Research ParkArchive for the ‘’ Category

Dioxide Materials Aims to Reduce our Carbon Footprint

Article Source: TECH cocktail, Monika Jansen, May 1, 2012

What do you do after teaching in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign for 32 years, publishing numerous articles, papers and books, and receiving 18 patents – with multiple patents pending?  Oh, and you already founded 2 successful companies?

You start another company, of course.

Rich Masel, CEO and Founder of Dioxide Materials, is one of those really smart, highy driven people overflowing with ideas.  His newest venture, which we showcased at our Tech Cocktail Champaign mixer last week, develops materials for carbon dioxide sensing and remediation.  Sounds kinda boring, but it’s not – it has multiple, highly useful environmental applications.  They are currently developing carbon dioxide sensors that allow a building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems to use less energy – saving money and lowering the building’s carbon footprint.

This new technology will have a major impact on the efficiency of buildings.  Megan Atchley, a Business Development Specialist at Dioxide Materials, said, “The high cost of current CO2 sensors ($200-$400) limits adoption of Demand Control Ventilation (DCV) in buildings.  [Our] CO2 sensors will be less expensive ($20-$80), and use less power.  This price point enables DCV retrofits and residential market adoption.”

Next, they will work on perfecting a process that converts carbon dioxide into fuel, creating a viable source of renewable fuels and a new energy storage method for wind farms.  Their technology is the first energy efficient (89% energy efficiency – previous best was 28%) process for converting CO2 into fuel.

Turns out that there are no limits to how the fuel can be used, which will greatly impact our dependence on oil – foreign or domestic.  “Our electrolyzers will convert the CO2 into syngas, which can be used as a feedstock for biofuels and chemical processes, or be sent to existing … plants to produce gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.”

State schools prep homegrown engineering, computer science talent for startups

Article Source: Chicago Tribune, Business Section, by Wailin Wong, April 28, 2012

Promise of stronger pipeline reverses gripe that Illinois loses too many grads to Silicon Valley

Chicago’s startup community wants to hire young people like Ravi Pilla.

As a high school student at the Illinois Math and Science Academy, Pilla and a few friends created a cloud-based music startup they later sold. Pilla, now a junior electrical engineering major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is working on a new company whose online platform allows students and teachers to collaborate and communicate. The startup, StudyCloud, recently won third place at U. of I.’s Cozad New Venture Competition.

“At this point, I’m pretty set on working in the startup field,” said Pilla, 21. “Everything about being an entrepreneur has been pretty appealing so far — being able to work for yourself, set your own times. The biggest thing that stands out to me is, you can be extremely passionate about what you do and no one else has to motivate you for that. The passion comes from within.”

Pilla belongs to an emerging generation of students who have caught the entrepreneurship bug, inspired by startup wunderkinds such as Facebook‘s Mark Zuckerberg and enabled by the proliferation of accessible technology that allows them to build Web applications at low cost. In response, local universities are seeking to provide these students with resources not only to pursue their startup ambitions during school, but to plug into the state’s blossoming entrepreneurial community when they enter the workforce.

For Chicago-area startups, the promise of a stronger pipeline of homegrown talent helps reverse a long-standing gripe that Illinois loses too many engineering and computer science graduates to Silicon Valley. The website for U. of I.’s department of computer science quotes Bill Gates as saying “this is the university that Microsoft hires the most computer science graduates from of any university in the entire world.”

Gates’ remarks resonated with Troy Henikoff, co-founder and chief executive of Chicago-based startup accelerator Excelerate Labs. During the past six months, he has spoken with students and officials at the Illinois Institute of Technology, the University of Illinois at Chicago and elsewhere.

“The idea that we have (more than 1,000) great engineers sitting a couple hours’ drive away who are not thinking first and foremost that they should be coming to Chicago is a problem, but it’s something a bunch of people are working on,” Henikoff said.

According to data self-reported by students to Engineering Career Services at U. of I., 62 percent of 2010-2011 graduates accepted jobs in the Midwest after graduation. Illinois captured 48 percent of job acceptances, compared with 12 percent for California.

Despite the high number of graduates who remain in the area, many of U. of I.’s most famous tech alumni launched companies out of Silicon Valley: YouTube co-founder Steve Chen, PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, venture capitalist and Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen, and Yelp co-founder and Chief Executive Jeremy Stoppelman.

“The world needs more engineers, and being a land-grant institution, we’re encouraging Chicago to have more venture capital and companies to attract students for internships and opportunities to do research,” said Ilesanmi Adesida, U. of I.’s engineering dean. “That is what will encourage students to stay in the state.”

