New group harnesses student thought process and creativity


Allie Arp, CSL

Students that get accepted into an engineering program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are some of the best and brightest in the country. Give them a task and they’ll figure out a way to accomplish it. But what if the students didn’t have a task, just room to think and create? That is the idea behind the new startup company Alchemy, created by CSL professor Sanjay Patel.

“Alchemy’s goal is to enable you to create meaningful technology that is important and valuable enough to create opportunity down the road,” said Patel at the Alchemy 2019 Cohort’s first meeting. “This is not a research project. Our goal isn’t to write research papers. Nor, are we are making products or getting users or generating revenue. We are creating the technological building blocks for doing so.”

Patel’s own experiences in the tech startup world led him to create Alchemy, along with Wen-mei Hwu, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Jinjun Xiong, co-director of the IBM Center for Cognitive Computing Systems (C3SR).The first Alchemy Cohort started their journey this semester. Fifty students applied to be a part of this innovative program, and 12 were eventually selected. Each member of the inaugural Alchemy cohort has signed on for 18-months of intense work, most of which will take place in small, three-to-five student teams.

Alchemy students with Professors Sanjay Patel and Wen-mei Hwu
Alchemy students with Professors Sanjay Patel and Wen-mei Hwu

Many of the participants are getting project credit as part of their participation in the group, with some students lessening their overall class load in order to focus on their developing projects. This is a large commitment, and Patel wants to make sure it’s worth it for each student.

“There are many possible outcomes for the student teams at the end of the Alchemy Program,” Patel said. “One possible outcome is that they are hired as a team by a company that is interested in their technology. Another good outcome is that the team gets funded to start their own company based on their technology. Regardless of outcome, working intensely on a long-term team project is an invaluable experience.”

In addition to a resume builder and the potential for the development of a commercial technology, each student has also received a summer internship with IBM as a result of their involvement. The internship will allow the students to devote their summer to working on their projects. A variety of industry partners will play a big role in this startup, with various representatives coming in throughout the program to help guide students during their technology development, give presentations, and discuss the challenges and ideas associated with the projects.

Patel says that while Alchemy provides the tools and resources for student teams to succeed, a large part of the equation is driven by the students themselves.

“It’s been really exciting for me and the other organizers to see the level of student motivation,” he said.