University of Illinois and UChicago Entrepreneurship Program Driving Student Entrepreneurs to Create Transformative Businesses

3/15/2021 12:47:37 PM Urvashi Jha, Marketing & Communications Coordinator

In its second year of partnership, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the University of Chicago collaborative entrepreneurship program is successfully helping students of both institutions bring their innovative ideas to the market. And, two University of Illinois teams are walking away from this year’s College New Venture Challenge (CNVC) with more than $30,000 in SAFE (Simple Agreement for Future Equity) investment funding for their businesses.

In 2019, the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Chicago expanded CNVC, the undergraduate track of the nationally ranked Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge startup accelerator program by partnering with the University of Illinois. Through this partnership, a select group of entrepreneurial students from The Grainger College of Engineering’s Startup City Scholars program collaborate with UChicago students to build transformative businesses and participate in the CNVC competition.  

The DeepWalk startup team gives their presentation during the College New Venture Challenge

This year, two of the six finalist teams at the 9th annual CNVC Finals were led by entrepreneurial students from The Grainger College of Engineering’s Startup City Scholars program. The two teams won over $30,000 funding in prizes. DeepWalk Research won third place with $20,000 in funding, and HexNest won $10,000 in funding. In the days following the event, DeepWalk Research also received an angel investment from University of Illinois alumnus and Executive Chairman of ChicagoNext, Mark Tebbe.  

“This was one of the most competitive College New Venture Challenge competitions ever,” says Tebbe.  “Having followed the Startup City Scholars and CNVC collaboration from the beginning, I’m excited to see the success of the program in just two years. The depth and quality of engineering talent at the University of Illinois combined with the business acumen of the University of Chicago has produced amazing teams. To see these two schools work together is a dream come true and a win for Chicago.”

Scans produced by DeepWalk of an intersection
Scans produced by the DeepWalk mobile application that indicate the depth of each area on the street and sidewalks.

DeepWalk Research is developing a mobile application that scans sidewalk curb ramps and checks if they meet the Americans with Disabilities Act Requirements, saving cities time and money. Founded by Brandon Yates, a senior civil and environmental engineering major at the University of Illinois, DeepWalk Research aims to help build accessible pedestrian  infrastructure.  

Brandon Yates, founder of DeepWalk Research, says, “The collaboration between the University of Illinois and University of Chicago was the most important takeaway from the program. We added two U-Chicago team members that will continue with the company through the summer and full-time after graduation. The talent our team gained from UChicago filled a hole in our team that we didn't even know we had. The two schools have complementary skill sets and approaches to problem solving that are the perfect fuel for innovation. If you are looking to take your student startup to the next level, I highly recommend the CNVC program.” 
The HexNest startup teams gives their virtual presentation at the College New Venture Challenge

HexNest Applications
HexNest's product can be used in a variety of applications.

Another winning team, HexNest, is focused on reducing the chance of injury in sports by developing a gymnastics or sports mat made from materials and proprietary technology that more effectively absorb impact. Mark Van den Avont, a senior mechanical engineering major at the University of Illinois and founder of HexNest says, "My biggest takeaway from the Startup City Scholar and CNVC experience has been how exciting Chicago's entrepreneurial ecosystem is. I've gained amazing connections and help from the Champaign community over the last few years. It was eye opening to see how many more opportunities there are in Chicago to help young entrepreneurs. Now I can say that I have relationships in two cities with thriving entrepreneurial communities."

Startup City Scholars students get the opportunity to leverage Chicago’s many resources for entrepreneurs encouraging them to build businesses in Chicago after graduation. John Thode, Clinical Professor for Innovation, Leadership, & Engineering Entrepreneurship at the Technology Entrepreneur Center, says, “As a Clinical Professor at the Technology Entrepreneur Center, an NSF national I-Corps Instructor, and a long-term Angel investor, I have seen hundreds of early stage startup ideas and teams. This 2021 undergraduate cohort of CNVC finalist was outstanding by any measure. Of particular note, this cohort included several teams working on deep tech solutions to intractable problems, combining the best of University of Illinois Startup City Scholars and University of Chicago students to build high impact businesses.

Read about other winners of CNVC 2021 here