Chicago’s south side neighborhood coworking space and startup hub turns 5
In October 2014, a 34,000 square foot coworking space and facility opened up to not only serve all students, faculty, staff, and alumni of the University of Chicago, but also to be a dedicated resource for innovators and entrepreneurs in the surrounding South Side community without a formal affiliation to the University. Operated by the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Chicago, the Polsky Exchange has hosted thousands of workshops, multiple cohorts of startups, and a variety of high profile speakers since opening its doors five years ago.
Located on 53rd Street in Chicago’s vibrant, Hyde Park neighborhood, the Polsky Exchange acts as headquarters for thousands of startups, including the 15-20 companies accepted into the Polsky Incubator each year. Additionally, more than 4,200 members have access to a full suite of resources and activities offered at the Polsky Exchange. A uniqueness of this coworking space is that membership is free to all University of Chicago faculty, staff, and students and available to community-based entrepreneurs with no affiliation to the University of Chicago at a drastically lower rate than other area coworking spaces.
“Entrepreneurship is really hot on the South Side of Chicago. We are so proud to support entrepreneurs coming out of the University as well as our surrounding community,” said E.J. Reedy, senior director of the Polsky Exchange. “It’s really powerful to see the growth in our community on a daily basis.”
In addition to a state-of-the-art coworking space, which includes designated desk space for quickly scaling Incubator companies, classrooms where workshops are hosted, and huddle rooms where members can meet with mentors who offer a suite of expertise, the facility has a fabrication and prototyping lab (Fab Lab) where entrepreneurs have the opportunities to transform their ideas into physical objects. Cutting edge equipment is available to all members who go through a basic Fab Lab 101 onboarding class – from there they are able to create prototypes and translate ideas into physical objects.
“Physical prototyping allows members to prove their concepts quickly and cheaply,” said Elizabeth Koprucki, assistant director of the Fab Lab. “The resources and expertise of the Fab Lab allow entrepreneurs to go from idea to object whether or not they have previous fabrication experience.”
One company that was able to create a prototype was 2012 John Edwardson, ’72, Social New Venture Challenge winner LuminAID. LuminAID develops cost-effective, solar-rechargeable lighting products in order to make light more affordable, portable, and sustainable. Cofounders, Andrea Sreshta, MBA ’16, and Anna Stork started their company with the thought that in addition to basic human needs such as food, water, and shelter, another critical need is light. Today, their products are used for hikers and backpackers as well as those in emergency situations due to natural disasters.
This transformational idea that was turned into a viable product also caught the attention of all five investors on the ABC television show Shark Tank. In 2015, LuminAID reached a deal with businessman, Mark Cuban, who invested $200,000 in the company.
Following LuminAID’s successful Shark Tank debut, the company expanded into the home and garden market. Familiar with the resources available at the Polsky Center, the team hired a student intern who worked in the Fab Lab to develop the hardware and software for the new product line.
The Polsky Exchange is also utilized by companies who apply to cohort-based programs to receive specialized coaching, mentorship, and dedicated workspace. This past summer, the Polsky Center ran its annual Polsky Accelerator program out of the Exchange for the third year. Beginning in June, 12 teams entered the Accelerator with the goal of honing in on specific parts of their business models in time to pitch it front of a live audience at a Demo Day in September.
Now in its eighth year, the Polsky Accelerator company portfolio has risen to 88 teams – including notable alumni such as BallotReady, Moneythink, and ZipFit Denim. Alumni companies have raised more than $32 million in funding – with three companies having been acquired (HireBrite, matchist, SmartLine).
“The Polsky Center enabled us to continue connecting with the Chicago community in a way that would not have been possible otherwise,” said Digital Adventures cofounders Omowale Casselle and Arjun Venkataswamy. The team won the Crowd Favorite award at the 2019 Accelerator Demo Day and is also an alum of the Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge.
“One of the core values of our company is to foster and encourage community within our studios for our students and their parents. And, we’ve found that Polsky creates the ideal environment for us to build relationships with Chicago advisors, investors, and mentors who can help us continue to grow our business locally and ultimately nationally,” said Casselle and Venkataswamy.
Small business owners interested in support to help grow and scale their business can tap into the Polsky Small Business Growth Program. With funding from JPMorgan Chase, and in partnership with the University of Chicago Office of Civic Engagement, this program is part of the nationwide Ascend 2020 program, which partners with top universities and institutions to provide business assistance and opportunities for minority-owned, women-owned, and veteran-owned businesses in major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Chicago.
Clients, or small businesses located in the South and West Side of Chicago, accepted into the program receive free consulting services from teams of highly-skilled student consultants, supervision by Chicago Booth faculty, and support by additional experienced business coaches. Throughout the three-month cohort, companies receive complimentary access to the Polsky Exchange.
This Fall, 11 companies entered the newest cohort of the program where they will tackle key business challenges and determine new strategies for business growth. Last year, Evelyn’s Food Love, a café and caterer serving a variety of fresh foods made from scratch, learned new ways to propel the company forward and formed a bond with its coach that continues to this day.
“The Small Business Growth program is invaluable to early-stage companies,” said Evelyn Shelton, founder of Evelyn’s Food Love. “My team really understood what my concerns were and came back weekly with actionable recommendations to help me move forward.”
Others simply walk into the Polsky Exchange with no program affiliation, but instead an idea that they wish to grow into a viable product while being immersed in the entrepreneurial ecosystem that exists on Chicago’s South Side. Regardless of the type of involvement, the Polsky Center continues to make it possible for those unaffiliated with the University of Chicago to receive high caliber education in a setting that is convenient for them.
“Through a sequence of introductions, Polsky was able to point me to the right people at the right time for each phase of my startup’s journey toward launch,” said John Stoops, community member and founder of The Revival. “Simply put, The Revival would not exist without the Polsky Center.”
To celebrate the many innovators who have been supported over the past five years, the Polsky Center will host a special entrepreneurship showcase on Wednesday, October 16 from 5:00 – 7:00 p.m. Companies will be showcased at the event and attendees will have the chance to meet seasoned mentors for 1:1 walk-up support appointments, see demos from the Polsky Fab Lab, and have the opportunity to take free headshots.
Read more about the pathway a few of the companies who will be featured at Polsky Entrepreneurship Showcase took to get to where they are today: