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 is now in Remote Beta! Sign up for a demo at!


The reviews are in from out Pittsburgh testers, and they have been stellar! After responding to their feedback and iterating accordingly, we are ready to test Scholar Hero beyond our home base!

To test with us for absolutely free, simply go to We will send you to our testing page with a permission code. All we ask in return is a quick survey about our platform after a week of use.

Thanks to everyone for their support, and we hope to keep working hard to get Scholar Hero ready for our wide release!

Lee Ngo
Scholar Hero

Scholar Hero is now in Closed Beta! Sign up for a live demo!

After a year of planning, hacking, and iterating, Scholar Hero is now officially in closed beta! We are now taking requests for live demos in the greater Pittsburgh area and select remote demos nationwide.


Those who are selected for closed beta are eligible for reduced rate unlimited accounts in the near future as a thank you for the priceless feedback they will provide for us. We will only offer closed beta accounts to a very small group of people, so please sign up for them as soon as you can.

To sign up, simply click on the link here and fill out a very brief form. We will be in contact with you soon to follow up. Thank you for your support!

The link:

Scholar Hero would like to thank a lot of individuals for helping us get to this point:

To learn more about Scholar Hero, visit or fill out our contact form to speak directly to our staff. You can follow us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+

Once again, the link to sign up for closed beta:

Thank you, Idea Foundry! (Scholar Hero Forges Ahead)

Idea Foundry (

Idea Foundry (

At the end of February, Scholar Hero will come to the end of its term in the Entertainment and Ed Tech Accelerator Program hosted by Idea Foundry, one of the leading investing entities in innovation and technology in southwestern Pennsylvania. The experience was a truly blessed one.

Scholar Hero founder Lee Ngo and Idea Foundry Entertainment and Education Initiatives Program Director Gary Gardiner

Scholar Hero founder Lee Ngo and Idea Foundry Program Director Gary Gardiner

Under the mentoring of Gary Gardiner, director of this selective program, we were able to accomplish what once seemed impossible: virtually complete Scholar Hero’s minimally viable product (to release for private beta within the next few weeks!)

idea foundry pdf

Our page in the Idea Foundry Entertainment and Ed Tech Sector – 2013

We now realize the importance of accelerators in communities that hope to stimulate their regional economies and encourage ambitious people to forge something real and sustainable. Pittsburgh is truly lucky to have so many of these entities (a lot of them not-for-profit, no less), and we are more than honored to be a part of them.

A little preview of Scholar Hero: Version One!

A little preview of Scholar Hero: Version One!

Our hope is that Scholar Hero has met the high expectations of the Idea Foundry and will want to continue this fruitful relationship in the future. Without their boost of confidence, funding, and networking, our company would certainly be in a very different place. For more information about the Idea foundry, and their Entertainment and Ed Tech Accelerator Program, visit or follow this link.

Lee Ngo
Scholar Hero, Inc.

Scholar Hero is accepted into the Idea Foundry’s Entertainment & Ed Tech Accelerator Program!


(from left) Technical Director Michael Butler, Founder and Executive Director Lee Ngo, and Idea Foundry Program Manager Gary Gardiner

Amazing news for Scholar Hero! On November 5th, 2013, we have accepted our invitation to join the Idea Foundry’s Entertainment & Ed Tech Accelerator Program! The Idea Foundry ( is one of Pittsburgh’s premiere technological and business startup accelerator programs in southwestern Pennsylvania. Their Entertainment & Ed Tech program is unparalleled in the region, and it is perfect for Scholar Hero’s current aspirations.

For Scholar Hero, this is a terrific milestone. This program provides the company with its first official investment, just nine months after its incorporation and barely a year after its initial conception during Startup Weekend Pittsburgh #2. The Idea Foundry also provides mentoring, advisement, and other standard resources that come with a prestigious, competitive accelerator. We haven’t been this excited since being selected as part of the inaugural class of the Thrill Mill Hustle Den incubator program!

Scholar Hero founder Lee Ngo pitching at Google Pittsburgh for the Thrill Mill Thrival Innovation series.

Scholar Hero founder Lee Ngo pitching at Google Pittsburgh during Thrill Mill’s Innovation Series.

Another great perk about the Idea Foundry is its close proximity to Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, schools with students, professors, and staff that we hope will be among the first early adopters of our platform. Testing and validating our product could not be made any easier for us now, and we hope that more established partnerships might emerge as well from the improved locations.

Moreover, because of our acceptance into the Entertainment & Ed Tech Accelerator Program, we are also being evaluated early for Idea Foundry’s highly competitive Core Program as well. Potentially, this puts us in a position to receive more funding! (One step at a time…)

The Scholar Hero Development Team hard at work on our first prototype.

The Scholar Hero Development Team hard at work on our first prototype.

