University incubator promotes startups
January 31, 2019
Established in 2003, EnterpriseWorks is an incubator facility based at Research Park. No other facility in Illinois has received as much federal funding, in the form of Small Business Innovation Research or Small Business Technology Transfer Research grants, as this University-owned technology startup haven.
Unlike most other incubators, Laura Frerichs, director of Research Park, said they focus on bringing on “deep tech” startups, offering them comprehensive entrepreneurial support services to help them commercialize technology and grow.
“(EnterpriseWorks) is the confluence of startups from across the University,” she said. “When you walk the halls of EnterpriseWorks, you see really dynamic science at work and people who are taking their talents and their ability to invent beyond the labs on campus and creating commercial opportunities for new small businesses.”
Only 24 percent of startups at EnterpriseWorks have been founded by University students, while startups led by faculty and staff members account for 55 percent.
Since 2009 — when Frerichs began her tenure — the companies at the facility have received 11 percent, or approximately $38.8 million, of all Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer Research funding awards in the state of Illinois.
Apart from government financing, as of July 2018, startups incubated at EnterpriseWorks had also raised over $1 billion in capital from private sources.
“That’s validation from an external standpoint that our companies have something unique,” Frerichs said.
At Research Park, over 70 startups, in fields ranging from biotechnology to robotics, rub shoulders with industry titans like Yahoo! and Caterpillar.
In a bid to establish working parity between them, the 43,000-square-foot facility offers a plethora of resources and services to its tenants. Companies based at the incubator receive not just office space, free WiFi and access to the conference rooms but also have access to two fully-equipped labs for testing and prototyping purposes.
But for Frerichs, EnterpriseWorks is about more than just the material resources.
“We have a rich support system with mentoring and guidance,” she said. “And we’ve created a peer community that understands how to make (technology) companies successful.”
As part of their support services, EnterpriseWorks has a team of over 10 Entrepreneurs-In-Residence. They are tech industry veterans who have been successful commercializing technology, having traversed the path most startups aspire to.
In addition to organizing seminars, these experts also provide mentorship and expertise on a wide array of aspects related to growing a technology company.
For Ayush Kumar, co-founder and CEO of Vitrix Health, this is one of the most compelling factors about EnterpriseWorks.
“It’s a place of just high-level networking,” the 2018 University graduate said. “The staff at EnterpriseWorks, they’ve been more than helpful in getting us set up as a resource-constrained startup.”
Vitrix Health is a medical-technology startup working to create affordable and accurate oral cancer screening devices for developing nations. After winning the University’s CoZad New Venture Challenge Competition in May 2018, they received free leasing space at EnterpriseWorks among other prizes. Vitrix moved their operations to the incubator in August 2018.
On their journey to settling at EnterpriseWorks, Kumar said they leveraged various nodes in the University’s entrepreneurship network; at one point, in February 2017, receiving a micro-grant of $500 through Venmo from the entrepreneurial RSO Founders.
“It’s very college,” Kumar said. “But that $500 was really insurmountable when it came to ordering a prototype and really getting us off the ground.”
Even before Kumar got involved with Vitrix, he had taken advantage of the services offered by EnterpriseWorks and networked with the experts there.
To him, that part of his University experience was inimitable.
“I do think if you have an idea and even if it’s really early, any student should venture down there and just see what’s up because there’s just so much going on in that space,” Kumar said. “And every Friday there’s free food there, and teachers come to give talks.”
EnterpriseWorks organized 217 events in 2018, Laura Bleill, associate director of Research Park, said. She also said most of their programming is topical, geared toward building skills needed for entrepreneurship.
“(EnterpriseWorks) is a place where people kind of think about the idea of becoming an entrepreneur,” Bleill said. “Or, I guess, you could say they dip their toes in the water, so to speak, of entrepreneurship. And we provide a lot of programming and resources for them to do that.”
They organize a broad range of events to build community, from fun activities such as the annual table-tennis tournament to professional networking and recruiting events.
Among her responsibilities of handling external communications for Research Park, Bleill also oversees the AWARE program. In collaboration with the College of Engineering and the Office of Technology Management, EnterpriseWorks offers the Accelerating Women And underRepresented Entrepreneurs program to encourage more women to explore the sciences. It was started with a $100,000 award from the National Science Foundation to support the training, counseling and networking of women in technology.
For EnterpriseWorks, one of the main goals is also to “graduate” companies. Bleill added that most startups remain at the incubator for three to five years.
“The secret sauce here is certainly the community that exists,” she said. “In some ways, we’re, unfortunately, a well-kept secret. But we love to serve the University community, and we value participation from across the campus. This is a community that really welcomes people to explore and, hopefully, some students might take advantage of those resources.”