In 2016, Illinois universities doubled down on entrepreneurship.

From University of Chicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship becoming a standalone entrepreneurship resource for the school after a $35 million donation, to Northwestern University launching two seed funds to commercialize research and invest in student startups, to University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s growing ecosystem that ranges from central Illinois to Chicago, the opportunities and resources to start a venture while in school have only grown for Chicago’s youngest founders.

Here’s a look some recently launched student startups who we hear are gearing up to have a big year in 2017.


Sentiment analysis startup Tweetsense, founded by UIUC sophomores William Widjaja and Cody Pawlowski, mines social media and other internet comments to understand public opinion. But it’s more than polling tech: Their method correctly predicted Brexit and the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, months in advance. The Tweetsense cofounders worked out of UIUC’s iVenture accelerator this summer, and recently hired a third employee. Next up, they’re looking to work with political campaigns as well as other clients interested in public sentiment, such as businesses (they can use their tech to micro-target customers, eliminate surveys and create personality profiles of a given population).

Marc Gyongyosi
Marc Gyongyosi

IFM Technologies 

IFM Technologies is looking to change warehouses through drone and mapping technology. The startup creates autonomous drones (or, in reference to the startup’s name, “intelligent flying machines”) that fly up and down warehouse aisles scanning barcodes to track warehouse inventory, at a rate 400 times faster than the manual process (about 20 minutes to complete one aisle), according to founder Marc Gyongyosi, a senior at Northwestern University. But this is just the first application of their tech– Gyongsi sees IFM Technologies as a way to automate spatial data capture, which could be integrated with augmented reality, virtual reality and Internet of Things technology as indoor spaces become more connected. IFM Technologies won $15,000 at Northwestern’s Venture Challenge in May, and have been working out of The Garage this summer. In April they presented at the GPU Technology Conference organized by NVIDIA in Silicon Valley, in September they presented at TechCrunch Disrupt.

Amber Agriculture

This startup aims to bring the Internet of Things to the farm. Amber Agriculture’s smart sensors are placed inside grain silos, and transmit information on CO2 and moisture levels to a farmer’s smartphone, allowing farmers to prevent crop spoilage. Founded by current UIUC MBA student Lucas Frye, Amber Agriculture won UIUC’s Cozad New Venture Challenge last spring, and worked out of the iVenture accelerator at UIUC this summer.


While class projects are a key part of most students’ grades, the work often falls disproportionately on one enterprising student. In order to improve collaboration, and provide more transparency to professors aiming to assess student work, Illinois Institute of Technology sophomore Vinesh Kannan launched Omnipointment. Their tool allows students to schedule meetings, and sends collaboration reports to teachers to show who’s taking leadership in organizing tasks. This summer they went through the Straight Shot Startup Accelerator in Omaha, Neb. (Kannan’s cofounder is a University of Nebraska student) and they’re currently wrapping up paid pilots. Omnipointment was also a finalist in this year’s Future Founders U.Pitch competition.


Therapalz cofounders

This startup, founded by UIUC juniors Fiona Kalensky and  Isak Massman, is creating therapeutic robotic stuffed animals for Alzheimers and dementia patients. The stuffed animals are outfitted with custom electronics so when a patient pets the stuffed animal, it outputs vibrations, heat and an underlying heartbeat to calm and comfort patients. They went through UIUC’s iVenture accelerator this summer, and recently won Saint Louis University’s 2016 Real Elevator pitch competition. They’re aiming to get their product to market by summer 2017.


Could artificial intelligence be the key to faster breast cancer diagnosis? That’s the idea behind GliaLab, a startup cofounded by rising Lane Tech High School senior Abu Qader. GliaLab’s product altOP is a “second opinion diagnostic software assistant” that works with existing medical imaging devices, using machine learning and big data to create a faster and more accurate way of diagnosing cancerous tumors. Qader says the software is between 93 percent and 99 percent accurate, cutting down on cutting down on costly misdiagnosis.


Major Division I football programs spend between $400,000 and $580,000 on recruiting 20 to 25 new players every year, but deciding what players to recruit at what point in their early athletic career can be difficult. That’s why Northwestern University senior Ben Weiss developed Zcruit, a startup that uses uses predictive analytics to assess how likely a recruit is to eventually commit to a university. He’s been testing the tech with Northwestern’s football program since June of 2015, and was able to predict whether a player would commit with 94 percent accuracy. Weiss grew Zcruit through Wildfire, The Garage at Northwestern’s accelerator, this summer. They also were a runner-up in the undergraduate track of Northwestern University’s Venture Challenge (NUVC) and a runner-up in the RECESS pitch competition. They plan on a full market launch next spring.

Latona Therapeutics

Latona Therapeutics is fighting cancer at the nano-level: The startup is working to bring a new, targeted chemotherapeutic for triple negative breast cancer, that uses light-activated nanoparticles to destroy cancer cells with minimal impact on surrounding healthy tissue, to market. Latona Therapeutics was cofounded by a team of Illinois Institute of Technology engineering PhD students and University of Chicago Booth School of Business MBA students, spun out of the Nano Startup Challenge in Cancer, which asks teams of students to bring near-term, commercially viable cancer nanotechnology inventions to market. They also went through the I-Corps program at the Polsky Center this fall.

Maria McKiever founder of Grapevyne 


This forthcoming app, founded by University of Illinois-Chicago industrial engineering student Maria McKiever (pictured above), aims to connect users with stylists in the black hair care market, as well as be a platform for independent black hair care stylists. It’s a play at a lucrative market: Market research firm Mintel estimated the size of the market at $684 million in 2012, and projected it would hit $761 million by 2017, according to the Huffington Post. The startup won Campus1871, a hackathon for Chicago college students, in February and McKiever has since been working on developing an MVP. Grapevyne was also selected as winner of Chicago Inno’s Inno U challenge this fall.


Psyonic is a startup creating low-cost prosthetic hands that offers sensory feedback, allowing users to not only utilize a prosthetic, but restore feeling and control in the limb they lost. They’re aiming to deploy their technology in developing nations. The startup went through the iVenture acclerator in 2015, and cofounder Aadeel Akhtar, an MD/PhD candidate at UIUC, won the 2016  Illinois Innovation Prize, an $18,000 award that he is using to bring the protoype to market.