“We are truly ecstatic and grateful to have the support of the Idea Foundry as we continue to develop our platform and build our potential user base,” says Lee Ngo, founder and executive director of Scholar Hero. “Program Manager Gary Gardiner and the Idea Foundry have provided us with wonderful feedback over the course of the year, and they have been a major influence in our overall conceptual, technical, and business development. We look forward to our continued partnership over the next three months and beyond.”

We hope that this is the first of many future successes to come! Our selection into this renowned accelerator program provides further validation for our unique and innovative concept, but now the pressure is on for us to deliver! We hope to do you proud, Idea Foundry!

To learn more about Scholar Hero, visit or fill out the contact form below:

Lee Ngo is the founder and executive director of Scholar Hero, Inc. All rights reserved.

Startup Your Morning With A Unique Coffee Company


Academics are primarily fueled by the power of caffeine, typically consumed in a warm cup of coffee. Socially conscious academics, however, know all too well about the exploitations of the globalized coffee trade and hope to find a more equitable option. We at Scholar Hero may have discovered one for you.

The Source delivers high-quality coffee directly to their subscribed members from the coffee growers in Nicaragua and Guatemala, cutting out the intermediate buyers. By handling the roasting and shipping themselves, they create a quick turnaround that ensures freshness.

Coffee Crop (Photo Source: CIDSE

Coffee Crop (Photo Source: CIDSE

Most small coffee growers must sell their crop at a greatly reduced price to intermediaries. The Source eliminates this problem by establishing a grant program that supplies farmers with the money they need to grow a year’s worth of high-quality crop that The Source agrees to buy.

In short, you get better coffee, and growers get a fair share of the trade. Not a bad way to start your morning.

You can visit their website at


Nathan Repp is a writer for Scholar Hero, Inc.



Is academia a “no-win scenario”? Scholar Hero does the “impossible”

Getting a startup off the ground is a lot like taking the Kobayashi Maru. Getting an educational startup off the ground, however, is a lot like taking the Kobayashi Maru if you’re not Captain James T. Kirk.

Earlier this month, Greg Meyer of Information Maven wrote this article on why working on a startup is a lot like the Kobayashi Maru simulation test featured in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the most recent 2009 re-boot film.

For the really uninitiated, the “Kobayashi Maru” is an unbeatable test, frequently described as depicting a “no-win scenario.” In the ostensible context of the film, the test examines how a Starfleet cadet responds under impossible circumstances and, ultimately, the potential commander that they will be.

The certificate remains blank for a reason… with one exception. (Source:

How is the Kobayashi Maru like a startup?

For metaphorical purposes, Meyer applies the scenario to the archetypal startup:

“Startups are created with the purpose of becoming big, failing, or being bought. They seem feel like the proverbial no-win situation because everything has a competitor. If someone isn’t spending money with you, they are spending money on something else that they’ve probably been doing for a long time. And there’s so much noise everywhere. How can anyone possibly create something new?

Creating something new can take many forms. Like Kirk, the startup founders who solve this Kobayashi Maru problem change the rules of the simulation.”

In other words, startups need a James T. Kirk, someone who is incredibly agile, gifted at tactile thinking, and willing to “bend” the rules in order to claim victory. (He remains the only person in Star Trek history to ever “beat” the Kobayashi Maru.) Innovation comes in many forms, but it usually happens when someone will maneuver through the obstacles that they will inevitably face while trying to confront the status quo.

How is this relevant to Scholar Hero?

Do we have a James T. Kirk? We’d like to think we’re all carry an essence of Kirk within our hearts, but that means our challenge is to change the rules of the game. In our case, it’s academia, the space which we see to be ripe for much change. Unfortunately, academia is a space where:

  • There is a lot of resistance to change, perhaps moreso than most spaces of innovation
  • A lot of companies are also trying to change it, but their efforts are falling short
  • There are limited resources to devote towards any significant change
  • Forces beyond our control can completely marginalize our efforts, such as government policy or economic fluctuations

So can anything be done? Absolutely.

scholar hero fire

Heroes don’t ask what they can or can’t do; they only ask what they will or won’t. (Source:

What would James T. Kirk do? This is what we ask ourselves at the start of every day (seriously).

Even though we might be up against a much more adamant status quo, the size of the mountain should never deter whether or not we want to climate.

What we will do is change the system. We will find a way reconfigure the very essence of whatever is afflicted by the malady, or we will redefine the problem altogether if we must.

How will we do this? We have a lot of products in our backlog, but right now, we are proud of two in particular that we will debut in a few months and soon to our private beta testers. We’re on well on our way to make a huge impact!

Like many startups, Scholar Hero started with a strong sense of conviction towards the ability to change the world for the better. We are convinced that the change will happen out of a sheer necessity for the survival of the academic community.

And we are the ones to deliver that change.