The University of Illinois’ Startup Ecosystem


The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) has a rich history of producing great entrepreneurs. A few weeks ago I wrote a post highlighting some of the famous entrepreneurs that attended the university and some of the awesome companies they’ve started. This post will highlight the university’s current ecosystem for supporting student startups (as of September '15).

Entrepreneurship at UIUC is rapidly evolving and the snapshot presented here may not be a good representation of the campus in a few years. Nearly half of the programs I mention below did not exist when I started as a freshman three years ago. That said, I will periodically update this post as the ecosystem changes.

At the heart of the UIUC entrepreneurship scene are the extremely talented and motivated students and the great academic programs. Many of our departments and colleges are nationally and internationally ranked, with especially strong programs in Engineering and Business.

Below I’ve mapped out some of the major organizations and programs at UIUC for supporting student entrepreneurs. I have adapted a framework described in an article on Design Thinking in the June 2008 Harvard Business Review. The framework presents three categories through which all design projects must pass through: Inspiration, Ideation, and Implementation.

The University of Illinois’ Startup Ecosystem

Inspiration

Most of the programs at this stage help students get exposure to entrepreneurship without having to start their own company. In addition to taking courses in entrepreneurship, students can get experience by consulting startups (Enactus and EntreCORPS), meeting other entrepreneurial students (Innovation LLC and Innovation Certificate) or joining a startup (Startup Career Fair). Every January the school also organizes a trip to Silicon Valley for select students to visit tech startups and alums that have started companies.

Ideation

Most of the recently started programs at UIUC are at the ideation and implementation stages (over half were started in the last 3 years). These have helped increase the number of students working on startups and has made the ecosystem a lot more exciting.

Programs at the ideation stage help students build teams (SocialFuse), refine startup ideas (54.io and 3 Day Startup) and build prototypes (hackathons and hack nights). Some great resources for students at this stage are the CU Fab Lab and Illinois MakerLab, both of which provide great spaces to build prototypes of physical products.

Implementation

This is where the teams really become companies and get accelerated to launch their ventures.

Startup Bootcamp is a program run each fall that helps students at the earliest stages of their ventures refine their ideas and build out prototypes. Alumni from the first cohort (fall ‘14) have gone on to be a part of yCombinator, raise venture funding, and participate in a number of other accelerators.

The Cozad New Venture Competition — held each spring — allows teams to compete for almost $200,000 in monetary and in-kind prizes. Over a hundred teams have competed in the competition in each of the last two years.

The newest edition to the UIUC startup ecosystem, the iVenture Accelerator provides funding and co-working space to student founders to work on their startups full-time over the summer or part-time over the academic year.

Another resource at the implementation stage is the EnterpriseWorks incubator in Champaign. Generally utilized by companies commercializing research from the University or working on high-tech ventures, the incubator puts on many programs for student entrepreneurs as well.

Note: None of the programs in the ecosystem require that you go through any of the other programs in order to be eligible.


As these programs and the overall ecosystem at UIUC continues to improve and evolve, watch out for a larger number of quality startups coming out of central Illinois.

If you’d like to learn more or have questions, tweet at me or send me an email!


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