Chicago Innovation Challenge 2016

“The Contest is a four-stage competition designed to (1) encourage and inspire students to think about creating physical things, applications and applications that control physical things by encouraging them to seek to solve a real-world consumer and/or business need or problem that they have identified, (2) to demonstrate their creativity and inventiveness at solving this problem, (3) to provide an opportunity to earn a monetary prize and, for the noted limited time, free rent at a maker’s co-working space in recognition of their accomplishment.” – Illinois Institute of Technology, Jules F. Knapp Entrepreneurship Center’s Chicago Innovation Challenge.


imageI would first like to thank Donna Rockin, Executive Director at IIT’s Jules F. Knapp Entrepreneurship Center, for the opportunity to participate in this year’s Chicago Innovation Challenge as a judge in the Semi Finals.

This happens to be my eight engagement of this kind, having served twice as a judge at MIT Enterprise Forum and the Illinois Math & Science Academy’s Power Pitch, and five times at the Chicago Science Fair for Computer Science and Behavioral Science projects.

Competitions can be designed to deliver a systematic approach to producing high-potential innovations as pointed out by Wharton’s Christian Terwiesch and Karl T. Ulrich in their book on Innovation Tournaments.

I am fortunate to have experienced that outcome from three different perspectives as (a) an award winning contestant, (b) team coach and (c) in a judge capacity once again. My earliest involvement as a contestant started as an Industrial Design student competing at two EPSON’s research paper tournaments in Spain, and then General Electric Plastics’ product design competition and Honeywell’s Be Brilliant Scholar in Europe, which provided the scholarships funding my undergrad, post-grad and graduate degrees. Career wise, I am also proud of my three Bell Labs Entrepreneurial Boot Camps in the United States.

Innovation tournaments usually take several rounds of screening. The filtering process leverages check-lists structured under a well understood criteria. Some competitions are centered on identifying and developing talent, though most are looking for specific projects worthy of investment. The Chicago Innovation Challenge serves both objectives and leverages Startup Compete’s platform as an online process tool.

When judging, my most immediate task is identifying whether I am reviewing an invention or an innovation. Projects focusing on technical matters are typically discussing inventions. Those going further to address what it takes to put things in the hands of users, to seek to understand human factors and to look at what it takes to foster adoption become far more likely to qualify as innovations.

So, my probing questions are what is the project’s “signature experience;” why would that and any implied changes mean anything to stakeholders? moreover, what’s the expected impact for end users? and what specific paths lead to early adoption and customer engagements?

Beyond that point, I look for what’s clearly new and differentiated so that we can properly assess degrees of innovativeness and game changing capabilities ranging from incremental innovation to disruptive innovation. And while looking at the reasoning and working assumptions behind use and business cases is of the essence, it turns out that “human factors” such as individual talent, decision making style and the collective quality of the team are typically decisive when pondering success chances, which drives my rankings and prioritization.

I firmly believe that individuals should feel and be empowered to make a decisive difference, but it is teams, partners and collaborative workstyles what make things happen. So, it makes sense to ask if them all understand and agree on the project’s “soul.” Let me be precise, can the startup’s founders and any team members clearly articulate and passionately embrace the project’s essence and guiding spirit? Can they succinctly outline credible grounds to convincingly rally resources and make things happen… or are they just lost in space or drinking doomed Kool-Aid.

By the way, judges should understand that iterative advancements and even pivoting are common innovation management practices. Think Lean’s Kaizen, also known as Continuous Improvement . Therefore, providing balanced feedback on pros-and-cons matters most because going through several screening rounds means that most projects don’t obviously bubble up to the top, and yet, they should not be denied the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that doesn’t take a “no” or a “defeat” for an answer.

So, there is no room for putting down any project unless human rights and anyone’s quality of life were purposely compromised, e.g. don’t be evil. Regarding the winners, congratulations are in order, jointly with expectations on making the best use of any recognition, visibility and awards. No pressure there : )

”Ultimately, there’s only one way to learn to swim, you have to get wet. No amount of poolside calisthenics or video study can substitute for plunging in.”Innovation Tournaments.

imageThis year’s Chicago Innovation Challenge is my last activity as a Member of the Advisory Board at the Entrepreneurship Center, which I joined in 2014.

It’s been a pleasure to experience the dedication and commitment of everyone involved, and the positive and growing impact in our community.

I have also been lucky enough to be involved in IIT’s Real Time Communications Conference as a Chair of the Cloud Computing track in 2014 and 2015, which I have Professor Carol Davids of the School of Applied Technology and Conference Chair to thank for.

Last but not least, I need to express my gratitude to Dr. Moises Goldman, Serial Entrepreneur and Investor, and Nik Rokop, Coleman Foundation Clinical Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Stuart School of Business.

Hope to cross paths with IIT’s community again I take this chance to convey my best.


I’m now gearing up for Informa’s Innovation Conference in New Orleans where I will be speaking on Thursday, November 15. See you there.


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