Singer, Illinois engineering doubling down on entrepreneurship


Mike Koon, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

Andy Singer is an avid runner of marathons and Ironman triathlon competitions. The dedication and long-term commitment it takes to tackle the challenges of that kind of physical endeavor exemplifies the journey he has taken in helping build and shape the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem at the University of Illinois. For two decades, he has successfully helped mold a growing vision for an institution with a global reputation for producing leading engineers at scale. 

In both acknowledging its continued commitment to building and expanding the University’s entrepreneurial ecosystem (and bringing it under one umbrella), the College of Engineering takes another important step in appointing Singer as the first Associate Dean for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

With the Technology Entrepreneur Center (TEC) as its anchor, the College of Engineering has been working across the University to build a reputation as one of the leaders in commercializing innovative ideas. 

Singer, the director of TEC since 2005, is often quick to point out that the University of Illinois produces more engineering bachelor of science graduates than MIT, Stanford and Cal Tech combined. 

In addition to guiding the ecosystem, Singer has been an entrepreneur in his own right. In 2000, he co-founded Intersymbol Communications, Inc., a fabless semiconductor integrated circuit company. Additionally, in 2014, he co-founded  OceanComm, which has developed a high-speed underwater modem that enables wireless streaming of video underwater and wireless remote control of underwater vehicles.

Over the years, TEC has given students, faculty and alumni the tools they need to establish and successfully grow their startups fueled by innovation they developed while on campus.

One of the more visible platforms is through the  Cozad New Venturre accelerator. Now in its 19th year, Cozad guides student teams in building their idea and culminates in awarding cash and in-kind prizes (this year totaling more than $225,000) to top teams after working through a series of workshops and activities and demonstrating their ideas to a prominent array of judges. Over the years, Cozad has proven to be a launching point for teams to garner hundreds of thousands of dollars in seed funding.

In 2013, the National Science Foundation (NSF) established an Innnovation Corps (I-Corps) site at Illinois and in 2017, with three other Midwest universities, established Illinois as part of a $3.5 million I-Corps node. The program accelerates commercialization by helping researchers validate their technology and test its potential in the marketplace. In the first four years of the program, teams have taken a combined $330,000 investment ($300,000 from NSF and $30,000 from TEC and the U of I’s startup incubator, EnterpriseWorks) and turned it into a combined $45 million in external funding. Largely through I-Corps, Illinois has been successful in guiding teams through the NSF Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant process, typically the next stage in development.

In 2015, the College established the Faculty Entrepreneurial Fellows (FEF) program. Funded by a group of passionate alumni, the program allows faculty to focus on taking a developing technology and evaluate its commercial potential all while incorporating students in the process through innovative courses and activities.

Recently, the College also created the Innovation, Leadership and Engineering Entrepreneurship (ILEE) bachelor’s degree program, which allows students pursuing an undergraduate engineering degree to concurrently complete the requirements for an ILEE degree. The College conferred the first two ILEE graduates this year.

The growth of TEC has coincided with similar growth at the University of Illinois Research Park, including its early-stage incubator, EnterpriseWorks. Home to more than 110 companies, including about 50 startups, Research Park provides collaborative space for innovation growth. Its tenants have raised $920 million in outside funding, $244 million while housed at Research Park.

As the Midwest, and particularly Chicago, continues to position itself as the next global tech hub, it does so thanks in large part due to the engineering strength of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Over the past five years, Illinois universities have launched 942 startups, which in turn have raised a collective $878 million. Considering the trend, the State of Illinois and the City of Chicago are making a more concerted effort to keep those startups in state. To that end, in 2018 the College established the Engineering City Scholars program, which enables engineering students to spend a semester living in Chicago, taking engineering classes toward their degree, while gaining valuable life experience through internships in Chicago.

Singer’s leadership has played a big part in all of these endeavors and with this appointment, the Ironman will continue to do so as the College of Engineering doubles down on its commitment to growing its innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem and invest in the local economy.

“Anecdotally, we hear from prospective students who choose Illinois engineering because of the entrepreneurial community on our campus,” said Tamer Basar, Interim Dean of the College of Engineering. “The statistics confirm that impact. Andy Singer has seen and indeed guided the growth of our ecosystem, and I am excited about the future growth with him as Associate Dean for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.”