How this UIUC accelerator is feeding Chicago's tech ecosystem with ideas and talent

by James Risley
November 30, 2016

A tech ecosystem is about more than the startups, VCs and mentors in the market today — a strong ecosystem also needs a good pipeline of new talent to keep it fresh and innovative. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign may seem a far way from Chicago, but it’s helping to feed the city with new startup talent through its iVenture Accelerator.

“The University of Illinois has a long history of entrepreneurship,” said Ryan Singh, lead coordinator at iVenture. “The institution has gotten really good at commercializing faculty research and turning strengths in engineering and sciences into companies. That effort is now being echoed a lot more toward undergraduates and graduate students.”

iVentures is helping students with bright ideas keep up the momentum on their startup with a summer accelerator program. Instead of heading to Chicago or another tech hub for an internship with a big tech firm, students can focus on their own projects. After developing some hard tech and business skills, many of these students move to Chicago ready to build and innovate at a company in the city.

In the two years the program has taken place, it’s already spun out a few startups that have since started calling Chicago home. Rural healthcare connector Invoq Health and futuristic cast maker Cast21 are both working out of Matter. A stealth startup that graduated from the program called The Mouve is also based in the city.

Graduates from the accelerator are also creating ties throughout the Chicago tech scene. MyMetrics founder Helom Berhane is working at startup incubator 11 Roniin, while Invoq's founder Mayank Kale was an innovation fellow at healthcare analytics firm Apervita. Even students who don’t move forward with their projects still often end up working at other Chicago startups.

The program includes talks from successful alumni and regional entrepreneurs, workshops on how to raise money or research the market, and trips into Chicago to visit startup spaces like 1871, Matter and Catalyze. The program also meets with advisors from Chicago's tech scene, like Avant CEO Al Goldstein, Trunk Club CFO Kevin Price and Origin Ventures partner Steve Miller.  

Students are expected to focus tightly on building their product throughout the summer in preparation for two demo days. One event is held on campus, while the other takes place in Chicago in front of prospective funders. Last year's Chicago demo day was held at Avant and brought together 150 people from the Chicago tech community. 

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But students aren’t left to defend for themselves when school starts back up. During the fall and spring, iVenture participants take a three-credit-hour course on more generalized lessons, while still moving forward with project development.

“During the fall and the spring, we do step back a little bit to think about broader topics around entrepreneurship, and then give students time to apply those discussions to their own ventures,” Singh said.

For example, lawyers come in to talk about how to register a company, and students are given time to actually go and register their ventures. The course balances theory with application, and throughout the course, students give boardroom presentations to update their peers and instructors on their progress.

The program is funded by donations from a small group of alumni in the tech industry, but Singh said the plan is to move to an endowment model. The $300,000 annual budget is used to provide capital for student projects, as well as a $2,500 stipend for the summer program.

Image via iVenture Accelerator

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