Helping students map business ideas

CHAMPAIGN – Student entrepreneurs at the University of Illinois should find it easier to advance their business ideas this year, thanks to a new program on campus.

The program, Illinois Launch, will help students prepare a "road map" for their business ideas by pairing them with mentors and suggesting what classes, competitions and programs might be beneficial.

If the ideas seem to have potential, students may be eligible for seed money – perhaps as much as $10,000 or $15,000 – as well as space on campus for their business.

"We see this as an opportunity to promote economic development in our state," said John Clarke, director of the Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the UI.

The academy teamed with several other units on campus to create Illinois Launch. Those units include: the Technology Entrepreneur Center, iVentures10 and the student-run Illini Entrepreneurship Network.

Some elements of Illinois Launch are already in place. But one new element is the Summer Start-Up Development Program, which includes a weeklong workshop in Chicago to expose students to entrepreneurs from around the state.

Also new: seed money made possible through a $500,000 gift to the UI from Al Goldstein, an alumnus of the Urbana-Champaign campus, and his brother, Alex, an alumnus of the Chicago campus.

The Goldsteins started CashNetUSA, an Internet payday loan company, in 2004 and sold it two years later. They donated the money to the UI "specifically to support development of this program," Clarke said.

Clarke said the gift – and the Goldsteins' involvement – will also be used to launch another initiative, Illinois Angels, a group of angel investors who will consider the investment potential of student businesses.

"We have about five angels who have expressed strong interest in becoming part of this group," Clarke said, adding he expects more alumni to get involved as the program progresses.

Students – not only at the University of Illinois, but at all Illinois colleges and universities – can begin applying for Illinois Launch on Friday. Recent graduates may also be eligible for the program.

To apply, visit the academy's Web site,, on Friday, said Amara Andrews, assistant director of the academy.

It's difficult to get an exact count, Clarke said, but more than 100 UI students a year are involved at some point in starting a new venture.

"We have 15 to 20 who are at a fairly solid stage of development where they're needing assistance somewhere on campus," he said.

Criteria for acceptance into Illinois Launch is "really broad," Andrews said. "We want to make sure students who have an idea get the help they need."

Certain teams of students will be selected to participate in iV10Boost. Those teams will receive $25,000 and coaching from Illinois Ventures. At the end of summer, teams will make presentations in Chicago, with the possibility of making presentations to Illinois Angels later that fall.

Teams that aren't ready for investors will continue to work with mentors, with some being placed in the Student Venture Accelerator, which provides free office space as well as computers, phones and Internet access.

Some students in Illinois Launch may choose to participate in programs administered by the Technology Entrepreneur Center. Those include the annual V. Dale Cozad New Venture Competition and the $30,000 Lemelson-Illinois Student Prize for innovation.


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