Entrepreneurship is on the rise in Chicago and Illinois. According to data collected by online community Built In Chicago, 128 digital technology startups launched locally in 2011, a 56 percent increase from 2010. Next month, a 50,000-square-foot space for young companies, called 1871, will open at the Merchandise Mart.

Digital startups raised $1.45 billion in funding last year, dwarfing the $273 million raised in 2010, with $972 million of the 2011 figure coming from Groupon Inc.‘s initial public offering. The number of local financing sources continues to grow with the addition of the $5.7 million FireStarter Fund, made up of contributions from more than 40 founders and CEOs, and the state’s Invest Illinois Venture Fund.

“There so many dots — if you connect all of them, you just have a black piece of paper,” said Lawrence Schook, vice president of research at U. of I., who serves on Gov. Pat Quinn’s Illinois Innovation Council. “But there’s a sense of … alignment. There has to be alignment between the role of government, business and universities. We can hand off all the pieces of a company, but we need an ecosystem.”

Schools such as U. of I. and Northwestern University are seeing increased student interest in startups. Northwestern’s Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which started in 2007, sees about 600 students take its classes every year, with many coming from outside the engineering school. The Farley Center’s director, Mike Marasco, said some courses attract three applications for every one student they can accept.

“Facebook changed things dramatically at the college level, because all of a sudden, here’s a multibillion-dollar company … created by this guy in a dorm room at Harvard,” said Marasco, who also noted that many students have seen their parents become “forced entrepreneurs” as a result of downsizing.

“This generation is more exposed to (entrepreneurship) at one level, that’s the family side,” he said. “The other side is, technology has made it so much easier to do this kind of thing. You can get multiterabytes of data at your fingertips through an Amazon or Google. It’s much easier to start Facebook today than when Zuckerberg did it in 2003.”

At U. of I., the Innovation Living-Learning Community opened in 2010 as a residence hall housing 125 students interested in entrepreneurship. The dormitory hosts speakers and on-site classes. Meanwhile, the university’s Cozad competition attracted about 300 students and a record 82 teams for the 2011-2012 contest, which awarded $80,000 in funding and other prizes. The previous participation record was 50 teams.

Jed Taylor, assistant director of the Technology Entrepreneur Center at U. of I.’s College of Engineering, said a record 3,500 students participated in this year’s programs, outnumbering the nearly 1,000 students who take engineering courses. The center’s offerings include a new contest called PitchFest, in which participants are judged on a two-minute presentation, and Charm School, a full-day workshop that teaches skills such as networking and proper workplace attire.

For the first time this year, the Technology Entrepreneur Center plans to take a group of undergraduate and graduate students to Chicago to tour startups. The trip is modeled after Silicon Valley Workshop, a winter program that has run for several years. The most recent California junket attracted a record 118 applicants for 25 spots.

Gift Caddie Aims to Make Online Wish Lists Easier

Article Source: TECH cocktail, Zach Davis, April 28, 2012

What is the Internet?  Ask a nerd, and you’ll likely get some elaborate answer about networks, protocols, and Al Gore.  I believe the explanation can be boiled down to one word: information.  The Internet is information.  It’s everything you ever needed to know about anything, plus cat videos.

So why then are we still taking wild guesses when buying gifts for others?  Amazon WishList has attempted to solve this problem, but the service requires you to install a web app to add off-site items. also requires an installation, and their UX leaves something to be desired.

Teresa Savage, co-founder and CEO of Gift Caddie, believes that her service is the solution.  By partnering with comparison shopping service PriceGrabber, in addition to working seamlessly across all websites, Gift Caddie is making a real push at capturing the “wish list” market.

“Gift Caddie grew out of my inability to buy great gifts for my children. Gift giving in my family had deteriorated to where I’d give my daughter a gift with a receipt, and my son stored the gifts I bought him in a closet and never used them,” says Savage.

In the process of creating Gift Caddie, Savage thought that she was building a service for college students.  It didn’t quite turn out that way: “It’s been women in intimate relationships who’ve been Gift Caddie’s biggest users and most vocal supporters,” Savage continues. “It seems husbands and boyfriends need serious guidance in giving women what they really want and need.”


Gift Caddie was one of the showcased startups at Tech Cocktail’s recent Champaign Mixer.  I asked Savage to give us a taste of what the startup scene in the area looks like:

Champaign start-up entrepreneurs tend to be intergenerational, probably due to the influence of the University of Illinois. You have profs working with students, and either one could be the team leader on a project. There’s a lot of trust between generations, and the most important thing is who has the talent and passion to bring the project to fruition.

