Community and collaboration are the foundation of the Chicago tech scene. It's a tightly knit ecosystem, and in recognition of this achievement, we are sharing a list of the top accelerators in Chicago designed to help small businesses grow. The spotlight is on programs that accept startups of different sizes, expertise and age and only have 1 mission: to establish Chicago's tech ecosystem into 1 of the best globally.
What is an Accelerator?
The difference between an accelerator and an incubator could seem a little blurry. An accelerator is a program that enables businesses to grow by offering training, mentorship and even capital. Incubators are mainly hubs where enterprises operating on a tight budget are housed at an affordable rate. Some accelerators offer incubator services.
What Types of Companies Are Accelerators For?
What type of company would require the services of an accelerator? It depends. An accelerator is for any business that can benefit from any of the following:
Training: View an accelerator program as a mini business school that teaches you skills and knowledge that normally takes years to acquire.
Hone your pitch: Applying to join an accelerator and getting accepted is your first pitch. All programs end with a demo day — a day you pitch to real investors. This is great for networking and obtaining funds, but it is also great practice for the first time you’re face to face with an investor on your own.
Networking: An accelerator with alumni or notable investments is a great place to grow your network and net worth. We have heard of many stories of a startup that connected with an investor who initially only gave feedback but, after seeing improvements, decided to invest fully. An accelerator helps you connect with others.
Interaction with peer companies: With other companies at the same stage as yours, you get to see the way they handle challenges and hurdles. You will also set practical goals for your business because you have the exact prototype before your eyes.
Capital: Accelerators are founder-friendly, especially when you need a capital boost. Your business can receive capital that will help take you to the next level.
How to Pick the Right Accelerator
If you have already been accepted into an accelerator program,congratulations. It is a huge accomplishment, but there is a need to ask yourself some questions before entering. The primary advice is that you should always prioritize what you will get out of the program. Thinking about the best accelerators? Check off this list:
Are the mentors good at what they do? Most companies that join accelerators do so because they need wisdom and guidance. Guesswork and hype should not be the qualification of a mentor. Do your due diligence and determine whether the mentors have relevant experience in your industry.
Investment. Work with a program that is transparent when it comes to funding. We have been highlighting Techstars because it is 1 of the programs that communicates the results, including total funding raised. Compare the results of different accelerators to get a picture of which ones are doing things right.
Traction. Is it a program focused on already established companies, or do they specialize in early stage companies.
Note that your business may only fit in a few categories, but an accelerator still may be the right choice to get your startup off the ground.
Top 10 Accelerators in Chicago
Here’s our picks for the best accelerators in Chicago, Illinois.
No. 1. Best Early Stage Incubator: 1871, founded 2012
More than 400 digital tech startups call 1871 home. It is an incubator that has contributed immensely to Chicago’s tech ecosystem. With the addition of 40,000 square feet, the incubator is set to hub a larger community of investors, partners, peers and mentors. So far, 1871 has acquired 35 companies, created more than 11,250 viable alumni and raised $1.5 billion.
2. Best Real Estate Accelerator: REACH, founded 2013
Reach is an accelerator program specializing in opening doors to real estate resources and connections. The 3-month accelerator program helps real estate companies scale up by working with tech businesses. The primary type of investment offered in this program is accelerator/incubator. In addition to training, participants get office space and seed funding. Second Century Ventures acquired this accelerator, which was known as Elmspring.
3. Best Healthcare Innovation Accelerator: Insight Accelerator Labs, founded 2013
If you are a Chicago-based startup seeking to disrupt the healthcare industry, then Insight Accelerator Labs should be on your list. It's an effective program for companies at all stages that specialize in tech-enabled medical devices. Participants are provided with all the resources needed to speed up growth. In exchange for a small equity percentage, companies are granted access to the program's Chicago office. This allows them to collaborate seamlessly with the accelerator's development team to execute an idea into a tangible product. Participants also enjoy legal assistance at a deferred fee, expert mentoring, product development at a reduced cost and other services.
4. Best Community Business Accelerator: Sunshine Enterprises, founded 2012
Know any members of a community who want to grow their businesses? If they are in Chicago, they should apply for the Sunshine Enterprises accelerator program. It is a program whose primary focus is small neighborhood-based businesses and entrepreneurs. Participants are coached and educated for 12 weeks. When they are done, they are connected to high-potential entrepreneurs. The program currently runs 3 business hubs. The plan is to establish 5 neighborhood-based business hubs.
5. Best Startup Communities Accelerator: Techstars, founded in 2006
Techstars Chicago, formerly known as Excelerate Labs, is the premium accelerator in the city. Up-and-coming entrepreneurs are taken through a 3-month program that includes access to the best local tech mentors. What else is offered? Office space, additional capital and about $1 million worth of perks and benefits.
6. Best Women Founders Accelerator/Incubator: WiSTEM, founded 2017
Women in STEM (WiSTEM)is an 1871 outfit. The program is intentionally designed for women founders or women who run startups. WiSTEM is not your traditional accelerator or incubator but rather a go-between. It aims to work with women in the tech scene and handle challenges that are unique to them.
7. Best Interactive Media Accelerator: 2112, founded 2015
One can say that Chicago has a thing for numbered accelerators. 2112 is the 1st incubator fostering the development of entrepreneurs and businesses involved in film/video, music and creative technology.
8. Best Brand and Business Accelerator: Brand Accelerator, founded 2013
Brand Accelerator is just that -- a brand accelerator. It is a program that is backed by several major brands that partner with participating startups. The program has established a structure that results in actual revenue generation thanks to working with big brands that offer effective mentorship. The brands help startups identify marketing and innovation needs and curate them accordingly. Qualified finalists are awarded $50,000 worth of pilot programs. They will work with a team of marketers and mentors to deliver the desired results.
9. Best Early-Stage Founders Accelerator/Incubator: Catapult Chicago, founded 2012
Both a think tank and incubator, Catapult Chicago is a community focused on growth via mentorship, experience sharing and empowerment. The incubator has helped more than 60 startups, worked with more than 100 founders and raised more than $380 million in funding capital.
10. Best Student Entrepreneur Accelerator: Clean Energy Trust, founded 2010
Chicago-based companies anchored on creating clean energy solutions should look no further than Clean Energy Trust. The program provides investment and hands-on support to participants. Currently, the program has 31 companies in its portfolio.
Find the Best Accelerators in Chicago
Chicago has a vast number of startups and a good number of accelerators. Catering to this wide variety should be a promising sign. Startups will ramp up their operations once they settle on the accelerator of their choice.Want to learn more about other local rankings across the United States? Check out the Best Accelerators in Austin, Best Accelerators in Austin and more of Benzinga’s Rankings.
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