Building the Tech Talent
Pipeline to Chicago
Building the Tech Talent Pipeline to Chicago
Grainger engineers represent the past, present, and future of the Illinois economy. For generations, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has prepared the engineers, entrepreneurs, and innovators who become the next leaders of industry. The impacts of their work can be seen in every part of the world, but the heart of their influence lives just a couple of hours north of campus, in Chicago.
Our graduates fuel the engines of the tech economy in the Windy City. They imagine, build, and reinvent the iconic skyline. They make breakthrough discoveries and pioneer new sectors of industry.
It's no great secret that Illinois produces the kind of talent that high-profile employers on a global scale are dying to hire. But by investing in partnerships and programs that keep our talent local, by offering our students a world-class education with boundless entrepreneurial opportunities, by providing access to a network of more than 70,000 alumni—by building a tech talent pipeline to Chicago—Illinois is building a brighter future.
By building relationships with institutions, programs, and businesses in the city, the university can inspire student engineers and help to establish relationships between our innovators and those in Chicago who can help them succeed.
The ThinkChicago program comes from a partnership between World Business Chicago and the City of Chicago in an effort to bring the best young tech minds to Chicago. During the ThinkChicago: Chicago Ideas Week, students from the University of Illinois and other schools get a behind-the-scenes look at the Chicago tech ecosystem. Students can tour some of the city's most innovative companies and learn from professionals in their field.
ThinkChicago also puts on a roadshow that made its first stop in Urbana-Champaign. These trips take Chicago tech and civic leaders to universities to meet students where they are and introduce all the possibilities in the Chicago tech landscape.
This innovative program gives students the combined experience of a world-class Illinois education with the exciting chance to work in the tech landscape. Students spend a semester in Chicago, working a part-time internship while still taking classes toward graduation from UI faculty. Students are scattered at companies in the heart of Chicago. The inaugural companies are:
- BlueCross BlueShield
- CME Group
- JPMorgan Chase
- Next Capital
The Discovery Partners Institute (DPI) is a newly announced interdisciplinary research institute meant to spark innovation and catalyze economic growth. In this space, students and researchers from the University of Illinois will have a central hub within Chicago to work with people around the world. As part of the Illinois Innovation Network, the DPI will connect world-class researchers, students, and private companies to develop innovative solutions, kick-start entrepreneurship, and build the leaders of the future. The institute and location was announced in the fall of 2017, and a detailed implementation plan should be announced later this year.
The University of Illinois’ relationship with The Polsky Center, run out of the University of Chicago and the Booth School of Business, demonstrates the value of creating a bridge between academia and industry. The program includes a 34,000 square-foot, multi-disciplinary work space, a $20 million Innovation Fund, and a Fabrication Lab for prototyping new products. Various successful start-ups and partnerships between UI engineers and Chicago business minds have grown from this connection.
The fsIllinois mark on Chicago would not be complete without the outreach efforts to bring world-class engineering education to aspiring students. The ICANEXSEL program engages middle school aged Chicago Public School students in engineering activities and reinforces the importance of STEM education. ICANEXSEL students also have the opportunity to attend a summer camp for engineering on the Illinois campus.
“What if we formed more collaboration with those universities and created a dense network of students, faculty, and research; and encouraged them to form businesses, connect them to the university, and give them the rights and ability to take their research and their technology and commercialize them, and develop products? We thought that would be a major magnet to keeping and growing the Illinois economy.”
Innovative Illinois alumni are also choosing Chicago as the place to grow their businesses. Ideas that grew from relationships in Urbana-Champaign are now building in Chicago, contributing to its reputation as a growing technology hub.
Say goodbye to gross, uncomfortable casts for broken bones. This group of three Grainger engineers has developed a waterproof fracture orthotic that is more hygienic, lighter, and more comfortable than a traditional plaster cast. Although they’re based in Chicago now, the trio started working together as seniors and participated in the iVenture Accelerator. Since leaving Urbana-Champaign the team has moved into an mHub space where different start-ups can work on development and manufacturing.
This start-up has its roots in EnterpriseWorks in Champaign, but is also taking on a space in a mHub facility. OceanComm developed a high-speed wireless underwater modem that allows for wireless video streaming underwater and remote control of underwater vehicles. These can be used in the gas and oil industry. Before taking on Chicago, OceanComm won the Cozad New Venture Challenge and participated in the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program, all UI-based programs.
This innovative new way to cook comes as a direct result of the partnership the University of Illinois has with The Polsky Center and the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. The team is made up of both Booth and Illinois graduates who came together through the Technology Entrepreneurship Center’s Cozad New Venture competition. Together the team is selling a smart oven and packaged meals, giving busy people the ability to eat well.
One of the e-commerce’s tech company’s founders, Craig Vodnik, got his start at Illinois and is now using his entrepreneurial skills and thriving company to give back to the next generation of Illini engineers. Not only is Cleverbridge part of the City Scholars program, but he is also a part of a number of mentorship programs for young entrepreneurs.
Ocient, a rapid data analysis company, has a number of UI engineering alumni on staff, and are welcoming more to the ranks. They are one of the companies that welcomed Illini interns as a part of City Scholars.
Personify is taking video conferencing, live streaming, and gaming to the next level by harnessing AI and machine learning technologies to help users create immersive video. The software uses data obtained from 3D cameras to measure depth of field and separate the user from his or her environment, then removes the background and allows the user to customize. One of the oldest and most prominent startups to launch out of the Urbana-Champaign entrepreneurial hub, Personify has employed nearly 25 graduates from The Grainger College of Engineering over the years.
With part of the founding team holding degrees from Grainger Engineering, Shipbob is helping business and creators of all sizes manage and fulfill orders from online stores. The team has grown significantly in the past few years, recently getting $17.5 million of funding from Bain Capital Ventures for their operation.
Entrepreneurship is not limited to students and alumni. Grainger Engineering professor Stephen Boppart is one of the cofounders of Chicago-based Diagnostic Photonics. Along with co-founder and former UI professor Scott Carney, the medical device company provides state-of-the-art, high-resolution imaging systems. This connects the ground-breaking research happening at Illinois to the market at large.
Digital Adventures is giving kids in Chicago and the surrounding areas a chance to do hands-on coding and computer engineering projects. Their team members have multiple degrees from the University of Illinois, and the company is bringing a love of engineering to kids through classes, camps, workshops, and birthday parties. With classes starting as young as preschool age, students do projects like learning to build websites, make robots, and create virtual reality worlds.
Online lending company Avant has Illini from all ends of campus, but two of its founders hail from Grainger Engineering. The company began in 2012 after Illini alumni Paul Zhang, Al Goldstein, and John Sun met at Y-Combinator. Since then it has served over 600,000 users in two countries, and employs more than 500 people. In 2017, Pitchbook named Avant the fifth fastest startup to reach $2 billion valuation.
among Illinois schools for developing entrepreneurs in the Greater-Chicago Area
Pitchbook Universities Report, 2016-2017 Edition
among national universities for undergraduate venture-backed start-ups
(#1 among Illinois schools)
Pitchbook Universities Report, 2016-2017 Edition
among national universities graduating the most future CEOs of well-funded start-ups
Inc. Magazine, published May 14, 2018</span
in national performance of undergraduate female entrepreneurs
Pitchbook Universities Report, 2016-2017 Edition
From the first day a student steps foot on the Illinois campus, they have access to programs that inspire and prepare them for careers they could never imagine. Whether it’s starting their own business or being an innovator in the workforce, Grainger engineers get all the tools they need to be at the top of whatever they want to pursue.
This multidisciplinary space brings worldwide companies right to the existing talent in Champaign-Urbana. By working with these companies, faculty and students can work on commercializing products and developing ideas without having to compromise their research and academic progress.
Research Park is now home to more than 110 companies and growing, employing 2,000 people in high-technology careers. At any given time more than 650 student interns are working in these companies gaining valuable experience while making real contributions to internal corporate R&D and product development programs. Multinational and/or publicly traded corporations in the Research Park include:
- Abbott Laboratories
- AB InBev
- Capital One
- CME Group
- Deere & Company
- Dow AgroSciences
- Jump Labs
- State Farm
Named one of Inc Magazine's “Top 3 College Town Incubators" and one of Forbes' "12 Business Incubators Changing the World," EnterpriseWorks is an incubator facility and resource center for science and technology focused entrepreneurs. Owned and operated by the University of Illinois, the 43,000 square-foot EnterpriseWorks facility is designed to help launch successful startup companies.
IllinoisVENTURES catalyzes the creation and development of research-derived companies from the University of Illinois. IllinoisVENTURES begins working with technologies at the very earliest stages of their development, typically prior to a technology transitioning out of the laboratory. By providing Proof of Concept and Seed funding, the IllinoisVENTURES team is able to help startup teams build commercial prototypes, validate their target markets, refine their business models, recruit key management, and position their companies for Series A investment.
The TEC provides students and faculty alike with the tools and opportunities to grow their innovative ideas and hone their entrepreneurship skills. This is done through mentorship, skill building, and hands on experiences like SocialFuse, Cozad New Venture Competition, and the Illinois Innovation Prize to name a few. This professional development and opportunity for funding gives Grainger engineers the resources and confidence to bring innovative ideas to the economy.
To break into the tech world and solve problems effectively, students need to be able to think creatively. This center will help them do just that. This is another step in a campus wide initiative to develop the potential of design-based thinking in teaching, research and engagement. In this space, students will be encouraged to develop their unique skills and solve problems. This is a campus-wide initiative and will bring together multidisciplinary thinkers. The new 60,000 square foot facility is expected to open in 2020.
Two world-class programs come together to give students an in-depth look at how to solve real-world problems. A group of highly qualified students from The Grainger College of Engineering and the Gies College of Business learn together in an integrated program. Without losing any of the depth in their primary field, students gain insight into other disciplines to get a more well-rounded approach to problem solving.
The AWARE (Accelerating Women And underRepresented Entrepreneurs) program is a collaboration among The Grainger College of Engineering, the Office of Technology Management, and the EnterpriseWorks incubator at the Research Park, funded by the National Science Foundation to support entrepreneurship training, counseling, and networking. AWARE offers resources and an enhanced infrastructure that make the current entrepreneurial ecosystem more accessible to all.
“The University of Illinois is launching more start-ups than anyone outside of our entrepreneurial ecosystem can comprehend. Start-ups involved in the U of I entrepreneurial ecosystem are frequently meeting with alumni, entrepreneurs, investors and customers in the Chicago area thanks to the efforts of the Champaign ecosystem to ensure they have those opportunities. The results of these efforts are a major factor in planting the seed for a move to Chicago.”
The hustle and bustle of Chicago's downtown "Loop" might seem a world away from the tech prairie buzzing just 137 miles south. But the close connections fostered by a shared vision for advancing technology and cultivating the brightest of minds is increasingly bringing Chicago and Urbana-Champaign closer.
These relationships create a pipeline of collaboration between the resources of Chicago and the great minds that develop and innovate in Urbana-Champaign. The teamwork that grows between these two centers of development and innovation is vital not only to the development of their own strengths, but to the strengths of the state of Illinois. By connecting the brightest minds in the state of Illinois with one another and giving them resources and opportunities, great accomplishments happen.
The economy is strengthened, groundbreaking discoveries are made, and minds are inspired, right at home in the Midwest. What begins here in Illinois has international influence, shaping all realms of technology and engineering.
Share your Illinois entrepreneurship story!
Have you (or someone you know) been involved with starting a company in the Urbana-Champaign or Chicago areas? We want to hear from you! We’d love to add your company to our interactive map and share your story with others.