How to Start a Startup @ UIUC

By: Arkin Dharawat (UIUC ‘19).

What do the founders/co-founders of PayPal, YouTube, Yext, Palantir and AMD have in common?

All of them have graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (UIUC).

Although we aren’t typically recognized for entrepreneurship and are more-so known for our engineering prowess (top 5 in the world) and our party habits (#1 party school), Illinois has alumni around the world that have started great and impactful companies.

As a student-run VC firm, DRF wants to keep this entrepreneurial spirit alive. With that in mind, our latest “How to Start a Startup Guide” is focused on the UIUC ecosystem.

There are a lot of resources on campus and this article will help guide you throughout your entrepreneurial journey. Just like the stages of a rocket launch, this guide is broken down into 3 parts:

Part 1: Primary Stage

Part 2: Secondary Stage

Part 3: Payload.

Part 1: Primary Stage

“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” — Albert Einstein, Physicist

When you enter UIUC as a freshman, navigating the various resources can be an overwhelming challenge. From Google to word-of-mouth to Quad day, you’ll learn about a lot of resources here on campus. However, it has traditionally been difficult to get access to a comprehensive list or database of resources available to you — until now.

Campus Organizations

Whether you have done a bit of research on the campus’s resources or are starting your journey from scratch, Resident Student Organizations are the best places to start. Here are some of them:

  • Founders: Founders is the best on-campus organizations if you want to get involved with the startup community. Besides organizing the 54.io startup competition , Startup Bootcamp and Startup Career Fair they also offer student startups with micro-grants. Outside of that, it is also the best place to see on-campus startups in actions and network with student founders.
  • EntreCorps: EntreCorps is a student consulting group that primarily advises on-campus startups. Members of EntreCorps get to learn and understand various areas of business development and product design.
  • Innovation LLC: If you are an incoming freshman, Innovation LLC is a great place to start. It provides plenty of resources — such as micro-grants — that members can apply for as well as a common workspace that all residents can use for their projects.
  • Entrepreneurs Without Borders: Entrepreneurs Without Borders (EWOB) focuses on using entrepreneurship as a means to address problems in subsistence marketplaces as well as enabling entrepreneurship within these communities.
  • Illinois Entrepreneurship Group: Illinois Entrepreneurship Group (IEG) is a club open to all majors that holds weekly meetings consisting of pitching products and services, as well as turning ideas into startup businesses.
  • BOLD: BOLD is a student organization at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that aims to empower women in innovation and entrepreneurship by building a vibrant community that is inclusive of all students.
  • CUBE: Champaign-Urbana Business and Engineering Consulting (CUBE) is a non-profit consulting organization with a talented group of students who work together on meaningful projects for local businesses.
  • DFA: Design for America is a nationwide network of student-led organizations that aims to create products and solutions that solve real world problems

Outside of these, there are other clubs available on campus as well that may be helpful to entrepreneurs within certain sub-sets (design, engineering, etc.).

Academic Resources

Student organizations aren’t the only resources on campus that allow you to get exposure into the entrepreneurial community. There are business-related and technology-related courses and majors at UIUC that are helpful to entrepreneurs as well.

  • Dual Degree in Innovation, Leadership & Engineering Entrepreneurship: ILEE is a dual-degree for the students in the College of Engineering. Students will better understand the innovative processes involved in identifying complex problems and creating and leading effective solutions.
  • Siebel Centre for Design: The new Siebel Center for Design is one component of a larger cross-campus, multidisciplinary effort to harness the potential of design thinking and design learning in our teaching, research and engagement. Anyone on campus can participate.
  • Technology Entrepreneurship: Illinois offers classes such as TE 250(From Idea to Enterprise) and TE 466(High-Tech Venture Marketing). These classes are made to cater to student startups and will greatly help them succeed.
  • Business Administration: The Gies college of business at Illinois offers courses in BADM(Business Administration) such as BADM 320 and BADM 303
  • Computer science courses: The Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science offers courses in Software Engineering and Data science to non-CS majors.

There are also resourceful faculty members such as Ranjitha Kumar, Andy Singer and John Quarton that you can approach for guidance.

Competitions and Workshops

There are a number of competitions and workshops across campus year-round. Participating in these can help student entrepreneurs gain meaningful experience that may help their startups scale.

  • Cozad New Venture Competition: Cozad is a competition organized by the TEC. The competition helps student startups with their pitching skills, customer development and several other key learnings. Finalists also have a chance to earn a bit of funding.
  • 54.io: 54.io is a competition organized by Founders. It is a 3 day event where students from different backgrounds come together to form teams and launch a startup.
  • Illinideas: A video-focused competition where students create a video (2 minutes or less) that addresses a problem they’re looking to solve, along with a proposed solution. $2,000 is awarded in scholarships.
  • Chicago Entrepreneurial Workshop: The Chicago Entrepreneurial Workshop exposes Illinois students to the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the city of Chicago. Students will have the opportunity to visit startups, network with innovative alumni, and meet leading technology companies in the region.
  • SocialFuse: SocialFuse helps founders look for skilled co-founders and helps programmers and designers look for great ideas. Food is provided and it also a great networking event.
  • HackIllinois: If you are looking for great experience in thinking of new ideas and quickly building them, HackIllinois is the place to be. You don’t need any prior programming experience and there tons of people willing to help you out.

