Engineering at Illinois launches program to "fundamentally redefine the role of faculty in innovation."


"Our alumni want us at the forefront of entrepreneurship in academia. They aren't followers, and we won't be either,"says Professor Andrew Singer, who leads the Faculty Entrepreneurial Fellows program. "Illinois has long been a leader in engineering technology and engineering education, and this will once again show how Illinois can lead the world, and our alumni are allowing us to make it happen right now."

Three of those alumni are already supporting the fellows:

  • Sanjay Srivastava (MS 1987, Electrical Engineering) co-founded Denali Software, a bootstrapped venture, which was acquired by Cadence Design Systems in 2010. He is also chairman and CEO of Vocareum, which provides a cloud-based platform for managing large computer science classes.
  • John Thode (BS 1979, Electrical Engineering) is president of DigitalOptics Corporation, which makes imaging systems for mobile devices.
  • Andrew Yang (MS 1986, PhD 1989, Electrical Engineering) founded Apache Design Solutions (acquired by ANSYS) and Anagram (acquired by Avanti). He invests in early-stage technology startups.

‘The Era of Embedded Entrepreneurship Starts Now’

States have looked to their colleges for economic development for decades. External funding for professors’ research goes back centuries. And the sabbatical? It’s discussed in the Old Testament.

“What do we think of engineers doing? The impossible. Seeing challenges and overcoming them—aggressively and quickly,” says Andreas Cangellaris, dean of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s College of Engineering. “But universities’ concepts of faculty innovation and entrepreneurship are stuck in the past. We’re going to change that.”

“The era of embedded entrepreneurship starts now.”

Engineering at Illinois’ new Faculty Entrepreneurial Fellows program will “fundamentally redefine the role of faculty in innovation,” Cangellaris says. A group of passionate alumni are supporting the program (see sidebar), which is the first of its kind in a U.S. engineering program.

The first fellows are being selected now and will be named this summer. These professors—three to five of them—will rotate out of their classroom teaching and other service to the university for at least a year. Instead they’ll focus on bringing their work to the world by developing a technology and testing its commercial potential.

“The traditional model—the model other universities adopt and that we’ve historically used—has amazing benefits. It gets world-changing ideas into people’s hands, it creates jobs, and it makes some people a lot of money.”

“But too often this model doesn’t achieve the university’s core mission. It doesn’t further students’ education, and it alienates faculty,” Cangellaris says.

Rather than being in the classroom, these fellows will be working with students out in the world. Together, they’ll conduct experiments, build prototypes, visit potential customers, study the market, conduct proof-of-concept research, and grow an entrepreneurial opportunity. And they’ll do all that with the advice and guidance of a group of veteran alumni mentors.

“Our first responsibility will always be to our students, preparing them for excellent careers. But, when you have an idea for a company, the old model requires you to put the pedal down and drive your company away from those students as far and as fast as you can,” says Andrew Singer, a serial entrepreneur and professor who is responsible for a host of innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives in the College.

“That’s unacceptable. It slows the impact of our technology. Worse, it steals a vital experience from our students. We can build an environment where entrepreneurship is an integral part of professors’ and students’ lives. The Faculty Entrepreneurial Fellows is one way we’re going to do it.”