Over the past 15 years, and picking up speed every day, the University is purposefully creating an environment that fosters more innovation.
Start small, think big could be considered chapter one of the entrepreneurs’
playbook. At the third annual UChicago Innovation Showcase last May, small meant a card table. That’s the space that 40 UChicago teams from both the Edward L. Kaplan, MBA’71, New Venture Challenge (NVC) and other parts of the University had to pitch their big ideas to the Chicago Booth students, faculty, investors, and entrepreneurs roaming the Charles M. Harper Center’s sunny Rothman Winter Garden.
At one table, Chicago Booth student Aparna Misra discussed HighStride, the company she founded with her running coach, Stefano Galiasso. Rather than merely tracking workouts like most training apps, HighStride will use the data it collects—distance and duration of your most recent runs, injury status, date of next 5K or triathlon—to fine-tune future workouts.
“It makes personalized training more accessible to more runners,” said Misra. “And training is what gets you to the finish line.”
For HighStride and the other 2013–14 NVC teams, the Innovation Showcase wasn’t a finish line as much as a rest stop. Over the previous eight months, the teams had endured multiple elimination rounds as they developed and refined their ideas through workshops and feasibility studies. They then further honed their business plans and skills in BUS 34104 Special Topics in Entrepreneurship: Developing a New Venture. The showcase was their chance to share their ideas with a larger audience. It was also where they would learn if they were among the NVC winners to receive a portion of the $300,000 in prize money and further seed their ventures.
Win or not, the NVC teams that venture on will face new and higher hurdles as they work to grow their businesses. But these founders will continue to have seasoned investors, start-up veterans, and alumni mentors giving advice and cheering them on, along with the rest of the innovation and entrepreneurship support network that exists across the University today.
The rigor of a University of Chicago education has always been an ideal foundation for what might be called an innovative mindset: a flexibility and agility of thought able not only to identify weaknesses in an idea but also to find solutions by breaking a complex question into its discrete parts, then synthesizing them in new and original ways. Over the past 15 years, and picking up speed every day, the University has purposefully created an environment that fosters innovation. Translating new ideas into practical applications is one way to extend the impact of faculty work. At the same time, initiatives across campus serve and enhance the growing interest in entrepreneurship and innovation among UChicago students.
Many of those interests are served at the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Founded in 1998 as the Center for Entrepreneurship, it both teaches Chicago Booth students the fundamentals of new venture creation and gives them practical entrepreneurial experience. Two leadership gifts from University trustee Michael Polsky, MBA’87, have since expanded the center’s mission and reach: Today the center works with students, faculty, and programs from all parts of the University. That includes undergraduates. College students, many of whom already participate in the UChicago Careers in Entrepreneurship program, have access to Polsky Center resources, including two new classes: Entrepreneurial Discovery—an introduction to assessing and addressing real-world needs in education, health care, consumer products, and technology—and User-Centered Design for Entrepreneurs.
The Polsky Center’s larger mission is mirrored in the growth of the New Venture Challenge. Starting with one competition for Chicago Booth students—now the Edward L. Kaplan, MBA’71, New Venture Challenge (or Traditional NVC)— it has added tracks for international executive MBA students and undergraduates, as well as the John A. Edwardson, MBA’72, Social New Venture Challenge, a partnership with Chicago Booth’s Social Enterprise Initiative, to which Edwardson, a University trustee, made a founding gift.
Of course, not every student on campus has start-up fever. But, says Steven Kaplan, Neubauer Family Distinguished Service Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance and faculty director of the Polsky Center, “Even students who don’t plan to start a business when they graduate say they benefit from the skills taught in our entrepreneurship courses,” which help them better evaluate business opportunities, raise capital, manage operations, and develop and implement strategy.
As students learn to put innovation into practice, faculty-led initiatives promise impressive impact. The Institute for Molecular Engineering, launched in 2011, pursues breakthrough technologies in quantum computing, immunotherapy, and energy storage, and it is partnering with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev to develop technology to protect and expand the world’s supply of clean, fresh water. UChicago’s Urban Education Institute produces and tests innovative ideas in Chicago’s public schools to create national models in education. Fueling much of this work is computation, which has revolutionized the physical and biological sciences, is transforming the social sciences, and is branching into the humanities and the arts.
Faculty also get support from the Center for Technology Development & Ventures (UChicago-Tech), which helps transform University research into tangible products and services. One recent example comes from the lab of Heinrich Jaeger, the William J. Friedman and Alicia Townsend Friedman Professor in Physics, the James Franck Institute, and the College. With students and colleagues at UChicago and Cornell, Jaeger has harnessed a property of granular materials, the “jamming transition,” to create a universal gripping tool. Attached to a robotic arm, it can grasp and manipulate different-shaped objects, from hex nuts to light bulbs. UChicagoTech resources, including specialized mentoring and support throughout the patenting process, facilitated a joint Cornell-UChicago patent that start-up Empire Robotics hasturned into a commercial product, the Versaball™. Now marketed for industrial use, it may also one day advance the field of prosthetics.
All the players in the University’s innovation community, from UChicagoTech to the Polsky Center to the College, have a new base of operations in Hyde Park: the Chicago Innovation Exchange (CIE). Created in 2013, the CIE moved into its permanent home at 53rd Street and Harper Avenue this October. There, faculty, students, and staff, as well as local entrepreneurs, can connect with business know-how and investment opportunities to move products efficiently into the marketplace and to translate world-class research into scalable solutions to societal problems. The CIE is also home to the $20 million Innovation Fund, which helps UChicago start-ups bridge the gap—the “valley of death”—between basic research funding and commercial investment.
The CIE currently can incubate five to 10 businesses at a time. A second location across 53rd street, opening in 2015, will add 3D printers, mills, and other prototyping technology and bring IME and Argonne National Laboratory into close proximity, accelerating collaboration between their energy and water project teams. With everything in place, the CIE becomes a distinctive addition to the city’s and the region’s innovation ecosystem. It links the scholarship, education, and resources that Chicago Booth has developed through the Polsky Center to science across the University, to affiliates such as Argonne, and to new focal points of innovation such as IME. This creates a singularly powerful engine for technology start-ups.
Among the first to benefit from the CIE’s resources were the 2014 participants in the Polsky Center’s Accelerator Program for UChicago start-ups. For nine weeks this summer, the nascent ventures received funding, office space, access to Polsky Center staff, coaching from faculty, mentorship from alumni entrepreneurs and Chicago-area investors, and weekly programming designed to help them overcome many of the hurdles to launching a business. Aparna Misra, now a Chicago Booth second-year, and her running coach spent the summer in the program, fine-tuning HighStride, the runner’s training app that made it to the final round in May’s NVC.
The cowinners of the Traditional NVC, RoomVa and Simple Mills, push forward as well. RoomVa’s website makes it easier for young adults in South America, who typically live with their parents until marriage, to book rooms in small and medium-sized hotels for private time with their significant others. With their $30,000 from the NVC, RoomVa hopes to expand beyond Peru, home of CEO Diego Santa Maria, now in his second year at Chicago Booth. Simple Mills’ gluten-free almond flour baking mixes are top sellers on Amazon and have shelf space at Whole Foods and natural grocery stores around the country. But there’s still room to grow and follow in the footsteps of previous NVC winners Braintree, purchased last year by eBay, and GrubHub, one of 2014’s most-watched IPOs.
The same goes for the growing hum of innovation across the University. Every day brings new resources, collaborators, and ideas, creating a self-sustaining ecosystem that allows all UChicago students, faculty, and community partners to start small but think big.
—The Institute for Molecular Engineering has since been renamed Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering.