Media excitement over the rise of startups and entrepreneurial funding in the Midwest is palpable. It’s difficult to find an industry publication or mainstream media outlet that hasn’t published its own version of “Silicon Valley tech’s great Midwest migration” like The Hustle or “As Silicon Valley Gets ‘Crazy,’ Midwest Beckons Tech Investors” like The New York Times.
While Central Indiana has thus far received the lion’s share of attention in the state, there are nonetheless growing startup communities located near research universities and industrial centers like the one Notre Dame’s IDEA Center supports in the South Bend/Elkhart region in North Central Indiana. In its first 12 months of operation (July 2017-June 2018), the IDEA Center launched 27 startups and recently announced a $22 million seed fund for faculty, student, alumni and community startups called Notre Dame Pit Road Fund.
“We’re close enough to Chicago, close enough to Indianapolis, Detroit, Grand Rapids and so many cities with growing tech and tech-enabled businesses that could benefit from the areas of expertise and research being developed at the University of Notre Dame,” said Bryan Ritchie, vice president and associate provost for innovation at the University of Notre Dame. Bryan leads the IDEA Center initiative and coordinates the University’s innovation, commercialization and entrepreneurship programs. “Whether it’s artificial intelligence, big data, data analytics, advanced manufacturing or industry innovation, these areas and more are the kinds of resources communities can draw on and engage with because we’re very centrally located.”
Because the University of Notre Dame exists more as a global brand — likely due to its storied football team portrayed in films and on TV — people are sometimes surprised to learn that it’s located in Indiana, explained Bryan. They are also unaware of the focus on research that began dramatically increasing more than a decade ago (150% increase), and totalling $146.6 million in research awards for fiscal year 2018.
The IDEA Center, which stands for Innovation, De-Risking and Enterprise Acceleration, was initially developed to address two critical needs. The university wanted to build a pipeline for commercialization of its greatly enhanced research volume and capabilities while also supporting the South Bend/Elkhart business ecosystem and talent attraction. Today, the center is the primary resource for all commercialization and entrepreneurial activities at the University of Notre Dame.
“The university is such a global force that its role locally wasn’t immediately clear, but as the Regional Development Authority and Entrepreneurship Board took shape supported by the Lilly Endowment grant, there was an obvious part for the IDEA Center to play in helping to transform South Bend/Elkhart into a dynamic regional ecosystem that attracts people,” Bryan said. “Of course, the university benefits from a thriving local community because it’s easier to recruit faculty, staff and their spouses. Everything has really come together to form a compelling regional story, and it’s hard to argue with our first-year results.”
The IDEA Center provides six primary paths to launch and grow startups:
- Commercialization Engine
Transforms the innovations of University researchers into market applications
- Innovation Park
Empowers entrepreneurs to build great businesses by providing world-class office space designed to spark productive collisions and creativity
- Student Entrepreneurship
Provides opportunities for students to turn their ideas into businesses and learn about entrepreneurship
- McCloskey New Venture Competition
Compete to win more than $400,000 in cash and prizes!
- Innovation Lab
Offers state-of-the-art manufacturing tools and resources for the development of products and prototypes for ventures of all kinds
- Pit Road Commercialization Engine Funding
Accelerates the advancement of University innovations by fueling them with VC Derisking, milestone-based funding
The center provides the necessary space, services and expertise for idea development, commercialization, business formation, prototyping, entrepreneurial education and student entrepreneurial efforts. The staff is a remarkable collection of accomplished professionals who advise and guide students, faculty and community members through the complex process of launching and growing new businesses. Staffers like serial entrepreneur John Henry (Director of Risk Assessment) and patent attorney and geneticist Karen Deak (Director, Network Engagement Team) offer counsel based on their real-world experiences and successes.
“It’s all about process,” Bryan said. “I think one of the things that really sets us apart from the typical tech transfer office is that at the University of Notre Dame we’ve made the investment into the people, spaces, capital and resources necessary to de-risk startups and really help them take off, and that makes all the difference.”