The Halloween That Changed My Life: Submitting To Thrill Mill’s Business Bout Two Years Ago

I can’t believe it was two years ago when I discovered The Business Bout and rushed to complete an application THAT VERY SAME NIGHT. I had only moved to Pittsburgh from California just four months ago. My “company” at the time, then known as Academica, was only a fragment of its original Startup Weekend team – truthfully, I was the only one who stayed onboard.

The Original Team Academica.

The Original Team Academica

Still, I put together the best possible application that I could, one that featured two Yalies, two former co-workers from my days in television, two classmates from the West Coast, and three people I had recently met in Pittsburgh. Our projections were highly baseless, our plan of action non-existent. All we had was our convinction. I had no other hope whatsoever in making it any further than the submission process.

The Original Team Scholar Hero. I'll never let... you get the point.

The Original Team Scholar Hero

I was in Manila when I got a large email from Bobby Zappala say that we’ve been accepted into the first cohort of “The Hustle Den,” the now-retired name of the co-working space owned and operated by the eponymous Thrill Mill. We were offered a full year of workspace, networking opportunities, mentoring, and any other support they could provide.

My first reaction, of course: who the heck was Bobby Zappala?

Turns out some Duke and Pitt Law graduate decided to leave the Pittsburgh legal world and do more for his hometown. A few of his close friends – Luke Skurman, Serge Smailbegovich, Kevin Heher, and Alex Palma – had been running an annual event called the Baller BBQ for years, raising money for a startup prize competition: The Business Bout.

The Original Ballers: Alex, Bobby, Serge, Kevin, Michael

These men had built up so much money and support the next move was to create more opportunities for local startups to grow and thrive. This led to the creation of a co-working space in Pittsburgh’s up-and-coming East Liberty sector, and the re-branding of their event to, of course, the Thrival Festival.


Moby: The Original DJ (trademark pending)

I remember my first encounter with Bobby – it was a late night in the middle of Broad Street, and a huge-grinning Zachary Quinto-looking dude waited for us outside of a vacant building in a shady neighborhood. He escorted upstairs to show us our new home for the next year.

Luke and Bobby, who insists we say he’s the one “on the right.”

The months that follow were incredible. I worked alongside people who were enthusiastic about their work, genuinely supportive of one another, and eager to become close friends, if not “startup family.” We pitched our ideas at Google, stayed in close contact afterwards, and for some of us (especially me), we never quite left… physically.

Working in Thrill Mill.

Scholar Hero in Thrill Mill.

Thus, I know that there are probably a few teams right now wondering if they should pull the trigger and apply to Thrill Mill’s third class. I started my application about three hours before the deadline, and I’ve built a company I’ve quite proud of since then.

What’s the worst that can happen? Here’s the link:

Lee Ngo
Founder, Scholar Hero
Thrill Mill: First Class Cohort
Thrill Mill Second Class Alumni Mentor

Scholar Hero’s Presentation at Google Pittsburgh: Thrival Innovation 2013

Founder Lee Ngo pitches to an audience at Google Pittsburgh on 9/7/2013. Photo courtesy of No Typical Moments (
Founder Lee Ngo pitches to an audience at Google Pittsburgh on 9/7/2013. Photo courtesy of No Typical Moments (

Has it really been a week since our company’s first major presentation to the Pittsburgh technology
and entrepreneurial community?

After several all-night preparations and collaborations with other teams incubated in the Hustle Den, an incubator owned and operated by Thrill Mill, Inc., we pulled off what felt like the impossible: a concise 5-minute pitch at Google Pittsburgh demonstrating our proof of concept. Here’s a clip of the presentation (scroll to the 1 hour, 17 minute, 36 second mark for our presentation):

Video courtesy of Thrill Mill, Inc. (

Lamentably, the video does not do the presentations justice. It is amazing how much our companies have grown over the last several months. In our case, we were little more than a handful of good ideas that needed to be refined into a bona fide company. For our successes, we must thank Thrill Mill for the opportunity they’ve given us as well as the countless people who have contributed to our development along the way.


Founder Lee Ngo poses with founders Rachel Bane and Jimena Quan of Mix: a salad-themed restaurant for the Pittsburgh community (photo courtesy of Scholar Hero)

Still, we have a long way to go. A few more milestones ahead include:

  • Overhauling the landing page to reflect our new direction
  • Creating a public beta version of our product
  • Securing some early seed funding to help us support that beta
  • Expanding our network via social media (especially this blog)
  • Solidifying our core founding team
  • Generating that first dollar of revenue

How we do after a long day of pitching: The Thrival Music Festival (photo courtesy of Scholar Hero)

Keep an eye on this blog and our landing site for more updates!


Lee Ngo is the founder and executive director of Scholar Hero, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Remember, Remember, the 7th of September: Thrill Mill’s Thrival Innovation + Music Festival

Scholar Hero has been excitedly preparing for this upcoming Thrival Innovation + Music Festival on September 7th, our first opportunity to show off some of our hard work to the Pittsburgh public. As members of the Hustle Den’s inaugural cohort, we have been invited to join other startups and entrepreneurs to talk openly to attendees and potential investors about our products and future plans.

