University of Chicago partners with University engineers to promote startup development

By Josh Winters

The College of Engineering is partnering with the University of Chicago’s Chicago Innovation Exchange to bring undergraduate students together to promote the development and growth of new startup companies in Illinois. 

“Early, the opportunity was to put together the best minds in engineering and the best minds in business between the Booth School (of Business) and the University of Illinois College of Engineering; two of the top programs in the country in those respective fields,” said John Flavin, CIE executive director. 

The CIE announced the partnership when it launched Oct. 16. The partnership aims to build relationships between students at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and University engineering students to combine students’ talents and ideally create numerous in-state startup companies.

Sunil Kumar, dean of the Booth School of Business, said in a press release that he believes the program will go a long way toward improving the climate of innovation in Illinois. 

“Both schools have a tremendous history of entrepreneurship and innovation,” Kumar said in a press release. “Through this partnership, Booth students and faculty will have more opportunities to connect with top-tier engineering talent and an expanded network of innovators building start-ups in Illinois.” 

Seniors from the University and Booth will participate in a year-long course based on the Urbana campus, where they will study product design and early-opportunity identification, as well as collaborate to potentially lay the foundation for new companies. 

Flavin said CIE’s partnership with the University was received with excitement at the Booth School of Business; within the first 48 hours, more than 130 MBA students had voiced interest in the program. 

“The benefits to the students, of course, would be the ability for Chicago Booth students to work with engineering talent to be able to design and build a product that could be part of a startup that they could launch here in Illinois,” said Flavin. “For the engineering student, it could be the ability to interact with a Chicago Booth school student with experience in business that could help them with their idea and with their business experience, the ability to help bring the idea to the market.”

Meghan Fisher, associate director of the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Chicago, hopes the partnership between the University and the CIE will raise students’ awareness of the resources that are available to aspiring entrepreneurs within Illinois. 

“I think by making sure people are aware that they have resources here and that people really want to support them, we can promote (economic) activity here as well,” Fisher said. 

A pilot program similar to the new partnership was conducted in the Spring 2014 semester. 

“We had a surgeon at the University of Chicago Medical Center pair up with some engineering students around a surgical room app that can better manage the flow of utensils in and out of the surgery room,” Flavin said. 

He said the app improved the efficiency of the operating room and was very well received. 

Bill Bell, spokesman for the College of Engineering, said products, similar to the app, stem from the core principle of the partnership between the two universities: problem solving. 

“It’s really problem solving that is the heart of it,” Bell said. “If it’s an app that is what’s going to both attack that problem and has a good business model to go with it, I think you would see an app grow out of it.”

He said student-made products that would be produced by the program would not necessarily be apps; they could take any number of forms such as hardware or machinery. 

Already, 25 seniors in electrical and computer engineering, as well as 15 students from Chicago Booth, have signed on to participate in the program, according to Fisher.

“They’re great problem solvers, they’re world-class engineers from a technical prospective, but many of them come to us as undergraduates ready to look for entrepreneurial opportunities,” Bell said. “There are 10,000 engineers, more and more of them with that entrepreneurial interest and drive, so this gives us a great way to expand that out.”

Bell hopes that programs like this will expand to include students across multiple departments, giving University students a competitive edge as entrepreneurs. 

“You’re talking about one of the best MBA programs in the world and one of the best engineering programs in the world, so one of the important things to remember is that the sky is the limit here,” said Bell. “There are all kinds of possibilities that can grow out of this that we can’t even imagine at this point.”

Josh can be reached at [email protected]