UIUC's Rithmio on tech talent trickling up from downstate

Sam Dewey

File 49608

The team behind Rithmio

It’s been said more than once or twice before: the Chicago tech scene is on fire. And according to one local startup, a tech talent pipeline leading out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is helping fuel those flames.

Rithmio, a company that develops gesture recognition technology for wearables, is one of the more recent success stories to come out of the University of Illinois. Last month, they raised a $3M seed round and already have offices in both Champaign and Chicago.

“The University of Illinois does a ton to support entrepreneurs,” said Rithmio co-founder and CEO Adam Tilton. “One of the premier academic institutions in the world lies just two hours outside of Chicago, and we’re lucky enough to have Chicago investors who really want to keep that tech talent here in the Midwest.”

Meet Rithmio and their innovative motion sensing technology

With Rithmio’s motion gesture software, wearable tech like smart watches and smartphones (as well as prospective wearables like fitness clothing) can track, analyze, and ultimately personalize repetitive movement. But Rithmio isn’t interested in using the technology to develop their own applications.

“We’re in the business of enabling,” Tilton said. “We’re constantly developing technology so other startups can implement and benefit from our technology.”

From human and computer interaction to interactive gaming, Tilton said the potential applications for this particular brand of analytical gesture recognition technology are boundless. 

The Illini Entrepreneurial Spirit

Rithmio owes at least part of its success to collegiate roots stretching downstate to Champaign-Urbana. Not only did Tilton meet co-founder Professor Prashant Mehta during his academic career on UIUC’s campus, but they also spent time at UIUC’s tech incubator, EnterpriseWorks, where the duo developed the technology that would eventually become the backbone of Rithmio.

UIUC in turn does its fair share to support entrepreneurship on campus. The University of Illinois’ Technology Entrepreneur Center (TEC), which launched in 2000 as an initiative to cultivate entrepreneurial ambitions for both faculty and students, offers courses, competitions, and workshops to help foster a sense of curiosity in technological innovation and market adoption.

One of the TEC’s most celebrated competitions is the Cozad New Venture Competition, a comprehensive experience aimed at preparing young entrepreneurs to get their feet in the door.  

"The Cozad New Venture Competition is more than a traditional business plan competition—it's a learning experience for up-and-coming entrepreneurs,” said Jed Taylor, Director of Operations at TEC. “From field trips to 1871, TechNexus, Chicago Innovation Exchange, or one-on-one coaching from mentors in the tech community, there are ample opportunities for students to gain access to the right resources and advisors from Champaign to Chicago."

In 2014, Rithmio won the Cozad New Venture Competition—which landed Tilton and team with $25,000 worth of spoils. But Rithmio’s win also piqued the interest of the judges—including A-list Chicago venture capitalists like Guy Turner and Mark Tebbe, whose further investments helped lead to a $650,000 seed round.

And Rithmio isn’t the competition’s first success story.

"There have been many companies that have launched from the Cozad New Venture Competition over the years that opened offices in Chicago, including past winners Microlution and OrangeQC,” Taylor said. “Chicago is full of entrepreneurs that got their start on the University of Illinois campus and each spring many of them come back to campus to participate in our Cozad New Venture Competition as judges and mentors."

From Champaign to Chicago, UIUC helps keep tech talent in the Midwest

Tilton initially opened up the Chicago office after investors recommended he move to the city to attract talent from Chicago’s pool of developers. But the 27-year-old Peoria native hasn’t abandoned his roots and is adamant the relationship between UIUC and Chicago remains mutually beneficial.

Tilton said he intends to grow both the Chicago and Champaign offices concurrently. And, according to Tilton, Chicago is a stellar landing ground for young, talented engineers and developers—especially for Chicagoland Illini who don’t necessarily want to start their professional lives away from their families on the bookends of the country.

“Our core technology and most of our founding team originated from the University of Illinois,” Tilton said. “We maintain a strong connection with UIUC, and continue to source top tech talent for both internship and full-time positions."

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