An essential part of a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem is talent—technical or otherwise — which universities may play a critical role in fostering (think Stanford University and Silicon Valley).
While there’s still a dearth of technical people in the city, local universities are increasingly coming onboard to support entrepreneurship and innovation. This shift in priorities could be seen at the first-ever University of Chicago Innovation Showcase, recently held on May 24th at the Booth School, where over 35 startups and student projects were on display.
According to Tracey Keller, Associate Director of Marketing, Communications, and External Relations for the Polsky Center, “The Showcase did come about in part because of the increased interest in entrepreneurship and innovation across the university. The demand from students, researchers, and faculty for entrepreneurship and innovation programs is growing rapidly, and we’ve been working more and more with these groups.”
Liz Kammel, the founder of ZipFit.me, concurs: “UChicago is growing a great ecosystem for entrepreneurship. The coaching, mentoring and support from professors, advisors and classmates was more than I could have ever imagined.”
Startups tabled at the Innovation Showcase ran the gamut, from fashion to faucets. Kammel’s ZipFit.me, a participant in the New Venture Challenge, is the “match.com of butts and jeans.” It uses an algorithm to find men better-fitting, stylish jeans. Men, check it out—their Fit Finder is quick and fun.
In addition to participants in the general NVC, many of the nascent companies were competitors in the Social New Venture Challenge. FeMME, competing in the Social NVC, seeks to end iron deficiency anemia, which is the largest public health problem in the world, affecting 2 billion people. FeMME’s solution is to develop and distribute iron-fortified food products in low-income countries. They plan to start testing in Nigeria with tomato paste, a healthy, common, and inexpensive food that is optimal for iron fortification.
Some of the companies at the Innovation Showcase even showed off physical prototypes. RKInventions presented a sanitary faucet with an ON and OFF lever. More germs cluster per square unit on a sink faucet than on a toilet seat, so the innovative design is meant to cut down on germs and thus on the spread of infectious diseases.
UChicago undergraduates were also well represented at the Innovation Showcase. Competitors in the Mobile App Challenge, largely on the young side, populated the room and showed off their innovative app ideas. Many of the apps were geared towards improving life at UChicago, as with uSave, which helps students find businesses that offer discounts to members of the UChicago community. Moneythink, an organization that teaches financial literacy to low-income youth and was founded by UChicago undergraduates, was also on display.
The diverse mix of startups on display at the Innovation Showcase may be a sign of the University’s recent added commitment of more resources to encouraging entrepreneurship among the student body, not only among Booth School students, but overll to the general student population.
UChicago isn’t alone in its reorientation towards entrepreneurship. On the other side of the city, Northwestern University runs Entrepreneur Idol, a pitch competition for undergraduates at midwestern universities. They also organize the NU Venture Challenge, a scaled-down version of the UChicago NVC.
It’s heartening to witness these competitions and showcases at UChicago and Northwestern. Universities are thick with resources and offer a supportive environment for blossoming entrepreneurs to cut their teeth. Many of the people tabling at the Innovation Showcase could go on to develop full-fledged businesses, which obviously benefits the ecosystem. If the local universities could somehow viably address the shortage of technical talent in Chicago, the ecosystem would be in even greater shape.
Photography: Anne Ryan