University Entrepreneurship: An Exciting New Challenge for Civic Education
By Matthew Swinehart
In October, University of Illinois, University of Chicago and Northwestern University announced their $1.2 billion research hub co-venture in Chicago’s South Loop. Governor Rauner and other local leaders say that the new facility will stop Illinois’ “brain-drain” to the coasts.
“This is a pipeline for talent that can drive economic growth and raise competitiveness for every type of business,” Rauner said in an interview with CBS 2 Chicago.
The announcement comes after years of remarkable growth in university-backed entrepreneurial programs throughout Illinois. To attract talent and innovation, schools around the state expanded their entrepreneurship incentive programs and broke ground on new incubator facilities.
For civic educators, this renewed emphasis on university entrepreneurship should be seen as an exciting new challenge. According to the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition (ISTC), startups that have sprung from university incubators raised nearly $630 million from 2012-2016.
Although the biomedical-dominated tech transfer field accounts for most of it, an astounding $279 million of that amount comes from non-tech transfer startups. This has opened the door for a wide variety of projects to receive university funding.
In an effort to adapt to diminishing government support, research institutions around the country have integrated what many call “innovation transfer” into their development strategies. Essentially, this amounts to a pivot towards supporting smaller commercial projects in order to attract diverse talent and increase investment returns.
This is an intriguing development for civic educators. On one hand, these incubator programs create the opportunity for talented individuals to fill gaps in the market and solve public problems, but on the other hand, these programs are largely modeled after Silicon Valley, the public problem-solving credentials of which are dubious at best.
Silicon Valley’s struggles with addressing public problems comes down to the fact that not every problem has a profitable solution. The challenge now facing civic educators at universities in Illinois and around the country is finding projects to finance that can truly solve problems within our communities while also having prospects of a self-sustaining model outside of university support.
One such example is BallotReady, a nonpartisan online voter guide supported by University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. BallotReady is an ambitious digital tool that its COO and co-founder, Aviva Rosman, said aims to be the “most comprehensive database for local politics.”
Through a mixture of web scraping, an automated process of retrieving data from websites, and manual input, BallotReady offered voters in 12 states ballot information on more than 15,000 candidates for the 2016 election. The tool provides voters greater knowledge and context about their vote in elections that are often underreported by the media.
“In a lot of local elections, voters go in with almost no knowledge of the candidate,” said Rosman, “and oftentimes they don’t even show up because they don’t know there’s an election happening.”
BallotReady received additional funding from the National Science Foundation and the Knight Foundation and won the University of Chicago’s Cognitive Computing Challenge as well as the John Edwardson ‘72 Social New Venture Challenge.
These grants and awards have allowed BallotReady to expand its coverage to 30 states for the 2017 regional and local elections. Rosman said that they have a fundraising goal of $1 million to prepare BallotReady to cover all 50 states in the 2018 election.
As a for profit venture, BallotReady’s self-sustainable future relies upon selling access to its extensive election database. Rosman said that there was much discussion about whether to go for profit or not when she and her co-founders began their work.
As civic educators, we should be on the lookout for projects springing from our campus incubators that could be utilized to bolster our democracy.
“The reality is, whether you are for profit or not for profit you are still going to get money from people with an agenda,” said Rosman. “We decided that being for profit gives us greater control over our product and makes [BallotReady] more sustainable.”
Rosman’s concern with going the not-for-profit route was the political reality that nonprofits must conform to.
“As a nonprofit, you’re often on one side or the other, Republican or Democrat” she said, “we’d lose support if we were seen as supporting one or the other. Being for profit, we have more independence as far as the people we can work with.”
BallotReady’s business model relies upon its independence. It sells the information it gathers to to advocacy groups in the form of white label products, which allows the buyer, for example, to highlight elections where the issue they advocate for is facing scrutiny. This allows the buyer to utilize their own established network to spread awareness and increase engagement.
BallotReady is not solely intended for campaign advocacy either. With such a broad set of data, BallotReady’s model allows researchers to take a closer look at the issues that drive our electoral discourse.
Tools like BallotReady are the result of venture capitalism and civic education coming together on our universities, and it is hardly the only startup with a civic mission coming out of university incubators.
As civic educators, we should be on the lookout for projects springing from our campus incubators that could be utilized to bolster our democracy. By working together with civic-minded entrepreneurs, our communities can come together to identify public problems and develop resources to address them.
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