, the University of Chicago Medical Center, and the Museum of Science and Industry and serves on the executive committee for World Business Chicago and the Economic Club of Chicago.

His dedication to the health care field extends to philanthropic work through patient support and research funding to several health advocacy organizations. The Brain Research Foundation, Epilepsy Foundation of Greater Chicago, and American Porphyria Foundation are some of the organizations that have recognized him with awards.

“The awards I’m most proud of are the ones that have been given to me by the community for giving back and making a difference,” Aronin says.

Cashing in on coupons

Scott Kluth

Scott Kluth

He’s the soft-spoken man behind the flashy website of deals, from designer clothes to electronic gadgets.

His site is the one-stop shop for coupon codes, retail store specials, grocery coupons, and free samples, where visitors will find 3,000 stores and restaurants and 1,000 brands represented. Even local coupons are in the works to make the website more alluring.

Founder and CEO Scott Kluth has turned Coupon Cabin into a household name and has expanded into Canada and Europe.

About 100 employees work at the coupon empire in Whiting, Indiana, to ensure that the best daily deals reach the customer. The site is known for its staff picks and collections for special groups, including the new mom, bride-to-be, foodie, health nut, and adventurer.

Kluth got the idea for a coupon website when he was working at Sears. He began working for Sears during a summer internship through NIU. In 1999, he was hired to work full time for Sears.com after earning a bachelor’s degree in operations and information management.

Sears gave him a monthly stipend to buy products from competitors’ websites to study packaging, check delivery times, and make other comparisons. Kluth noticed a box for a coupon code at a site and liked the idea since he wanted to reduce his costs to buy more merchandise.

In his search for coupon codes online, he couldn’t find a major source for them, except on some blogs. That’s when he saw an opportunity to create his own website.

“I had a lot of folks saying, ‘You’re too young. You don’t have enough money.’ Very discouraging,” Kluth says. “And you know what? I followed my gut.”

The website was launched in 2003, when he was 25. The domain name cost him only $35, but he soon realized that his $30,000 savings wasn’t enough. When that ran out, his mom gave him $5,000.

“I built the website, but I didn’t know how to get people there once it was built,” Kluth says. “That was the struggle. I thought I would build it and people would come.”

He knew technology and some marketing, but had to get help with legal issues, finances, and a comprehensive sales and marketing plan.

Business was slow at first because people weren’t familiar with coupon codes. Kluth got a break in December 2006, when Good Morning America did a spot on Coupon Cabin. Because of the huge increase in traffic, the site crashed. A couple of days later, USA Today ran a story. But by then, Kluth says, he had lined up more servers to handle the traffic.

He considers 2008 as the year that he had a real business. Groupon and the financial collapse of the economy “made savings cool again,” the 37-year-old says.

While the traffic on the site fluctuates, depending on the season and holidays, he says, it peaks at Christmastime with a half million visitors per day.

Kluth is at the top of his game, yet he still puts in long hours. His schedule generally calls for a seven-day workweek, he says, including 14-hour days three times a week.

In response to the hardships that customers have experienced during the poor economy, the Chicagoan has done more than offer coupons. He feels that helping those less fortunate is his social responsibility. As a result, he created HelpInACrisis.org, which gives up to $5,000 for a one-time donation to help individuals out of a crisis.

He also set up the Kluth Family Foundation so Coupon Cabin can donate to each employee’s favorite charity. Every year, the staff votes on how much to allocate to the charities based on need.

He established the foundation with his mother, who taught him the value of a dollar.

“My mother was the crazy coupon lady in line, doubling coupons and tripling coupons,” he says. “That was just the lifestyle for me growing up.”

He remembers using coupons to buy meals on Sundays at Northern and still takes advantage of coupons.

“I’m fundamentally cheap. I like to save money,” Kluth says. “I enjoy the coupon hunt, the search, and all that.”

Alumni’s cleat company goes global

Position Tech founders (from left) Christian Anderson, David Pickard, and Erek Benz (far right) with NFL receiver Earl Bennett

Position Tech founders (from left) Christian Anderson, David Pickard, and Erek Benz (far right) with NFL receiver Earl Bennett

Just a few years after launching a football cleat business, NIU alumni have signed a licensing agreement to distribute their products internationally and expand the technology to other sports.

Position Tech has sold its customizable replacement football cleats in retail stores and to NCAA and National Football League teams. Now Champ/MacNeill Engineering Worldwide, the global leader in sport cleat technology, plans to manufacture and distribute the cleats and to commercialize the technology to other sports.

“With this partnership, it’s going to give us the ability to go into soccer, rugby, and other sports on a global level,” says Erek Benz, an owner of Position Tech. “That’s our No. 1 focus right now.”

Benz says he and co-owners Christian Anderson and David Pickard will still operate as managing partners and will receive royalties, but have given up control of the technology.

Position Tech’s largest retailer is Dick’s Sporting Goods. The cleats have also been used by the Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons, and San Diego Chargers and NCAA teams, such as the University of Virginia, Northwestern University, Kansas State University, and Florida State University, Benz says.

As a walk-on football player at NIU, Benz thought it didn’t make sense for the same cleat to be used for different football positions. So the idea of a cleat business was brainstormed in a College of Business entrepreneurship class during his last semester in 2008.

