Shark Tank-Style Engineering Competition, but for College Credit


Shark Tank-Style Engineering Competition, but for College Credit

August 28, 2023

You’ve dreamed of being your own boss, developing world-changing ideas and maybe starting your own company. But you’re a college student and don’t know where to start.

Held each spring, the Startup City Scholars offers Grainger Engineering students an opportunity to hone entrepreneurial skills and showcase their venture in Chicago — business ideas optional to participate (more on that later!). 

We met with the 2023 College New Venture Challenge (CNVC) winners, Top Tier Lessons, to share their behind-the-scenes tips, tricks and common misconceptions about the program. 

L-R: Cara Bognar (Bioengineering/ILEE Dual Degree) and Allison Landis (Industrial &; Enterprise Systems Engineering)
L-R: Cara Bognar (Bioengineering/ILEE Dual Degree) and Allison Landis (Industrial & Enterprise Systems Engineering)

Should you participate in Startup City Scholars? 

If you’re like most Grainger Engineering students, you’re competitive. The 10-week program is, first and foremost, a competition for some serious cash to build your venture. Students meet once a week in Chicago to put their business ideas into action, network and learn from startup entrepreneurs with more than 30 years of experience. 

Cara Bogner, a Bioengineering and ILEE Dual Degree student, joined the program during her sophomore year to decide whether she should pursue her business ideas. She hopped on a bus from Champaign-Urbana to Chicago every Tuesday to contribute to a University of Chicago student’s team. 

“I fell in love with the course and immediately planned to join the following year with my own venture. It’s hard to beat that hands-on experience learning how to run an early stage company,” Cara explained. She entered Startup City Scholars again the following year — this time with her own, first-place proposal. 

Do I have to live in Chicago for the semester? 

No. Students like Cara live in Champaign-Urbana and travel to Chicago once a week. But City Scholars offers some recommended housing options. Living in the city makes it easier to attend the many networking and professional development events during your trimester-long cohort. 

What if I don’t have my own venture idea?

That’s okay! You will have the opportunity to “interview” and join other teams. Vice versa if you have a  business idea - you get to recruit students to YOUR team. UIUC-led teams must have at least one University of Chicago student on their team. This encourages students to strengthen their collaboration skills. 

“I could reach out to the Startup City Scholar leaders or my teammates in ten or fifteen years, and I’m confident they would respond. We develop strong relationships in the program,” said Allison Landis, an industrial and systems engineering student from the winning team. 

How do you weave your engineering education into an entrepreneurship program? 

Allison explored the operations side of her industrial and systems engineering degree during Startup City Scholars. “In theory, I would design the operations for a manufacturing floor. But for Top Tier Lessons, I manage operations for a service-based company by matching venues with student athletes to their trainees,” Allison explained.

Meanwhile, Cara leaned into the soft skills that her Grainger Engineering education prepared her for, such as time management, understanding how to get hard work done and being faced with a problem that you don’t know how to solve. 

What actually happens during the Shark Tank-style pitch?

Each team delivers a pitch in front of a panel of startup experts. The judges share their opinion on the product’s success and the pitches. Then, the best teams move on to a final round. It’s high stakes, as teams can win prizes in the form of SAFE funds from a pool of up to $150,000. Participants must be open to criticism to build on weaknesses, Cara and Allison said.

“Participants definitely learn problem solving and gain confidence in public speaking. You have to think on your feet while you sell your product,” Cara insisted. 

[cr][lf]<p style="margin-bottom: 0pt;"><em><span style="font-size: 11pt; color: rgb(0, 0, 0);">Each Startup City Scholar team presents in front of a panel of judges with decades of startup experience.</span></em></p>[cr][lf]

Each Startup City Scholar team presents in front of a panel of judges with decades of startup experience.

<em>Behind-the-scenes look at the Top Tier Lessons pitch</em>
Behind-the-scenes look at the Top Tier Lessons pitch

Advice to Future Startup City Scholars

The program immerses students in hands-on experiences that are hard to find elsewhere. “I have no doubt that if I were to pursue a different career path, my experiences would place me far above my peers who just complete their regular coursework,” Cara said. 

Allison echoes this sentiment, adding that the Technology Entrepreneurship Program and City Scholars program ensures you have access to what you need to be successful in this program. “The network you form is amazing. Judges are hand-picked from across the country. I could ask them anything, and they would be able to send me in the right direction,” Allison asserted.

Legacy of Excellence

Many successful companies had their inception at Startup City Scholars, and yours could be next! Applications for the 16-week Fall 2023 cohort open on Sept. 27 and close on Nov. 7. 

“Our judges are more impressed each year with the quality of proposals. We are there every step of the way, ensuring our Startup City Scholars can achieve their impossible,” said Brenna Conway, Director of Chicago Programs and Partnerships. 

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