UIC Ventures Get Startup Boost

When it comes to launching ventures, the Startup Challenge goes well beyond the walls of UIC Business, inviting everyone in the UIC community to bring their best venture concepts to the table. The Startup Challenge is an annual program of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies, and though it has evolved in name and format over the last 11 years, the mission has remained the same: to turn ideas into viable businesses.

This year, 56 teams took part in IES’s series of seminars, workshops, mentoring events and networking opportunities. For many participants, the Challenge was a crash course in business strategy. The Clean Slate team, this year’s first place winner, was made up of graduate students in the computer science department. “Being a computer scientist, it was great to learn about the business side of things,” said Rachel Harsley, who led the team. “We got a lot of great support from Dawn Birkland and Nancy Harvey, and we got to spend some extra time with Joseph Sheahan, who helped us define our target and hone our pitches for the competition.”

Second place went to Sofia Sanchez and Austin Robinson of the Beet Strong team, whose combined knowledge of nutrition and business helped them position their beet-based food bar in an already crowded market. “We read everything we could beforehand,” said Robinson, “some great books by Dan Ariely, Jim Collins, and others, and we met with some professionals who could help us strategize.”

Robinson is finishing a PhD in kinesiology and nutrition, and Sanchez is a UIC-trained nutritionist getting her MBA at Liautaud. “We made even more connections through IES,” Sanchez added, “and now we’re regularly going to startup workshops in the west loop and exploring collaborations with other local food companies.”

Unlike the Clean Slate and Beet Strong teams, who brought pre-developed projects to the challenge, finalists Ecoair registered for the Challenge with only an idea to go on. “We wanted to test the validity of a concept in a business environment,” said Donald Lascombe, a senior at UIC Business. “We were looking at gaps in sustainable smart-home technology, and we took the Challenge as an opportunity to really dig in.”

Joonha Joo, Donald’s partner in the venture, is a senior in mechanical engineering. “I came into the Challenge with some ideas about autonomous controlled systems,” Joo said, “and like any engineer, I assumed we’d be working on a prototype.” The preparation for the challenge exposed Joonha to the inner workings of a business plan. “It was really useful to see the process of going from concept to production, logistics and marketing. When I entered the challenge, I didn’t know a thing about business, and now I do.”

For the Ecoair team, the best thing about the challenge was how it served as a meeting place for students from across the university. “The experience reinforced some lessons in interdisciplinary product development,” said Lascombe. “There were a lot of cross-functional teams like me and Joonha, which is good to see. A lot of companies are looking for close teamwork between management and engineering.”

For this year’s big winner, the Challenge meant an opportunity to push their venture even further. Harsley and her partners, Daniel Ruiz and Kshitji Gautam, are moving ahead with the second version of Clean Slate for iOS, as well as the Android beta. “At this point, it’s just a matter of using the Startup Challenge resources,” said Harsley. “The support of Dawn and Nancy at IES has been essential, along with the support of Barbara Di Eugenio, my advisor in the Natural Language Processing lab.” Like the other leading teams, Clean Slate benefited from the interdisciplinary environment of the Challenge.

“Pushing a new app is never easy,” said Harsley. “The majority of people will see it as ‘just another app’. But the Challenge really helped us refine what we’re offering. I’m optimistic that Clean Slate will continue to grow.”