Michael P. Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship expands venture creation across UChicago

Chicago energy entrepreneur Michael Polsky, who in 2002 donated $7 million to the University of Chicago Booth School of Business to create the Michael P. Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship, increased his total gift to $15 million, the school announced on Dec. 4. The additional $8 million will enable Booth’s Polsky Center to serve as a venture creation engine for the entire University.

As a result of its expanded mission and UChicago’s commitment to developing entrepreneurial and innovative leaders, the center will now be called the Michael P. Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Importantly, the gift will create new multidisciplinary programs; provide resources and space for cross-campus interdisciplinary teams to collaborate on new venture development; and support the University’s growing innovation initiatives.

“This gift will enable the Polsky Center to expand its mission of encouraging entrepreneurship, which drives our economy and is the core of the American spirit,” said Polsky, a 1987 graduate of Booth’s MBA program. Polsky is the founder and chief executive of Chicago-based Invenergy, a leading global clean-energy company that is North America’s largest independent, privately owned wind power-generation company.

“Entrepreneurs lead the way in innovation and job creation, which in turn benefits our entire society,” Polsky said. “I am proud that we are investing further in our efforts to foster and celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit among the entire University of Chicago community.”

“This gift will allow us to have more direct impact on the commercialization of the University’s intellectual property,” said Sunil Kumar, dean of Chicago Booth. “It will provide more opportunities for our business school students to interact with others across the University, and more opportunities for them to create new ventures.”

“We are grateful to Michael Polsky for his generosity,” said President Robert J. Zimmer. “The possibilities for translating new ideas into practical applications as a vehicle for the impact of faculty work span a broad segment of the University. By expanding the mission of the Polsky Center, we are able to bring together the strengths of Chicago Booth scholarship and education on entrepreneurship with new focal points of innovation, such as the Institute for Molecular Engineering and the Institute for Translational Medicine. It will also serve and enhance the growing interest in entrepreneurship and innovation among our College students.”

Entrepreneurship has grown so much in popularity among Booth MBA students that a majority of students who enrolled in the school this year listed it as their top intended concentration, Kumar said.

Demand for additional support and programming from the Polsky Center has increased significantly in recent years. During the 2011-12 academic year, Booth’s Edward L. Kaplan New Venture Challenge received a record 160 applications from student teams who compete for $335,000 in prize money and business services. The program, now in its 17th year, helped launch more than 85 companies that have raised nearly $300 million in funding and created more than 1,300 jobs. These companies include GrubHub, Braintree and Bump, which have been funded by some of the world’s top venture capital firms, including Accel, Benchmark, NEA and Sequoia.

The expanded mission of the Polsky Center comes after more than 10 years of development and success. With Polsky’s endowment in 2002, the Center created substantial programs and activities in six key areas: new venture creation, experiential learning and entrepreneurial education, faculty research, community outreach, innovation workshops and early-stage investment. 

“The Polsky Center has had great success developing entrepreneurial Booth students and helping them launch and grow their businesses. We look forward to continuing with Booth students and expanding to work with students and faculty across the University,” said Steven Kaplan, the Neubauer Family Distinguished Service Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance at Booth and faculty director of the Polsky Center.

The expanded programs to be offered by the Polsky Center will be led by the same leadership that has been in place at the center since its inception in 2002, which includes Kaplan and Ellen Rudnick, who directs the day-to-day operations as executive director of the Polsky Center and clinical professor of entrepreneurship.

Michael Polsky grew up in Ukraine under Soviet rule. “It was the classic Soviet Union situation—very political, no freedoms, no opportunities,” said Polsky, adding that university admission in particular “was not easy, particularly because I am Jewish.” After receiving a degree in mechanical engineering at Kiev Polytechnic Institute, he spent three years designing power plants before immigrating to the United States in 1976.

Several years later, in 1982, Polsky was a supervising engineer at professional services company Fluor-Daniel when he enrolled in Booth’s Evening MBA program. Midway through his studies, Polsky took his first entrepreneurial step when he co-founded Indeck Energy Services, a developer and builder of power plants.

After Indeck, Polsky formed Sky Gen Energy in 1991, which developed, owned and operated electric power-generation facilities in North America. After its 2001 purchase by Calpine Corp., Polsky formed Invenergy. A leading force in power supply diversification, Invenergy develops, owns and operates clean energy-generation facilities in the United States, Canada and Europe.

Polsky has often credited his Booth education for his success, saying the school “has given me a complete package as an entrepreneur.”