Buying a gift for a loved one?  Stop guessing.  Urge them onto Gift Caddie today.  

5 Early Stage Startup Founders Share Valuable Advice on Starting Up

Article Source: TECH cocktail, Monika Jansen, April 27, 2012

At Tuesday night’s Tech Cocktail Champaign Mixer event, we had the unique opportunity to showcase 5 startups that are so early stage they are still in either conceptual or research mode.  Thanks to the University of Illinois’s focus on engineering and science at their Urbana-Champaign campus, 4 of these startups are very hard science-focused.

Here is a snapshot of what each team is working on, along with what they have learned so far about the startup life:

OceanComm, which is so new it does not have website yet, was founded by 3 Electrical and Computer Engineering PhD candidates, Thomas Riedl, Navid Aghasadeghi and Andrew Beam.  Their wireless underwater communications technology makes it easier to maneuver underwater robots that are exploring mineral and natural resource repositories.

Riedl’s suggestion to other early stage startup founders: “Pitch your idea early and to everyone you know to get a feel for how exciting your product is and also to potentially get some good feedback. “

StudyCloud’s founding team of Andrew Lee, Ravi Pilla and Tom Zheng worked on a cloud music startup before shifting their attention to education. Their goal is to build a truly disruptive learning management platform that makes communication and collaboration as seamless as social networks.

“The biggest piece of advice I would give to other early stage startup founders is that the team is the most important aspect of a startup – even more important than the idea itself, “Palli shared. “The group of people that you work with can make all the difference. A talented group of people who are extremely passionate about what they are working on and are willing to dedicate their time willingly without direct monetary incentives can definitely execute and create a successful startup, even if the first or second or even third time doesn’t work out.”

Luon Energy, which sort of has a website, produces nano absorbents to increase the storage capacity of conventional seamless natural gas tanks.  It might not sound like an environmental company, but it is: Co-founder Professor Nie Luo believes that natural gas is the key to solving both environmental and economic problems.

Between Dr. Luo and his co-founders Dr. Michael Yang and Dr. Ji Cui (all hold PhDs in a hard science) they have 40+ years R&D experience. Echoing Michael Riedl from OceanComm, Dr. Luo said: “To succeed, startup founders should talk with customers and stakeholders on the market by any means necessary.”

GlucoSentient was founded by Professor Yi Lu, PhD candidates Tian Lan and Brian Wong, and startup advisor Neil Kane.  Their technology transforms the personal blood glucose meter into a versatile on-site testing platform for monitoring drug dosage, health biomarkers, or contaminants.

“The two most important things to focus on [as a startup] is developing the prototype and identifying the market,” Wong said.  “Everything else will fall in place if you do a good job with these.”

Worldview is the one non-science startup of the bunch.  This social platform is like Google Earth meets Live Stream – it joins together high quality, continuous live video content with geo-location services.  Before a single line of code was written, the team spent a year studying and analyzing where the future of social media was headed to create a next-generation platform

Co-founders Elias Lopez and David Simmons shared a lot of great advice for other startup founders:

“It is easier to get a million in funding than it is to acquire a great web developer. However, don’t underestimate the worth of a less experienced developer. What they lack in skill, they make up for in enthusiasm, drive and loyalty.

There is money, and then there is smart money. Choose your partners wisely and your investors prudently. Once someone puts money behind your idea consider yourself hitched. Get to know them, their interest, their temperament and most importantly, their management style.

Don’t quit your day job! While a seed investment may seem like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, it’s more like stepping out of a landing craft on the sandy beaches of Normandy.

Execution is everything and ideas are a dime a dozen…. Optimize your time, stay focused, get sleep if possible, and exercise daily. A sharp mind goes a long way.”

Is the Government Voting on Bills that Hurt Your Startup? Find out on TrakBill

Article Source: TECH cocktail, Kira Newman, April 26, 2012

“We’ll figure it out later.”

That’s how some startups, who might be breaking laws or regulations, decide to deal with it. We’re so tiny that no one will care, right?

If you want to err on the side of caution, take a few minutes to sign up for TrakBill. Designed for lobbyists, this new service can also help small businesses monitor bills that could affect them (for free). You can sign up for notifications when bills reach specific stages – e.g., passed by the House or signed into law – and discover other relevant legislation.

Like CQ StateTrack, TrakBill focuses on state-level bills (currently just in Illinois), but they plan to expand to federal. The data comes from state websites, like, and THOMAS: Library of Congress.

TrakBill was showcased at our Tech Cocktail Champaign mixer on Tuesday.

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