Revamped Cozad Competition producing dividends
Now in its 18th year, the Cozad New Venture Competition continues as a launching point for University of Illinois students in their quest to commercialize technology they develop on the U of I campus.
For instance, Amber Agriculture, the 2016 Cozad winner, is wrapping up its pilot program in installing wireless sensors to grain silos across the world, including some in South Africa. Its founder and CEO Lucas Frye was the keynote speaker at the AgTech Summit in late February. Trala, 2017 Cozad winner, has set up shop at TechNexus, a Chicago incubator that aligns startups and enterprises to drive commercial activity, and is refining its app, which helps customers learn to play the violin.
This year's competition promises to be bigger than ever right up until the last day thanks to significant format changes. Traditionally, teams participating in Cozad would go through a couple of rounds of early eliminations, one at an elevator pitch stage in late February and another business plan elimination round in March.
"Over the years we have noticed that teams that made it through the competition in the past make dramatic improvement due to the coaching and programming, so we reworked the format to keep as many teams in the competition as possible until the last round," said Jed Taylor, Director of Operations for the Technology Entrepreneur Center (TEC), which runs the program.
Taylor also directs the local Innovation Corps (I-Corps), a National Science Foundation initiative that takes faculty and student startups on college campuses through a program of customer discovery. Teams who have gone through this customer discovery exercise have shown great success in securing spots in the national I-Corps program and eventually larger NSF Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants.
Because of these results, the TEC decided to implement customer discovery as a major component to the Cozad Program and allow teams who complete every step to participate in the competition through the final day. So instead of around 20 teams setting up booths and presenting their ideas to judges on the morning of the finals, as many as 60 or 70 teams likely will do so at the I-Hotel on Wednesday, April 25. From that pool, about half dozen will advance to the presentation round that afternoon. Any team who competes that day can win an array of category specific prizes.
"The Cozad competition is an educational experience for students across campus and these exciting changes make it more accessible to many more students," Taylor said. "Instead of eliminating teams after a couple of weeks after the elevator pitch round, we are moving that to the end and allowing teams do customer discovery first. In that regard, we are modeling it after our I-Corps program. In fact, we are taking the I-Corps curriculum and integrating that into the Cozad New Venture competition."
As a result, teams that successfully complete the program are then eligible to directly apply to the national I-Corps program. In addition, as part of the process, teams participate in office hours with Entrepreneurs-in-Residence from EnterpriseWorks, either in the IDEA lab in the basement of Grainger Engineering Library or remotely.
"I expect that we will see improvements in teams this year, but the real impact will be felt in subsequent years when the participants from this year enter again and have the customer-focused mindset from the beginning," Taylor said. "I also anticipate seniors taking what they learned through the Cozad competition as it relates to customer discovery into the workforce and having a leg up."
This year's competition began at the beginning of the semester, and Taylor reports good things from the sweeping changes.
"It was really exciting to see teams that went out into ecosystem learned a lot about what they learned about the ecosystem their ventures operate in and report back what they learned," he reported after the second workshop.
In addition to the format changes, this year the TEC launched the TEC Exceleration Fund, where alumni were invited to contribute to the prize funds. As a result, teams will be competing for a piece of more than $200,000 in funding and in-kind prizes this year.
In the weeks leading up to the Cozad finals, the College of Engineering will be highlighting many of the competing teams through features on its website.
The public is invited to attend the Cozad Demo Showcase and Finals Event and meet these innovative students on Wednesday, April 25th from 9 am-6 pm at the I-Hotel and Conference Center. More information