June 30, 2009

Innovate Illinois contest open to entrepreneurs

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- New and prospective businesses are eligible to compete for $80,000 in prizes in the statewide 2009 Innovate Illinois competition. The Southern Illinois University Southern Illinois Entrepreneurship Center in Carbondale and the University Entrepreneurship Center in Centralia are downstate sponsors of the contest.

This is the fifth year for the challenge, which recognizes high-growth Illinois businesses that offer or plan to offer an innovative service or product. Last year more than 130 companies across Illinois participated in the program. Clipius Technologies Inc., a Carbondale-based company led by SIUC mechanical engineering professor Ajay Mahajan, emerged with a $10,000 prize as a runner-up in the early stage business category.

“ The Innovate Illinois competition is a way for our clients and successful downstate companies to compete on a state level, going head to head with companies hosted by other centers like University of Illinois and Northwestern. Our companies are as bright, as smart, and as innovative and we appreciate the chance to showcase them at this top-notch level,” said Robyn Laur Russell, director of the Southern Illinois Entrepreneurship Center. “Bringing home the client with the runner-up prize last year was an amazing experience and this year a first-place win would truly tell the story of innovation and capability in the southern region.”

This year, each of the state’s 16 entrepreneurship centers, including the ones at Carbondale and Centralia, will select two businesses to advance to the statewide contest semifinals: one early stage and one late stage. The early stage category is for companies with an idea for an innovative product, service or process that will likely have a lasting economic impact. The late stage category is for new companies that have recently put in place an innovative product, service or process that is already having an economic impact in Illinois.

The clock is ticking. Businesses must submit their applications for the 2009 Innovate Illinois competition no later than Aug. 12. Semi-finalists will get notification Sept. 8 that they will be advancing to the next phase.

The 16 early stage and 16 late stage semifinalists will then meet head to head at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on Sept. 24. Each business will get the opportunity to provide a panel of judges with a fast-paced business presentation about their company and its innovations. They also will field questions from the judges, who will then select six finalists from each track, early and late stage.

The 12 finalists will advance to the state competition Nov. 10 at the University of Chicago’s Gleacher Center. The top competitor in each category will claim a $30,000 prize while the runner-up in each stage will earn $10,000 cash awards.

The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, an affiliate of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, jointly administer the Innovate Illinois program. All 16 entrepreneurship centers throughout the state serve as co-sponsors and as regional hubs for companies applying.

The idea is to encourage high-growth business entrepreneurship companies. Since the contest began five years ago, 29 companies have taken home more than $450,000 in cash and prizes.

The winners aren’t just those who claim the top prizes though. Entrepreneurs get the chance to showcase their innovations for potential investors, mentors and customers and even accelerate their business growth, according to David Weinstein, president of the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center. Business owners likewise get to network with other innovators and receive extensive media coverage.

The economic recession is negatively affecting large and small businesses, but in general, small businesses are particularly having a difficult time, according to Warren Ribley, director of DCEO.

“Small businesses are a vital part of Illinois’ economy because they create jobs and support their local communities. Innovate Illinois gives entrepreneurs the help they need to develop new products and services that will enable them to succeed,” Ribley said.

For more information or assistance in applying, contact the Southern Illinois Entrepreneurship Center at 618/453-3805. You can also learn more online at www.siecenter.biz or at the state Web site, www.innovateillinois.org.