Champaign site getting funding boost

CHAMPAIGN – The Illini Entrepreneurship Center in Champaign will receive about 16 percent more in state dollars this year than it did last year, state officials announced today.

The center, which serves startup businesses in East Central Illinois, will get $350,000 for the current fiscal year, up from $300,000 for the year that ended June 30, 2005.

The announcement was scheduled to be made this morning by Jack Lavin, director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, during a stop at the University of Illinois Research Park.

The center, which has operated from offices at the park for 2 1/2 years, makes $5,000 challenge grants to small businesses for professional services. To date, 45 companies have received a total of $245,000 through the program.

The local center has traditionally made more awards than any of the other 16 entrepreneurship centers around the state.

"It's been No. 1, and I believe it still is," Lavin said in a telephone interview Thursday. "Clearly, it's a hotbed of high-tech development, with the research park there, the University of Illinois and all the other ingredients to help high-growth, high-tech companies."

In a press release, he said the local center "played a critical role in helping young firms with high growth potential develop into economically viable and sustainable companies."

According to the release, local firms that have taken advantage of the program include:

– iCyt Mission Technology, which used the money to help write an application for a Small Business Innovation Research grant.

– Mimosa Acoustics, which used its grant to help get federal approval for a device that helps diagnose problems in the middle ear.

– Advanced Diamond Technologies, which used the money to enhance patents relating to its processes of capturing the properties of natural diamond in thin-film form.

– Viral Commerce, which used its grant to help market its Internet-based corporate social networking service.

Lavin said the entrepreneurship centers offer targeted services most in need by local entrepreneurs, including access to capital, markets, networks and technology.

Dinesh Ahluwalia has directed the local center since its inception in 2003, but is leaving this year. The Champaign County Economic Development Corp., which administers the state grant for the center, will help manage it in the interim.

"Dinesh has done a wonderful job with the program," said Jeanne Gustafson, executive director of the economic development corporation. "It's a stellar program, one of many we use."

Lavin also offered praise for the outgoing director.

"Dinesh has done a great job. He's been a great leader," Lavin said Thursday. "The center's board of advisers will work to find a replacement. There's a great pool of talent there in Champaign, and I'm sure we'll find someone else."

Companies applying for $5,000 challenge grants from the center are asked to list their company's annual sales, how many employees they have and how those figures are projected to grow over the next three years.

They're also asked about the market they serve, the problems they aim to solve, the competitors they face, their competitive advantage, the kind of customers they'll serve and the experience they and their management team have.

The local center is part of the Illinois Entrepreneurship Network.

The network's Web site, www.ienconnect.com, provides a free business needs assessment and a referral within 24 hours for personalized, face-to-face assistance. More information can be obtained by calling the network, 1-800-252-2923.

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