Bemoaning the loss of PayPal and YouTube, which started in Chicago and left for Silicon Valley, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been on a three-year mission to prevent the “next big thing” from getting away.
Now, he’s upping the ante — by launching a nationwide competition for companies started by college students and offering free office space, mentoring and advice to 10 winners.
Winners of the “Chicago College Start-Up Competition” will get “full-time desks” for one year and all of the advice that comes with it at 1871, the Merchandise Mart startup center that helps connect entrepreneurs to would-be investors, mentors, partners and peers.
ThinkChicago and 1871 will start the hunt for outstanding college businesses at some of the leading “entrepreneurial business plan competitions” held at colleges across the country. But the recruiting won’t end there.
College startups can also apply directly to 1871 and ThinkChicago with entries judged by a panel of business leaders, ThinkChicago members and by 1871 members.
Winners will be announced during the first week of August at a four-day, “ThinkChicago: Lollapalooza” program that will be expanded this year to 125 students from across the nation.
Howard Tullman, CEO of 1871, argued that a free-rent and mentoring prize valued at $5,000 per winner would be enough to “build a bridge to what’s going on with colleges” across the nation.
“We haven’t done a great job of making Chicago the default place for college startups to think of. We’ve had this talent exodus to both coasts. This gives us an earlier position in the decision-making process,” Tullman said in a telephone interview.
“If we can win ‘em over and keep ‘em here, we’ll do a lot better job of retaining the talent they represent. We’re going to be very selective in who is admitted to the program. They’re going to be stars from all over the country. To come out of this program after a year — even if there’s no more free rent — will be a credential like being on, `Shark Tank.’ “
Tullman argued that one year is plenty of time for an outstanding college entrepreneur to put down roots in Chicago.
“It’s the same analysis we want to apply to all of our companies. After a year, we would be doing everybody a favor by saying, ‘Either you should be making progress or making tracks.’ It’s the up-or-out idea,” Tullman said.
“After a year, they’ll be putting together a team. They’ll have their first customers. They’ll have commitments to funding, technology and universities that will be Chicago-centric. That’s not to say that someone from either coast won’t decide to invest. But the automatic, `You have to move to New York or San Francisco’ will not happen anymore. There are more than sufficient resources and funding in Chicago now.”
Emanuel campaigned on a promise to bring college students from across the Midwest to Chicago to persuade them to start their careers and businesses here.
He started delivering on that promise by bringing 50 outstanding seniors from schools in Illinois and seven surrounding states here for an action-packed weekend that mixed business and fun.
The second year, ThinkChicago doubled — to 100 students — with half the slots reserved for outstanding juniors and seniors from the University of Illinois.
Last year, the program was shifted to August to create the “ThinkChicago: Lollapalooza program.” That created a four-day event built around one of the nation’s most popular music festivals that introduced some of the nation’s top technology and computer science students to Chicago’s burgeoning technology industry.