Entrepreneurship

The University of Chicago is allocating $20 million to startups

The Polski Deep Tech Ventures program is based on an earlier experiment with an accelerator dedicated to quantum computing, a challenging but promising field of technology in which U of C is a leader. It’s also another expansion of U of C’s efforts over the past decade to become more adept at turning research prowess in medicine, mathematics, physics and other disciplines into commercial ventures.

Over the past quarter century, the U of C’s Booth School of Business and the Polish Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation have become well-known launching pads for startups like Grubhub. Now he’s looking for similar success in starting companies with more of a focus on hard science, which take longer to germinate.

“These are the companies that are harder to start and take more money because you have to ditch the technology at the same time you’re developing the business model,” says Jay Schrankler, assistant vice president and head of the Polski Center. “The benefits are usually much higher.”

One of the best examples of the types of home runs that can come from breakthrough science is Moderna, the biotech spinout from MIT that developed one of the first successful vaccines against COVID-19.

“Top universities give entrepreneurship more resources and attention at the highest levels,” says Eric Gordon, assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “In the past they didn’t pay much attention to entrepreneurship because it wasn’t a factor in their reputation. Those days are over.”

The U of C has consistently put money behind its technology commercialization ambitions, launching facilities and programs to encourage employees and students to venture into startups, as well as venture funds to provide seed investments that are often the hardest to land.

The George Schultz Innovation Fund, launched 12 years ago to provide seed-stage investments of up to $250,000, has invested $6.8 million in more than 90 companies. The university followed up with a $25 million fund in 2016 to invest money from the U of C endowment in startups, which invested in 19 companies.

The U of C is encouraged by the early but modest success of its first deep-tech accelerator, Duality, which launched for quantum startups last year. One of the startups, co-founded by dr. student and faculty member, quickly acquired.

The university has some other successes, Schrankler says, such as the IPO of early-stage cancer drug company Pikis Oncology and the sale of early-stage health technology companies ExplorerSurgical and NovPov.

The U of C is accepting applications for its data science and artificial intelligence accelerator, which is expected to launch in March with up to eight startups. The plan is to offer the four-month program twice a year.

It’s open to those outside of Chicago and the U of C, too, with the hope of attracting promising startups to the city. EeroK, an East Lansing, Michigan startup that was part of a quantum computing accelerator, recently moved to Chicago after receiving an investment from U of C alum Joe Mansueto.

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