The Illinois Science and Technology Coalition recently released its Illinois Innovation Index. Among its findings was that over the past five years, students and faculty at Illinois’ universities have founded nearly 1,000 startups, raising $1.24 billion in funding, and creating 3,000 new jobs. But that report only measured 10 universities in Illinois, and Bradley was not one of them.
But I can tell you from firsthand experience that entrepreneurship is alive and well at Bradley. Last week I had the privilege to attend Bradley University’s “Big Idea” competition, organized by the Turner School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation. The April 23rd final presentation round was actually the culmination of a series of opportunities for students to share their ideas for products, services or solutions to social problems. It was an amazing event. I was impressed by the quality of the presentations, but was not surprised: college students are used to giving excellent presentations. What really impressed me was the quality of the business ideas. I saw how each filled a real customer need and could be a very successful company.
In third place was Postal Patrol, an oversized, technology-infused mailbox that allowed for the secure delivery of both mail and packages. In second place was Dyme, a web platform that allowed people to rent formal wear from individuals. Think AirBnB for prom dresses. The winner was Bagg, a safety product for pickup trucks that helps secure loads like plywood or lumber. (Aside: as the father of a high school senior girl who just dropped some cash on a one-time-only prom dress, Dyme was my favorite.) These are not just theoretical concepts — these teams fully intend to launch their products or services as businesses either while still at Bradley or shortly after graduation. Each walked away with prize money to get those plans closer to reality. Bagg took home $8,000!
Credit for Big Idea goes to Dr. Bill McDowell and his team at Bradley. Since joining the Bradley faculty just two years ago, Bill has built a great program that engages students in the startup life. Importantly, the School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation does not offer a major. Rather it offers either a minor or an “Entrepreneurial Scholar” designation — a structure that adds layers of value to a student’s core work whether that is nursing, engineering or business. Like a good startup ecosystem, it pulls people together from across different disciplines. As an example, the second place Dyme team worked with other students from graphic design and computer science to develop their branding, website and mobile app. In addition to coursework competitions like Big Idea, the School hosts an annual symposium on entrepreneurship, organized a mentoring program and have created the “Idea Factory,” a space on campus for students to work on their business or just get some advice.
As a community, we need to continue to support Bradley and its students as they develop business ideas, and more importantly, launch those businesses while still at school or after graduation. By building strong connections between these students and Greater Peoria, we can help ensure those businesses are built here. That’s one of the reasons the Big Idea competition was important: the room was filled with community members who are all in a position to help through support, advice or funding. Bradley itself has some great tools to help in this process. The Turner Center for Entrepreneurship (which is completely separate from the Turner School) has an entire suite of services for business growth, including startup and small business assistance, technology commercialization, international trade advice and help with landing government contracts. These services are actually available to the entire community, not just Bradley students.
Innovation and entrepreneurship are vital components of Greater Peoria’s economic development strategy. Bradley – its students, faculty, and programs – will continue to be at the center of that strategy.