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Bridging the Language Gap

Four MMM students developed the InstaEnglish app that earned top prize in the annual Kellogg Venture Challenge.

Yutaka Kawabata, Evan Lai, Théry Badin, , and Yutaro Nishiyama earning top prize in the annual Kellogg Venture Challenge

When Yutaro Nishiyama (MMM ‘25) was a high schooler in Japan, he had the 16th best score on the country’s English exam. Yet when he came to the United States, he found himself struggling to speak the language.

That struggle became the inspiration for InstaEnglish, an app he and three classmates developed in their free time. The app recently took first place in the Kellogg Venture Challenge, a competition where graduate students pitch projects to a panel of high-profile judges for cash and in-kind prizes.

Nishiyama, Théry Badin (MMM ‘25), Yutaka Kawabata (MMM ‘25), and Evan Lai (MMM ‘25) are all students in Northwestern's MBA + MS in Design Innovation (MMM) program — a dual-degree program between Northwestern Engineering and the Kellogg School of Management. 

“Balancing an in-semester internship, academic commitments, and the responsibilities of being a father to three children was no small feat,” Nishiyama said. “Despite these hurdles, our unwavering commitment to the project and to each other has been the cornerstone of our progress.”

That progress is massive. The four students developed and launched the iOS app in just three months.

English education in Japan places a heavy emphasis on reading comprehension, Nishiyama said, leaving a gap in speaking skills that led to his personal struggles. InstaEnglish aims to bridge that gap by turning English vocabulary words into active vocabulary that can immediately be used in conversation. 

In just the first three months after its release, the app earned more than 3,000 downloads and 100 paying users. Those numbers pale in comparison to the quartet’s long-term goals.

“We aim to acquire 10,000 paying users and generate an annual revenue of $1 million before we conclude our degrees,” Lai said. “We also plan to expand our services beyond Japanese and English within one year.”

All four of the app’s creators are non-native English speakers. Each had a different role in the app’s development. Nishiyama focused on technology, while Lai worked on the user interface and design. Kawabata handled strategy and content, while Badin dealt with finance.

All said the MMM program was central to their ability to develop the app in such a compressed time period alongside their other responsibilities.

“The MMM program provides the perfect opportunity to delve into human-centered design firsthand,” Lai said. “This learning is experiential.”

Badin pointed to the program’s Research, Design, Build (RDB) course as particularly important to their success.

“While our team came in with experience with product design and development, the tools we learned from RDB gave us a blueprint to methodically and empathetically explore our user’s experience,” Badin said. “It was formative and valuable in training us to centralize the user.”

Human-centered design is a product development theory that says the method to develop the most useful products and services starts with the end user at the center. Only through in-depth research on those user’s pain points can great products make it to the market.

Winning the Kellogg Venture Challenge is an important milestone in InstaEnglish’s development – and in the lives of its developers. The exposure opened doors to venture capitalists and angel investors who might be willing to help in the app’s development and expansion.

In March, the team was named to the AI Innovation Lab 2024 spring cohort at 1871, a Chicago-based technology incubator. Nishiyama was also chosen as one of 30 delegates from a pool of 1,400 social entrepreneurs for the 2024 Global Engagement Summit.

For Nishiyama, the early accolades confirm a need for the app.

“Winning the Kellogg Venture Challenge was a validation that our vision extends far beyond the borders of Japan and holds potential on a global scale,” he said. “The fact that judges, presumably with little prior connection to Japan, awarded us the top position reinforced our resolve to attract investors and team members from diverse backgrounds and nationalities.

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