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nu-820.jpg.crop_display.jpg Courtesy of Northwestern University.

Evanston Campus Hotbed of Energy Change

EDITOR’S NOTE: The energy revolution is transforming Chicago on many fronts – including its world class academic institutions, like Northwestern University. The entire ecosystem of energy change will be featured at an innovative conference, Empowering Customers & Cities, in Chicago November 4-6.

It has never been more true that a small, diverse team with a big vision can change the energy space. Students at the country’s most prestigious universities are bucking the traditional academic experience for the chance to execute disruptive ideas. They’re tapping into the expertise of their increasingly talented peers and they’re not afraid to take risks. They’re searching for the right team and the right incubator to launch the next great idea in cleantech.

In 2014, Northwestern University named sustainability and energy among the primary focus areas in its $3.75 billion capital campaign, designating the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) as the hub for sustainability and energy research, education, and public engagement on campus.

Monika Wnuk


ISEN’s strategic goals as a university research center stem from collaboration through master research agreements, public-private partnerships, research consortia - a partnership with the $125 million Joint Center for Energy Storage Research at Argonne National Laboratory - and sponsored research. Additionally, the institute stands out among its peers with its bold, multifaceted approach to sustainability and energy education at the University.

ISEN has built a diverse, collaborative, and hands-on education portfolio at the undergraduate and graduate level.  What started as a robust undergraduate certificate program in sustainability and energy, has grown to include seminars led by industry leaders, seed funding for cleantech startups on campus, and a brand new lab space for faculty and student research.

Year after year, Northwestern is ranked among top university incubators for new student-run startups. This fall it will launch “The Garage,” an incubator led by former student entrepreneurs who mentor student teams to launch promising business ideas. Together with the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship, ISEN heads NUvention: Energy, a course that challenges students to respond to the demand for innovation and entrepreneurship in the sustainable energy and cleantech spaces.

Students from engineering, business, arts and sciences, law and other graduate schools across campus come together in interdisciplinary teams to develop a product or service, and a business plan, in the sustainable energy or cleantech industry. Notable businesses that spun out of the course include SiNode Systems, an advanced battery materials company and AMPY, the maker of a wearable technology that harnesses the kinetic energy of movement to charge electronics such as smartphones and laptops.

ISEN’s thriving certificate program in sustainability and energy draws from all six undergraduate schools, collectively representing nearly 20 majors and minors. This interdisciplinary cohort furthers ISEN’s mission to introduce students to sustainability and energy as a lens through which they can apply their field of study beyond their time at Northwestern. To date, approximately two-thirds of students graduating with the ISEN Certificate have entered a sustainability- or energy- related field.

Guided by overwhelming demand from students for assistance with career development and networking within the sustainability and energy fields, ISEN invites industry leaders to lead impactful seminars. In Powering the Future, a course developed with Edison International, C-level technology executives lead discussions on new technologies and novel finance structures that are presently disrupting U.S. markets. Highly qualified students across masters, PhD, and professional (law/business) programs are selected by a competitive application process to participate in the seminar each year.

Whether it’s jumpstarting the development of the next generation solar technology for Northwestern’s solar car team or mentoring a student-led sustainable social business in Africa, ISEN supports student teams in changing their campus and world. 

For the second year, ISEN is spearheading the university’s chapter of the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU) program. Founded by President Bill Clinton in 2007, CGIU networks the innovation talents of students from more than 300 universities across the globe to foster student-led actions that address sustainability issues.

With a commitment to students and student professional development, ISEN continues to grow its diverse, multidisciplinary educational portfolio, preparing our next generation of business and civic leaders to solve grand challenges in the sustainability and energy spaces. The institute invites industry and research partners, entrepreneurial mentors, and other interested partners to reimagine the possible and empower our future.

Monika Wnuk is Northwestern University’s Institute for Sustainability and Energy integrated marketing and communications manager. Connect  @ISENatNU.

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