Part 2: Secondary Stage

“Every time we launch a feature, people yell at us.” — Angelo Sotira, deviantART co-founder.

Now that you’ve learned about Illinois’s startup community and have your team and idea ready, it’s time to take the next step. Usually, student startups in these early stages will want to seek incubators and accelerators on campus to build out an MVP. The following are a few helpful resources:

Incubators and Accelerators

While there several exciting startup incubators around the country, such as Y Combinator & TechStars, these require commitment that may be difficult for some students. The university itself has several incubators around campus that aid student startups. Here are a few of them:

  • iVenture Accelerator: The iVenture Accelerator is a program focused on supporting the top student startup talent on the campus through early stage funding, mentoring, co-working space at the Research Park and networking events with the Chicago startup ecosystem.
  • Startup Bootcamp: Startup Bootcamp is a 8 week startup accelerator at the University of Illinois. They help students develop fundamental entrepreneurial skills by presentations from experts across various fields.
  • EnterpriseWorks: EnterpriseWorks is an incubator that is owned and operated by the University of Illinois to help launch successful startups.
  • ThinkChicago: Although not an incubator or an accelerator, Think Chicago helps student talk and engage with the top Chicago technologists and entrepreneurs.
  • NSF I-Corps: I-corps is a public-private partnership program that teaches student entrepreneurs with a targeted curriculum to identify valuable product opportunities that can emerge from academic research, and provides entrepreneurship training to participants. It is in partnership with Technology Entrepreneur Center at Illinois.
  • Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab: The Fab Lab is an open and collaborative workshop space for computer-driven innovation, design and fabrication.
  • Illinois Maker Lab: The Illinois MakerLab is the world’s first Business School 3D Printing Lab. They are equipped with 20 Ultimaker desktop 3D printers, 3D design software, and 3D scanning devices.
  • 131 Alliance: The 131 Alliance connects students at University of Chicago Booth School of Business with students from the University of Illinois College of Engineering. This combination exposes students from both colleges to the various entrepreneurial events that are conducted at Illinois and at Booth.

Funding Sources

Although some of the incubators mentioned above do provide some level of funding to startups, there are a few other funding-related resources on campus.

  • Illinois Ventures: Illinois Venture is a premier seed and early-stage technology investment firm focused on research-derived companies in information technologies, physical sciences, and life sciences.
  • Serra Ventures: Serra Ventures is an early stage venture capital firm investing in technology companies in emerging Midwest technology centers and selected other geographies. They focus on information technology, devices/instrumentation and agricultural technologies.
  • Founders Microgrants: Founders offers student startups with upto $500 to help them with prototyping. The goal is to enable more students to build and test their ideas and gain more value from existing programs on campus.

Part 3: Payload

“Make every detail perfect and limit the number of details to perfect.” — Jack Dorsey, Twitter co-founder

If you‘ve made it this far, you’ve been able to turn your idea into an MVP and started to gather feedback from your target customers. Here, you might be limited by UIUC’s resources and may be searching for other resources outside of the ecosystem that are focused on student entrepreneurs.

Here are a few accelerators and venture funds that you can tap into:

Pre-Seed Funds and Accelarators

  • Dorm Room Fund: Dorm Room Fund is a student-run venture fund backed by First-Round Capital that invests exclusively in student-run companies. They offer a strong network of investors, world-class mentors, and a $20,000 check.
  • Rough Draft Ventures: Backed by General Catalyst, RDV provides pre-seed funding for early stage student startups. They offer up-to $25,000 in the form of an uncapped convertible note
  • 1517 Fund: The 1517 Fund offers to help student founders by providing them with advice and $1000 in funding with no equity.
  • Lightspeed Summer Fellowship: Lightspeed offers student startups with teams of 2 to 4 a chance to work and be mentored in at their office in Menlo Park. Each selected team receives $5,000 and $15,000 per team member with no equity.
  • Summer @ Highland: Highland Capital provides it’s student startups with $30,000 in funding and workspaces in their Silicon Valley or Cambridge office.
  • Thiel Fellowship: The Thiel Fellowship offers $100,000 to student startups in funding at the cost of working on the idea full-time.
  • Microsoft Imagine Cup: If your product is built using Windows, a Windows Phone, or Windows Azure, you can compete in this national competition which awards $50,000 each to 3 teams.
  • TigerLaunch: TigerLaunch is the nation’s largest student-run entrepreneurship competition of its kind dedicated to building a network of student founders at the university, regional and national levels. It is sponsored by Princeton’s e-club.

Conclusion

To conclude, I want to say that college is the best time to start a company. With your living arrangements (typically) arranged for you and an age in which you tend to have less responsibility than most, students are able to take significantly more risks than older entrepreneurs.

As a student in an ecosystem filled with talented individuals, there are plenty of students, mentors, and advisors who you can build relationships with. From talented peers to experienced faculty, UIUC offers plenty of resources to help student entrepreneurs throughout all stages of their journey — from exploration to ideation to execution.

If there’s anything we missed that you think should be included in this guide, please feel free to send an email to haris@drf.vc.

Dorm Room Fund is dedicated to supporting student founders across the country and helping them reach new heights — Check out our 5 year report to learn more about what students are capable of building

Working on a startup? Get in touch on twitter or here. If you’re interested in keeping up to date with DRF, signup for our newsletter here.

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