The Illinois Corporate-Startup Challenge: Accelerating Corporate Innovation

| Mark Harris, President & CEO, Illinois Science & Technology Coalition and Alya Adamany Woods, Managing Director, Illinois Innovation Network

Microsoft and the Illinois Science & Technology Coalition (ISTC) have enjoyed a productive relationship over the past several years. We work in the same circles and share many of the same values on increasing STEM programs and STEM skills, improving educational outcomes and ensuring a stronger economy through entrepreneurship.. Recently, the Technology and Civic Engagement team in Chicago and the ISTC developed a deeper relationship, focusing on their Corporate-Startup Challenge program and looking at specific ways to identify and match startups with Microsoft’s needs. We have also engaged one of Microsoft’s civic partners and one of the City’s premier resources—the Chicago Public Library (CPL). Candidly, this is an experiment on all sides; it’s a way for CPL to gain clarity around how technology can enable them to extend their reach in their 80 locations, and it’s a way to see how Illinois startups with an education or digital media notion can connect with the public at large. It’s great to see how large public institutions like CPL are willing to invest time and talent to try new things, and we appreciate the curated “matchmaking” of the ISTC staff in bringing emerging startups to our attention. We’re looking forward to our formal Demo Day later in April and appreciate the creativity and the partnerships on all sides.

— Shelley Stern Grach

We often hear about Illinois’ depth and diversity of global corporations, as well as our growing entrepreneurial community over the last few years – but some might not know about the powerful results that can occur when we mix them together. At the Illinois Science & Technology Coalition (ISTC) – a member-driven nonprofit focused on growing the state’s innovation economy – we are leading an effort to better bridge the state’s most promising startups and university spinouts with major corporations that are looking to innovate with partners outside their walls.

Developed in 2013, the Illinois Corporate-Startup Challenge assembles a class of Fortune 1000 corporations on a semiannual basis to facilitate a rapid, go-to-market strategy that gives companies a window into the rapidly emergent innovation ecosystem in Illinois.  To date, we have worked with 12 corporations, including Microsoft, which is participating in our current cohort. As a technology and civic leader here in Chicago, the Microsoft team was a natural fit for our partnership model.

How it works

The Corporate-Startup Challenge accelerates corporate innovation through highly curated engagement with entrepreneurs, disrupters, and emerging-growth companies from across Illinois. In November 2014, we kicked off the Microsoft partnership with a discovery session that allowed us to learn about Microsoft’s unique innovation interests – from “digital work” applications that envision software and cloud-based solutions for future workforce needs, to wearable technologies with a focus on the enterprise. Given Microsoft’s Civic Engagement team is pursuing meaningful, innovative impact partnerships here in Chicago, we were excited for the first time to also engage a government agency in our discovery process by incorporating the needs of Chicago Public Library (CPL) – with whom Microsoft has worked on a number of initiatives.

Once our priorities were developed for both Microsoft and CPL, our project team – which also includes program manager David Machajewski, and project consultant David Weinstein of Freshwater Advisers – tapped our statewide network of more than 50 referral partners, including research universities, tech parks, accelerators/incubators, and the angel/venture community to submit companies for potential partnership matches. Based on these referrals, we interviewed more than 75 new companies and drew from our existing portfolio of over 150 companies to select 45 companies for Micosoft and CPL to consider for possible strategic collaboration.   The process will culminate in a demo day showcase on April 22nd where Microsoft and CPL have identified a subset of startups to share their work with their leaders and identify potential opportunities to collaborate.


To date, 72 startups have presented at eight corporate demo days (Allstate, Walgreens, John Deere, Molex, Motorola Mobility, Exelon, ADM, and Hyatt Corporation, with Microsoft, State Farm, UL, and Danfoss coming up this spring). Of these, 40 have forged connections with one or more of the corporate partners, with at least 26 currently exploring mentorship, joint development agreements/pilot engagements, strategic partnerships and collaborations, contracts, or investment opportunities. Meanwhile, corporate partners have accelerated their own new products, services, and business competitiveness by gaining insight into the entrepreneurial community’s brightest innovations.

We are excited to be providing companies with the opportunity to understand how innovation can come from every corner of our state while bringing efficiency to what could otherwise be a highly inefficient process.

Mark Harris ISTCMark Harris has served as the President & CEO of the Illinois Science & Technology Coalition and Institute since June 2012. He has more than a decade of experience working in government, economic development and higher education. This includes serving as deputy chief of staff for the State of Illinois, working as associate director for the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and serving in senior positions at the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO).

Mark holds a BS from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and an MA from the University of Chicago. He is an appointee to the Illinois Smart Grid Advisory Council and Energy Foundry Board, serves on the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition Steering Committee and is a member of the Economic Club of Chicago. Mark is Chilean-American and is fluent in Spanish.

Alya Adamany ISTCAlya Adamany has joined the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition after seven years with The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, where she most recently served as the Assistant Director for Studies, and prior to that as the Interim Director for the Global Midwest Initiative. As the Managing Director for the Illinois Innovation Network, she works closely with the Illinois Innovation Council to develop, manage, and support programs that advance the Illinois economy through innovation-based strategies.

Alya previously held internships at the U.S. House of Representatives and Amnesty International. She has been a member of Teach For America’s auxiliary board since 2009, and volunteers with PAWS Chicago. Alya received her MA from the University of Chicago’s Committee on International Relations and a BA in political science from Yale University.


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