Chicago and Champaign-Urbana are two of the growing hotbeds for startups in the nation and since 2014, students at both the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois have the benefit of resources on both campuses to help take the next best idea or innovation to the marketplace.
The two globally recognized universities announced a partnership in the fall of 2014 “to unite the best minds in business and engineering.” Through this partnership, MBA students at top-ranked Chicago Booth would connect with engineering students from University of Illinois, home to 15 top-five ranked engineering degree programs, on opportunities to collaborate on venture creation. The goal was clear: support the entrepreneurial ecosystem that is keeping startups in the Midwest, instead of building their companies on the coasts.
The ecosystem is growing in prominence. For instance, The Brookings Institute lauded Champaign-Urbana as one of the top 20 metropolitan areas with the highest venture capital “first-funding” density. University of Illinois engineers have been responsible of some of the most recognizable technological innovations — YouTube, Facebook, Yelp, and Netscape to name a few. Meanwhile, Pitchbook noted that Chicago out-distanced the Bay Area, Boston, New York and all the other major U.S. cities in percentage of exits separated by MOIC (multiple on invested capital=exit value/total VC raised and Forbes listed UC’s New Venture Challenge as the fourth-best accelerator program for 2015.
The objective of the Illinois Innovative Initiative is to connect teams and individuals from the University of Chicago and University of Illinois and to support them through access to entrepreneurial resources on both campuses. The major entry points for students interested in collaborating come through events sponsored by the U of I’s Technology Entrepreneur Center and Chicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Throughout the school year there are a bevy of collaboration opportunities, including Social Fuse and The Collaboratorium.
Once teams have formed, students have access to accelerator space at Polsky Center Incubator, the Chicago’s Innovation Exchange Fab Lab, and iVenture Accelerator in Champaign. Many of the teams have benefitted from participating in either Chicago’s New Venture Challenge or Illinois’ Cozad New Venture Challenge. In addition to offering 10s of thousands of dollars in cash and in-kind prizes, the competitions help startups create a business model, and pitch and refine ideas. Successful well-known alumni have returned to campus to judge competition and offer important feedback. They are often the source for key networking opportunities, which have led to additional partners and funding.
There are a number of startups that have emerged from the partnership. One of the most notable has been Tovala, which features CEO David Rabie (MBA, Chicago), CTO co-founder Bryan Wilcox (PhD, Illinois, Mechanical Engineering) and Product Development Engineering Peter Fiflis (PhD, Illinois, Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering). Tovala received $500,000 in seed funding less than a year after winning the 2015 New Venture Challenge. In 2016, ExoWear, co-founded by Illinois Civil and Environmental Engineering student William Cheng took advantage of the partnership to recruit Booth students to the team, including Dan Reger, an MBA candidate at Chicago who has become the startup’s Chief Financial Officer. ExoWear was a finalist in Cozad and a semifinal finalist in NVC in ‘16.
“All of our engineering talent is either out of the U of I or closely tied to the U of I,” said Rabie, who was a part of the first collaboration between Booth and Engineering at Illinois in October of 2014. “That meeting opened my eyes to the potential and I kept my ears to the ground for engineering talent from Urbana-Champaign. It is something that we are particularly proud about, especially considering our investors are tied to both universities.”