Noah Isserman encourages iVenture involvement
February 17, 2021
iVenture Accelerator is the educational accelerator program powered by Gies College of Business School for top students’ startups from across the University. It is open for all degrees and ages on campus. Noah Isserman, an award-winning researcher and Gies faculty member, is a co-founder and Faculty Director with the program. Isserman met with The Daily Illini to talk about the invaluable iVenture platform provided to budding student entrepreneurs.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Daily Illini: Could you talk about the training provided by iVenture?
Noah Isserman: Venturing is hard, building a new product or service in its own right is also hard and building the organization to support that sustainably is even harder. Training ranges from how to concisely capture the soul of a startup in a short pitch to things that are more technical like how are you going to incorporate and file your taxes. Our first-time entrepreneurs are doing all this while being students, so we end up as a community of learners addressing 14 big areas of skills over a full year we spend together.
DI: What are the deciding factors that allow a startup idea go forward?
NI: It’s complex. We have a committee of faculty and staff experts from across campus to help us make decisions. We have a standard 15-20 element applications, reviewed by multiple members of the committee including professors, alumni of the program, friends from Research Park, people from Illinois Ventures, which is the public-private partnership venture capital fund. There are three rounds of applications annually and every team that submits gets committee feedback on improving their venture that might help them. We make sure every stage of the process is educational and valuable for student entrepreneurs, even if we can’t offer them a place in the program.
DI: How has the frequency of new incoming projects been affected with the COVID wave?
NI: The mechanics of our program has been profoundly affected. Historically, we are a close community of 50 people over the summer, taking meals together three times a week, constantly working, bringing in 100s of community leaders and entrepreneurs to work with our team, with local school field trips, disadvantaged high school groups and interns working with our teams. Historically, the program has been mainly in-person. Since March 2020, we took the choice of going online. The current cohort of startups with iVenture, in its sixth year, has started completely online and as it is mechanically very different. We found the set of tools such as Slack, Zoom, virtual whiteboards, etc., that allow for one-on-one conversations from around the world. Without the constraint of being in-person, we can have world-class guests running private, candid, vulnerable sessions with our students every single session of the week.
DI: Are you excited about any upcoming projects, something we can look forward to?
NI: One of the best things about being a faculty director for ambitious young people is that every year I get to learn about a dozen new industries or corners of the world and get to keep supporting teams even after they have left our program. For example, 2020 was a hard year in many ways, but still iVenture alumni teams raised more than 11 million dollars across four teams and current students raised 1.2 million dollars and hired dozens of new employees, mostly in Illinois. It’s an overall thriving community generating these great outcomes and allowing the birth of new teams which are some of my favorite things.
DI: For those students who are at the tipping point of applying to iVentures, what will be your advice?
NI: There is no downside! There is a very supportive committee and team that runs the program and no matter what the outcome, you get feedback on your work. Students can apply as many times as they want every year and that sort of positive momentum is one of the biggest predictors of team success in the long term. We don’t take any equity in teams we work with; every team gets a $2500 stipend for the summer and up to $10,000 to build, travel, prototype whatever they need to move their adventure forward. This is free money, and not an investment because we always want to be on the same side of the table as our students without expectation of any incentives.