“We knew that we had something that the market was needing,” he says.

By May of that year, Position Tech was formed, but it wasn’t officially launched until after several years of research and development. Since 2011, the Chicago-based company has offered position-specific cleats to football players in four areas: agility, power, speed, and balance.

“The running back can screw in these agility cleats and have a layout that’s catered to his position,” Benz says, “whereas the defensive lineman utilizes a different cleat setup that complements the power and balance that are more fitting for that position on the football field.”

They worked extensively with the NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology to initially test the cleat. To see how the cleat compared with competition, it was attached to a shoe plate on a pendulum device and tested on an artificial turf surface.

From the beginning, NIU alumnus and entrepreneur Eric Wasowicz (who now teaches at Northern) was their adviser and helped them get investments, Benz says.

In the final stages, a test order was arranged with Dick’s Sporting Goods, and that led to positive online feedback. High schools near Dick’s stores were also targeted to let students try out the cleats.

During the first year of production, the owners weren’t able to set up a source for assembling and packaging the cleats. As a result, they took it upon themselves to assemble the cleats. A metal screw had to be tapped into each cleat piece to put the whole cleat together, Anderson says, and that procedure was done an estimated 400,000 times for months.

To stay financially afloat, they had to work odd jobs.

“When starting a company, there are zero dollars to pay off salaries. So all of us involved had to figure out ways to bring in income,” Benz says. “We were doing whatever we could nights and weekends to be able to push forward on this opportunity.”

They all have contributed to the company by taking on a specialty. Benz gravitated toward product development and sales, Anderson helped with marketing, Pickard took on finance and operations, and everyone made product pitches to bring in capital.

Pickard, a manager and real estate investor since his teens, says they’ve been successful by seeing “the white space in the market” and finding a central retail place to draw customers.

In addition to using their business experience, Pickard says, they networked with experts who were more knowledgeable to fill in the gaps.

“It all comes down to hard work, overcoming adversity, and perseverance through the good and the bad,” Benz says. “It’s a roller coaster ride through the entire process.”

Watch a video about Erek Benz and Position Tech

Alumna teaches kids financial skills

Somya Munjal

Somya Munjal

Howard Stevenson, a Northern Illinois University junior, plans to open a taxi service in DeKalb in the fall after getting help through an innovative service called Youthful Savings.

Somya Munjal, an NIU alumna and founder of Youthful Savings (YouthfulSavings.com), helped Stevenson design a business proposal and budget for the cab service.

“The best way to start out is to get a coach,” says Stevenson, a business management major from Indianapolis, “and that’s what Somya has been to me.”

After meeting her during a social entrepreneurship class last fall, Stevenson was so impressed by her business that he decided to work for her.

He has been working with after-school clubs in the DeKalb area to inspire students to create a business and save for their future. Like Munjal, he is passionate about teaching financial education.

“The type of education that Youthful Savings provides is not installed in the school system,” Stevenson says, “and that’s what we’re here to do.”

In November 2012, Munjal started Youthful Savings after blogging about financial education, saving for college, and the growing problem of student debt. Her goal is to empower the next generation with financial education and entrepreneurship training to prepare for college.

Munjal worked a variety of jobs and earned scholarships to afford college. She received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accountancy from NIU. She went on to get a master’s degree with an emphasis in international business from John Brown University in Arkansas and completed the degree while working as a global format development analyst at Walmart.

She especially wants to reach children from poor families. An estimated 22 percent of children live in poverty, according to 2012 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We think that if we can teach children business skills and financial education skills, they can change not only their lifestyle, but also hopefully inspire change within their families,” the 30-year-old says.

Youthful Savings offers two main programs: My Own Business Challenge and financial planning for college through its Financial Freedom app.

My Own Business Challenge is designed for schools, after-school groups, and community organizations to teach middle school and high school students about personal finance and entrepreneurship. The eight-week program includes a curriculum and web application so students can start a business, save money for college, and track their business and financial success.

“I think they’re surprised to learn that they can earn money so easily,” Munjal says.

For instance, at age 10, a young girl named Angela created a bracelet and wallet business through Youthful Savings. Her goal is to save $50 a week until age 18. If she reaches that goal, she will have saved about $20,000 for college.

Youthful Savings also offers its Financial Freedom app so college students can manage their money, find options to attend school debt-free, and understand student loans and how to pay them back. Munjal is developing partnerships with universities to make students aware of the app.

For every dollar it earns, Youthful Savings provides 10 percent toward scholarships. Of the four scholarships awarded so far, two went to NIU students.

“I wouldn’t have gotten through my education had I not gotten scholarships,” Munjal says.

She also runs a new consulting and accounting business, CPA for the People (CPAforthePeople.com), which is located in New York City (where she resides), Chicago, Miami, and Washington, D.C. Through the service, businesses and families learn how to balance finances, what resources are available to raise capital, how to plan for taxes, and how to maximize profit and revenue and minimize expenses.

Both businesses are teaching the public to be mindful of finances and live within a budget, says Munjal, a certified public accountant and certified financial educator.

A lot of people are afraid to talk about money management, she adds, and her goal is to show them that “money is a tool rather than a big, scary monster.”