The Origins of the Thrival Festival

The Thrival celebration is actually an annual celebration organized by Thrill Mill, Inc., featuring several musical acts and festivities, all towards raising money for The Business Bout. Thrill Mill co-founder and chairman Luke Skurman originally came up with the idea in 2005 to strengthen the Pittsburgh entrepreneurial community and reduce the pattern for the city’s young talent to emigrate to other larger cities. Years later, it is now one of the biggest networking events in the city.

Ultimately, The Thrival Festival is meant to close out the summer strong with entertainment and connection with the Pittsburgh entrepreneurial community. There will be food and drink available for attendees as well as live-performing musical artists such as De La Soul, RJD2, and Frightening Rabbit. Proceeds will go to Thrill Mill, Inc. to further support and incubate the next cohort of brilliant entrepreneurs.


Scholar Hero’s Thrival Role

Scholar Hero will be one of the 13 Hustle Den companies to be stationed in Innovation Row at Bakery Square and delivering a brief pitch to potential investors at Google Pittsburgh. We will be showing prototypes of three products, all designed to assist scholars in creating and sharing their work:

·      Amino – A document assistance service helps structure ideas and data, preventing the writer’s block that comes with “blank page syndrome”

·      Synthesis – A document sharing service designed for acquiring rich community feedback.

·      Fusion – A mobile solution to “crowd-reviewing,” involving a gamified, ranking system.

You can read about all of the Hustle Den companies here.


The Thrival Innovation + Music Festival is September 7th from 12:00pm to 10:00pm. More information can be found here:

Help us celebrate those that choose make a difference. As Thrill Mill co-founder and CEO Bobby Zappala said: “You can’t change the size of Pittsburgh, but you can change how people think about it.”

Nathan Repp is a writer for Scholar Hero, Inc.

Of Sight and Sound: How Technology Helps Impaired Students

Technology in universities have an overall positive effect on accessibility, and for some students, that means more than just having fewer books to carry.

  • 1/3 of disabled youth attend some kind of postsecondary school in the United States.

  • People with hearing or visual impairments were more likely to attend college.

  • About 1/4 of disabled students receive no accommodations from their university.

Many technologies respond to the needs of the impaired, offering university textbooks with a variety of tools on common handheld devices. While some books are scanned images of the pages, others are fully digital text with variable font size and text-to-speech capabilities.

Google's app store is adding academic books in addition to their already popular ones. (Photo Source: Wesley Fryer

Google’s app store to add academic books in addition to their already popular selection of literature. (Photo Source: Wesley Fryer

In spite of all this technologies, problems of inaccessibility still persist. Recently, a blind student in Louisiana was unable to access the online materials for a course and was forced to withdraw. Fortunately, the Justice Department ruled that universities cannot buy material that is not available to all students.

We at Scholar Hero only hope that both technology and policies continue to move towards total accessibility for all students. Nothing should stand in the way of an equal education for all.

Powerful tools for the disabled student. (Photo Source: Yutaka Tsutano

Powerful tools for the disabled student. (Photo Source: Yutaka Tsutano


Nathan Repp is a writer for Scholar Hero, Inc.

The Reinvention of Pittsburgh

Looking down at Pittsburgh from a Mt. Washington, it’s difficult to imagine it as the city of steel and smoke it used to be.

The Pittsburgh of today. (Photo Source: ctj71081

The Pittsburgh of today. (Photo Source: ctj71081

For over one hundred years, Pittsburgh was a mecca of industry: the primary provider of metal supplies throughout the nation. In that time, Pittsburgh became known for its diverse workforce, high culture, soot-filled sunless skies, and urban revitalization. The one constant that supported all of this was steel—and then the industry collapsed.

A steel mill long out of operation. (Photo Source: Melissa Dooley

A steel mill long out of operation. (Photo Source: Melissa Dooley

Not a single steel mill operates in Pittsburgh today, but the city continues to thrive as heavy industry has been replaced by medicine, technology and education.

UPMC East. (Photo Source: daveynin

UPMC East. (Photo Source: daveynin

The hospitals of Pittsburgh are the city’s largest employers, and The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) is one of the leading health care providers in the nation.

Google makes a new home in an old landmark. (Photo Source: kezee

Google makes a new home in an old landmark. (Photo Source: kezee

There are over 1,600 technology companies based in Pittsburgh. One of the most notable near-ubiquitous Pittsburgh branch of Google, which takes up residency in an old Nabisco cookie factory not too far from Scholar Hero’s own offices.


Duquesne University. (Photo Source: Ronald Woan

Duquesne University. (Photo Source: Ronald Woan

Pittsburgh is home to some of the most accredited universities in the country: The University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, and Duquesne University, among many others—demonstrating that this city once built on brawn now uses its brain to ascend to new heights.

Pittsburgh is one of the most remarkable examples of urban reinvention. Innovative corporations occupy historical buildings, and established universities push progressive healthcare and technology programs. Pittsburgh is the best example of an old dog with new tricks, and it continues to change itself through diversity, adaptation, and improvement.


Nathan Repp is a writer for Scholar Hero, Inc.